Sri Lanka: Isolation and international relations

By Dr.Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

One of the warnings sounded by ex-minister Samaraweera was about the certainty of the international isolation of Sri Lanka if President Mahinda Rajapakse did not move to address the culture of impunity and the deterioration of human rights protection in Sri Lanka.

This too has the hallmarks of the Premadasa regime when populist authoritarianism was laced with nationalist bombast and insecure xenophobia.

The war against terrorism today will mark us out as a country with an abysmally poor human rights record as did the counter terror of that time. The question though is at what cost and with what consequence in the world today.

There is still a human rights resolution sponsored by the European Union pending at the Human Rights Council in Geneva; the Germans and British have flagged human rights and the peace process as benchmarks for new aid and development assistance flows and US legislators have in writing both called for the appointment of a special envoy on Sri Lanka and for an improvement in the human rights and humanitarian situation. It is no secret that the EU representation at the Galle Development Forum was downgraded with the express purpose of sending a message to the Rajapakse government.

The Independent International Eminent Persons Group (IIGEP) has had its inaugural meeting in Colombo with the Presidential Commission and there is the possibility that statements and reports by this group will not be mere complements to the GOSL on its commitment, bona fides and capabilities in the area of human rights protection.

Signs and messages

Can the GOSL afford to ignore the signs and messages conveyed and in all probability continue to be conveyed by this predominantly western international community ?

At the end of the day, the key question is that of how much the GOSL depends on these countries for developmental assistance and assistance in the prosecution of the war against terror which seems to be the key instrument identified by it for regime consolidation.

Illustrative of the balance of power in the present day international community and of the options the GOSL has in terms of developmental assistance is an anecdote related to this columnist by a senior minister in the last Kumaratunga government.

According to the minister, a senior official from the West proceeded to give him a lecture on peace, governance and human rights benchmarks as part of negotiation of developmental assistance. He interrupted the official and terminated the discussion with the telling point that the Chinese were assisting Sri Lanka to the tune of 10 times the amount of the developmental assistance they were discussing and disbursed the funds with no lecture, conditionality or benchmarks at any point in the process.

The GOSL clearly has other options in an international community that is by no means homogenous and in which the balance of power is swinging away from the West and to the emerging Asian great powers. In addition to China, there is India and Japan. There is of course no discounting the US.

US ‘duality’

What has transpired is that the global superpower is firmly behind the war against terror, even as it makes the point about reviving negotiations, upholding and protecting human rights. The latter point has been made more frequently and pointedly of late.

The ‘duality’ in the US position has had an effect on human rights issues – the US insistence on private remonstrations as opposed to public denunciations has deprived largely European pressure on this front of its considerable weight and influence and in the fullest measure that only the global superpower can command. This looks like changing in the waning years of the Bush presidency and with the ascendancy of the Democrats in Congress and the prospect of them winning the White House in 2008.

And of course US policy will look to balance Chinese influence, in concert with India. There is also the matter of the Millennium Challenge Account monies which could boost the Chinthana development coffers. It may not be forthcoming in fullest or indeed in any measure, if Congress is sufficiently shocked by the state of human rights in Sri Lanka.

All of this though has to be seen in the context of the strategic importance of Sri Lanka to the super power and other powers. In the US case, in realpolitik terms, it is a case of strategic ‘denial’ of influence to a competitor or rival, rather than one of real or vital interest.

Japanese policy

Japan remains our largest donor in bilateral terms and through its contributions to the multilateral financial institutions. Japanese policy however is not driven or largely conditioned by proactive engagement on human rights, governance or any other benchmarks or conditionality of this ilk, its interest in the peace process of yore, the efforts and pronouncements of Ambassador Akashi notwithstanding. The Japanese are likely to subscribe to the pronouncements of the Western bloc, but not with any great enthusiasm or profile.

India’s interests are increasingly denominated in economic terms and as a former ambassador remarked to this columnist, they lie more in a comprehensive economic agreement with Sri Lanka, effectively granting Delhi the first refusal in economic initiatives, than in the defence agreement local nationalists at one time clamoured for as the surest guarantee of our territorial integrity.

Were they to shift in emphasis, this will be of a quintessentially political nature, focusing on the contours and content of a negotiated peace settlement and constitutional compact. The importance and relevance of the human rights and humanitarian situation must not be discounted here, although they did not have a decisive impact in this respect, in the miserable year that was 2006.

The imperatives of coalition politics will probably serve as the catalyst for heightened Indian interest and action and the human rights and the humanitarian situation of the Tamils of the north and east in particular, will eventually play its part in energising the polity of Tamil Nadu, if it is to be energised at all on this score.

The déjà vu factor does come into play. President Jayewa-rdene disastrously attempted to counter Indian influence on the side of Tamil militancy with US support for his government.

Were President Rajapakse to try to do likewise with Chinese power to counter what he may see as insufferable Indian self righteousness on the issues of the merger and political settlement, it would be interesting to see what India does. At the end of the day, India is what matters and matters most because of simple and fundamental geopolitical fact and factors.

No discounting the West

This is not to discount the West in toto. Quite the contrary. Whilst the West has diminished leverage on the economic front, it still does have leverage on this and other fronts – from travel advisories to trade and to the restrictions it has placed on the LTTE and its freedom to manouevre internationally.

And in any event, the combined power and influence of the US and Indians with the rest of the West will not be blotted out – not for some time at least to be sure — by all the tea in China or a new power alliance of Chinese and Russian economic and military power, Pakistani arms and Venezuelan oil as some romantic realpolitik musing suggests.

At the end of the day, a country of little strategic importance in the global balance of power, but with tremendous economic potential in a globalised world, cannot risk international isolation and no government of all of its people can fail in its responsibility for the protection of the human rights of, any of them. []

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