The Government of Sri Lanka’s response to the damning report of the OHCHR will be a deliberate one.
Interview with Foreign Secretary Admiral Professor
by SARASI WIJERATNE
A consensual Resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC will be a politically challenging one to implement
The Human Rights Commissioner’s report mentions targeted sanctions, asset freeze and travel bans that the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) is not overly worried about. ‘The Human Rights Commissioner’s office cannot enforce anything. They can only make recommendations. While sanctions by the UN are unlikely, individual countries could decide on sanctions. But Sri Lanka’s geo strategic importance will make them want to stay engaged and it can’t be done if they are considering sanctions.’
Sri Lanka’s position in the Indian Ocean has become a double- edged sword.
The Government of Sri Lanka’s response to the damning report of the OHCHR will be a deliberate one and the crux of it will argue that Sri Lanka has not committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Earlier this week, government mandarins were going through the Report with a fine comb to meet last Wednesday’s deadline to get the reply off to the Human Rights Commissioner’s office in Geneva. The Sri Lankan government is categorical that the Report is based on errors of fact, errors of law and perceptions and view the action of the OHCHR as unfair against a sovereign state.
Sri Lankan missions abroad, including the permanent missions in New York and Geneva, are playing a big role working with the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) in the preparation of the Report. Based on it, Sri Lanka will create a narrative to target different countries through heads of missions.
Another reason why the OHCHR report has irked the GoSL is that it talks about the events of last year and not much about the war. The GoSL sees this as an infringement of the domestic and internal matters of a sovereign country and would like to see like- minded countries opposing such moves by an international body.
Last week Tamil political parties, members of civil society and religious leaders in Sri Lanka wrote to the UN Human Rights Council’s 47 member states and urged them to involve the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly and the International Criminal Court. They want accountability by Sri Lanka for alleged human rights violations during the country’s armed conflict, especially those during its last phase. But Sri Lanka is confident that any moves by the different arms of the UN to guillotine her for war crimes will not succeed.
‘It is a long shot’, says Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage. He is optimistic about the support of Sri Lanka’s allies- China and Russia- in the UN Security Council who have veto powers and have always stood by Sri Lanka and will continue to stand by her as a sovereign state.
Speaking to Counterpoint Admiral Colombage pointed out that Tamil political parties are trying to punish Sri Lanka by bringing in a harsher resolution driven by the political north where a large number of Tamils and LTTE remnants live. ‘A certain segment of the Tamil diaspora who are pro LTTE are doing this. Last November they were celebrating events in the US, England, Canada and Europe. They were glorifying terrorism, suicide terrorism and child soldiers. They have big money that they collect by financing terrorism and money laundering which they use to buy opinion. We have collected evidence of these events and sent dossiers to these countries to look at. The LTTE remains a proscribed group in thirty- two countries and their insignia can’t be used even though some countries turn a blind eye. It is now up to these countries to investigate and make decisions because we have done our part’.
Meanwhile, the core group on Sri Lanka – UK, Germany, Canada, Macedonia and Montenegro – has indicated they are willing to go for a consensual resolution and have forwarded the text of it to the GoSL which the latter is yet to study. ‘We have been busy preparing our responses to the OHCHR report and have not had time to look at the text of the consensual resolution yet’, says Admiral Colombage. ‘After we have studied the text, we will reply in the affirmative or negative’.
The GoSL has already indicated to the core group that the consensual resolution will be a politically challenging one to implement because of resistance from the general public.
‘Public opinion matters. Sri Lanka after all is the oldest democracy in this region’, points out Admiral Colombage who believes the last unity government, despite having a majority in parliament, was brought down because it co -sponsored Resolution 30/1 to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in 2015. ‘The people saw it as a betrayal of the country’s sovereignty. According to the Constitution there are things in 30/1 which we cannot do, which we have done and things which the people don’t want us to do. The last government lost the local government elections in 2018, followed by the presidential election in 2019 and the general election in August 2020 with an overwhelming majority to this government which did not support 30/ 1. No architects of 30/1 are in Parliament now.
Sri Lanka’s position in the Indian Ocean has become a double- edged sword for the international community.
The Human Rights Commissioner’s report mentions targeted sanctions, asset freeze and travel bans that the GoSL is not overly worried about. ‘The Human Rights Commissioner’s office cannot enforce anything. They can only make recommendations. While sanctions by the UN are unlikely, individual countries could decide on sanctions. But Sri Lanka’s geo strategic importance will make them want to stay engaged and it can’t be done if they are considering sanctions.’
Replying to a question if Sri Lanka’s strategic location will be a bargaining tool Admiral Colombage replied it is one of the reasons for the tension and it will be used to also overcome it.
Sri Lanka has been emphatic about remaining neutral and will have to walk a tightrope amidst the geopolitical manouverings in the Indian Ocean region by big time players like the UK, Australia, India, the EU, Japan, China, Russia and the US which will also be re- entering the world arena with a more robust approach to multilateralism. The new US administration has already signed an Executive Order to rejoin the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and has indicated it wishes to remain with the WHO. If this trajectory is to continue the US will also rejoin the UNHRC. On the specific point of Sri Lanka-US relations Admiral Colombage says we have to do the correct thing irrespective of what a country thinks of us or is planning for us.
‘We need our strategic autonomy to be able to make decisions for our country. We don’t want to be band-wagoned, nor do we want to hedge one country against the other ‘.
For instance Sri Lanka is not part of the Quad, an informal grouping between Australia, the US, India and Japan which is perceived to have been formed to counter growing Chinese economic and military expansion especially in the region. During the Malabar exercise in November last year, the navies of these countries carried out their biggest naval drills in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian sea. ‘I don’t think we want to be a part of Quad. The international community sees Quad as a military alliance and it is not good for Sri Lanka to be seen in such an alliance. But we will have engagement with multiple players based on issues such as combating piracy, what I call multi alignment based on issues.’
Sri Lanka will face several foreign policy challenges this year. A key one will be how not to be a strategic security concern to India but also how to maintain economic relations with other countries to uplift Sri Lanka’s economy.
The country’s foreign policy stands on the two other pillars of national security and economic development and the government wants to give high prominence to foreign policy for national security and for a higher state of economic development. ‘In that sense, foreign policy is important and that is why we have to stay neutral’.
Another challenge for Sri Lanka will be the diversification from
traditional international diplomacy to economic diplomacy to
promote the country as a destination for investment and tourism and
to encourage the transfer of advanced technology and provision of
educational opportunities. Staff in Sri Lankan missions are being
educated about it with the aid of meetings, foreign policy directives
and economic diplomacy directives. There will be a review of the
progress after some time.
The GoSL is keen to expand its export basket which will be one way to support its economic diplomacy drive and wants to go beyond the traditional exports of tea, rubber and coconut. ‘We should be looking at things like spices’, says Admiral Colombage who feels that Sri Lanka ought to look for new export markets in addition to existing ones like the EU and the US, currently one of Sri Lanka’s biggest trade partners to where garments, PPE and tea are exported.