The international advisory panel, Indo-Lanka ties and UN inquiry

commission of inquiryHalf a loaf being better than none, the presidential expansion of the remit of the Disappearances Commission and the appointment an advisory panel of three persons distinguished in international law are to be welcomed. Of course, the final test will be that of credibility.

If the re-engineering results in a robust domestic inquiry which in turn leads either to prosecutions in the most outrageous cases – as indicated by the LLRC – or a TRC type outcome, the case of which the pernicious UN International Inquiry rests, namely the absence or of a credible domestic mechanism and the unwillingness or inability of the Sri Lankan State to initiate one, will be undermined. We shall have a better chance to win back time and space.
If however, the ‘supercharged’ domestic inquiry does not result in the restoration of credibility before the UNHRC March 2015 session then the guillotine will descend in the form of votes in the UNHRC and the UN General Assembly, resolutions in legislatures in the US-UK-EU and ruling by courts.

There are lessons for the TNA as well. India under Modi will not take kindly to the West bypassing India and attempting to strong arm Sri Lanka. The implication is not that Sri Lanka has a guarantee of India protection from the west but that any strong-arming will have to be with Delhi’s say-so, on issues approved by the regional power and in accordance with timing chosen by the said power. Delhi will not be railroaded into action against Colombo by Tamil Nadu or the Tamil Diaspora operating in and through Tamil Nadu.

What this means is that Colombo has a window of opportunity to do two things: get with the program on Delhi’s strategic concerns and (ii) deliver without any overt pressure, on devolution (which includes land but may exclude minus police powers). This window will not remain open indefinitely. The Colombo-Delhi honeymoon which has commenced with the BJP charm offensive can easily go the way of the JR-Rajiv of 1985-1986.
Reading between the lines of the BJP delegation’s pitch, one could discern that the TNA will have to recalibrate its options. It may be better served in switching to a policy of building up, in this phase of history, the Northern Province and its Tamil community through the economic developmental loop that Delhi hopes will encompass Sri Lanka.

Doubtless neither Colombo nor the TNA will internalise the messages. What this means is that each side should be gifted a large map of the world so that the Southerners can be reminded of the distance between Sri Lanka and China in sharp contrast to the proximity of India to Sri Lanka, while the Northerners can be reminded of the distance between US-UK and Sri Lanka and that the view from New Delhi is not the view from Toronto, London or even Chennai—still less Jaffna.

UNHRC, the West and Sri Lanka

The vote in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week to institute an International Commission of Inquiry into Israel’s latest assault on Gaza is instructive for the Sri Lankan public in several senses. It reveals the utter hypocrisy of those who moved a resolution against Sri Lanka and voted for it while voting against the resolution on Gaza or abstaining. At least those who voted against Israel and Sri Lanka show the virtue of consistency if not logic.

The UNHRC vote also exposed the hypocrisy of those Sri Lankan civil society activists and the global human rights lobbies, which hold that what Israel is doing in Gaza is on all fours with what Sri Lanka did in its war against the Tigers. The fact that India, which has close relations with Israel especially under the BJP, voted for the Gaza resolution while having abstained on Sri Lanka and indeed having voted against the international inquiry clause (OP10), and that this was precisely the stand of almost all of Asia on the respective issues of Israel/Gaza and Sri Lanka, clearly demonstrate the firebreak between the attitude towards an occupying power under international law on the one hand, and intrusion into the national sovereignty of a small ex-colonial state fighting a legitimate war against a secessionist terrorist movement on the other.

The Gaza vote also explodes the nonsensical postures of the Sri Lankan administration in the domain of external affairs. The UN Human Rights Council proved that it wasn’t an instrument of the USA and the West. On Gaza, the USA stood against the resolution and could obtain only its own vote! Thus the victory of the resolutions initiated by the

Had the President’s moves to appoint a distinguished panel of experts and ramp up the disappearances commission been made any time before March this year—indeed anytime between 3 March and 18 March—Sri Lanka’s Asian friends led by India and Pakistan who solidly opposed the UN International Inquiry, may have succeed in drawing the game for us in the UN Human Rights Council. We could, in sum, have deflected or delayed the pernicious international inquiry. Sadly, that wisdom didn’t dawn in time. No matter. Belated action to boost a domestic inquiry process and bring it line with the recommendations of the LLRC as well as international standards is a smart move. It also shows that President Rajapaksa is capable of smart moves in the right direction and must not be written off.

The whole thing may blowback, though. In an administration and a policy environment in which one proposes and another disposes, the report of the upgraded Disappearances Commission may itself disappear, as did the APRC and Udalagama reports. It is hard to imagine that the three international advisors would not raise one helluva stink in that eventuality. The stink would go global in double quick time. Well, let us see.

Though it must be applauded, the Presidential step forward on the domestic inquiry front cannot be understood as a definitive turn in the right direction because it comes at roughly the same time as the disappointing response to the Cyril Ramaphosa visit, the reappointment of General Chandrasiri and the tightening up on the NGOs. Thus there is no cluster of positive initiatives; no overall liberalisation as we saw in the case of Myanmar/Burma. Perhaps it was possible for the President to get away with the appointment of Sir Desmond et al as an advisory panel because he had already compensated the hawks within his ruling elite by tightening up on the other fronts.

Indo-Lanka and the BJP

The visit of a high-powered delegation of BJP and para-BJP personalities – a superb initiative of the BCIS and its director Dr. Sunimal Fernando – albeit as a non-governmental and non-party group, gave a set of clear signals to the Government and the TNA. There is a shift from the public nudging of the government by India on the 13th Amendment, to two other dimensions. One is strategic and the other economic.

Dr. Seshadri Chari Ramanujan (perhaps unwittingly) echoed J.N. Dixit when he said that Sri Lanka is the gateway to India and that therefore India’s security depended on Sri Lanka just as Sri Lanka’s depended on India. This was a signal that India regarded Sri Lanka as being part not only of its sphere of influence but of its vital defence perimeter. Thus have geo-politics and geo-strategy returned as imperatives.

Sri Lanka’s ability to play China off against India has just narrowed, due to Delhi’s more robust reassertion of traditional geopolitics but also because of the rapprochement, based on realism rather than romanticism, in India-China relations. Neither will contest the other on the other’s own doorstep.

US on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC three years running was by no means foreordained. The dice was by no means loaded. Sri Lanka lost the resolutions far more than the USA won.

The UN HRC’s Gaza resolution exposed the delusion of the Sri Lankan Defense and External affairs officialdom that Sri Lanka must ally with Israel and that Israel can protect Sri Lanka in international forums. How can Israel, which cannot protect itself in any UN forum other than the Security Council thanks to the US veto, be a viable ally and protector of Sri Lanka? The US and Israel went down to a crushing defeat at the UNHRC Special session in Geneva last week, while in 2009, Sri Lanka won a splendid victory with unanimous BRICS support at a similar Special Session on a raging war.  It is appalling that the 15 July statement of the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs on Gaza, while condemning rocket attacks on Israel, does not even once mention Palestine, the Palestinians, the Occupation or the need for a two state solution.

Last week, with the moral wind in the sails of the Gaza resolution, with Navi Pillay supporting it and the BRICS all on board, the vote in favour was 29. This was exactly the same number of votes that we obtained for Sri Lanka against the US-backed, Navy Pillay-propelled EU move in May 2009. Thus in 2009, Sri Lanka succeeded in securing virtually the maximum number of votes that can be obtained at the UN HRC even when there is a clear moral and politico-diplomatic case as in the vote on Gaza. In short, one can hardly do better. That’s where we stood in the UN in 2009, and that is the height from which we have fallen in the past three years 2012-2014, as a result of which we face the UN international inquiry. (Daily FT)

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