Now what?

NGOs play a vital role in Sri Lanka today. Without those engaged in human rights advocacy – that the Government loves to hate – there would be no one to blame for the debacles of foreign policy, international relations and non-implementation of even the LLRC’s output. An article I penned online last week explored how from the get-go, the LLRC’s hearings, interim report, final report, submissions both oral and written, key debates around reconciliation and media reports on the LLRC were all – without exception – supported and archived better through platforms and initiatives set up by precisely the same NGOs the government loves to deride as unpatriotic, degenerate and traitorous. At the time of handing over the “licenses” to media that complied with a government edict – with no basis whatsoever in the law – to officially register their websites, Mass Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella explicitly noted that the “government always respects the right to disapprove, disagree and completely reject an opinion but nobody has the right to insult another”. It serves to reason that by the government’s own yardstick, select State media like ITN should be blocked and banned with immediate effect for the hate speech brazenly broadcast in the past fortnight alone, inciting on more than one occasion open violence against leading NGOs and human rights activists. But clearly there are different standards at play.

And what of the UN resolution? The pushback in Sri Lanka against the resolution is, for the most part, utterly ignorant of its actual contents. It was the government that decided to send – at public expense – over 70 representatives of varying competency to Geneva, and ratchet up the rhetoric at home. The spin aside, this is monumental loss of face for the government and its braggadocio, up until the very day of the vote, that it would defeat the resolution. Scapegoats will have to be found. It is unlikely any one from government will assume responsibility for foreign policy gone horribly awry.

An article in the Wall Street Journal published on Friday noted that the resolution could thwart efforts to implement the LLRC’s recommendations, and contribute to a blame game in which the UN itself is now perceived by government and the majority to be a hostile, biased actor. Yet, it is hard to see how the LLRC would have come about without international pressure. Given that the recommendations contained in the LLRC’s final report found no expression at all in the President’s Independence Day speech, have not yet been distributed in Sinhala or Tamil, and the LLRC’s interim recommendations conveniently forgotten, those interested in meaningful reconciliation are right to be hugely skeptical of government.  This is not to say reconciliation in other forms, and through other means, isn’t occurring. It is to flag what is clearly a disconnect between what government promises and really goes on to implement, between what is set up to buy time and filibuster, and what government is really interested in and capable of doing. Will the US resolution strengthen accountability in Sri Lanka? I suspect not. Will the immediate pushback be a hardening of what is already an obdurate regime? I suspect so.

There is a parallel danger. The euphoria of those in Sri Lanka and abroad who backed the resolution risks glossing over the significant disconnect between international perception and domestic traction, between what is seen outside Sri Lanka as helping reconciliation and what is perceived by the majority within the country as completely inimical to it. This is not some principled, informed, lively debate on the dynamics of post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka (which if it existed, would have surely been the best defense against growing international pressure). There is already deeply disturbing verbal violence in this disconnect, fuelled by ethno-centric propaganda that inflame emotions. The danger in the short-term is that this spills over to physical violence, which the government can always blame on lynch mobs operating out of their own accord, to protect as they see fit their motherland. This is all so very wasteful. So much of the resources and energy spent today on hate and harm can surely be better utilised? As a reasoned voice on Twitter and friend Sarinda Perera noted after the UN HRC vote, “Won civil war. Lost rights war. Lost economic war. Lost international war. Now what?”


Article published in The Nation newspaper, 25 March 2012.


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