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Saturday, 16 December 2017
Saturday, 16 December 2017 | Sri Lanka Watch
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Rebuilding relations after victories PDF Print E-mail
The human rights heartland of Geneva was the scene of the Sri Lankan government’s latest victory.  The government staved off a determined effort by Western countries to launch a formal investigation into violations of human rights and possible war crimes in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s ethnic war.

At the UN’s Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka was able to draw upon the support, indignation and self-interest of the majority of country’s in the world’s premier human rights forum to defeat the call for a human rights probe by a margin of 29 to 12, with 6 abstentions.  Those countries that voted for Sri Lanka included the leaders from the continents of Asia, Africa and South America, the tri-continental world.  

Several of the countries that voted for Sri Lanka have grim human rights records themselves, and would not have wished the Sri Lankan case to set a precedent for them.  But a more compelling argument than mere self-interest was also at play.  This was the rejection of double standards, which enable the powerful and rich in the world to get off the hook, while the poor and powerless are hauled before the courts of justice.   More than half a million civilians in Iraq are believed to have perished when the NATO alliance invaded that country on false pretences of weapons of mass destruction.  Over two million civilians in Pakistan’s north west frontier have been displaced in the US-partnered war against Islamic fundamentalism.

However, as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Geneva Dr Dayan Jayatilleka has noted, the victory that Sri Lanka achieved does not leave room for complacency.  The resolution sponsored by those countries that opposed the Western-backed resolution, made several references to the Sri Lankan government’s pledges to improve the conditions of the displaced persons and to work towards a political solution to the ethnic conflict.  The government has made important promises to India and to the UN Secretary General during his visit to Sri Lanka that the resettlement process has a six month time frame, and that a political solution is in the offing.  These are promises that need to be kept so that the government’s credibility is to be respected.

A problem for the government is that in fighting the war against the LTTE, it obtained the support of Sinhalese nationalist parties to sustain the war effort, and to meet the heavy costs of the war.  Now after the victory on the military battlefield the government has to prepare for forthcoming elections.  General elections are due within the next eleven months. Having worked together with the forces of Sinhalese nationalism it will be difficult for the government to abruptly reverse itself and seek new political allies.   Once again the government will need to rally the support of its existing allies, who in the flush of victory do not show any indication of being prepared to make the compromises needed to accommodate the political rights of the ethnic minorities.
 

NO COMPROMISE

With the passage of barely a fortnight since the government’s victory over the LTTE, it is premature to expect dramatic changes in Sri Lanka.  There also remains concern about violent activities by remnants of the LTTE.  As a result there is hardly any relaxation of the tight security measures in place in the north and east and in Colombo.  If at all, there is an even more visible security presence on the streets, as troops are redeployed from front line fighting to checkpoint duties.  While the need to continue with strict security measures can be accepted, the continued focus on the military victory and celebrations rather than on political reconciliation is a problem that needs to be addressed.

The government has now called for nominations for local government elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya in the Northern Province.  These elections will be held by mid August.  Most of the Tamil parties have complained that these elections are premature when Tamil society is still to recover from the aftermath of the war.  However, holding elections at this time is also strategic for the government, as it would tend to take local and international attention away from the costs of war and humanitarian crisis, and refocus them on the normalization process.  The local government elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya will most likely be followed by provincial council elections for the Northern Province.

The government has been urging the smaller Tamil parties to contest under the banner of the ruling party, apparently without success at this time.   However, the largest Tamil party, the TNA, which won most of the northern and eastern Parliamentary seats at the last general elections in 2004, is being sidelined by the government.  They too have mostly withdrawn from playing a role in mainstream politics, with several of their MPs being abroad, and probably unable to return due to their suspected LTTE connections.  The government has also stated that its future dealings will be with those elected representatives who emerge out of the forthcoming electoral process

Despite the call for elections, the ground reality at present is detrimental to the freedom and equality of the ethnic minorities.  The focus appears to be to ensure the future security of Sri Lanka by coercive and military means, which includes the recruitment of large numbers into the ranks of the Sri Lankan military even though the war has ended.  It also includes the setting up of new military bases in the north and east.  Such a military focus will entail heavy economic costs and will further strain relations with the ethnic minorities. At the present time the Tamil people, both those within welfare camps and those living outside, are feeling a great deal of uncertainty.

REBUILDING RELATIONS
 
While it is perfectly understandable that the government would not wish the past to recur, the better way to ensure this would be to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people. President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave this indication of a rebuilding of relations when he said that in future there will be no minorities in Sri Lanka.  This means that the Tamil people must see themselves as a free and equal people, and not a people who are suspected, treated differently, and whose lives are regulated by a network of military bases in their traditional places of inhabitation.  This calls for a very special effort to arrive at a political solution in dialogue with the Tamil people, through their elected representatives in Parliament and through the political parties that they support.

The other important area for rebuilding relations will be with the Western countries, including those that colonized Sri Lanka in the past, and who are being suspected of trying to do so again in an indirect manner.  After Sri Lanka received Independence in 1948, the Western countries have been generous donors of developmental assistance along with Japan, and they also provide the biggest economic markets for Sri Lanka’s exports.  The European Union in particular has been especially supportive of Sri Lanka through its GSP Plus tariff concession, which enables Sri Lanka to export to European countries with import duty concessions that give Sri Lankan exports an advantage over many other countries.

There is no doubt that Sri Lanka needs to appreciate the political support of all those countries from Asia, Africa and Latin America who supported Sri Lanka at the UN’s Human Rights Council.  However, it must also be borne in mind that most of those countries are economic competitors with Sri Lanka for export markets in the developed Western countries.  Most of them are also too poor to contribute much developmental assistance to Sri Lanka.  Others amongst them do not have democratic traditions that will encourage democracy and human rights in Sri Lanka for Sri Lankans.  If nothing else, at the very least economic self-interest suggests that Sri Lanka should rebuild its relations with the Western countries.

The Western countries too need to reconsider their confrontational approach to the Sri Lankan government. Their pursuit of war-related human rights investigations failed the twin tests of international politics and universal standards applicable to all.  What cannot be disputed, however, is the example that the Western countries have set in developing law-regulated societies that ensure justice and dignity to their own citizens.  They have developed strong and vibrant civil societies with the capacity to hold their governments in check.  This is what post-war Sri Lanka needs today to make peace and democracy sustainable, and to ensure justice to all.

By Jehan Perera

 
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