Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • February 2020
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Navigating Geneva with national, not political, interests

Posted by harimpeiris on February 26, 2020

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 25th February 2020)

The bi-annual sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, is due to begin this week and will run through the month of March. Leading Sri Lanka’s delegation to the high-level segment would be Minister of Foreign Affairs, (Dinesh Gunawardena, and according to press reports, accompanied by Minsters Mahinda Samarasinghe and Nimal Siripala de Silva. Reportedly the Government is seeking to pull out of UN Resolution 30/1 and the underlying factors, relevant to this important issue deserve to be examined carefully. International belligerence for the purpose of domestic political advantage in the forthcoming general elections, is unwise.

An internationalized postwar reconciliation

The first ground reality that Sri Lanka faces is that our export driven, tourism and remittance dependent economy is firmly plugged to the global economy and very popularly so. Our garment exports, tourism and remittances are the lifeline to a vast swath of our working and lower middle classes. Similarly, our ethnic conflict is also internationalized. Not least through a Tamil Diaspora, scattered throughout the western world, following the July 1983 pogroms and now influential in those societies. Sri Lanka’s war effort and especially ending the war was unstintingly assisted by the international community, especially through the sale of armaments to Sri Lanka’s military, which has no domestic weapons industry. We fought the war using Israeli Kfir jets, Czechoslovak multi-barrel rocket launches and various weapon systems from all over the world. Instrumental in ending the war following the failure of the Norwegian facilitated cease fire agreement in 2006, was the banning of the LTTE and their fundraising and financing in most of the Western world such as UK, EU and Canada, including India.

Instrumental in the final phases of the war was the sinking of the LTTE ships in mid sea through intelligence information sharing and other assistance by India, including our deep-water naval capacity. So, Sri Lanka ended the war with international support and assistance. In 2009, the Administration of then President (& now Prime Minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa, invited the UN Secretary General as the first foreign visitor to visit the North following the end of the war, and made commitments through a joint statement of May 2009. This was followed by his administration co-sponsoring its own resolution at the UNHRC later that month, and adopted as Resolution A/HRC/S-11/2 (11/2 for short) of 27th May 2009, by a vote of 29 for and 12 against with 6 abstentions. So, both the international nature of the issues concerned and dealing with the same internationally is not new.

Moving from war to peace

A serious conversation on moving from a protracted civil conflict spanning almost three decades to a sustainable post-war peace, is rather obviously a more complex exercise than simply ending the fighting. Both the effects and the causes of the conflict need to be addressed. There is international experience with a sound theoretical basis and very valid reasons as to why brutally fought wars are followed by sustained efforts to secure peace. For example, the Second World War in Europe was followed by the Marshall Plan on rebuilding Germany mostly, while the war in Asia was followed by massive American assistance to Japan, post-war. The intent is always to turn the vanquished into an ally, an adversary into a partner and a foe into a friend. This in the context of Sri Lanka, though promised in 2009, was not really done by the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Administration, notwithstanding the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the Maxwell Paranagama Commission and the Tissa Vitharana All Parties Representatives Committee (APRC) processes all initiatives and processes under that Administration, but not implemented. The world was taking note that we seemed intent on pursuing the peace, in the manner of fighting a war, rather than making the essential pivotal changes from polarization to inclusivity, from intolerance of dissent to tolerance, from emergency law to constitutional governance, from limiting human rights to robust democratic freedoms, from draconian anti-terror regulations to internationally accepted norms in counter terrorism legislation.

The UN and US have within just the first 100 days of the new Administration shown some indication of where things may be headed. Sri Lanka’s military contribution to UN international peacekeeping operations, extremely popular in our military, due to the hefty UN allowances paid to both troops and the Army was curtailed. Army commander Gen. Shavendra Silva was listed for human rights violations and together with his family, banned from travelling or visiting the United States.

A clear domestic process

UNHRC resolution 30/1, following on from similar such prior resolutions of the UNHRC, adopted unanimously by the Council and co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, was an attempt to ensure that the international partnership so successful in ending the war was also continued in securing the peace. Resolution 30/1 makes clear that the reconciliation process is a domestic Sri Lankan one, with such international expertise, technical assistance and practical partnership in the processes, as may be required. The entire debate on securing Cabinet approval for co-sponsoring a resolution is an irrelevant diversion. Resolution 11/2 of 2009 did not have Cabinet approval either. They are political decisions rather than executive ones. The Governments of the day supported it. President Sirisena’s own lack of support is more likely driven by his political transformation over the period of his term, from being an anti-Rajapaksa challenger in 2015, to being an avid supporter of an SLPP two-third majority in 2020.

Former Foreign (& then Finance) Minister Mangala Samaraweera summed it up best when he tweeted over the weekend “Sri Lanka’s great leap backwards: within the first 100 days of the GR regime the economy is in shambles, reconciliation in tatters and now with the withdrawal of the Geneva 30/1 we face international isolation and pariah status”.

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-2017)

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