ASIA SPECIAL: Facing Human Rights Challenge in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka

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By H. M. G. S. Palihakkara* in Colombo

A challenge that preoccupies local and foreign opinion is the Challenge of Human Rights: Some countries focus their bilateral dialogue with Sri Lanka only on human rights. Our interlocutors invariably refer to human rights concerns in the country and even suggest progress on human rights as a condition for dialogue and business in other areas e.g. commerce, security and even people to people contact.

The fact is: Sri Lanka need not be defensive on human rights. There is no basis to consider human rights as a Western concept. Many of the core values embedded in the sutras preached by the Lord Buddha if put together, will constitute a great Bill of Rights predating and perhaps even surpassing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But human rights problems exist in all countries. Addressing human rights concerns is good in itself. They are very much a part of our constitutional obligations. We have voluntarily subscribed to about two dozen international human rights covenants. These accessions represent the exercise of our sovereignty. Therefore, the best way to reverse an adversarial relationship on human rights is to remove human rights concerns from bilateral agendas.

We can do this by, first, empowering our domestic mechanisms to promote and facilitate the full and effective implementation of our constitutional obligations on human rights and ensuring that our system of administration of justice is independent and robust. Second, we can broaden our bilateral diplomatic discussions beyond a single issue (human rights) into other areas of common interest e.g. regional cooperation, environment, terrorism, human and arms trafficking, non-proliferation, economic cooperation etc.

Continuing to argue that human rights problems should not be talked about because they are not unique to us might make for good domestic politics but is imprudent diplomacy.

Challenge of 'Diaspora': The phenomenon called the Diaspora has thrown up a number of issues including terminological accuracy. The dictionary meaning of the word Diaspora is that it represents a people denied of a homeland, legitimate or otherwise. The highly diverse Sri Lankan expatriate community may not fit that description.

However, the word Diaspora has become virtually synonymous with a vast array of external lobby groups (pro-LTTE and anti-LTTE, as well as pro-Government and anti-Government) focusing on Sri Lanka.

Despite the ambiguity, therefore, we may continue to use the word for the limited purpose of discussion.

We know little about how the Diaspora works. We know even less as to how to deal with it. This was clearly demonstrated by fairly recent events where certain Diaspora groups were able to embarrass Sri Lanka and her President when he was abroad. Equally important is the effort by sections of the Diaspora to influence the UN Security Council as mentioned earlier. They have resumed their campaign to put Sri Lanka in the dock, as it were, in the post-conflict period.

If campaigns against Sri Lanka, by certain Diaspora groups succeed, the country could lose vital economic and political support by way of official development assistance, foreign direct investment and other business opportunities that will be needed to transform the decisive military success into a programme of sustainable prosperity for all Sri Lankans.

It will therefore be in Sri Lanka's interest to engage the Diaspora in two ways:
 - By engaging those elements in the Diaspora who do not want to see the re-emergence of the abhorrent ideology and the institutional framework of the LTTE, and
- By launching clearly visible and humanely responsive policies, programmes and projects to address the real concerns of the conflict victim's communities, especially the minorities.

If these actions are taken in response to internal realities and not external pressure, and if they succeed, the hostile Diaspora will become gradually irrelevant, the constructive Diaspora will become progressively assertive, and the domestic reconciliation process will advance. The Diaspora's potentially adverse impact on Sri Lanka's foreign policy interests will correspondingly diminish. The contrary seems to be happening now.

Institutional Challenges: The Flagship institution of any Nation's foreign policy structure is its Foreign Ministry. The career Foreign Service constitutes its crew. Our Foreign Office, now with its significantly improved title of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), is endowed with a good crew. Weather being so unpredictable these days, I do not want to call it an all-weather crew but having worked with them for some decades I do know that many of them are thorough professionals who can handle pretty rough weather.

They did so, for example, in the massive post Tsunami coordinating effort, the unprecedented airlift of our nationals from the war zone in Lebanon in 2006, almost 6,000 of them at virtually no cost to the government; annual diplomatic efforts at the UN and European multilateral venues since the late 1980s to deter intrusive Resolutions on Sri Lanka; successful preventive diplomacy effort at the UN Security Council; a sustained and painstaking diplomatic effort to get a European consensus to list LTTE as a terror outfit despite counter lobbying by a powerful group of countries and a multi-million dollar Diaspora. This action was successfully repeated in Canada.


The significance about the effort of the professional diplomats involved was that they did not put up bill boards on the road sides announcing victory and claiming credit. Having got the LTTE ban quietly then they would go to work on the next objective quietly. They do so because diplomatic effort by definition is discreet business, one cannot have a high decibel strategy and one cannot crow about victory.

Crowing has two problems. You make your diplomatic counterpart on the losing side an enemy. You would also embarrass your diplomatic friend who supported you by clustering him into your camp as it were. So these professionals as far as I know do not crow. But the Government must give them projects, give them inspiration, and give them incentives. The Government must recognize them and not downsize their dignity.

Professionals cannot and will not publicise their success. Government must do it. Sometimes there is nothing to publish because in certain instances in diplomacy the greatest success is the absence of something, e.g. an adverse Resolution on Sri Lanka. You cannot advertise that as if it is a bridge or a road. It is also not a bright idea to advertise that absence or crow about it as you signal your adversaries to work harder next time.

Granted, like in all services all may not be well with Sri Lanka Foreign Service. As in any group of humans, the statistical law of the normal curve would apply here as well. There may be the fringe of the normal curve -- the miscreants in the woodwork. That is the irrelevant minority against whom disciplinary procedures must apply.

Like in the normal curve there is the significant majority who are hard-nosed professionals who have our national interest at heart. Like me, many of them have become public servants from the rural heartland of our country. I know that personally, having served with them during some critical periods in our national affairs. The Government will be well advised to use this knowledge and experience judiciously and not lose it unwisely. Such a policy will stand in good stead in meeting the challenges ahead.


Challenge of Consensus: A new challenge in the foreign policy area is the task of domestic consensus building. Following independence, Sri Lanka initially had a good tradition of a broad based bipartisan approach to foreign relations. During the last 20 years or so however, especially since the 1983 communal violence, a pattern was emerging slowly but surely where foreign policy issues were being dragged into the parochial political discourse at home.

The massive outflow of people from Sri Lanka following the July '83 events, the progressive externalization of the conflict and the Sri Lanka political parties tragically exploiting these national issues for short term electoral advantage have all contributed to the unravelling of this consensual approach to foreign policy issues. It was no longer possible, therefore to decouple a highly externalized ethnic issue from an electorally politicized ethnic issue at home.

As a result, we have seen the rather disturbing and I would even say a shameful practice of domestic politicians taking up a range of governance issues with foreign countries and foreign organizations as they were either unable or unwilling to agree, or agree to disagree, on those very same issues locally.

The regrettable outcome of this practice is that successive Governments are obliged to deal with a host of domestic governance issues with bilateral and multilateral interlocutors as these very same issues are injected into such discussions by different local political parties. All political parties and all successive governments have contributed to this unfortunate situation.

It is so unfortunate that at one point, when the security forces were able to entrap the LTTE leadership into a small area of the No Fire Zone on the Mathalan coast and when the LTTE held 300,000 people as a human shield, a query arose as to why all democratic political parties in Sri Lanka did not see it fit to issue a unanimous joint call through the Parliament or through some other political forum calling on the LTTE to free these people and lay down arms.

Sadly even at that critical hour, once again our politicians failed abysmally to summon the necessary political will to reach such a consensus. As usual perhaps some did not want to give credit while others did not want to share credit.

It was said that had there been such a unanimous call from the democratic establishment of Sri Lanka against what is perceived to be one of the most ruthless terror outfits in the world, the UN Security Council was ready to reiterate that unanimous call. Once again, as events unfolded this was not to be. It is therefore important that Sri Lanka's political establishment gets back to the path of bipartisan foreign policy making of the past rather than allow vital foreign policy interests to be dissipated in parochial electoral politics.

Governance and foreign policy are functionally linked. So are the attendant challenges. When governance is in deficit, diplomacy cannot acquire merit all by itself. The converse is also true. Image building abroad cannot be significantly different from the Rule of Law reality we create for ourselves at home.

Challenges for All: 'Introspection' by all of us at three levels will help move the reconciliation process forward.

At the apex level, the top leadership of all sides on the political and ethnic divide must reflect on why successive leaderships failed to build a culture of consensus on critical national issues. They must also assess how they can bring about consensual democracy as against the currently prevalent adversarial culture.

At the community level, the civil society and its 'organisations' must reflect carefully on how to build bridges between national interests and their institutional interests without compromising their advocacy principles.

Thirdly at the level of the individual, citizens can and must find ways to use their franchise to educate their political leaders on the need to make course corrections towards consensus building on national issues.
We have to assume that all politicians are adults. We must therefore educate those adults in order to save our children from another round of bloodletting. When you get your governance act together, getting your foreign policy act together will be less of a problem. It is the job of the foreign policy maker to sensitize those who govern, to this stark reality. This may be quite a challenge but one that must be taken up.

*The writer, a retired foreign service officer, was formerly Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary, and has held several posts of ambassador. He is a member of the Sri Lanka's Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. - IDN-InDepth NewsSpecial

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