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Thick-skinned govt. and its diplomessy

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Only the dim-witted would have expected the current government’s record on the political scorecard and its treatment of civil society and voices of dissent on the ground, would go unnoticed at last week’s sessions of the UN Human Rights Council.

Those intelligent enough in government ranks anticipate the slings and arrows of international opprobrium—in sufficiently modulated diplomatic language by the Core Group but not so by outraged international watchdog bodies—would not be far behind.

In the past whenever Sri Lanka was ticked as a major item on the UNHRC’s agenda, the Government tried to hide its reprehensible policies, especially the treatment of civil society critics and minorities, by making plaintive noises before or at the sessions with promises soon forgotten.

To take but one example, as international pressure mounted, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa urged then foreign minister GL Peiris to inform the UNHRC that Sri Lanka, very much in the spotlight then, would draft a new anti-terrorism law and the obnoxious PTA would not be invoked.

But shortly after Ranil Wickremesinghe was fortuitously elevated to the presidency, the PTA was reactivated against demonstrators and perhaps unknown to Mr Wickremesinghe an archaic Official Secrets Act was resurrected—at officials’ insistence perhaps—and later a ‘Rehabilitation Law’ was introduced some of whose stringent provisions, the Supreme Court struck down.

Since then, a provision in the ICCPR, an international convention to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, has been stood on its head in complete contradiction to the ICCPR’s purpose which was to protect and defend the human rights of citizens, not to subject them to a twisted law.

The government was surely aware the special office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was monitoring Sri Lanka’s progress in trying to meet some Council recommendations while collating information on alleged war crimes and international human rights law violations which are being fed by interested parties.

It is all the more reason why our diplomatic missions, especially in the capitals of countries that have been consistently critical of Sri Lanka, need to be proactive and regularly brief not only those governments but other political parties that aspire to power through democratic elections.

One can understand the Wickremesinghe government’s haste in presenting the Anti-Corruption Bill (ACB) at this time. That is more to meet the requirements of the IMF which has had Sri Lanka’s endemic corruption very much in mind when it focussed on the “five pillars” Colombo needed to act on.

But why the rush to announce the Anti-Terrorism Bill (ATB) and the Broadcast Regulatory Authority Bill (BRAB) when the UNHRC session was only a few weeks away?

The authorities could not be that daft to think that these two obnoxious pieces of legislation would not attract international attention and the ire of sections of the Council.

Particularly so after the government acted to crush the “aragalaya”, and deal with alleged leaders of that public uprising, the actions of the security forces in ‘trampling’ on constitutionally-permitted peaceful demonstrations while pro-government elements that manhandled the protesters at Galle Face seem to have got away with minimum legal repercussions.

The impression created outside is that the government could not care less what the world thinks and will do as it pleases.

Such a condescending approach is as much a faux pas as the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s decision not to allow Muslims to bury their Covid-dead and days before a crucial UNHRC voting to toy with the idea of banning Muslim women from wearing their headdresses/scarves.

That antagonised Islamic member-states of the Council which refrained from supporting Sri Lanka against a critical resolution that Colombo lost badly.

But it is not only at the helm that such damn-the-rest and unthinking complexes persist. Similar shortsighted and pretentious attitudes of we-can-do-without-you superiority exist in the periphery too.

Since Donald Trump pulled the US out of the UNHRC, the Sri Lanka Core Group has been led by the UK. It is basic knowledge that governments in democracies such as the UK, are formed after regular general elections.

The next general election in the UK is in early 2025. Over a period of time opinion polls have shown the Labour Party has a clear lead over the Conservative Party that has been struck down by internal squabbles and violations of rules of conduct which have seen two prime ministers and a deputy PM fall by the wayside.

But in the last three years or more our London-based diplomats have ambled along deluding themselves that the Conservatives will be permanently in power when anyone with elementary political sense would have already read the signs.

Hanging on to some Tory political figures our diplomats have committed an unforgivable faux pas by ignoring the Labour and Lib Dem parties and not engaging with some of their leading figures and MPs knowing only too well that much of the criticism of Sri Lanka is led by a core group in Labour which is constantly briefed by some Tamil diaspora groups.

Why Sri Lanka has no friends among prominent Labour personalities or even the Lib Dems is that no conscious attempt has been made in recent years to cultivate them and present the Sri Lanka government story.

Our diplomatic effort has been to deal with the same Tory figures and cling to ‘non functus’ and purposeless bodies such as the “Conservative Friends of Sri Lanka”, without assessing their intrinsic value to Sri Lanka’s diplomatic objectives.

On the other hand, the more articulate, active and organised Tamil organisations gunning for Sri Lanka have not only systematically cultivated British politicians in the opposition but even penetrated the ruling Conservatives, presenting themselves or their friends as victims of physical abuse and human rights violations.

But we seem to be losing even the friends we have. A known supporter of Sri Lanka on the floor of the Lords and outside, Conservative peer Lord Sheikh complained to me how insultingly he had been treated at the High Commission having been invited to a reception.

In fact, Lord Sheikh wrote a letter to then Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena formally complaining about the treatment. A copy of that letter dated 2nd June 2021, is with me.

Last May on ‘Mullivaikkal Day’ commemorated by the Tamil community, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, MP, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, wrote, “Today we stand in solidarity with the Tamils and all affected communities in Sri Lanka and across the world as we remember the Mullivaikkal tragedy in 2009.”

Our problems are only beginning. If Labour wins, its approach to Sri Lanka is bound to be much more hostile, goaded on by anti-Sri Lanka forces that have engaged with Labour and the Lib Dems while our diplomats played Rip Van Winkle.

The UK’s change of approach will likely be reflected in the Core Group of which Canada, which now accuses Sri Lanka of genocide, is also a member.

This column was prompted by the statement to the UNHRC sessions mid-week by the UN Deputy High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif’s worrying warning to Sri Lanka of the threat of possible universal and extraterritorial jurisdiction being invoked if Sri Lanka continues to ignore “accountability”.

That is a heavy price to pay for diplomatic arrogance and shortsightedness.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London.
Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London)

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