by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
Sri Lanka is a sovereign state which belongs to the international system. It must safeguard its sovereignty as well as its membership of that system. Sri Lanka’s enemies have a main objective – a separate state – and two subsidiary objectives which are a prelude to the main objective.
Those subsidiary objectives are the encroachment on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and the isolation of Sri Lanka from the international system. Sri Lanka must defend its sovereignty and its membership of the international order (while we join our friends and allies in seeking to reform that order). We must neither default on defending sovereignty nor must we strive to defend sovereignty in so unintelligent and uniformed a manner that Sri Lanka begins to jeopardise its acceptability as a member of the international system.
Sri Lanka has enemies. There are those Sri Lankans who think that we do not have enemies, and there are those who think that everyone, especially every outsider, everyone who is different or dissentient, is an enemy. While the former are in denial, the latter are paranoid. The former adopt the posture of the ostrich, the latter of the hedgehog. Both are pathological states of mind.
Sri Lanka’s enemies are those who are conspiring, campaigning and lobbying for the creation of a separate state of Tamil Eelam. They are mainly, almost overwhelmingly, located offshore, overseas. This time the struggle for secessionism is externally driven and will be fought out in the external arena. This time we are in danger of losing that war.
Sri Lankan opinion is polarised between those who are willing to compromise sovereignty in the interests of conformity to arbitrary external dictates, and those who are attempting to defend sovereignty by means and methods that jeopardise Sri Lanka’s international acceptability as a civilised state.
This polarisation is symptomatic of the polarisations and the consequent absence of a broad politico-paradigmatic centre space and middle ground, that have been at the root of Sri Lanka’s continuing tragedy; a tragedy that clouds our triumphs. More explicitly, there are those who wonder what is really wrong with acceptance of an international war crimes probe, and those others who wonder what is really wrong with Wimal Weerawansa’s protest against UN S-G Ban’s panel.
The pity is that the answer to both questions should be self-evident. Any international probe violates Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, and is hypocritical in its selectivity. Given the unequal nature of the international system and its mechanisms and the actual history of inquiries — prosecutions were dropped against Croatian fascists while Serbian war criminals died in custody; Hans Blix’s WMD panel was never allowed to present its final report on Iraq to the UN — Sri Lanka must not be hustled into budging an inch in the safeguarding of its sovereignty.
For those who seem to intellectually ingest more than they can digest (i.e. read more than they think), I would recommend an excellent scholarly book on the subject, From Kosovo To Kabul: Human Rights And International Interventions by David Chandler, Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel was dealing with an earlier UN Secretary General from the East Asian region, Burma’s U. Thant, who was far more sympathetic to small countries than the current incumbent. And yet, Fidel refused to permit UN inspections on Cuban soil, of the removal of Soviet missiles.
It is not that Fidel had control over the missiles: those were under Soviet command and were evacuated, subject to US inspections of Soviet ships. In refusing UN inspections, Fidel was reiterating a principle: sovereignty; state, national and popular.
Decades later, even after the collapse of his Soviet ally, Fidel cautioned about concessions on issues of sovereignty: “you let them have your finger, they take your hand; you give them your hand, they take your arm; you give them your arm, they take your whole body!”
A year or two ago, relations between the EU and Cuba were deadlocked precisely on this principle. Even though it is widely accepted that Cuba is one of the few third world and Latin American states in which there have never been ‘disappeared’, or extra judicial executions, shooting of demonstrators, or torture, it was not willing to allow external inspection, because that would violate the principle of state sovereignty.
The very notion that submission to an external inquiry or the conduct of an internal one is essential to post-war inter-ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka is absurd when it is not outrageous. How is one to guarantee fair-play?
Is even-handedness possible and desirable as between legitimate state and fanatical terrorist?
Where does one make the chronological cut and on what basis: 2002? 1958? 1956? 1983?
How does one know whether the mutual recrimination and laceration will not push back the process of ethnic reconciliation and perhaps even catalyse a majoritarian militaristic blowback?
Why does democratic Spain, an EU member, prosecute its own judicial superstar, Judge Baltazar Garzon for attempting to open the ‘accountability’ books on the Spanish Civil War?
There must be zero-tolerance by Sri Lanka of that which violates its sovereignty. There must be a total defence of sovereignty. That defence must not be stupid. Weerawansa’s is. While a state’s external relations must take public opinion into account, foreign policy cannot be made in the street. Diplomacy – including public diplomacy — cannot be conducted on the street or sidewalk, by mobs.
Firstly, the Weerawansa-led demonstration is against Sri Lanka’s national interest because it brings us enormously adverse global publicity and puts us on a collision course with the United Nations and the international system itself.
Secondly, this flouts the norms of civilised behaviour observed by the world community, because one should not demonstrate against the local office of the United Nations which is the premier intergovernmental body, which had no hand whatsoever in setting up the panel on Sri Lanka, which was an initiative of the Secretary-General and his secretariat.
Thirdly, the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility, dictates that the government should not let the militant tail wag the moderate dog since the government is overwhelmingly that of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which is a moderate party with considerable international prestige.
Fourthly, Weerawansa and his followers should not be allowed to trespass into the realm of international affairs which is totally outside the purview of his portfolio and, it must be added, his sphere of knowledge and comprehension.
A popular demonstration passing outside the UN office is one thing. A demonstration that crashes the barriers surrounding the compound and constitutes an incursion, is another. Fidel Castro says proudly that never once, in the thousands of anti-US demonstrations held in Cuba, has the US flag been burnt! In the first place, a cabinet minister had no place in a demonstration against the UN office, especially a demonstration such as it was.
In the second place, this was the worst sort of demonstration possible. In full view of the world’s TV cameras, Weerawansa’s demonstration vilified the UN Secretary-General in terms so ugly that no child should have seen those banners and posters.
It also had a totally gratuitous and provocative portrait of US President Barack Obama. A dignified and large demonstration which stopped at the gates and handed a petition with the authentic signatures of internationally distinguished Sri Lankans, or even of a million average Sri Lankan citizens, would have been in order, but not this exercise in crass mob agitation.
What did his demonstration demonstrate? It has enabled Sri Lanka’s enemies to widen the rift between Sri Lanka and the international system and permitted Sri Lanka’s enemies to portray Sri Lanka’s administration almost as a rogue regime (not quite a ‘rogue state’) which has deviated from or permits drastic departures from, the norms of conduct – the ethos of civility – which prevails in the international order. Minister Weerawansa’s delinquency shames Sri Lanka. This is not an intelligent way to defend Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, but a way to undermine it.
Sri Lanka’s sovereignty must be defended by the broadest possible mobilisation of forces in the international arena. As an ex-practitioner who succeeded in doing just that on his watch, I know that it can be done and I also know that this is not the way to do it. Far more impressive demonstrations than Weerawansa’s besieged the United Nations in Geneva and a young Tamil man immolated himself outside the gates of the Palais Des Nations as the diplomatic battle was firing up. Did these demonstrations confer a single extra vote on the side opposed to Sri Lanka or deprive us of a single vote?
On the contrary, most member states were determined not to give in to blackmail by mobs! Weerawansa’s antics will only make most member states rally round the United Nations and its Secretary-General, because the sense of identification will be instinctively with the established institution and its norms of civilised conduct rather than with misdirected mobs. Weerawansa’s actions may be deemed legal, but they endanger Sri Lanka’s international legitimacy and his piece of theatre with the mobile phone only makes the Sri Lankan administration complicit and results in an unhappy situation of implausible deniability.
In the choice between ‘hegemony’ and ‘resistance’, the intellectuals, peoples, and states of the global South have options other than supine capitulation or xenophobic fanaticism. The manner and mode of resistance must not undermine the aim and objectives of that resistance. Low tactics cannot serve high ideals. Ban Ki-moon occupies the 38th floor of the United Nations building in New York and the Sri Lankan demonstrators, the area adjacent to the UN office in Colombo. But neither occupies the most important real estate of all: the moral high ground.
(Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka was Ambassador/Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Geneva during the war years 2007-9 including the May 2009 Special Session of the Human Rights Council).