Under President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership it looks like Sri Lanka is once again punching above its weight. The president took centre stage at the 19th Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the 3rd South Summit of the Group of 77 & China currently taking place in Kampala, Uganda. The president’s media unit stated that at the invitation of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, President Wickremesinghe not only participated in these critical global gatherings but also addressed both the NAM Summit and the South Summit. During his visit to Kampala, he is reported to have engaged in discussions with counterparts from the Global South, with a special focus on strengthening ties with leaders from the African region.

The photograph of the Non-Aligned Movement’s 120 leaders showed the Sri Lankan president in the front row right next to the conference host President Museveni of Uganda. The last time Sri Lanka took the centre stage in this manner was when Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike hosted the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Colombo in 1976 which was one of the most important gatherings as it tilted the developing countries towards making greater demands for international economic justice. At that time, Sri Lanka was itself an economic trendsetter in the international arena, as it demonstrated the possibility of development with equity. Sri Lanka had a physical quality of life index that surpassed many other countries with higher per capita incomes.

At the summit, President Wickremesinghe delivered a speech that would be a trendsetter and obtain for him the respect of world leaders gathered there. In his speech, the Sri Lankan president dealt boldly with two central issues of concern to the developing countries. He took on the issue of the war in Gaza and the continued domination of the global South by the global North. He pointed to the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and with his own experiences of coping with ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, he said “in line with multiple UN Resolutions, and the Declaration of this Summit, the international community must recognise the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as territories coming within the State of Palestine and in addition there should be no change in the ethnic composition of Gaza.”

Calibrated Approach
The president’s words would do much to assuage Muslim sentiment, both in Sri Lanka and internationally in the aftermath of the president’s controversial decision to send Sri Lankan naval warships into the Red Sea to join the international naval force led by the United States. The president’s decision to send Sri Lankan navy ships thousands of miles away to protect the freedom of the seas led to all the middle eastern ambassadors in Sri Lanka having a meeting with him. There have also been expressions of concern that the high cost of the operation is unaffordable to a country in which more than a quarter of the population is below the poverty line. In addition, there is the element of disregard to the sentiments of the Muslim population in the country who are emotionally supportive of the Palestinian cause.

One of the president’s protégés, UNP Chairman Vajira Abeywardena has explained the rationale for the president’s numerous foreign visits as motivated by the desire to place the country’s interests first before the international community. There has been criticism that the president is spending too much money during a time when the country can ill-afford extra spending. The UNP chairman is reported to have said President Ranil Wickremesinghe has garnered global attention due to his efforts in steering the country from the brink of a crisis towards a path of development within a short span of one and a half years and the President has effectively utilized foreign trips to achieve this goal. He noted there is a potential opportunity to advance the country with the support of international institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, JICA and supportive nations. In this light it appears that the
president is adopting a calibrated foreign policy approach to maximize the benefits to the country. It is significant that neither the government nor the president has backtracked on the naval mission to the Red Sea.

The second half of the president’s speech at the Non-Aligned Meeting in Uganda was just as compelling as the first half. The president made a claim for intellectual leadership of the Non-Aligned group of countries. He spoke stirringly about the North-South divide and the need for the global South to assert itself. He said, “Our membership today is no longer a grouping of weak states. We must recognise that as a result of the rapid progress and economic advancement of some Asian, African and Latin American states. A majority of the 10 leading economies of 2050 will belong to this movement. We see among us, rising aspirants for leadership status in global affairs. They must be prepared to give leadership.”

Winning Trust
In making his presence felt in Uganda, President Wickremesinghe would have also been mindful that among the 120 countries present, almost half were from the African continent whose support he would be counting on. In March and again in September this year, Sri Lanka will be coming up before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for discussion regarding its implementation of Resolutions 46/1 and 51/1 on the theme of “Promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka.” Since the war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka has been subjected to strictures by the UN Human Rights Council. It was able to prevail only once, when its diplomats led by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka were able to convince the countries of the global South that it was sincere in addressing post-war issues. But thereafter Sri Lanka has lost every single vote due to non-implementation of the promises it made then and subsequently.

At the present time, Sri Lanka has many promises to keep in terms of post-war justice. As successive governments have failed to keep their word, the international human rights community has set up an international data collection unit in Geneva “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction”. However, after the president’s lobbying effort in Uganda, it is possible that Sri Lanka will once again, as in 2009, be able to persuade the majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council to end their surveillance.

Making the government’s task easier to prevail internationally is the severe erosion of the credibility of the UN in the face of its inability to make a difference in protecting human rights in Gaza. The government is making doubly sure of its success by pushing through its reconciliation mechanisms especially the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation which was established by the passage of an Act of Parliament earlier in this month, and now the Commission on Truth, Unity and Reconciliation, the draft law of which was gazetted this month. It is unlikely that the international community will fail to be impressed by these governmental initiatives. The government is winning its battles in the international arena one by one. However, the true test for the government lies in gaining the trust and confidence of the Sri Lankan people. The recent election within the main Tamil political party, resulting in the defeat of the moderate candidate, suggests that more efforts are needed within the country to secure lasting success.

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