Never the Twain Shall Meet
By N. Sathiya Moorthy
The Government could not have asked for more – rather, worse. The antics of Prisons Minister Lohan Ratwatte – it is a polite word – at Anuradhapura prison, where he undeniably pulled out his personal firearm and threatened to shoot Tamil political prisoners who were summoned, as if for the purpose, cannot end with his part-resignation. According to reports, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, away in Italy, had discussed l’affaire Lohan with President Gotabaya and asked the Minister to put in his papers. Yet, reports also said that Lohan continued to remain State Minister for gems and jewellery, making a mockery of his resignation in the first place.
Questions remain if Lohan, even if a Minister, could carry his personal firearm (hopefully licensed?) into a prison. Then comes the issue of the authority under which a nonuniformed person, even if a Minister, threatened a prisoner (or prisoners), who were under State protection as much as they were under its penal action. Then comes the politics of it all, and its international ramifications, precisely at this moment. It is doubtful if anyone is going to be convinced by his resignation. Even Lohan’s arrest, fast-tracked trial and possible imprisonment under the law, can have only so much marketability.
The credibility of the Government leadership is at stake when the UNHRC is seized of human rights issues in the country, beginning with the LTTE wars but not ending there anymore. Minister Namal Rajapaksa’s rushed visit to the Anuradhapura prison too can do only so much – it will at best highlight l’affaire Lohan more than already. As leaders and owners of the ruling SLPP, the Rajapaksas can restore at least a part of the lost face if and only if they sack Lohan from all political responsibilities, starting with his membership of Parliament, and let him confront the law.
It is anybody’s guess if the international community (read: West) will be satisfied if Lohan is hauled up under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which UNHRC chief, Michelle Bachelet and almost every resolution post-war want abrogated. It is anybody’s guess why they did not make it a condition precedent for accepting the previous Government’s (2015-19) offer of co-sponsored resolution.
Nor is there any response, convincing or otherwise, if those nations that voted in successive resolutions do not have anti-terror laws, some of them much worse than the Sri Lankan laws. Some like the US law on Guantanamo Bay prison and the treatment meted out to ‘terrorists’ caught in Iraq and Afghanistan should put every civilised society to shame. The punishment meted out to American soldiers caught in the act made it all a cruel joke. Yet, none of it can justify either the continuance of a war-time terror law, which needs to be re-visited, especially in the light of the revival of terrorism with the Easter serial blasts.
Nor can any of them cover up for the acts of Minister Lohan and other Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners. True, they do not have the blessings or directions of powers-that-be, yes, but their acts of omissions and commissions has an air of permissibility. It is this that needed to be snipped in the bud, but has not happened – even after a change of Government. How the Sri Lankan State is going to address this issue, which had its origins, first in the Police participation in the Tamil protests against the Sinhala Only law, decades ago in the fifties, followed alternatively by the behaviour of the uniformed services in coming down on the two JVP insurgencies (1971 and 1987), interspersed with the anti-Tamil, Pogrom-’83. Less said about the Boosa camp and the rest the better. It is not that the JVP at the time and the LTTE later on were any less cruel, including those personnel of the Security Forces who got caught in their trap or even accidentally. Two wrongs a right does not make, and it is more so when the State, the protector, is continually seen as offender par excellence.
War by other means
Maybe, High Commissioner Bachelet is embarrassed to be seen harassing the Sri Lankan Government already caught in the midst of an unending COVID pandemic, coupled since with the much-anticipated forex crisis. Maybe her advisors in Geneva are now looking at the possibility of the nation’s Supreme Court coming down on the international body for usurping many of the constitutional rights and duties of a Government that is unfailing elected every five years through a due democratic process. A nation-State surrendering a part of its sovereignty to the UN is one thing. A UN affiliate usurping it nearunilaterally and against the protests of the affected nation-State is another. It may be construed as ‘war by other means’.
There is no clarity under the international law, and there is no penal provision for such violations. Anyway, who is going to implement or enforce it, if it came to that? At the end of the day, the UNHRC resolution under which the High Commissioner and her office are acting was passed by a minority of voting members – 22 in a total of 47. In a situation where voting-members change by rotation, should in any year in the near future, the majority is staked in favour of Sri Lanka and, say, they vote out the current resolution, there is no provision for the High Commissioner’s office repaying the budget-spends on what by then would have become a wild-goose chase.
At the end of it all, there are nations and nations – excluding China and Russia, Iran and North Korea – that want the West, especially the US, shown its true place in the geo-political matrix. If for once they have to marry the devil, they would happily do it. This is also what the likes of China may be hoping for. North Korea, of course, does not fit in here. Many among the world’s smaller, Third World nations with what purportedly is non-democratic, undemocratic regimes, have come to believe that the UNHRC itself is a creation of the West to deny their favourites, China and Russia, the pleasure of their veto-vote as in the UNSC.
Yet, whatever decision the UNHRC takes will go to the UNSC, where the two have their veto-power, and may be able to garner enough numbers to deny the West the required minimum of nine votes in a total of 15. The way High Commissioner Bachelet, who is also a former Chilean President, has listed out the alleged commissions and omissions of the Colombo Government, as ‘authorised’ by Council Resolution 46/1, there seems to be no area that her office could claim can be left out of their mandate(s). Included in the list the next time round could be the continuing COVID crisis, and also the forex issue, after painting them also as human rights violations of a higher or lower order.
Because the UNHRC’s western patrons were/are not able to control the COVID crisis in their countries, maybe, Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa regime may escape the UNHRC wrath on that score. But none of those nations are facing a forex crisis, and thankfully so for their population. Those issues may thus be game to be included in future High Commissioner’s Report or Council Resolutions on ‘accountability issues’ and probe into ‘war crimes’ allegations, which date back by a decade and more.
The question is if future reports of the High Commissioner could also take back some of the new rights situations as appealing to the UNHRC Secretariat to cover at least a part of the 10-year gap, between the end of the LTTE war and the present. If so, it would be interesting to note if the fiveyear period covering 2015-19, would find any mention. That was when the present Rajapaksa regime was out of power, their place taken by chosen friends of the West – again, exclusively through an election process that was as much democratic as any other in the country and elsewhere.
After the early years of then High Commissioner Navi Pillay, successive UNHRC chiefs have fought shy of accepting public commitments of Colombo Governments on issues of concern to the council. This time however, High Commissioner Bachelet said, she was looking forward to ‘concrete actions’ and urged council members to pay ‘close attention’ to the Government’s commitment to ‘to work with the UN to ensure accountability’ and implement ‘necessary institutional reforms’.
Clearly, such a commitment was made by President Gotabaya in June, departing from his maiden presidential address threat, to walk out of UN institutions. In his reaction to High Commissioner Bachelet’s ‘oral observations’ in her inaugural report at the UNHRC session, G.L. Peiris, who has since returned as foreign Minister has clarified the Government’s position. In an online response to the council, Minister Peiris clarified that there can neither be any ‘fresh probe’ or ‘external initiatives’, and pointed out that it ‘will polarise our society’ as after Resolution 30/1 in 2015. Said Prof Peiris: “The council must adhere to its founding principles.
External initiatives embarked upon without the cooperation of the country concerned cannot achieve their stated goals, and will be subject to politicisation. The resources expended on this initiative are unwarranted, especially when they are urgently needed for humanitarian and other constructive purposes in many parts of the world.” Independent of world-play, it only means that the twain shall not meet, as has not done through the past years. The West lost Sri Lanka when it moved the UNHRC in 2012, when the post-war Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was in serious discussion with the TNA on finding a political solution to the ethnic issue.
They also talked the TNA into yielding to their view. The ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU), that followed (2015-19) and which they helped elect was stymied by the same causes that had made the Rajapaksas unsure at times earlier. Today, at the height of COVID and economic crises, the reigning Rajapaksas are much less confident of being able to ‘market’ a political solution (even outside of ‘war crimes’ probe) to the hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist majority/majoritarian constituency. Their possible political replacements, if and when happens, cannot escape the same constituency, either. The West may have thus missed the bus long ago! With that they have also made the nation’s Tamils wait it out with them, even as they themselves will walk in and out of it, as their priorities too keep changing and their time and attention-span becomes equally wobbly.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: [email protected] nsathiyamoorthy.com