After CHOGM ecstasy,preparing for Geneva agony: The Right Way and the Wrong Way

Rajan Philips

CHOGM may not have been unblemished ecstasy, but Geneva will be every bit an agony unless the government gets its act together in time for the UNHRC sessions in March next year. Three months are not enough to resolve the contradictions of a thirty year war. The government could possibly make that argument, but it would be a hard sell coming 56 months, after the war ended, of political indifference and inaction towards the Tamils, and inexplicably orchestrated harassment of the Muslims. Still, the government can make a reasonable case for more time and against another censure by: (a) declaring that its honest and sincere intention is to effectively work with the new Northern Provincial Council; (b) indicating immediate measures to address the humanitarian issues in war affected areas; and (c) producing a reasonable timetable to implement the LLRC recommendations. Three months are more than enough to prepare along these lines before the Geneva meeting. In fact the government could work with the NPC Administration and put together a joint plan of action for presentation in Geneva. That would be the right way to respond to what is now a predictable and periodical interrogation in Geneva.

That would also be the right way to respond to the challenge thrown by British Prime Minister David Cameron that Britain would pursue the matter vigourously at the UNHRC if Sri Lanka does not complete before March its own investigation of what happened during the final stages of the war. President Rajapaksa offered a plausible rejoinder that these issues that are the fallouts from 30 years of war cannot be resolved in three months, even though the political origins of the war go back another 30 years before the war started. Further, whether the reply was honest is a different matter given that the government has done nothing for 56 months. Nor could it be considered sincere without a commitment to a plan of action and a firm timeline. Significantly, however, the President did not reject out of hand the British Prime Minister’s call for an inquiry, and is reported to have shown some interest in the experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-apartheid South Africa.

But as we have seen time and again during his presidency, President Rajapaksa gives all the indication that he would be doing the right thing but ends up doing the opposite wrong thing. It is as if he is under some compulsion to ignore good advice and allow himself to be swayed by bad advice and make wrong decisions. The incarceration of Sarath Fonseka and the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake were instances where President Rajapaksa appears to have gone along with wrong advice after expressing initial reservations. May be it is more difficult to manage a cabinet of extended family members than a cabinet of political ministers. Not that the Sri Lankan formal Cabinet is the ideal forum for objective debate and disinterested advice. The few good ministers in the bloated cabinet are only seen and not heard, and the many rogues therein say and do things even worse than their terrible children.

The one instance where the President reluctantly spurned bad advice and followed saner counsel was in putting an end to the calls for repealing the Thirteenth Amendment and in persisting with his correct decision to hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council. The President himself and the enlightened ones among his supporters must realize what a mess the Commonwealth Summit would have become if President Rajapaksa had given in to the demand to repeal 13A and cancel the NPC election. The right road to Geneva for the government is to build on the success of the NPC election by positively working with the new Council and Chief Minister.

Picture worth a thousand words

One of the lasting CHOGM pictures for history, certainly for the political history of the Tamils, is the snapshot of British Prime Minister David Cameron standing between TNA leader R. Sampanthan and the Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran on the balcony of the Jaffna Public Library. The political interpretation of the picture will vary from one wagging political tongue to another, but my point is about its caring symbolism. The hawks in the government and its more hawkish supporters will view the picture as a provocative affront to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by a meddling foreign leader with a colonial past. My pitch is to the sober elements in the government to envisage an alternative scenario after the NPC election in which President Rajapaksa and not David Cameron could have been the one standing between Sampanthan and Wigneswaran for a historic photo opportunity. Such a picture would have sent a powerful message of change of heart and of caring to the Tamil people, all Sri Lankans and CHOGM visitors.

Of course such a picture would have required a priori, a change of heart and a caring disposition on the part of the government towards the war affected Tamil people in the north. What Cameron offered in Jaffna was human touch to a people waiting most of all for some empathy and humanitarian deliverance from the devastations of war. Neither the President nor any government leader has similarly extended their hand as a sign of basic empathy to the war affected people. The description of these people has no precedent in Sri Lankan statistics. There are close to 90,000 war widows equally divided between the North and East, and 20,000 of them in the Jaffna District alone. There are thousands of people without eyesight or limbs in each district in the two provinces. People are stranded, dispossessed of property and denied of reclamation. In the name of security, the earth is scorched, and where it is not it is overgrown wasteland. Cameron stepped into a psychological void that should and could have been filled by the Sri Lankan President and his government. Cameron came, he saw, and he touched the people of Jaffna. What will the Sri Lankan government do now is the question?

The government has to do something different and substantial before it can create a new photo opportunity in Jaffna. It is not hard infrastructure and tourist fantasies that the people in the North are asking for. They are looking for soft redress to war’s sufferings and the return of their land so that they can start rebuilding their lives. They are not interested in being curiosities to insensitive visitors. Providing redress, returning property and supporting rehabilitation through the mechanisms of the New Provincial Council is the only way that the Sri Lankan government can sincerely, honestly and meaningfully reach out to the people of the North. The government must deal directly and officially with the NPC and its Chief Minister. Politically, the President and government leaders must deal directly with the TNA, and only the TNA.

It would be an insult and a mistake to ask the new Chief Minister to co-chair some DDC contraption with Douglas Devananda. This is a political gimmick and not a Constitutional requirement. The new Provincial Council has carefully selected as its Ministers men of competence and experience and central government Ministers and officials must start the practice of working with them in a systematic way in keeping with the purposes and practices of devolved government. Initial priority must be on humanitarian measures and land restoration. The experience in these initiatives could be extended to other areas such as education, health, law and order, and, yes, hard infrastructure. All of this can be programmed within the framework of the LLRC recommendations. The government could easily demonstrate its good intentions by taking some principled and practical steps between now and March. And there cannot be a better preparation for UNHRC in Geneva. Real progress on the ground can be the most convincing presentation before the UN Human Rights Council.

The wrong way: A ‘defence

strategy’ in Geneva

The wrong approach would be to continue playing the ‘numbers game’ in Geneva, trying to build support among the UNHRC members to defeat Western and Indian resolutions against Sri Lanka. To that end, efforts are apparently being made to push the government into developing ‘a defence strategy’ for Geneva, whatever it might mean, whether legal defence or some other defence. An inspired rumour also appears to have been let afloat that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will be leading the government team to Geneva in March. Mr. Rajapaksa is fast becoming the government’s Man for all Seasons, but addressing an international tribunal is a different cup of tea from talking to captive audiences like the local engineers and teachers.

The defence strategy idea is the thrust of an email that is being circulated calling upon President Rajapaksa and his brother Secretary not to give into Cameron’s bullying but to fight back. The failure so far on the international front, according to the author(s) of the email is the failure of the present government officials to present an aggressive case in Geneva on behalf of the government. The email’s pitch is that the government must make use of the ideas, resources and talents of national patriots. The email lists the names of sixty five such patriots without soliciting their consent to put their names on the list. 27 of them live in Sri Lanka and they are an assortment of talent, while the 38 living abroad are classified by their country of residence: ten each in Australia and the US, eight in UK, four in Canada, one each in France, Middle East, New Zealand, Singapore and the West Indies, and one unidentified by country.

The email notes that on the overseas list "the names of patriotic Tamils and Muslims have been purposely left out for their own safety as they risk being targeted by extremist groups because of their patriotism to the nation."  The obvious question is why there are no Tamils or Muslims among those living in Sri Lanka included in the ‘resident’ list. Which extremist group is targeting the national patriots among Tamils and Muslims living in Sri Lanka and supporting the government? The truth is that some groups calling themselves national patriots have been targeting Muslims in recent months. If at all, there were complaints last year that it was the Sinhalese activists opposed to the government who were targeted by government supporters in Geneva.

It is rather laughable that a new team of national patriots, led by the Defence Secretary, by virtue of their forensic talent, eloquence and powers of persuasion, would be able to turn the tables in Geneva against the West, India and other countries and get a new majority vote vindicating the Sri Lankan government and defensive intransigence. More seriously, the Sri Lankan government must pay attention to some of the recent shifts in alignments among the main world powers. There is a new unity of purpose and action between the US, China, Russia, Britain and European countries in their approach to Syria and in their collective, albeit tentative, rapprochement with Iran. Already, China has gently rebuked Colombo over its minding of the human rights business in Sri Lanka. In the light of these developments, Sri Lanka must think twice or even more about adopting a defensive strategy and playing the Rest of the World against the West in Geneva. It would be far better for the government to politically make up with the TNA, work positively with the Northern Provincial Council, and demonstrate to the UNHRC in Geneva its new intentions and its commitment to pursue them.

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