| by Jehan Perera
( April 17, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There appears to be turmoil within the government in the aftermath of the 19th UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva. There have been many media reports about internal conflict on the issue within leading government members despite some of them having been on the same team. In the immediate aftermath of the vote in Geneva, the government tried hard to portray the outcome as a virtual victory and minimize the political damage to itself. But the wide disparity between the outcome of the 13th session in Geneva where the government secured the support of 39 countries and the 19th session where it could muster only 15 votes cannot be argued away.
There is no consensus within the government about what caused the reversal in Geneva. There are signs of division even within the formidable government delegation that went to Geneva. The large delegation included politicians, diplomats, journalists and civil society activists who went to canvass the cause of the government. Some of them have been blaming others within the delegation of either not having risen adequately to the occasion or for speaking inappropriately in a manner that lost Sri Lanka support. There has been reference to the Indian vote in particular being lost to the government due to an overzealous statement claiming India would be backing Sri Lanka.
There is no doubt that many things could have been done differently and better. But the reason for the government’s failure to win the vote in Geneva cannot be put solely on the inadequacies of its delegation’s performance. There were many exemplary speeches made by the government delegation, and intense individual lobbying that spanned the continents. But there are cases that even the best lawyers cannot win. Victory also depends on the facts of the case. If the facts on the ground are weak, not even the best lawyers can turn a weak case into a strong one. This is akin to the problem that the Sri Lankan delegation at Geneva faced on this occasion. They did their best to defend a bad situation and failed.
Among the critical assessments that have been made of the outcome of the Sri Lankan government’s failure to overcome the challenge posed to it in Geneva, is the memory of the successful defence mounted by the Sri Lankan delegation in 2009. However, the situation that Sri Lanka faced in Geneva in 2009 and 2012 was substantially different. There was much hope and optimism about Sri Lanka’s future after the war came to an end in May 2009. Even though the bloody end of the war and the human rights violations that accompanied it were evident to the international community, they were prepared to focus on the future rather than on the past. This is why the majority of countries voted in support of the position of the Sri Lankan government. They accepted the Sri Lankan government’s assurances to the international community that it would implement a just political solution that addressed the roots of the conflict.
However, when these same countries deliberated on the promises made and the outcomes obtained at the Human Rights Council meeting in 2012, what Sri Lanka had to show was not what the government promised in 2009. The government was not able to show either a political solution or even any progress in that direction. Typically, government members are able to cite numbers of people resettled, numbers of kilometers of roads built and numbers of LTTE cadre rehabilitated. They are also able to cite economic growth rates and the improvement in numbers of houses under electrification and with pipe borne water. There is measurable progress in hard numbers.
The numbers also show improvement where extra legal killings and abductions are concerned. During the war period there were days in which 10 to 20 such incidents were reported. Today this figure has shrunk to a monthly total of comparable numbers. But the fact that people continue to be abducted and some of them disappear permanently is clear and convincing evidence that the government has failed to make a break with the practices of the war period. The abduction of Frontline Socialist Party leaders, including one who is an Australian citizen, and their subsequent release due to strong pressure from the Australian government does not speak well of the Sri Lankan government keeping to its commitments.
Three years ago when the Sri Lankan government prevailed in the vote in Geneva, the war had been over less than three months. The brutalities of the last phase of the war would have been fresh in the minds of the international community. But the majority of countries decided to support the position of the government. On the other hand, in March 2012 when Sri Lanka lost the vote, the memory of the war ought to have been a stale one. But many of the countries that had once supported the government changed their position. This suggests that the conduct of the war in its last phase was not the determining factor in the way the vote went.
The sudden worsening of the international situation for the government has been a source of consternation to its members and the country as a whole. There is concern about an international conspiracy. There is speculation that the government’s close ties to China are at the root of the international problem. This is based on the belief that the interests of the US and India lie in compelling Sri Lanka to move away from China. According to this reasoning the instrument of coercion is that of war crimes and human rights violations. Most governments in most situations of protracted conflict would be vulnerable to queries on these counts.
In responding to the present crisis, the government needs to take a multi-pronged approach. Now that a negative resolution on Sri Lanka has been passed by a UN body, it is going to remain on the global agenda for a long time to come unless the government acts in a manner that addresses international concerns in all its important dimensions. As the Human Rights Council is the UN body that is taking the most amount of interest in Sri Lanka, it is clear that the government needs to give its highest priority to addressing human rights issues, which includes the political and democratic rights of ethnic minorities. In addition, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy will need to be a more balanced one between the world’s big powers. If these things are done, there is reason to believe that the Sri Lankan delegation to Geneva will succeed again, like it did in 2009.