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Caught between UNHRC and IMF

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Just as the Government was bailed out at least temporarily by the IMF and is exploring ways and means to meet the lending agency’s demands to qualify for the second instalment by September, its attention gets diverted to tomorrow’s sessions at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which persists with its own demands for ‘accountability’ on the human rights front.

While Sri Lanka’s missions abroad keep celebrating the 75th anniversary of Independence from 450 years of foreign domination, the country’s fate remains at the mercy of foreign powers, one way or the other, currently taking orders from overseas actors controlling the purse strings of the world. De-colonisation has a long way to go thanks to the world economic order. Next week, the focus will be on Geneva — and Paris.

In Geneva, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador will be given five minutes to present her country’s case in an ‘oral update’ — a statement outlining how much of the UNHRC Resolutions 46/1 and 51/1 on reconciliation and accountability are being adhered to. While some loyal friends of Sri Lanka will support the coun-try’s efforts at good governance, others spearheading the crusade against Sri Lanka will surely welcome these efforts with several ‘buts’ and call for further endeavours to complete the task of fulfilling the resolutions. The new Austrian UNHRC High Commissioner will also have his say.

Since Sri Lanka got nailed to the cross in Geneva, the UNHRC has shifted the goalposts in what it wants out of this country. Originally it was a call for accountability by the Armed Forces and political leaders for what the UNHRC alleged were violations of International Humanitarian Law during the last phase of the armed conflict that ended the scourge of terrorism in Sri Lanka in 2009. It has now included corruption, repression of ‘peaceful protests’, etc., on its agenda.

The core issue remains nevertheless, and the Government has fast-forwarded a draft proposal for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in line with what the South Africans introduced in the post-apartheid period. That was a very ‘Christian’ approach towards ‘restorative justice’ (repairing the damage) rather than ‘retributive justice’ (punishment). Only a handful of people were actually punished eventually. Whether South Africa is devoid of racial prejudice today is best seen by a visit to the country and a walk into ethnic enclaves and townships, especially of Asians.

How suitable the South African model is for Sri Lanka is another matter. There is a fundamental difference. In South Africa, the TRC was to heal the wounds of a majority at the hands of a minority through an institutionalised system of racial segregation. In Sri Lanka, it is a vociferous minority, most of them living abroad now, demanding justice from a majority and punishment for those who defeated a terrorist movement demanding a separate state. Coinciding with tomorrow’s Geneva sessions, the Government intended releasing its concept paper on a TRC to ‘civil society’.

The recent spat between the President and the Archaeological Commissioner over some state lands in the North-East region exposed the underlying currents prevalent. Healing old wounds is not going to be easy. It might even open them up further. With elections negotiating the bend, at least by next year, there will be those waiting to exploit the volatile situation. A TRC aimed at crucifying ‘war heroes’ who liberated the country, and especially those people in the North and East from a fascist group, is not going to be popular.

On the other hand, Geneva is at work. By successive Governments in Colombo not implementing the recommendations of previous Commissions, the UNHRC has created a prosecutor’s office in Geneva called the Sri Lanka Accountability Project (SLAP), which no Government in Colombo recognises. And yet, our Political Editor pointed out last week, the UNHRC office in Colombo which is collating ‘material’ of human rights violations may be using SLAP personnel surreptitiously in the exercise. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police will also have to be called in to look for evidence of ‘genocide’ in Sri Lanka.

Thus, the Government and the country remain in this unpleasant situation having to be dictated to on two fronts; the UNHRC threatening an international tribunal for accountability unless a domestic mechanism is in place with new anti-terrorism laws, etc., and the IMF calling for reforms such as an independent Central Bank Act, cuts in public sector spending, etc.

Next week, the President travels to France to meet those of the Paris Club, the body that is involved in Sri Lanka’s foreign debt restructuring without which, foreign assistance is stuck in the pipeline. He will also participate in the French President’s initiative of a global leaders’ summit in carving a niche as a global leader (the only Western leader acceptable to both Russia and China). The summit is aimed at helping the world’s poor — like Sri Lanka and many in Africa where France still has influence — to emerge from the post-COVID world economy and the debt traps they have fallen into. (Please also see Page 17.)

France is also trying to explore ways and means of bringing the climate change agenda within the scope of these countries that argue they cannot afford to invest in its targets. Emerging markets and countries like Sri Lanka and its people got hammered by a double whammy, i.e. corruption and bungling at home coupled with the COVID pandemic pushing debt levels to new heights. Waiting to re-structure debts makes the difference between a lost decade and rapid economic recovery, and the probability of countries ‘going under’ during the wait for IMF help. The call is therefore for ‘debt architecture’ — reform in the current system of salvaging countries in trouble.

President Wickremesinghe will be a speaker at a round table presided over by the French Finance Minister. Sri Lanka was one of the rare countries that managed to come out of bankruptcy faster than others with China, one of the major creditors of those countries that have got trapped in debt, eventually agreeing to restructure Sri Lanka’s debt to the satisfaction of the IMF. Countries like Sri Lanka have also to navigate in the global power games between China and the West-dominated IMF and UNHRC, at the mercy of both, for its salvation.

 

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