President Rajapaksa addressing the UNGA on 22 Sept. 2021

Experience and reality seem to have had a mellowing effect on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s approach to international issues concerning Sri Lanka in particular, and his world view in general. On 22 Sept., when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), he proved that he could be as diplomatic as anyone else despite being widely considered as a plainspoken leader who takes positions and steadfastly sticks to them.

Prior to his UNGA address, President Rajapaksa met UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in New York, and in the course of their discussion, he expressed his willingness to work with the Tamil Diaspora while stressing that Sri Lanka’s internal issues should be sorted out domestically. He also said he would cooperate with the UN. This is in sharp contrast to a bolddeclaration he made in May 2020; he said he would not hesitateeven to withdraw Sri Lanka from any international organization if it continuously targeted Sri Lanka or its military personnel; his reference was obviously to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).  

President Rajapaksa’s undertaking to work with the UN is being construed in some quarters as a vote-face on his part, and a sign of his government giving in to international pressure. But his statement during his first face-to-face meeting with the UNSG, on Monday, and his UNGA address should be read together to understand what he has said directly and indirectly. The subtext of his speech on Wednesday is of crucial importance.  

Global issues and Sri Lanka

President Rajapaksa prefaced his UNGA address with a general observation on the crippling global health crisis, the suffering it has inflicted on humanity, and profusely thanked the frontline personnel fighting the pandemic, both in Sri Lankan and overseas, and all those who had enabled Sri Lanka to carry out a successful vaccination programme. He laid out Sri Lanka’s achievements in its fight against Covid-19, and, highlighting the problems of the developing world, he made a strong case for more international assistance: “It is vital that more initiatives including development financing and debt relief be adopted through international mechanisms to support developing nations and help them emerge from this uncertain situation.” He must have struck a responsive chord with all other developing countries.

Foreign investment promotion was foremost in the mind of the President, who mentioned the measures his government was adopting to make Sri Lanka an attractive investment destination. “We intend to make full use of geostrategic location and our robust institutions, strong social infrastructure, and skilled workforce, to attract investment and broaden trade relationships … My Government is focusing on extensive legal, regulatory, administrative and educational reforms to facilitate this, and to deliver prosperity to all our people.”

A substantial section of the President’s speech was devoted to the issue of climate change, which seems to be of more concern to the UN than anything else. The President has mentioned a host ofmeasures his government has adopted to mitigate the ill-effects of the global environmental crisis although his government has drawn heavy criticism for environmental destruction.

Message track in diplomatese

The most important part of President Rajapaksa’s speech, in our view, the section on global terrorism, Sri Lanka’s national security and reconciliation process.

It is said that the sting is in the tail. This seems to be true with the President’s UNGA address, which succinctly deals with a host of issues affecting the world and Sri Lanka. He has very diplomatically told the world powers that Sri Lanka is mature enough to take care of its own affairs, and reminds the UN that ‘Sri Lanka has enjoyed universal adult franchise since per-Independence’, and ‘the democratic tradition is an integral part of our way of life’. The subtext of his statement appears to be that Sri Lanka does not need lessons from any other nation on democracy. He goes on to remind the UN, albeit indirectly, that his government is democratically elected and has a legitimate right to do what it is doing: ‘My election in 2019 and the Parliamentary election in 2020 saw Sri Lankan voters grant an emphatic mandate to my government to build a prosperous and stable country, and uphold national security and sovereignty.’

President Rajapaksa has countered the position of his critics including some members of the international community that Sri Lanka should scrap the draconian anti-terrorism laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act. While pointing out that the war against LTTE terrorism is over, threats to Sri Lanka’s national security linger, he has referred to the Easter Sunday attacks (2019) and carefully avoided the term ‘Islamic terrorism’, and rightly uses ‘extremist religious terrorists’.

The President seems to imply that terrorism has come to plague the world because there has been no international cooperation; he says,Terrorism is a global challenge that requires international cooperation, especially on matters such as intelligence sharing, if it is to be overcome.’ This remark may have been meant as an indictment of the UN, which has manifestly failed to tackle the global terrorism or even define it properly.

President Rajapaksa has said his government is capable of looking after Sri Lanka’s national security: “My Government is committed to ensuring that such violence never takes place in Sri Lanka again.” He says his government is already addressing the root causes of the conflict and mindful of the need for ‘fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace’. The key words here are ‘restorative justice’ and ‘domestic institutions’. He has indirectly told the UN that what is needed is ‘restorative justice’, and not ‘retributive justice’, which the pro-LTTE groups seek, and that justice can be served and reconciliation achieved through the existing domestic mechanisms.

The President’s reference to the robustness of the home-grown institutions is of importance. When he says, “However, history has shown that lasting results can only be achieved through home-grown institutions reflecting the aspirations of the people,” his message is that and there is no need for hybrid mechanisms proposed by the UNHRC, and the tasks at issue should be left to the domestic institutions such as the judiciary. This particular section of the President’s speech could be considered as a promise to the international community and an answer to the UNHRC and the critics of Sri Lanka.

When the President says, “It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender … We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process,” he seems to imply that his government is equal to the task at hand—building a prosperous, inclusive Sri Lanka—and what others should do is to play a supportive role, and the UN and other international partners will be invited, if necessary.

The President has said, “Sri Lanka’s Parliament, Judiciary and its range of independent statutory bodies should have unrestricted scope to exercise their functions and responsibilities.” This could be read as a statement that there should be no external interference in the domestic affairs of Sri Lanka. He expands on this message when he says, “It is the role of the United Nations to facilitate this by treating all sovereign states, irrespective of size or strength, equitably, and with due respect for their institutions and their heritage.” One can argue that the President has obliquely accused the UN of treating its member states differently, and stressed the need for the world body to limit its role to that of a facilitator.

Thus, in his UNGA speech as well as at his meeting with the UNSG, President Rajapaksa has said more or less what he has been saying about issues such as Sri Lanka’s national security, accountability, reconciliation, external pressure, terrorism, etc. There has been a striking difference, though; he has avoided rhetoric, and couched his speech in diplomatese, which is far more effective than blunt statements. The President seems to have realized the need for diplomatic finesse in dealing with the rest of the world.    


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