President Biden has made it his administration’s policy to work in tandem with his country’s traditional and like-minded allies on issues requiring international cooperation. Sri Lanka would be an example or test case of the new US administration’s foreign policy priorities. The indications are that they will be oriented towards human rights and the strengthening of international institutions set up over the past several decades. President Biden’s early appointees have been weighted in favour of those with internationalist perspectives and a significant number of them are of South Asian origin, the most important of whom is Vice President Kamala Harris. They are likely to consider Sri Lanka to be a country of special interest.
In itself Sri Lanka is an interesting and important country for world politics at present. This can be seen in the changes the government is making in rapid succession in its dealings with foreign powers which appear to be pressuring it on all sides. The geopolitical location of the country makes it important to the security of both neighbouring India and to the sea lanes that all the big powers utilize. This can be the only explanation for the sudden reversals of decisions such as in the case of the denial to India and Japan of the Eastern Terminal at Colombo port, the inability to proceed with the Chinese bid for a solar power project on three islands off Jaffna and the withdrawal of the invitation to international cricket icon Imran Khan, now Prime Minister of Pakistan, to address parliament. For the reason that Sri Lanka is important to all these countries, and to the world, it may become an example for others to learn from. The government has a duty to do its best by its citizens and being a small country this will be best done without antagonizing any powerful country or bloc of countries.
The government’s successful election campaigns of November 2019 and August 2020 highlighted the issues of national sovereignty and the resolve not to permit international intervention detrimental to the national interest. The emergence of the new government with a large majority gave a sense of confidence that the government would be able to forge its own path in international politics. The government leaders made promises not to brook any foreign interference in internal affairs. The government’s withdrawal from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of UNHRC Resolution 30/1 of 2015 was a vindication of that promise. There was hope that the majority of countries in the UNHRC would accept this withdrawal which was bolstered by the pledge by China and Russia not to permit other countries to take any UN-sanctioned collective action against Sri Lanka. However, the question is that if a country had invited assistance from many countries to sort out their internal armed conflict could they now assert that this was an internal matter only. In fact, the countries that gave assistance may themselves be held accountable for the violations that took place.
The draft of the forthcoming UNHRC resolution and its operative paragraphs have made their appearance in the media. The overall political context that the drafters of the resolution see is “accelerating militarization of civilian government functions, erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights, ongoing impunity and political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations in “emblematic cases,” policies that adversely affect the right to freedom of religions or belief, surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space, arbitrary detention, allegations of torture and other cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment and sexual and gender based violence, and that these trends threaten to reverse the limited but important gains made in recent years and with the recurrence of policies and practices that gave rise to the grave violation of the past.”
Some key parts of the resolution are as follows: Concern about the decision to mandate cremations for all those deceased from COVID-19 which has prevented Muslims and members of other religions from practising their own burial religious rites; A comprehensive accountability process for all violations and abuses of human rights committed in Sri Lanka, including those by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam; The importance of democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions and ensure that all provincial councils are able to operate effectively in accordance with the thirteenth amendment to the constitution of Sri Lankan; Requests the Office of the High Commissioner to enhance its monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including progress on reconciliation and accountability. Recently the cases against the security forces have been withdrawn or recommended for withdrawal with no reference to judiciary at all by the Political Victimization Commission which is a matter of controversy.
The silver lining in this draft resolution from the government’s perspective is that it does not mention the intention to take the country to the International Criminal Court or any international or hybrid tribunal. The draft document seems to expect the national, or local, judicial system to deal with these issues. However, the draft document also has a section in which it calls on the UN system to ensure that evidence of violations of human rights are preserved and analysed for future use. This suggests that if the national judicial system fails to meet their obligations, there will be the option to resort to the international system to fill the gap. This approach is not dissimilar to that of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith who has unexpectedly become an advocate of international justice. The Cardinal effectively gives leadership to the Catholic Church on political issues. It is a clear warning that there is something that has gone wrong in the state of Sri Lanka.
In his recent pronouncements, and in leading a protest at the Katuwapitiya church that suffered from one of the suicide bombings on Easter Sunday 2019, the Cardinal expressed his disappointment at the government’s inquiry into those bombings that specially targeted the Catholic community. He participated in a silent protest by hundreds of Catholics including families of the victims, to oppose the cabinet committee appointed to study the reports compiled by the Presidential Commission probing the April 21st attacks. The Cardinal pointed out that the Presidential Commission of Inquiry which comprised five intellectual judges gave their recommendations and decision so that the government and the Attorney General can take action. He added that he would call for an international investigation if the national investigation was undermined. He has subsequently added that he would appeal to the Vatican, which is the power centre of the worldwide Catholic Church.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s recent position is a reversal of his previously held position on similar issues. In the aftermath of the war in 2009 he was a staunch opponent of international interventions in support of accountability for human rights violations. He consistently took the position that Sri Lanka had the internal resources in terms of history, culture and integrity to find its own solution based on justice to post-war issues and challenged the double standards of the international community. The change in the Cardinal’s position is a wake-up call to the government that it risks losing the support of even those civic and religious leaders who have been supportive of its efforts to keep the international community at arms-length with regard to finding solutions based on justice. Instead of trying to combat the forthcoming UNHRC resolution, the government needs to take actions that win back the confidence of those who presently call for international intervention out of frustration that justice is not available within Sri Lanka. This may be done by the government acting upon the pledge of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be the president of all Sri Lankans and be willing to correct the wrongs done to any section of the Sri Lankan population.