A Soft UNHRC Resolution Too, May Hide More Than It Shows

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Going by the UK-led core group’s draft United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution on Sri Lanka for the ongoing 51st session, it looks as if they are ready to give ‘another chance’ for the government to implement its forgotten post-war commitments on accountability issues without ‘shifting the goal-post’ one more time. Translated, it means that the upcoming resolution could be one short of the co-sponsored resolutions of the 2014-19 period but fixed to domestic mechanisms that successive governments have promised, but never kept.

The thumb-rule to test if the US-led West is soft on the government or not, is how the Tamils in the country and their Diaspora see the UNHRC resolutions, drafts and final. This time round, they have already pronounced that the ‘core group’ intends letting the government off the hook, by not talking about international investigations and safety-nets, least of all, their multi-party demand for referring Sri Lanka ‘war crimes’ to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Independent of the economic crisis facing the nation and the source undefined ‘Aragalaya’ protests that Western embassies in Colombo encouraged without appreciating the medium and long-term fallouts and consequences, the UNHRC resolutions are non-enforceable as far as any democratic government in the country goes. Now, it is a ‘head-you-win, tail-I-lose’ game, as any pressure linking a possible international probe with economic aid could turn the very same Aragalaya protesters, or the more vociferous and visible participants and their leaderships, to revive the protests – this time against the West, too. Or, so it seems.

Geo-strategic implication

Foreign Minister Ali Sabry was forthright in his assertion in this regard, even before emplaning for Geneva to speak out Sri Lanka’s mind at the UNHRC session. This is the farthest that a government in which Wickremesinghe is associated with, has gone in terms of declining demands for an international probe.

Apart from the fear of a possible revival of the forgotten left insurgency of the pre-mainstreamed JVP, which threat may become real, if the West pushed the nation into a corner linking it all to the overwhelming economic crisis, there are real geo-strategic concerns that such developments could unravel. If nothing else, no nation, West or East, least of all the Indian neighbour, wants an unsettled Sri Lanka, given especially its strategic location. 

They should remember the LTTE’s prowess (not that anyone is talking about its revival) and also the forays that China has already made through the past decade. If the West thought that a ‘stiff resolution’ in the UNHRC would sober the post-war Rajapaksa regime, it only pushed the nation farther into China’s ‘waiting-hands’.

The logic was simple. If Sri Lanka – whichever party was in power – conceded the West’s demands (whatever they be), then there are no issues. If the nation decided to fight back (again, independent of the party in power), then it would embrace those that would guarantee a relatively less painful path ahead. With their veto vote, China and Russia could do it for Sri Lanka at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the final arbiter in matters of UNHRC.

This self-preservation and self-defence have nothing do with ideology. It’s mere survival instinct at work. Symbolising it, is the assertion of Sri Lankan ‘sovereignty’. Independent of the circumstances of the time, the Sri Lankan State’s decision to permit Chinese research/spy vessel Yuan Wang-5, against reservations from India and the US, may have to be seen as yet another assertion of the kind.

Sounding the Red Bugle

The last time round, the West’s resolution, though passed, got much fewer votes than the number of abstentions from among the 47 voting members. That was the sounding of the ‘red bugle’ for the West. Seemingly, letting off Sri Lanka lightly in the name of economic crisis may be a tactic, but it could hide a strategy as the voting-membership keeps changing all the time.

It has to do with the ground realities. Unlike in the past, going beyond capital Colombo’s urban middle class intellectuals, there is a howl of protests from deep South, this time, for the withdrawal of the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). For long, the Tamils alone wanted it, but the Rajapaksa regime ensured that the Muslims too, were pushed into the camp, independent of their other reservations about joining hands with the Tamil polity.

The government has promised to replace the PTA with a National Security Act (NSA), and no Western government would have the ‘gumption’ to stand in the way. Translated, it would mean the NSA has to be negotiated within the country, within Parliament. The Tamils and the Muslims have to convince fellow Opposition leaders from the SJB and the rest, on what they do not want in a new NSA – than what they have all along wanted.

Drawing the line

It does not stop there. The government may still deny the UNHRC permission to set up a ‘field office’ in the country. But it cannot escape accountability anymore, on the promised ‘domestic inquiry’ into war-crimes and other accountability issues, which keeps stretching up to last evening, going by the West’s imagination.  The question is where to draw the line.

Now, it is all about drawing the line, where to end the domestic probe – whether at the end of the war or go far beyond to the Easter blasts and Aragalaya protests. Likewise, the wanton inclusion of ‘economic crimes’ with reference to the continuing crisis in The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Report for the UNHRC session, be taken on board, should be another crucial question for the government to address and answer.

It looks as if the West that had not directly implicated the Rajapaksas in their demands on war-crimes probe by name, has got an opportunity to fix them on the economic crisis. It could include allegations of corruption. And thereby hangs a tale, and this too, could have another side, say, the Chinese side, one way or the other!

(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])

By N Sathiya Moorthy