Originally Published 2017-03-27 10:50:40 Published on Mar 27, 2017
Trump takes time, it’s not UNHRC is giving Sri Lanka more time

Whoever is in power, Sri Lanka could not have asked for more. A non-politician, Donald Trump as the US President needs time to study America and American policies overseas. So, Sri Lanka has got two more years at the UNHRC, as the incumbent Government in Colombo has sought.

In contrast, the predecessor Rajapaksa regime might have been unlucky. As incumbent President, Barack Obama got a second term. Though a one-term Senator before become President, by the time the first US resolution on Sri Lanka came up before the UNHRC in 2012, he had learnt the ropes. His team had more experienced diplomats on board, starting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Robert Blake.

The Clinton team already had problems with the Rajapaksa regime. The latter also rubbed the former by not letting then Foreign Minister G L Peiris meet up with Hillary in Washington, as sought. You do not rub the US of A (whoever is at the helm), and hope to get away with it unscathed.

In yielding to Sri Lanka’s demand/appeal for more time to implement the 2015 UNHRC resolution on independent probe into ‘accountability issues’, the Trump Administration has however followed the Obama precedent. Without anyone in Sri Lanka knowing, or anyone from Sri Lanka seemingly negotiating finer details, the US has now announced that Sri Lanka was co-sponsoring the current resolution, as it had done in 2015.

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Much of the rest of the resolution contents remain, as in 2015. However, the devil is in the detail. Not of or in the resolution but on the ground. Around the time, the UNHRC resolution comes up for reportage and review, or even earlier, Provincial Council elections would become due in Northern Province.

The UNHRC process would have consequences in and for the poll campaign. The reverse would be true of the campaigns for the presidential and parliamentary polls that should follow. The Government can be expected to go back to the US and the rest of the UNHRC movers & shakers, for a further respite, as Sinhala voters would could as much in the latter two elections as the Tamil votes would do in the NPC polls.

Ballot and Bullet

Promptly, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has called for the immediate implementation of the 2015 resolution. That should be for the record, as they too know it would not happen, now and possibly ever. Speaking in an anti-terrorism conference in New Delhi, India, TNA’s Leader of the Opposition, R Sampanthan has drawn out the distinction between ‘ballot and bullet’.

Sampanthan needs to be congratulated and thanked for drawing the Tamils away over that distinction in the post-war, post-LTTE era, and thus proving a point. Yet, the octogenarian-politician could not resist the temptation to put a high figure of 150,000 as Tamil victims of the ethnic war. Its way ahead of the Darusman Report’s wild guesstimate of 40,000, presented without proof or evidence.

It’s not helpful for resolving the ethnic issue, now or ever – even if and when the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity and population are (more?) sincere and serious than any time in the past. It’s both about the numbers and about the western concepts of ‘truth-seeking’, which does not have sanction even under their own beliefs and customs. Nor do they practice the same when it comes to their men and nations.

At Delhi, Sampanthan has also said that half the Tamil population of Sri Lanka has migrated to other nations. There is no fair or absolute count of Tamil migrants, legal and illegal, citing war as the cause. But there are also those, both during the war and afterward, who have gone as ‘economic refugees’.

This is a facility unavailable to their Sinhala and Muslim, or even Upcountry Tamil brethren. It was not because they were not victims of economic conditions prevailing in the country. It was more because they did not have an organisational infrastructure of the LTTE kind overseas, to pursue and sponsor their migration, legal or otherwise. This infrastructure was/is more readily available to them for fighting legal battles in those countries.

If so many Tamils are dead, and half have already have migrated, whose battle is the TNA fighting back home, or in the international arena? In particular, what relevance would power-devolution, especially ‘Land’ powers have in a region/province, where a residual population would have to have all the land that has remained ‘undistributed’ among the landless over the war years and decades?

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It would be more so in terms of ‘Police’ powers. The question would arise, as to whom does a ‘Tamil police’ want to police, if there are not many Tamils around? Maybe, the TNA can start with finding out as to what has happened to the 1000 or policemen recruited at one-go in the post-war period, and report on what needs to be done. That could be a good starting-point, if none else.

China Card

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the entire UNHRC process, or the UNHRC-like institutions are the America-led West’s own way to take issues away from the UN, where China and Russia have vet0-power. The UNHRC does not have veto-powers, but if nations do not abide by resolutions, the issue would still have to go back to the UN Security Council, with its veto-members.

It’s possible that the US and the rest thought of the UNHRC route viz the Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, hoping that it would put the latter on the strait vis a vis China and neighbourhood seas. Today, it’s their friends in the Government in Sri Lanka who are using the ‘China card’, and also Russia relations, to obtain favours in the UNHRC – or, so it would seem.

As coincidence would have it, Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan was in Sri Lanka earlier in the week. In his talks with the Government and armed forces’ leaders, he vowed ‘unconditional support’ to Sri Lanka. Purportedly confined to Sri Lanka’s military modernisation efforts, Gen Chang’s reassurances have a diplomatic tone too to it.

More importantly, President Sirisena left for Russia, at the invitation of counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Sirisena becomes the first Sri Lankan leader after then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to visit Moscow in 1974. Much water has flowed down the Volga since, given the intervening collapse of the Soviet Union and the recent emergence of Russia.

Even as the Chinese Minister was landing in Colombo, a US Navy ship was leaving the famed Hambantota port after a call and combined exercise, involving the navies of other nations, too. As much as the stand-alone events, which are all a part of multilateral diplomacy in the post-Cold War era in particular, the very timing of all three seems interesting, if nothing more.

It’s not without reason. The US is the prime-mover behind the UNHRC resolution since 2012 onwards. Every now and again, the UNHRC process also reminds Establishment Sri Lanka (independent of whoever is in power) that they would need China and/or Russia, now and ever, if they have to escape the Damcole’s Sword, eternally dangling above their heads, now and ever.

If it’s not the ‘accountability probe’ and the UNHRC, it could be some other issue and some other UN forum, now or later. As long as the UNSC is the ultimate arbiter of a nation’s fate in such terms and circumstances, no Government in Sri Lanka is going to upset or antagonise either China or Russia, or both.

The difference is that a Rajapaksa would worry more about his domestic constituency and would want to be seen as taking on the mighty West, in the eyes of his vote-bank and cadre-base. A more circumspect UNP Prime Minister in Ranil Wickremesinghe or anyone else in his place would do precisely the same, but without the West feeling any ego-hurt of the Rajapaksa style.


Yet, over-dependence on the likes of China, for instance – or, any external power — can cut both ways. Whatever the explanation and justification, nations should remember Saddam Hussein’s excessive dependence and alternating between one and the other over decades since coming power. Less said about Gaddafi, but worse still has it been Libya as a nation and people.

In more recent times, Russia, for instance, has stood by the Syrian authorities, yes. Yet, it’s all a reminder of the diplomatic zig-zag, whatever be the circumstances, whatever the existing and/or earlier relations. After all global relations and regional ties are not zero-sum games, not always. Whatever goes up has to come down. The reverse is truer.

Worse still, playing Peter against Paul may be good tactics, but only for street-corner games of neighbourhood children. The grown-ups do it at their risk and to their peril, be it as nations or as leaders. Prabhakaran and the LTTE did not last out. Mahinda R counted on his luck too much – but still he had the domestic constituency with him, however partisan it be.

Adult Game

International diplomacy and geo-strategic initiatives are adult games. As a nation, Sri Lanka has to think a thousand times before entering the arena. Independent of who’s to blame, or whom all Sri Lankan and Sri Lankans would want to blame, it’s Sri Lanka that lost, even while ‘winning’ (?) — and even after winning! Be it under UNP’s JRJ or SLFP’s Rajapaksa, neither the leader, nor the nation could go beyond a point.

Since coming to power, the incumbent Government seems to be preparing the armed forces to face some kind of probe into allegations of war-crimes. The periodic arrests and expose of personnel of the Military Intelligence and other arms of the forces on specific charges of crimes, past and present, seems aimed at it.

Simultaneously, the Government also seems wanting to retain some credibility in the international arena. In doing this and more, it needs to consider the sensitivities and sensibilities of the armed forces. For most part of the war and even afterward, the Police across the country came under the armed forces, the Defence Ministry, to be precise.

In Parliament, PM Ranil has taken the oft-repeated line of President Sirisena, saying ‘No’ to foreign judges. He however has stuck to the UNP line of permitting ‘foreign observers’. Such experimentation had failed under the Rajapaksa experience on other human rights probes, before the war had ended. That apart, the Prime Minister did not seem to have any response to the Opposition query as to how Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera could sign for the Government, on co-sponsored resolution draft, when it was against the declared position on foreign judges.

The Government has stuck to the stand that the Constitution did not provide for ‘foreign judges’. However, TNA’s M A Sumanthiran, MP, now wants the Constitution amended for the purpose. What should not be missed is war veterans preparing a report of their own, and their representative Rear-Admiral Sarath Weerasekara (retd) being present at the UNHRC Convention.

Media reports say the Tamil Diaspora is agitated over what is seen as an initiative of the Rajapaksa-centric Joint Opposition (JO). They too should be feeling the pressure, they having occupied all the protest space in Geneva, all these past years. It’s another matter if Weerasekara and the JO had, or would have half as sympathetic a ear in Geneva as the TNA and the Tamil Diaspora have had all along.

Post-war, the Rajapaksa Government had promised an internal inquiry by the armed forces into allegations of war-crimes and other aspects of accountability issues. The probe was given four years, but the international community simply pooh-poohed it. Today, years have passed but nothing has come out of it.

Nothing is even known if such a team was ever put in place, or if it had undertaken any probe, into specifics and generalities. Or, if any uniformed personnel were hauled up before the law – including or exclusively before a court martial, if at all constituted? While the LLRC Report on reconciliation, and parts of the Justice Paranagama Commission’s findings on ‘accountability issues’ were made public, nothing is known of the ‘internal probe’.

No time is too late to revisit past proposals and promises of the kind. Two years now may seem too long a period, by some, for UNHRC chief (whoever is there at the time) to report back on Sri Lanka. It could also be too short for the country to adjust to Trump’s world, and more so to itself, between now and then – through the promised route of and for a new Constitution!

Sri Lanka has real time only until President Trump is ready to take stock. Two years is too long a time for a pro-active President, not to shift gears and look outside the country, for trouble and trouble-spots. It would also be time for the bi-annual congressional elections in the US, which is when issues such as human rights gets a better voter-traction. For presidential polls for some more years to come, it could still be global terrorism, though.

This commentary originally appeared in The Sunday Leader.

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