Diplomatic victory: Lanka can now close Geneva file

By Ameen Izzadeen
A major correction in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy after January 8 has brought unexpected results. The Geneva process that has shamed and named Sri Lanka as one of the world’s biggest human rights violators could be a thing of the past.
Who could have imagined last September that by this September Sri Lanka could come out of the human rights dock in Geneva? In September last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council heard a damning oral submission by the Human Rights Chief ahead of a probe panel’s report to be submitted in March this year. The panel appointed in June 2014 comprises former Finland President Martti Ahtisaari, New Zealand’s former High Court Judge Silvia Cartwright, and Pakistan’s Asma Jahangir, a well-known human rights crusader. They were to assist and advise investigations into alleged war crimes, especially those said to have taken place during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s separatist war in 2009.
However, there was a positive response to the January 8 change, which once again put Sri Lanka on a path to liberal democracy after a near-decade of what some political analysts call authoritarian democracy under President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights with the consent of the United States-led Western bloc at the Human Rights Council in Geneva decided in March this year to defer the presentation of the report till September.
Now comes the news that the United States, the main sponsor of the 2012 anti-Sri Lanka resolution, will present a new resolution supporting Sri Lanka’s efforts to initiate a domestic probe on alleged war crimes, thus abandoning its call for an international inquiry. Indeed, this is a great foreign policy victory. For the past decade or so, we had hardly any achievement to call it a foreign policy victory. The last time the country, which was once known for its frontline role in international affairs, had a successful foreign policy was when Lakshman Kadirgamar was foreign minister. Making trade and the battle against terrorism his key foreign policy objectives, he helped the country to derive immense benefits. It was during his tenure that the European Union banned the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the United States began the process to ban the LTTE, and the United Nations declared Vesak as an international holiday.
After the January 8 change, the US began to express faith in the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe administration. World leaders, who shunned visiting Sri Lanka during the Rajapaksa regime, are now eager to make a visit. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was here in March. The United States Secretary of State John Kerry was here in May, becoming the highest US official to visit Sri Lanka in four decades. Of course, it is geo-strategy that makes world powers court Sri Lanka’s friendship. But a good foreign policy maker should know how to balance the conflicting national interests of these countries with the national interest of his or her own country. This is called prudence-driven foreign policy. Mr. Kadirgamar showed the way, and now Mangala Samaraweera appears to be following it.
The Rajapaksa regime, in contrast, made a mess of foreign policy. If it had something called a foreign policy, it was largely China-centric. Little by way of a balancing act or prudence was seen in foreign policy making. The minister in charge was a mere puppet. The Rajapaksa brothers took key foreign policy decisions. Making matters worse, the regime appointed a backbencher as the monitoring MP of the Foreign Ministry. He became more powerful than the minister. Diplomatic postings were given to political lackeys in utter disregard of the widely accepted ratio, according to which 70 percent of the diplomatic posts are to be given to Foreign Service personnel. Some of these political appointees were more keen on promoting their businesses in their host countries than promoting Sri Lanka’s interest. In the United States, for instance, the Sri Lanka mission had to hire public relations firms to do the mission’s work. Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money were paid to these firms.
What has passed is past. The way forward is sustaining the balancing act. Sri Lanka should improve its relations with the West, India, Japan and China without compromising its national interest. Change does not mean taking a US-centric stance instead of the China-centric one. Although we need to be mindful of the chaos the US has created in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we can also look at the economic progress countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have achieved by cooperating with the US and attracting US investments.
The Kerry visit in May and visits by his deputy Nisha Biswal in recent months provide an opportunity to build a sustainable economic partnership with the United States. We now learn that the proposal to present the amended resolution at the UNHRC’s September sessions in support of a domestic inquiry came during the Kerry visit. It remained dormant because of the political uncertainty prior to the August 17 general elections. With Wickeremsinghe’s United National Front for Good Governance winning the elections, Washington decided to present a resolution favourable to Sri Lanka. Reports say the US mission in Geneva notified the council of its resolution just before the deadline.
What Sri Lanka should do is to initiate a credible domestic probe – not to please the West, but to bring about national reconciliation which is imperative for peace, stability and economic progress. This process will help Sri Lanka to close its file in Geneva. The way forward is to combine the concepts of restorative justice and retributive justice in the domestic inquiry. If anyone is found guilty of a serious crime, a decision can be taken to either punish or pardon him.
It was the world powers’ lack of trust in the Rajapaksa regime — and the regime’s own foreign policy blunders — that trapped Sri Lanka in the Geneva process. The new government in its pursuit of improved relations with world powers should take measures to build trust and also realise that the West pursues human rights not for altruistic or moral reasons, but essentially for political or geo-strategic reasons. Then, just as Sri Lanka is reaping benefits in Geneva, it can benefit immensely on political and economic fronts, too. It is encouraging to note that the West is opening up to Sri Lanka. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other Western leaders are inviting Sri Lankan leaders to visit their countries to discuss trade and investments. The talk in political circles is that President Sirisena will visit Washington or that even President Obama may visit Sri Lanka. These developments were unthinkable before the January 8 transformation. These are rewards for good governance. But what we should not forget is our balancing act and prudence in foreign policy making. We should not become a satellite state of one country or another.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on August 28, 2015)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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