Prez, Premier & Prince

Most Sri Lankans have had problems with kings throughout history so much so that they betrayed their last monarch. They also rose against the British Crown several times with disastrous consequences. Two years ago, they ousted a powerful ruler, who, his propagandists claimed, was a reincarnation of a warrior king. Now, they have a Jordanian prince to contend with!

President Maithripala Sirisena has, declared on several occasions, wrapping himself in the flag, that he would not allow foreign judges to be involved in a war crimes probe here. Not to be outdone, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, too, has ruled out the possibility of a hybrid war crimes tribunal being set up. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe waxed eloquent in Parliament on Thursday, condemning attempts to coerce this country into establishing a war crimes court; plans to haul up members of the armed forces before such a tribunal, he said, would be a recipe for disaster; such action would deal a paralysing blow to the reconciliation process and might even lead to ethnic disharmony. But, UNHRC chief Prince Zeid Hussein won’t budge. He remains as determined as ever to have a hybrid court established here. He has recently reiterated his position that foreign judges, prosecutors et al must be involved in the proposed transitional justice mechanism.

The yahapalana government is cock-a-hoop about being given two more years to fulfil its Geneva commitments. It considers the extension of the deadline a diplomatic victory. Some government politicians have claimed they have got more time because they co-sponsored the Geneva resolution and, thereby, won over the international community. But, the course of action the yahapalana government has adopted to avoid trouble in Geneva is akin to a rape victim choosing to deny sexual assault for fear of reprisal and opting to be the rapist’s mistress. The Rajapaksa government sought to do a diplomatic Taliban, as it were, in dealing with world powers and the present dispensation has taken to diplomatic bootlicking for survival.

The government, in fact, should thank its bête noire, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for what may be called the Geneva respite. For, the western powers supportive of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration they installed by ousting the pro-Chinese Rajapaksa regime are aware that any attempt to set up a war crimes tribunal at this juncture will be political godsend for Rajapaksa. The yahapalana government, which has pathetically failed on the political and economic fronts with public resentment welling up rapidly, is scared of facing an election. It cannot go on postponing polls forever and setting up a war crimes court before the next electoral contest is political suicide. The West won’t give a political leg-up to Rajapaksa, who is marshalling forces to carry out a frontal attack on the UNP-led, pro- western government.

President Sirisena has gone on record as saying that Rajapaksa opted for a snap presidential election because the latter was at his wits’ end, trying to cope with an ever worsening economic situation and problems on the diplomatic front, especially in Geneva. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are likely to find themselves in the same predicament as Rajapaksa sooner or later at this rate. The only way their regime can avoid trouble at the UNHRC is to be more subservient to the western powers which call the shots in Geneva and help further their interests. This, it will have to do without antagonising China and India. There’s the rub! Whether the government is capable of performing this kind of high-wire diplomatic act, without turning the country into a battleground of world powers, remains to be seen.

It will be a mistake for the opponents of a war crimes probe to lay the blame for the ongoing campaign for a hybrid tribunal entirely at the doorstep of Hussein. He may be a prince, but he won’t dare talk out of turn and antagonise the western powers. The US and its friends have demonstrated that they don’t allow the UNHRC chief to step out of line. They forced Hussein’s predecessor, Navi Pillai, to withdraw a statement she had issued condemning Bahrain, their trusted ally, for human rights violations. Hussein’s frequent calls for a hybrid tribunal keep the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration reminded that it is at the mercy of western powers.


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