The morning after Geneva

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera gets a bad rap. While he is by no means in the same league as the impossibly illustrious Lakshman Kadirgamar, Samaraweera, as one of the more competent ministers in the Yahapalana Cabinet (which in all sincerity is not saying much), has so far been doing more than a commendable job of defending Sri Lanka in the eyes of the international community ‒ all the while taking flak from those that accuse him and his government of treachery. One could, of course, argue that his job is made significantly easier by the admittedly inconvenient truth that he represents a government that was brought into power with the blessings of the West. However, the fact remains that, despite heavy resistance from some quarters, he and his team of diplomats in Geneva have been able to win over the world for a second time running and in the process buy Sri Lanka two more years to, at the very least, plan its next move.

The UNHRC assembly. Image courtesy

Its glaring flaws notwithstanding, that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration actually managed to get this done in the face of mounting hostility from nefarious anti-Sri Lanka forces, some Tamil diaspora groups, international actors, and NGOs with questionable motives, is something it can and should get credit for, particularly among what’s left of its fast-diminishing Sinhala Buddhist constituency. But given its propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of PR victory, it is hardly surprising that the UNP-led government, in true socio-politically tone-deaf UNP fashion, has squandered a golden opportunity to win some much-needed goodwill and public support. It has instead allowed its opponents and political opportunists to use Sri Lanka’s cosponsorship of the March 23 UNHRC resolution to mislead and score points with the patriotic people of this country and, perhaps more dangerously, fan the flames of extremism on both sides of the racial divide.

Speaking to the media earlier this week, a sombre yet no doubt quietly jubilant Samaraweera said: “There are those who say that Sri Lanka sold its soul, compromised sovereignty, cowed down to the West, because of their envy and their jealousy; but I want to state very clearly that all we have done under President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is reassert our sovereignty and regain the lost respect for Sri Lanka among the international community.”

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera addressing the media in Colombo. Image courtesy Daily FT

Questioning the term ‘war crimes probe’, he further said: “I personally believe Sri Lanka has one of the most disciplined armies in the world, but like in all armies, we have miscreants; we have black sheep. So if there are people who are proven after an investigation to have done wrong, then we will deal with those people and thereby retain or protect the good name of our armed forces.”

Is this spin, cleverly crafted to strike that all too elusive balance between realpolitik and favourable public opinion? It would be naive to think not. After all, Samaraweera served for years as Media Minister in Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s Cabinet in a particularly tumultuous period of state and media relations. But is there an element of truth here? It would appear so.

By all accounts, the Sri Lanka delegation at the UNHRC summit in Geneva fought tooth and nail to not just buy more time but, more importantly, to also try and convince the Tamil community both here and abroad that, despite numerous shortcomings, their grievances will not go unaddressed ‒ although, some rights activists have dismissed these grand pronouncements as mere lip service with no real commitment for on-the-ground policy implementation with regard to accountability and reconciliation. On a related development, while the UNP side of the Unity Government insists that its electoral promise of introducing a new constitution is still intact, the SLFP ‒ though President Sirisena has yet to make his position clear ‒ now says that it will not support any reform that will require a referendum.

The UNP and SLFP have so far expressed conflicting sentiments regarding the proposed new constitution. Image courtesy Colombo Telegraph

Given the disheartening antagonism faced by Sri Lanka in Geneva prior to 2015, the country has come a long way to say the least. The so-called international community (a deeply problematic term to some) that was once adamant on taking Sri Lanka to task is now, though it hasn’t greatly softened its stance, willing to hear us out, especially when it comes to contentious issues such as the thorny topic of foreign judges. While it may be understandably frustrating to a lot of people that this “success” has mostly been limited to press releases and soundbites back home, optics do matter. Even if the UNHRC itself is powerless to enforce the resolution, let alone punish a country under its microscope for not playing ball, individual member states, according to the International Crisis Group’s Alan Keenan, can follow up on any resolutions bilaterally. Needless to say, that’s where international reputation comes into play, and it is imperative that Sri Lanka, at least on the surface, not only keeps its hands as clean as possible, but is also seen to be actually doing something ‒ just to avoid any diplomatic unpleasantness if not for anything else.

If that sounds too cynical, it may be because even the most well-meaning among us sometimes forget that transitional justice and reconciliation (which are really little more than buzzwords to many everyday folk) take time and cannot be forced down a country’s throat. Anyone hoping for overnight change due to some half-hearted international b̶u̶l̶l̶y̶i̶n̶g̶ prodding may be setting themselves up for disappointment; and, indeed, such hasty reform, if not carefully formulated, could prove counterproductive if not downright catastrophic in the long run.

It also needs to be stressed, at the risk of sounding callous, that the Tamil community, which all but a handful of extremists will readily admit has suffered a great deal in the almost three-decade conflict, must exercise patience and be a little bit more flexible when dealing with the majority community. Only then can there be room for mutual understanding and meaningful dialogue. Needlessly antagonising an entire people and trying to paint that people as a genocidal behemoth can do more harm than good and will likely only result in losing much needed support from the overwhelming majority of peace loving Sinhalese. (Although, in fairness, this applies chiefly to Tamil political leaders rather than ordinary citizens). Unfortunately, what these leaders and, indeed, many in Colombo-centric activist circles often seem to forget is that the Sinhalese too have undergone untold suffering at the hands of the LTTE (to say nothing of everyone else that got caught in the crossfire). Then there are the 72,000 Muslims forcibly evicted by the Tigers in the early years of the conflict. Their concerns need redressing too. While the Tamils undoubtedly have legitimate grievances that need immediate attention, what needs to be remembered is that the horrors of war didn’t stop to discriminate: it hurt everyone , badly — some more than others, often irrevocably so. Reconciliation, therefore, it goes without saying, is a two-way street. It may be asking for a lot, but compromises need to be made ‒ on both sides.

Reconciliation is a two-way street that requires compromise on both sides. Image courtesy thehindubusinessline

Speaking of out-of-touch activism, Jaffna-based left-leaning economist Ahilan Kadirgamar believes what he calls the singular focus on international rights intervention is killing a once-vibrant local rights movement. Writing to The Hindu this week, he said: “Today’s campaigns have become dependent on western donors. This apolitical variant of human rights activism has no qualms accommodating, or even endorsing, rabid Tamil nationalists who are at the forefront of the campaign for accountability, while remaining silent on the LTTE’s grave crimes. The convergence of the human rights and Tamil nationalist campaigns, both beholden to the West and determined by the geopolitics of forums such as the UNHRC, provides further fuel to the chauvinist fire of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists.”

Regardless, a cosponsorship is a cosponsorship and Sri Lanka must take necessary steps to meet its obligations come 2019. Of course, this is not to say that we should stand idly by as hypocritical foreign powers dictate terms to a sovereign nation on how to manage its internal affairs. Whether or not these powers have a leg to stand on in terms of their own human rights records is a separate debate ‒ and one definitely worth having, mind ‒ but current geopolitical realities being what they are, the outcome of such a debate frankly won’t matter, even if the final decision rests with Sri Lanka. What needs to be done, then, is to set the stage for true reconciliation via a homegrown solution that is acceptable to all parties (the proposed Truth-Seeking Commission being a step in the right direction) ‒ not because some foreign power demands it, but because we owe it to ourselves as a long-battered people to finally put our house in order. If accepting some of the more reasonable international demands is what it takes ‒ without sacrificing national pride ‒ then so be it. Ultimately, no matter which side of the argument you’re on, what is undeniable is that it’s been a long road to recovery and both communities have lost a little bit of their soul along the way. If we don’t act now, we may not get another chance to find that missing piece again.