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Significance of Libyan situation for Sri Lanka: Responsibility to protect is not a dead letter

Mar 22, 2011 10:39:02 PM- transcurrents.com

by Dr.Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu

A lot has been written and said about the popular uprisings in the Arab world and some have opined on the possibility or lack thereof of similar events in Sri Lanka. Suffice it be said that the situations in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya are different to that in this country. Over thirty years we have had armed insurgencies in the south and in the north and east of the country. The challenge is to move beyond conflict and whilst it is often the case that the trajectory of international and national politics is unpredictable, the possibility of any such uprising in the short or medium term is slim as the first phase of the local election results indicate, contested though they are by the opposition.

There are a number of factors for this ranging from the practice of democracy however flawed in Sri Lanka, the popularity of the president augmented by the war victory, the state of the opposition, the expectation of economic take off even in the face of economic hardship, apathy, fatigue, fear and the crushing of dissent.

Yet, the response of the international community, in particular, to the events in the Arab world is not without significance to us in Sri Lanka.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizes the international community to take all necessary steps short of the deployment of ground forces to defend the citizens of Benghazi and elsewhere in Libya from the forces of Muammar al Qadaffi. The resolution was sponsored by the UK, France and Lebanon and has the support of the Arab League.

Whilst no single member of the Council voted against the resolution, India, Brazil, Germany, China and Russia abstained.

The latter two have subsequently gone on record stating their opposition to the use of military force and calling for an immediate cease-fire. The Western states aside, Nigeria, South Africa, Colombia, Gabon and Lebanon voted in favour. Earlier, the Council reported Qadaffi to the International Criminal Court.

Arguments of double standards – why Libya not Yemen?- notwithstanding, there is an UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against the Qadaffi regime.

What would the Rajapaksa regime have done if Sri Lanka were a member of the Council? Indeed, what is the Rajapaksa regime’s position on the UN Security Council action against one of its nearest and dearest friends?

In the Libyan case there is no question of a war without witness. The international media is there in Tripoli and in Benghazi and reports on an hourly basis on what is going on including the Qadaffi regime’s bombing of civilians.

The Council acted when it was clear that Qadaffi was determined to take control of Benghazi and against the backdrop of his warnings that he would do so without mercy. Responding to action by the Security Council he has warned that if the world intended to go “crazy” over Libya he would do so too!

The Rajapaksa regime has allegations against it of war crimes, which are the subject of an investigative panel set up by the UN Secretary General. The doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect or R2P has been rubbished by the regime and its apparatchiks and declared a dead letter and yet it seems to have more than a bit of life in it.

After all, Security Council action over Libya is part and parcel of the responsibility to protect civilians against regimes that inflict violence on them. Were it to be the case that Libya has breathed life into a doctrine that was declared defunct by our local pundits and patriots, will it be the case that the Rajapaksa regime could have to deal with action by the UN, facilitated by similar abstentions in the Council?

A lot will depend on the regime continuing to convince its supporters that Sri Lanka is an entirely different case. It will also depend on the enduring nature of their strategic interests in Sri Lanka and the wider region. Most of all it will depend on the report of the Secretary General’s Panel and what he intends to do with it.

Down the line, it is not entirely fanciful to speculate that were the report to be strong on the question of war crimes and were it to come to the Human Rights Council in any shape or form, for its reception there may well be different to the resolution on Sri Lanka in 2009 which the regime frequently refers to as the barometer of international opinion in its support. Will there be changes in the body of Arab support and will India be pro-active in the regime’s defence as it was in 2009 or be passive?

A key factor in the regime’s response will be the LLRC report since the regime has insisted that the LLRC is the answer to all questions about accountability in respect of human rights violations and war crimes.

As to what will happen is yet to be seen. The Secretary -General could sit on his Panel Report in the same way that our chief executives have done with numerous commission reports.

It is clear though that if damage limitation is going to have to be the order of the day, it will have to be done by a foreign service that is not demoralized and superceded by ineffective cost intensive lobbying firms but one with clear direction and competence. Moreover offence may not be the best form of defence, either, in these circumstances.

This may be asking for too much of a regime that is firmly convinced that any softening of its position on accountability constitutes the thin edge of the wedge which will eventuate in its undoing. It has shown itself to be more comfortable with confrontation, placating international opinion with yet another commission, only when it has run out of options.

Will the diplomats in the LLRC ensure that the LLRC will conclude that game or at least conclude that it cannot be played any longer?

And, will we ever know.