Sri Lanka: High-voltage visits and the UNHRC

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N Sathiya Moorthy 21 January 2020

Barring international or regional conferences that he is hosting, very rarely do Third World leaders especially get to receive representatives of some of the world’s most powerful powers, all within 24 hours. President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa now has his ‘second coming’ after the day he was sworn in to office only weeks earlier, as Foreign Ministers from two  friendly UNSC veto-powers, namely, China and Russia, a lesser official from the world’s most powerful nation, the US, and a junior minister from Japan, another powerful nation that is also important from Sri Lanka’s economic and geo-strategic perspectives.

As much as the coincidence of the scheduling of these meetings, the very timing itself is important from the nation’s angle, especially that of the Gota regime. Apart from bilateral issues and cooperation that the visitors might have discussed with their Sri Lankan interlocutors, starting with President Gota, at least three of the four top-ranking officials could be expected to have discussed the upcoming March session of the UNHRC, where Colombo needs to take some crucial decisions, this session or most definitely the next, due in September.

Possibly anticipating institutional delays in the country in a year when two, if not three nation-wide elections are due, the UK, replacing ‘Big Brother’ US as the co-sponsor of the earlier 30/1 Resolution on war-crimes probe and political reconciliation in the country, had given time till this year’s September session for Colombo to act upon. Only then would the Council be asked to take forward further action, or whatever is required, in the matter.

Yet, in the March session, Sri Lanka would be looking for clues to the future in the customary opening remarks of UNHRC boss, Michelle Bachelet. The current dispensation in Colombo could be seeking to read between the lines, what High Commissioner Bachelet includes and what he leaves out in his report to the full House, using the ascendancy of President Gota to office as the marker, the dividing-line.

It will be even more interesting to see if the otherwise ‘neutral nation’ in Switzerland enters the arena, over the nation’s allegations over a local staff, soon after Gotabhaya Rajapaksa came to power – and what response Colombo has in the matter. In such a scenario, it is not unlikely that Sri Lanka might end up pointing fingers on the reverse. Thbe list could include, and may begin with the flagging of an investigating officer of the nation’s police force making good his ‘escape’, reportedly to Switzerland, purportedly with facilitation at the Colombo end.

‘Outsider interference’

It is in this context that the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s reported reiteration, not to “allow outsiders to interfere” in Sri Lankan’s internal affairs assumes significance. The street-level Sri Lankan interpretation, both among the Sinhalas and Tamils, may stop with the larger Indian neighbour. But China, already in Sri Lanka, playing high-stakes geo-political and geo-strategic games on a larger, global stage, may obviously be referring to the US and the rest of the West.

After all, it was the US that initiated the binding 2012 UNHRC resolution. The effects of the same was to stymie Sri Lankan initiatives to find an all-acceptable political solution to the nation’s vexatious ethnic problem. Even as the US, as the lead-sponsor of that resolutions and a few subsequent ones, quit the UNHRC, for its own reasons, to be replaced at that spot by an ever-obliging one-time British rulers of America, nothing really has changed on the ground in Sri Lanka.

If anything, whatever substantive progress might have been achieved on political negotiations, it was under the post-war regime of incumbent’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The much-expected solutions that the West-sponsored ‘regime-change’ was expected to usher in did not even more an inch in real terms under the successor, dual leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Buying time

As was only to be anticipated in Sri Lankan political reality, the duo did not have enough time to fight their traditional games of one-upmanship and words-building. The Sri Lankan Tamil leaders of the TNA are now proved to have been keener on assisting the West in the nation off-loading the Rajapaksas than in addressing their aspirations under the successor dispensation, too has continued to politics.

In turn, this may have rendered a wry justification for the incumbent Government too to give back the TNA in the same coin. It can happen now or later, if and when the forgotten political negotiations are re-commenced, possibly after the parliamentary polls, which can be expected in the first half of the year. If the Government then finds it electorally convenient and/or politically conducive to have the nine Provincial Council polls, they could occur in the second half of the year.

Either way, the Government can hope to purchase time even in the September session of the UNHRC, citing the parliamentary polls and possibly the parliamentary party position, post-poll, as among the reasons for seeking a further extension, for its turn. It could hope for a full year’s time, going up to the September session next year, but even the hard-nosed Western sponsors of the past resolutions could not deny time till the UNHRC session of March next year. Or, so it seems.

Coordinating efforts

Going by published accounts, as much as the Chinese visitor, if not more, his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is on record since that his nation and Sri Lanka are now ‘comparing notes’ to coordinate their efforts at the UNHRC. The ‘comparing notes’ part is possibly about the Sri Lankan non-initiative during the five years when the Rajapaksas were out of office, and the current efforts seem to be dusting the old diaries and start off from where the two sides had left it all when the US first moved the UNHRC on Sri Lanka-related issues.

Needless to say, that either directly or through the good offices of the Sri Lankan target, both China and Russia would be coordinating their own UNHRC initiatives, viz Colombo issues, from now on. The televised resignation of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev back home in Moscow only days after Minister Lavrov’s Colombo visit is not expected to impact on their collective action at the UNHRC, not at least until the Russian parliamentary polls next year.

It will be interesting to see if China and Russia will stop with voting in Sri Lanka’s favour at the UNHRC session, as the issue is unlikely to go all the way up to the UNSC just now, for them to exercise their veto, without even reading whatever the West may have put down or paper, or would have to say. Instead, if it came to a showdown in this March and/or September session, will China and Russia work together on such other Third World nations and the rest to defeat a ‘stronger’ resolution than may be anticipated at this juncture.

Co-sponsor or what

It is in this context that the coincidentally overlapping Colombo visit of the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of States for South and Central Asian Affairs, Alice Wells, assumes immediate significance for the host-nation. After  her meetings, including her delivering a letter from US President Donald Trump to counterpart Gota, Wells was quoted as telling local journalists that it was a “constructive partnership on shared values”.

If not at this time, the two sides sure will have to discuss the possibility of Sri Lanka, now under the post-war dispensation all over again, co-sponsoring a new resolution at the UNHRC, whether for extension of time or whatever, as and when required – maybe this March, but most definitely, ahead of the September session. Prior to the 2015 ‘regime-change’, the then Rajapaksa regime had even declined to acknowledge the UNHRC resolutions, and deliberately decided not to honour it with a response of whatever kind.

In context, the Gota regime’s approach to the new global situation and Sri Lanka’s place in it would all dictate Colombo’s approach to the matter. If nothing else, Sri Lanka has become alive to the fact that western initiatives of the UNHRC kind refuse to go away at will. The West should have by now understood that their white-washing the lies of the previous Government in Colombo, with the UNHRC chiefs of the time claiming ‘visible improvement’ (?) of whatever kind, but not enough….

Maybe, at the appropriate time and levels, the UK sponsor of the more recent UNHRC resolution may begin talking to Colombo, or vice versa. Yet, the Gota regime, sooner than later, would have to take the call on whether to continue with the duo arrangement of co-sponsorship, invented for the convenience and of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation before this one, and the comfort of the West.

The alternative would be for Sri Lanka to revert to the pre-duo position of not bothering about the UNHRC at all, though the Rajapaksas very well knew that the reverse was the true. Not an hour passed those days without their Government and political leadership(s) discussing, debating and dissecting the UNHRC’s next move, and that of the collective West, even as they were proclaiming that they were not bothered, Sri Lanka was not worried.

The question is simple, though not simplistic. At a time when the visiting Chinese FM has also declared that they would help Sri Lanka become ‘economically independent’, it remains to be seen if the Gota dispensation in particular and the nation otherwise, would want the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) investments in the country to go-ahead as promised by the predecessor Government, especially then Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, once a the most dependable aide and associate of the Rajapaksas, then their sworn-enemy, more than possibly anyone else in the political Opposition.

Will the two sides strike a deal on co-authorship and or MCC – or a ‘swap deal’ of the non-Hambantota kind on both? For that to happen, China too may have to explain to the satisfaction of the non-listening West, how it could make Sri Lanka ‘economically independent’ without repeating the Hambantota kind of ‘debt-equity’ swap deal, by whatever name and form called, and without ‘inheriting’ Sri Lankan ‘territory’ and ‘part-sovereignty’, as different from Sri Lankan ‘real estate’) now and ever.

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