The Geneva mess

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Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

The farcical arithmetic of the regime and its apparatchiks notwithstanding- that the abstentions should be counted as support for the regime and the majority of the world’s population is with it – as well as the whingeing about hypocrisy of the UN and the West in blissful ignorance of international politics, the UN Human Rights Council has passed a resolution on Sri Lanka by 22 votes to 11 with 14 abstentions. Key abstentions are worth noting – India, Japan and Indonesia as well as some seven African states and those who voted for the resolution – Ukraine, South Korea and most of Europe and Latin America. This was the lowest number of votes in favour of the Sri Lankan government in the Council and it follows upon the stinging report of the High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet on human rights in Sri Lanka, in the past, the present and the future trajectory.

Another point worth noting is the complete lack of understanding or acknowledgement of the protocols and procedures of the UN body leave aside basic courtesy of the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative, not to mention the absurd claims back at home of an impending majority for the regime.

This leaves the regime with a UN resolution on Sri Lanka, which significantly includes empowering the Office of the High Commissioner to collect and collate information on war crimes and crimes against humanity to be used in cases of universal jurisdiction or before the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is also a regime that refuses to go to the international lender of last resort, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to seek urgently needed economic assistance. Furthermore, relations with key states are at a low ebb – with the US not least because of the Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC) fiasco, with India and Japan over the Light Rail, the Eastern Terminal and the energy projects to China in the islands off Mannar and of course the Muslim world, give or take Pakistan and Bangladesh, over the burial/cremation controversy and the proposed banning of the burqa and madrasas as well as the Defence Ministry’s validation of reading material on Islam.

We also did not have an ambassador in New Delhi in the run up to the vote on the resolution and still do not. We also do not have Commissioners in the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) apart from its Chairperson, Justice Upali Abeyratne.  And, by the way, what benefit did we derive from the establishment of diplomatic relations with Lichtenstein?!

Consequently, for a regime that professes to promote amity with all at home and abroad, it is in a pretty depressing position. At home the signs are alarming. Fifteen months after the presidential election and seven months after the two-third victory in the general election, the regime and the president are being roasted on social media in particular. As to whether they would be voted out of power were there an election is a different matter. And whilst electorates tend to vote against a government than for the opposition in the main, the situation of the opposition needs to vastly improve if it is to capture the public imagination and prepare for power. In the meantime, we need a coherent foreign policy. We need a foreign policy and those who are in charge of it need to do their homework fast. As the motto from the other school stipulates – Disce Aut Discede!

The consequences of the resolution appear to be defiance of its provisions. The regime is talking about legislation to protect members of the security forces from prosecution, even internationally! How that is to be achieved is another delusion of the regime. The culture of impunity will in all probability be reinforced and the screws turned tighter on civil society activism and dissent. The signs are that this will extend to activism on the environment as well, as recent developments indicate. This begs the question as to how the regime will conduct itself during the proposed Provincial Council elections and indeed as to whether these elections will be held in the near future.

When they are held the regime will no doubt want to ensure there has not been and will not be any haemorrhage of its popular support from the two-thirds high of August 2020. A lot could depend on those elections, particularly the balance of power within the dynasty and even dynastic succession.

There is also the issue of constitutional reform. The Romesh de Silva committee is to come out with a report and presumably the new constitution will be based on its findings. The key consideration here will no doubt be keeping the majority community happy and the regime in control. It is highly likely that Provincial Councils, instead of being abolished, will be gutted of their meagre powers and the centralization of power further consolidated.

What this means and the regime has a year to get its act together if it so chooses, is that the victims of the violations have to hope that universal jurisdiction really does kick in. The talk about going to the ICC is a long shot because Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Treaty and therefore this would require a Security Council resolution, which will no doubt be vetoed by the Chinese and Russians. Nothing is impossible and this too could be possible, but not any time soon. Targeted individual sanctions including travel bans and assets freezing are in the domain of the states themselves and could be expanded. There is then the prospect of a regime under siege except for the Chinese and Russian protective umbrella.

There is of course the irony of history. A trend started by Mahinda Rajapaksa has continued to plague his brother’s regime and his own, before that. Were the Prime Minister not to have attempted to take files and photographs of victims of human rights violations in a false bottom of his suitcase to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva way back in 1989, the argument about national sovereignty may not smack of the hypocrisy the Western member states of the UN are now accused of. What the Prime Minister did then was to underline the simple fact that we are members of an international community and when we need help we appeal to that community, which sometimes responds and sometimes not.

In addressing the priority of a foreign policy, the regime should well remember this. Furthermore, it should shed the antediluvian notion of sovereignty and realize that we live in an interdependent world and above all that foreign policy has to be designed and implemented in a political context.

Back to basics for the regime and in the meantime let’s hope we do not continue to suffer shame and/or sanction.

-This article was originally featured on groundviews.org

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