It is a fool’s errand to make-believe that the UN Human Rights Council Resolution titled, “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, and adopted last week would help promoting human rights in the country.
It is unlikely that the most vocal backers of the resolution think that the resolution would serve that. Instead, for the UK, Canada, and other members of the Western European and other Group and the United States that had returned to the fold under the Joe Biden administration, the resolution was one way of taking a swipe at the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government after an uneasy relationship.
For the Tamil diaspora groups, many of which were run by the apologists and accessories of the defeated LTTE, who lobbied for the resolution, it was sort of a consolation prize for losing the separatist war.
The resolution was primarily built on a report delivered by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. Ms Bachelet, who is more likely to give ear to Yasmin Sooka of the International Truth and Justice Project than the government of Sri Lanka, presented a damning report. She nonetheless raised worthwhile concerns on the increasing militarisation of the civilian bureaucracy, politicisation of independent institutions, including the judiciary under the 20th amendment, discriminatory policies against religious and cultural rights of ethnic minorities, political obstruction of investigations into some of the high profile crimes in the past, surveillance of the civil society activists and the shrinking democratic space.
How the government can come out of this predicament is not clear. What is clear though is a majority of its interlocutors lacked the commonsense foreign policy awareness to navigate these challenges
As much as those concerns deserve attention, they are not yet a full-blown eventuality. This is also not a situation unique to Sri Lanka; from Modi’s India to Bolsanaro’s Brazil and Trump’s America, countries have been experiencing momentary ups and downs of democracy. And the alarmist presumptions alone would not warrant a UNHRC resolution.
Ms Bachelet however used these concerns as a pretext to revive a previous bid to punish the Sri Lankan security forces for defeating one of the most egregious terrorist groups. Much of the allegations of war crime, in the form of deliberate shelling of hospitals and civilians, and a back of envelope number of civilian casualties are a retelling of the LTTE propaganda. Marzuki Darusman and his peers who were denied a visa to visit Sri Lanka, spoke to the relatives of dead terrorists and the Tiger rump in the West, and concocted a report that provided credence to those inflated numbers.
The Sri Lankan government at the time rejected those claims. But, with Mahinda Rajapaksa having turned the Sri Lankan state into his fiefdom through the 18th amendment, a politicised judiciary and a rubberstamp parliament, the government lacked the moral high grounds to make others believe its version of the story.
As the younger brother, Gotabaya has taken the same road, under the 20th amendment, Ms Bachelet exploited the structural weakness of the Sri Lankan government and its international standing.
However, would the UNHRC resolution serve the interest of Sri Lanka? Hardly.
Instead, Ms Bachelet had managed to burn bridges. In that sense, the UNHRC resolution is a tragedy. It serves no one, not even the geopolitical interests of the major powers that supported it.
However, the government’s reaction to it need not become a tragicomedy. But, it was what had been unfolding during the past week. Soon after the resolution was passed, the foreign minister Dinesh Gunawardene, who said it was illegal, added, voting was ‘ a great victory ’ for the country. His logic is as skewed as it can get. He observed that only 22 countries out of 47 have voted in favour of the resolution. Those who had abstained were 14 countries. Thus, by his implication, more countries, (11 voted against and 14 abstained) supported Sri Lanka, than those who supported the resolution.
Not to be outgunned, State Minister of Money Market Ajith Nivard Cabraal number crunched with an infographic and tweeted “The 11 countries that voted AGAINST the #UNHRC resolution represent 43% of the popn of the UNHRC members: 14 with 39% of the popn ABSTAINED: and 22 with only 18% of the popn said YES. #SriLanka says THANK YOU to the 25 nations with 82% of the popn who didn’t say Yes. #lka “
This charade did not end there. An English newspaper owned by a businessman affiliated to the government reported that the ‘Government is planning to protect military officials from international prosecution through the introduction of laws that would purportedly grant military officials international immunity.”
How does Sri Lanka make laws that are enforceable in other countries was not explained. The fact of the matter is that immunity provisions even adopted to local law would not have the slightest effect if any country chooses to pursue universal jurisdiction. Worst still, in such an eventuality, the domestic immunity would further strengthen the calls to prosecute the alleged perpetrators in foreign courts.
The UNHRC resolution is a milestone of this government’s serial failure of a foreign policy. But, it seems to have only hastened the race to the bottom.
Sri Lanka’s predicament is a classic cautionary tale as to why foreign policy should not be pursued with an eye on achieving domestic political calculations. It was what Gotabaya Rajapaksa did when his government withdrew the co-sponsorship of the previous UNHRC resolution which was supported by his predecessor. The UNP -led Yahapalanaya government, though was not as forceful enough in manipulating domestic public opinion as the Rajapaksas are, were smart in their dealing with the world. The allegations of war crimes were a major distraction and irritant in the country’s foreign relations. By co-sponsoring the resolution (30/1), the previous government kicked the can down the road. By Sri Lanka taking ownership of the collective effect, a once vocal international campaign was forced to a sideline. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government consciously picked up and opened that can of worms. And, that thin brained decision now risks the Sri Lankan military personnel and perhaps civilian leaders being subjected to universal jurisdiction in some countries.
How the government can come out of this predicament is not clear. What is clear though is a majority of its interlocutors lacked the commonsense foreign policy awareness to navigate these challenges. Their overreaction would do further damage to Sri Lanka’s relations with the West and potentially provoke India at one point.
A potential economic fallout, if the situation further deteriorates can not be overlooked. Nor can the Sri Lankan economy withstand such pressure. Their racist dog whistlings have marginalised the minorities and could potentially rekindle the ugly side of minority extremism in this country, which has done more harm than any of the Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian rhetoric that Sri Lanka’s Western friends fret about.
This government has put Sri Lanka on a dangerous trajectory. It should do whatever to extricate the country from this predicament.
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