Well, what the events of last week showed was that there is something called talking too soon. The present columnist said the Americans were going to lose the vote, but they won. This is undoubtedly the biggest foreign policy victory achieved by the USA in recent times and perhaps Robert O.Blake and the other Sri Lanka baiters in the State Department should be congratulated for being able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. How close a call this was to the USA can be gauged from the fact that the difference between those for and against the US resolution was just one.
An important point to note is that even the abstentions have to be considered a vote for Sri Lanka because of the nature of the US resolution. What the US resolution wanted was Sri Lanka to take certain steps, and the countries that abstained from voting were obviously not interested in getting Sri Lanka to take those steps. In fact two of the countries that abstained from voting spoke at the debate and both countries made clear that they were abstaining because they thought the resolution was unwarranted.
Kyrgyzstan, speaking before the vote explained its stand saying they would abstain as the delegation held the view that Sri Lanka had not had enough time to review the recommendations of the Commission. The Council should allow enough time for improvement of the situation without interference. Action at the international level would only destabilize the situation, which was not in the favour of any member of the international community.
Angola, speaking in an explanation of the vote before the vote on the resolution said it would abstain from voting because the principles that guided the Council had not been respected. The resolution should encourage and help the people of Sri Lanka to pursue national reconciliation. Angola had gone through a complex and difficult process of national reconciliation and the results could not be achieved on paper but only at the grass roots level.
It should be noted that all the other countries that abstained (every single one of them) Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Malaysia, Senegal and Jordan voted for Sri Lanka in May 2009. So even though only Angola and Kyrgyzstan spoke, all the others also very clearly abstained in sympathy with Sri Lanka. What this means is that in the 47 member council, the USA got 24 votes and there were 23 against it. The USA managed to stave off defeat by bringing Manmohan Singh by his beard to the vote, and browbeating dependant countries to vote for their resolution. As minister D.E.W.Gunasekera said in parliament, the human rights council has now become a place where resolutions are not adopted or rejected on their own merit, but are based on various horse deals between countries.
The Americans fought like demons to win this battle deploying everything they had against Sri Lanka and they won and due credit has to be given to them for that. The USA obviously still can do things. From the very beginning, the Americans had much more riding on this resolution than Sri Lanka. If they lost against Sri Lanka, which is an insignificant speck in the Indian ocean, that would have spelt the end of American prestige in the world and Robert Blake’s job in the State department. Nobody would have taken them seriously after that. In fact, in hindsight, it was rather silly of the officials in the US State Department to get into a contest with a country like Sri Lanka which is so insignificant that if America had lost, that would have been the end of American dominance on the world stage. What the Americans just escaped is figuratively speaking, an extinction level event. After having begged, cajoled and threatened, they managed to get only 24 votes. In fact one can see that the countries that abstained from voting have done so only under protest and in sympathy with Sri Lanka. The maximum that even the Americans could extract from them with all the threats and persuasion was a pledge to abstain which would give the Americans an edge. If India had not voted for the American resolution it would most certainly have been defeated. The clinching vote was India’s.
Some African countries had told the Sri Lankan delegation that they realise that Sri Lanka’s position was justified but that America gave them aid whereas Sri Lanka could not give them anything and that therefore, they had no option but to vote against their consciences and support the American resolution. By just examining the list of 24 countries that Voted against us, we can figure out who was brought in against their will. Of them, the USA had from the very beginning countries like Austria, Belgium, Chile, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Mauritius, Mexico, Norway, Peru, Poland, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, the USA and Uruguay.
But this was 17 votes just enough to get it in to the order paper but not enough to make it win. The remaining votes were obviously obtained through arm twisting. (Of the other seven countries that voted against us, Uruguay presents a special case because she signed as a signatory to the paper calling for a special session on Sri Lanka, in May 2009, but ultimately voted in favour of Sri Lanka in that instance.) The other seven countries that voted against us were Cameroon, Nigeria, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Libya, India and Benin. Except for Costa Rica and Libya, they are all are below Sri Lanka in terms of per capita income and were obviously vulnerable to economic pressure. With regard to India, the compulsions were political as was the case with Libya.
The reason why so many countries were uncomfortable with the US resolution is because of the precedent its sets enabling the western powers to selectively intervene in the internal affairs of countries. Cuba in fact said that the resolution set a negative precedent that risked singling out developing countries and further that the mission of the Human Rights Council was to provide technical assistance and cooperation to a country and build capacity with the consent of the concerned country. If done differently, it would put in question the sovereignty and independence of the concerned country. If the Council adopted the resolution on Sri Lanka, it would act contrary to the principle of non-intervention.
In fact, the Indians seemed to realize the enormity of what they had done and after the vote was taken, India made a statement saying among other things that the primary responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights rested with States themselves. And that any assistance given should be in consultation with the Sri Lankan Government. This may be taken as an indication that India will oppose any attempt to force anything down Sri Lanka’s throat. Well they have said it, but whether ‘other compulsions’ will compel them to do otherwise if it comes to a push, is yet to be seen. Now that the resolution has been passed, the question is how are we to deal with it? The requirements in the resolution can be paraphrased as follows.
– Sri Lanka has to implement the constructive recommendations in the
– Sri Lanka has to present a comprehensive action plan as expeditiously
as possible detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the LLRC recommendations.
– Sri Lanka has to detail the steps they will take to address alleged violations of international law,
– The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will provide advice and technical assistance on implementing those steps and Sri Lanka has to accept their ‘help’.
– The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has to present a report to the Council on the provision of such assistance at its twenty-second session.
If we take these requirements one by one, asking the Sri Lankan government to implement the LLRC report is no issue. However, the requirement that an action plan on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations was what turned the Phillippines to our side. The Philippines, speaking in an explanation of the vote before the vote, said they opposed the introduction of a trigger mechanism in the Council and attempts to turn technical assistance into a form of political pressure to influence Governments. This resolution was a reincarnation of the trigger mechanism and it attempted to turn international cooperation into a form of political pressure. The Phillippines has a very valid point here. But the question is that the resolution has been passed and Sri Lanka will have to figure out a way to meet the situation.
Coupled to this ‘road map’ for the implementation of the LLRC recommendations is the requirement that Sri Lanka take steps to address ‘alleged violations of international law’. Nothing has been said about how Sri Lanka should ‘address’ these allegations. If by the term ‘address’ was meant ‘investigate’, then of course the first step will be to issue a call for specific allegations to be submitted to the Sri Lankan government. Nobody on earth can investigate vaguely stated broad allegations and general statements as for example that ‘there were many civilian deaths during the last days of the war.’ There will have to be specific allegations made. In fact, specific instances with the date and place were mentioned in the report on incidents during the final few months of the war put out by the US State Department in October 2009. But if these incidents are to be investigated, the US State Department will have to submit more details to the Sri Lankan government. But it may be the case that even the US government does not have any further details about those reported incidents.
Even the Ban Ki-moon’s advisory panel report claims to have received many credible reports of specific human rights violations. The advisory panel will have to divulge that information to the Sri Lankan government if it is to investigate them. But both the US State Department and the Ban advisory panel are keeping the details to themselves on the claim that the Sri Lankan government will harass the witnesses. One wonders whether the inclusion of this clause that Sri Lanka should address alleged violations of international law is a ruse designed to pave the way for an international war crimes investigation. When Sri Lanka asks for specific allegations to investigate, the Western powers refuse to provide any on the grounds that witnesses will be harassed. Then Sri Lanka will not be able to make any investigation and after a while, the western powers will make the case that Sri Lanka was not implementing the HRC resolution and call for an international investigation. The international tribunal too will not have any investigable details, but the intention is to get the international investigation instituted first. What happens after that is not important to the West because all that is aimed at through this exercise is regime change in Sri Lanka.
If it appears that the west is involved in an exercise like this, then Sri Lanka should keep the members of the HRC informed individually about the situation. There are two aspects to this. On the one hand are the allegations of the violation of international law, which we dealt with above. On the other hand is the international law of armed conflict itself which is contained in multifarious documents such as the Geneva Conventions, Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, the Rome Statute and the rules of the International Criminal Court and the compendium of customary humanitarian law compiled by the ICRC. The Ban advisory panel for example has held that international laws were violated in Sri Lanka only after misrepresenting the law of armed conflict. As pointed out in a previous column, the rules of armed conflict that the Ban advisory panel has sought to apply to Sri Lanka have not been accepted even by the Western countries that have been hounding Sri Lanka. In fact many of the ‘laws’ that the Ban advisory panel spoke of do not exist anywhere.
If specific instances of alleged violations are presented to the Sri Lankan government, replying to those in terms of the law of armed conflict accepted by the Western nations will be a fairly uncomplicated affair. The last requirement that Sri Lanka has to adhere to is to accept ‘the assistance’ (read supervison) of the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner in implementing the measures called for. This was what the Phillippines was vehemently opposed to, as it sets a dangerous precedent. But anyway, it has been passed with regard to Sri Lanka, and here too we will have to make the best of a bad situation.
One factor standing very much in Sri Lanka’s favour in this regard is the low credibility of the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s office. In fact the resolution that was taken up for discussion immediately after the one on Sri Lanka was a resolution censuring the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner over the imbalance in the geographical representation of its composition where a single region (the West) occupies almost half of the posts of the Office of the High Commissioner. This resolution was brought at the last sessions and due to frantic lobbying by the western powers, it was deferred to the March session. In the meantime, a report was compiled claiming that action had been taken to reduce the number of western staffers on the Human rights commissioner’s office from 67% to 49%. The non-Western countries were not impressed and a resolution was passed against the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner with 33 voting for and only 12 voting against it with two abstentions.
It goes without saying that when the non-Western nations were talking about the preponderance of Westerners on the human rights commissioner’s staff, they were not agitating for more employment opportunities for themselves. What they were concerned about was the possibility of prejudice and bias in the operation of the secretariat of the council. The low standing and credibility of the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner’s office will stand Sri Lanka in good stead and we should not hesitate to report even the slightest display of arrogance and prejudice on the part of the OCHR to the Council.
The question is what if the West tries to force supervision by the office UN High Commissioner for Human Rights down our throats? India will have to make good on their statement that any ‘assistance’ will be given only with the concurrence of the Sri Lankan government. That India was forced to vote against Sri Lanka at all, is a huge come down for that country. What that proved was that the Indian central government had no control over their foreign policy. A country that stated that they as a matter of principle did not support country specific resolutions were brought by their ears to vote. Pressure was applied by Tamil Nadu from within and by the USA from outside. Hillary Clinton’s meeting with Tamil Nadu chief minister Jeyalalitha Jeyaram some months ago had obviously borne fruit.
The present columnist has always held that it is not a strong India that Sri Lanka has to fear but a weak one. What we now have is a terminally ill giant on our doorstep which could collapse at any moment and obviously we will have to look elsewhere for our security. One of the benefits of India signing the resolution against Sri Lanka is that it liberates us from deliberately keeping a ceiling on Chinese investments so as not to hurt India’s feelings. We need the investment and China has proved to be a steadfast ally which cannot easily be influenced to dump her friends for considerations of expediency. China, Russia, Cuba and the other countries have supported Sri Lanka throughout the war and even during the days of the pro-Western J.R.Jayewardene, it was not the West that helped that government but countries like China and Russia. For the record, the state of Massachusetts in the USA is the first international supporter of the Eelamist cause, even before the Indians started supporting Tamil terrorism. Back in 1979, the Governor of Massachusetts even declared a Tamil Eelam Day and the state legislature passed a resolution calling upon the president of the United States to support the creation of a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. What the Americans seem to be doing now is just that albeit belatedly.
Perhaps this UN-HRC showdown heralds a new phase in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy reminiscent of the break of 1956. The present writer has heard people saying that this should be handled with one’s head. Usually when people say that our heads have to be used in foreign policy, what is meant by that is that we should nod our heads. The present columnist would be inclined to think that the government should go the whole hog and seek new allies and not hold back on any Chinese projects because that is the only thing that will guarantee the security of Sri Lanka. Just the previous week, when the D.S.Senanayake commemoration was being discussed, one UNP stalwart said that in D.S.Senanayake’s view, the danger to Sri Lanka has historically come from India and he entered into the defence pacts with Britain and allowed the British to have bases in Sri Lanka to guard against Indian intervention. Hence, there would be no harm in the Chinese being allowed a free run of Sri Lanka in exchange for security.
There is another thing that the Sri Lankan government has to guard against. The Indians have always had the habit of bringing pressure on Sri Lanka when they are unable to control their own allies or their population. During the Thimpu talks, when they were unable to get the Tamil terrorists to come to a compromise, they tried to bring more pressure on JRJ to concede more. Unable to get JRJ to concede as much as they wanted, there was an attempt to assassinate JR. A huge 120 kilo gelignite bomb in a van was discovered one morning as the second round of the Thimpu talks failed. It had been timed to explode at 9.00am and was just about to be driven to the presidential secretariat when it was discovered by an alert cop who had noticed a suspicious looking van parked near St Lucia’s cathedral in Kotahena. The terrorists were from EROS, an organization well known to have operated on RAW instructions. In fact even the main suspect in the CTO bomb was captured by the police but had to be released at the insistence of the Indians in the wake of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. In this new situation, President Mahinda Rajapaksa in particular and the Rajapaksas in general have to be very careful and mindful of their personal security.