By Dr Sue Onslow, Senior Research Fellow, ICwS
A crescendo of criticism and moral outrage is building on the choice of Sri Lanka as the next venue for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, scheduled for Columbo in November 2013. From the vantage point of Johannesburg, where I have spent the past week doing interviews for the Institute of Commonwealth Studies’ major oral history of the Commonwealth project, there is a degree of perplexity about this.
Comments from former leading diplomats and politicians, drawing on their own experience of the extraordinary transition to black majority rule from apartheid, have all pointed towards engagement and dialogue with a criticised regime as being a vital adjunct to international isolation and opprobrium. At its most basic, a classic ‘good cop bad cop’. The take away message is uniformly: ‘Do not isolate.’ And ‘Sanctions prove counter-productive.’ There is of course a very lively academic literature on whether or not sanctions work, and public expectation of governments to ‘Do Something’ prompt their usage. Yet, sanctions regimes have a habit of developing a dynamic of their own, operating under the law of Unintended Consequences: the Rhodesian case study springs to mind, since international sanctions effectively provided an ISI (Import Substitution) regime for the Rhodesia Front government, protecting domestic industrial production and entrepreneurship, while a resourceful middle class backed by government, clandestinely sourced other inputs from the international market. More recently, the track record of targeted financial and personal sanctions against Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe’s criticism of MDC in the government of National Unity on the grounds of their ‘failure’ to secure the removal of sanctions, thereby licensed ZANU-PF’s refusal to comply fully with the Global Political Agreement. The myth of sanctions was also exploited as the explanation for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis. A total nonsense, of course, but a highly effective political weapon.
No one is yet proposing sanctions against Sri Lanka. But how effective is public criticism and shunning? National governments never welcome external criticism, as I have been frequently reminded on this trip. The South African apartheid government of PW Botha bristled with outrage at external comments from governments which had themselves highly variable human rights records. The temperament of an irascible leader, combined with an embattled sense of community identity and past disillusionment with the Commonwealth (which appeared not to be rewarding and encouraging the vague green shoots of reform in the 1980s), produced an increasing siege mentality in top government circles. Former South African politicians confirm that international lifelines to get the National Party government out of the corner into which it had painted itself, were invaluable. It didn’t mean that this qualified international engagement was the only variable. South Africa’s negotiated transition to a government of national unity was truly extraordinary, and there were multiple factors which contributed to this unlikely outcome. The veteran journalist Allister Sparks has argued, South Africa’s achievement of negotiated transition was a sophisticated, home grown affair (there was no UNO, no Lancaster House, no Owen-Vance proposal). Yet leading South African former politicians accept readily in hindsight, they could not have done it totally alone. (President Zuma appears to have conveniently forgotten this.) The Commonwealth – whether through individual leadership, patient negotiation by Commonwealth Secretariat officials, key offers of assistance and support in election organisation, police training, economic planning for the post-apartheid era, legal advice, trade union organisational support – helped to provide the cement to that painstaking negotiation process between the South African antagonists. This on-going support was not in the public eye, although no less valuable for that.
Conflict resolution is a process, which the Commonwealth well understood between 1990-1994; legacies of violence take years to work out and work through, and it will inevitably be a bumpy, ‘stop-start’ ride. The Sri Lankan civil war was brutal and protracted, with appalling human rights violations and war crimes committed by both sides. Yet the Commonwealth family now would do well to reflect on the positive ways, its leadership, expertise, institutional and organisational support, can contribute to the on-going process of Sri Lankan nation-state reconstruction and reconciliation. Taking a realist, rather than purely idealistic approach, as South Africa proved, the Sri Lankan state needs incentives and encouragement to continue the progress it has achieved since 2008, not just brickbats.
Thank you for this post. I think there’s a couple of issues:
1 Sri Lanka is not making progress, in fact in many ways the situation is getting worse: militarisation, rule-of-law etc…
2 Engagement has been tried many times and it has failed. The Government of Sri Lanka treats engagement as validation and uses it as cover for further rights violations. This can be seen in the current South African initiative, in their treatment of the Commonwealth Secretary General, in the use of the IIGEP, and in their dealings around the 2009 Human Rights Councl.
3 The Government of Sri Lanka are utterly opposed to genuine engagement. This can be seen in their disgraceful treatment of the high commissioner for human rights and their response to the Universal Periodic Review. They have made it clear that they have no interest in actual attempts to promote reconciliation and accountability.
Thank you, SriLankaCampaign.
Taking your South African example, I think it is very clear that the Commonwealth’s hard line on SA was one of the things that ended apartheid. Had apartheid South Africa been made the host of CHOGM and made the titular head of the Commonwealth it is hard to see what incentive to change they would have had.
What little ground Sri Lanka has given (the release of Fonseka, the ending of the state of emergency) was given as a consequence of a concerted and assertive stance taken by the international community. They mistake kindness for weakness and will not respond to the kind of soft engagement you suggest.
Also contrast with Nigeria (blog post on this coming soon). Nigeria traduced Commonwealth values, was suspended, got its house in order, and was subsequently rewarded with CHOGM. Sri Lanka traduces Commonwealth values and is immediately rewarded with CHOGM. This is an example of what Sierra Leone called the double standard whereby African nations are held to a much higher standard than non African, and Sri Lanka seems to be held to the lowest standards of all.
” law of Unintended Consequences” ?
The President is refusing to release the reports of:
A List of Commissions of Inquiry and Committees Appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka (2006 – 2012), 12 March 2012, http://www.scribd.com/doc/85007346/A-List-of-Commissions-of-Inquiry-and-Committees-Appointed-by-the-Government-of-Sri-Lanka-2006-%E2%80%93-2012
Successive Sri Lankan governments have been doing the same for decades:
Sri Lanka: Twenty years of make-believe. Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry, 11 June 2009, https://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA37/005/2009/en
”on-going process of Sri Lankan nation-state reconstruction and reconciliation” ?
Petrifying; from a background of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies !
”Nobody expects national reconciliation to occur overnight as if we could pluck reconciliation out of thin air! But after nearly four years post-war, at least a credible beginning of that long healing process leading to reconciliation ought to have begun. It has not. Even the basic recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC), as has been pointed out ad infinitum by many a writer on Sri Lanka have not yet been implemented” – Of foreign policy failures, Geneva, double standards and other excuses, 21 April 2013, http://www.sundaytimes.lk/130421/news/of-foreign-policy-failures-geneva-double-standards-and-other-excuses-41595.html
”The government continues to be unyielding in its approach to governance and reconciliation issues. It has hired public relations companies in the United States to get its message across. …. The government strategy is to change the messenger and not the message necessarily” – Govt Unyielding In Reconciliation Issues, Jehan Perera (Chairman, Peace Council of Sri Lanka, 21 April 2013, http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2013/04/21/govt-unyielding-in-reconciliation-issues/
”Conflict resolution is a process”:
In the forward to the book, CEYLON : A DIVIDED NATION(1963), Viscount Soulbury (British Commission headed by him was in charge of handing over independence from the Empire) expressed his regret: ‘’In the light of later happenings I now think it is a pity that the Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the constitution of guarantees of fundamental rights, on the lines enacted in the constitutions of India, Pakistan, Malaya , Nigeria and elsewhere.
Perhaps in any subsequent amendment of Ceylon’s constitution those in authority might take note of the proclamation made by the delegates at the Arfrican conference which met in Lagos two years ago: ‘Fundamental human rights, esp. the right to individual liberty, should be written and entrenched in the constitutions of all countries’.
In 1972 a new Constitution was adopted with the (weak) clause of protection of ethnic minorities in the Independence Constitution removed !
Justice Weeramantry told LLRC in November 2010 that he wrote to i. President Rajapakse in 2005 and 2010 and ii. former President Jayawardene, about how the Constitution must be changed to give equality to all citizens.
Many more Sinhalese have been writing recently and for decades about the need for a change in the Constitution to resolve the ethnic conflict.
”continue the progress it has achieved since 2008” :
”But that truth cannot excuse human rights violations that currently afflict the nation as a whole; or for that matter obscure the looming threat of the cultural and political colonisation of the north by the Sinhala Buddhist majority” – Biased and Prejudiced Collection on Sri Lanka, *Gananath Obeyesekere, Economic & Political Weekly, VOL 47 No. 04, 28 January-03 February 2012 (*a Sinhalese Buddhist and Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Princeton University), http://www.scribd.com/doc/82525102/Biased-and-Prejudiced-Collection-on-Sri-Lanka
‘’Military density in the North of Sri Lanka in ”peace time” is much higher than the peak conflict time in Iraq, Northern Ireland, Kashmir or French occupation of Algeria’’ – Notes on the Military Presence in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLVII No 28, 14 July 2012, http://www.epw.in/system/files/pdf/2012_47/28/Notes_on_the_Military_Presence_in_Sri_Lankas_Northern_Province.pdf
How many decades should the oppressed wait before the Commonwealth takes any action please, Dr Sue Onslow?
”The lessons we have to learn go back to the past – certainly from the time that we had responsibility for our own governance on 4 February 1948.
‘’Each and every Government which held office from 1948 till the present bear culpability for the failure to achieve good governance, national unity and a framework of peace, stability and economic development in which all ethnic, religious and other groups could live in security and equality. Our inability to manage our own internal affairs has led to foreign intervention but more seriously has led to the taking of arms by a desperate group of our citizens. we need to rectify this bad governance. We have already missed several opportunities in the past. We need to have State reform; we need to have rule of law established; we need to ensure non-discrimination amongst our citizens; we need to have devolution of power and a tolerance of dissent and a strengthening of democratic institutions’’ – Jayantha Dhanapala’s submission to Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC), August 2010, http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/August2010/LLRC-JD-Transcript.pdf
(Dhanapala is a Sinhalese and was formerly UN Under-Secretary General for Disarmament)
‘’My own set of immediate demands as a citizen are as follows—roll back the Eighteenth Amendment; restore the Seventeenth Amendment and the Constitutional Council with improvements; guarantee judicial independence and independence of all oversight bodies; stop political interference in and politicization of public institutions; take strong measures to prevent discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, language and religion; let law enforcement (meaning the ordinary law–not exceptional laws) take its own course, do not provide protection to erring political favourites; respect and protect free expression, association and assembly– adopt a policy of ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’; adopt a zero tolerance policy on torture, abductions and involuntary disappearances; permit free and fair elections and respect the people’s will’’ – An Ideology of Reconciliation Cannot be Built Without Basic Ingredients of Democracy and Rule of Law, Dr. Deepika Udagama (Head, Department of Law, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka), 15 August 2012, http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/9627#more-9627
Is the Commonwealth Secretariat informed enough?
‘’The end of the war with the military defeat of the LTTE has shown us that these events alone will not ensure the emergence of a stable peace with democracy and pluralism. It is the responsibility of the Government and the people of this country, in the context of the concept of sovereignty of the people, to rebuild the institutions and values that sustain peace, democracy and pluralism. Three years after the end of the war, we are deeply concerned about the continuing violent political culture, the deterioration of our national institutions and the undermining of our religious, cultural and social values’’ – Friday Forum Wants A New Social Contract Between Government And The People, Jayantha Dhanapala (Formerly UN Under-Secretary General) and Savitri Goonesekere (Emeritus Professor of Law), 21 June 2012, http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/friday-forum-wants-a-new-social-contract-between-government-and-the-people/
‘’Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma said yesterday that there was no deficit in the spirit of democracy in Sri Lanka but there were some issues needed to be addressed’’ – 12 September 2012, http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=61397
What happened to the ethnic minorities in Sri Lanka shouldn’t happen to anybodyelse:
Paradise Poisoned: Learning about Conflict, Terrorism and Development from Sri Lanka ‘s Civil Wars(2005), John Richardson, Professor of International development, American University: ‘’Paradise Poisoned is the principal product of a seventeen year project, devoted to understanding linkages between deadly conflict, terrorism and development, by viewing them through the lens of Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, from 1948 through 1988.… Sri Lanka provides a lens for viewing many challenges with which development practitioners and leaders of developing nations have grappled in the post-World war II era – and for learning from them. My intention is to provide answers to the question, ‘how did we come to this’ that will help craft more humane, peaceable, sustainable future development scenarios. Such scenarios could make it unnecessary for future generations to contemplate protracted deadly conflict’s legacies – suffering, devastation and hopelessness – as Sri Lankans, Rwandians, Bosnians, Ahghanis and many others have had to do. My vision is of a day when no citizens in today’s developing nations will have to ask ‘how did we come to this? ….How could we have come to this? What could we have done to prevent the conflict that has killed our family members and friends, devastated our lives, destroyed what was being so painstakingly developed? What can we learn and share from our experiences that may help others to avoid following a similar path? How can we share what we have learned most powerfully and effectively?
The ‘we’ of these questions are, principally, political leaders and citizens of the nations, from Angola to Zaire , that have been victimised by civil war.
There is another group of individuals, too, who must continue to pose questions about the causes and prevention of civil wars. Foreign political leaders, multilateral and non-governmental organisation leaders, leaders in the private sector and development practitioners share in the responsibility for causing civil wars, though they bear few of the costs. ….
My vision is of a day when no citizens in today’s developing nations will have to ask ‘how did we come to this?’ Paradise Poisoned will have achieved its purpose when that day comes.”
While trying to compare South Africa and some other nations with sri lanka, what most people forget is that the ‘reconciliation’ was spearheaded by the VICTIMS and not by the oppressors.
The victims can be expected to investigate the atrocities committed against them earnestly. On the other hand, it would be beyond foolish to expect the perpetrators of the violence, who are still in power and in total control of the situation to submit to any genuine investigation – that too by themselves. It could be considered the biggest joke in the history of ‘humanitarian law’ if only it is not so tragic and (worse still) on going!!
1.CMAG has been failing (shielding?) SLanka for so long:
”While CMAG has its share of successes, lately there have instances where it has not lived up to expectations. For example in the case of Sri Lanka, reports of large scale civilian deaths, impunity and stifling of human rights in Sri Lanka continued to emerge *throughout 2008 and 2009 but CMAG has refused to put Sri Lanka in its agenda. The additional irony is that Sri Lanka itself continues to serve as a member of CMAG during this period for a third consecutive (two year) term contrary to the 1999 Durban Communiqué that limits a country to a maximum of two consecutive terms” – CMAG needs to be reviewed and strengthened, Maja Daruwala, Executive Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, 20 October 2009, http://www.caribbeannetnews.com/news-19359–6-6–.html/
[*Report on Sri Lanka by Prof Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial Killings, 27 March 2006: ‘’The human rights capacity of the United Nations Country Team should be expanded immediately, pending the creation of a broader monitoring mechanism.’’
UN General Assembly, Third Committee, 25 October 2007, Statement by Prof Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions: ”I warned this Assembly last year of an impending crisis in SLanka.”
Prof Philip Alston, UN Special Rapportuer for Extrajudicial Killings, Human Rights Council, Geneva, 3 June 2008: ”In 2005 I sounded the alarm. I said that Sri Lanka was on the verge of a major crisis.”]
2.What will CMAG do on 26 April 2013?
‘’As Sir Ronald clearly illustrates beyond any doubt that Sri Lanka has not only crossed that line, but trying to set a precedent that the Commonwealth movement is only good on print and not in any way illustrate its willingness to uphold the principles and values of its very foundation’’ – Interview: Sri Lanka Has Not Only Crossed The Line, But Trying To Set A Precedent – Sir Ronald, 10 April 2013, http://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/interview-sri-lanka-has-not-only-crossed-the-line-but-trying-to-set-a-precedent-sir-ronald/