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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 17, New Delhi, April 10, 2021

Human rights vs. Lankan sovereignty | Apratim Mukarji

Saturday 10 April 2021, by Apratim Mukarji

For the first time since their second stint in power began, the Rajapaksa brothers are face-to-face with a solid wall of resistance from the international communty. On all the earlier occasions, even including in 2015 when the then Sri Lankan government itself co-sponsored the customary resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) condemning the decades-long human rights abuses by all the parties involved in the 30-year-old civil war, the Sri Lankan establishment managed to get away with no meaningful application of the recommendations contained in the resolutions which were finally adopted. Few other countries which had been called to account for their human rights abuses allegation had been equally lucky.

But this March, on the 23rd., suddenly this idyllic bliss got shattered, and the Gotabaya-Mahinda Rajapaksa regime found itself cornered, embarrassed for the moment, unable to explain why the “old friend” India had turned inimical, but quickly gathered its wits and has since hit back, invoking the national sovereignty war-cry and is clearly hoping to see a way opening to fight out the nearly-united international community.

Resolution 46/L1 is a unique order calling upon the international community, as represented in the UNHRC, to “strengthen” the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights “to collect, consolidate, analyse, and preserve information and evidence and develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.”

It refers to “persistent” lack of accountability for rights abuses committed through the years by “all parties” in Sri Lanka, including the LTTE. Most seriously, it expresses a lack of confidence in the ability of the present government in Colombo to address the shortcomings. It describes “trends emerging over the past year” as an “early warning sign” of the deterioration of the climate in Sri Lanka for individual freedoms and rights, militarisation of civilian government functions, erosion of the independence of the judiciary and institutions responsible for protection and promotion of human rights, the marginalisation of Muslims and Tamils, and policies that undermine the right to freedom of religion.

If we juxtapose the stiff opposition of the present government to Resolution 46/L1 with the earlier Rajapaksa regime’s attitude to Resolution S-11, 2009, which it co-sponsored, the motivations that have spurred the present position become clear. At that time, while pledging itself to work for ethnic reconciliation so that a united Sri Lanka could emerge to work successfully for rebuilding the economy and the society, the government pleaded for liberal funding by international donors. India was among those countries along with China and Russia which responded favourably, appearing to have taken Colombo’s assurance on ethnic reconciliation at its face value. As international aid came in a flood, President Mahinda Rajapaksa reverted to his genuine avatar and tightened his hold over the people and the country, did nothing to help address the grievances of the minority communities, and did his best to curtail democratic and liberal aspirations of the people. This in turn antagonised the international community, including India, and made Mahinda Rajapaksa an international pariah. At times, China was the only country to have stood behind Sri Lanka, a situation that was cleverly exploited by Beijing.

A recent speech delivered by the present president to his party cadre signifying his resolve to turn the UN “onslaught” against his country into a counter-call to ramp up the nationalistic spirit reminds one of his elder brother’s similar ploy in the intervening years since 2009 to garner support for defying the international community. Speaking on March 27, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, “The government does not wish to be associated with the power struggles in the Indian Ocean region by the global giants”, adding that Sri Lanka’ sovereignty would not be betrayed.

Importing a unique interpretation to the UNHRC’s call and India’s abstention from voting Resolution 46/L1, he said, “We will face the Geneva challenge without fear. We will never succumb to pressures. We are a free nation. We will not be a victim of big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean.” In a further devious move to finish off all Tamil hopes for obtaining accountability for the losses their community has suffered through the decades, some Cabinet colleagues of the president have already raised a demand for abolishing the elected provincial council system, the instrument through which the India-sponsored 13th. Amendment to the Constitution has sought so long to institute a safeguard for region and community-based autonomy from an all-powerful central authority based in Colombo. Along with the abolition of the PC system the majority community- supported ruling paty is also seeking a simultaneous abolition of the 13th. Amendment itself. If and when that happens, Sri Lanka will be back to the level of the pre-Tamil uprising days.

As it is, immediately after his inauguration into the presidency in 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that his aim would be “development rather than devolution.” He left no room for any misunderstanding or any hope that he did not really mean what he declared publicly. His aim has since been to rid the Tamil mind of any disbelief that he was perhaps being misunderstood.

This was the reason why the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) said before March 23 that its hopes were high that India would support the resolution which sought to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country. “Our hopes are high this time, “ said the TNA MP from Jaffna M.A. Sumanthiran, “since India’s statement at the Interactive Dialogue placed the political aspirations of the Tamil people on par wth recognising the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.” The Hindu deftly underlined the supreme contrast between the Sri Lankan government’s and the TNA’s positions from the same source. While the TNA hoped that India would enable the resolution to be adopted and put to implementation, the government expected New Delhi to ditch the Tamils. In a clear violation of diplomatic etiquette, Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary Jayanath Colombage publicly sought to bind India to support its position against the resolution. He said in a statement that India had assured his government of its support (to Colombo) in respect of the damning resolution.

After New Delhi’s so-called treachery, the president played his hidden hand by claiming that India had joined the other “global players” in the Indian Ocean Region to force his country to fall in line and punish those who had been accused of human rights abuses. This, he made clear, he would not allow to happen because this was merely part of a conspiracy to exploit his country to advance their design further.

* Apratim Mukarji’s latest book on Sri Lanka is Annihilating the Demons of Sri Lanka An Unfinished Story (New Delhi, 2019)

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