It always pays to read between the lines. In fact to read. It seems a truism, but in these days of tweets and clicks, it seems we do this less and less. First comes the actual resolution passed in the UNHRC in Geneva. As I followed the vote and aftermath of celebrations on the Toronto based Diaspora group, Sri Lanka Without Borders, on Facebook – I realized that even nearly 20 hours after the vote, none of the prolific commentators there knew what they were actually celebrating.
Section 3 of the US sponsored resolution now has the interpolation: “in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the Government of Sri Lanka…”; it wasn’t there before. This significant interpolation seems to have been a last minute addition insisted upon by India. Which may mean that Diaspora celebrations are premature, and fundamental rights in this country, battered and bruised, may continue at a low ebb without any external supervision as envisaged by the previous draft, but with the added burden that the voices of the well known local spokespeople for rights in Sri Lanka, who supported the resolution in Geneva, will ‘smell foreign’, as Indi Samarajeewa puts it.
It seems silly to repeat this, but fundamental rights are important and like many important things, it’s the business of Sri Lankans; neither India nor the US really cares about our rights. That’s what I stress when I hear the argument about the double standard, which is of course true, but they are our rights, and we shouldn’t see double or treble.
It is fascinating in this regard to read former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Teresita C. Schaffer’s Op-ed in The Hindu, where her main point is: “The Obama administration must broaden its dialogue beyond Geneva…Washington needs to broaden its dialogue with Sri Lanka beyond human rights. Its ability to influence Sri Lanka’s policy in that area will atrophy in a one-issue relationship.”
If we follow Shaffer’s logic more closely, we get a better sense of where this conclusion comes from.
Unlike the many INGOs who’ve been painting a dire and grim picture of post war Sri Lanka, especially in the North, this former diplomat sees, “Economic development is where the government is putting most of its energy. This is indeed a critical ingredient in rebuilding both the polity and the economy. Northern Sri Lanka has had basically no economy for three decades….The government is encouraging investors to look at Jaffna…That is the one source of hope for the future.”
It is an old liberal, US foreign policy argument to say, ‘let the economy grow, human rights will follow.’ It’s often wrong, and been so proved to be wrong historically. It’s usually used in places where the US has what’s called a ‘strategic interest,’ meaning it’s a place that’s important to them if they need to saber rattle or even go to war, over trade routes or resources. Schaffer’s arguments reposition Sri Lanka right there, in the ‘strategic interest,’ contra distant to Assistant Secretary Blake, also a former Ambassador, who has been taking the other, rather more Provisional Transnational Tamil Government line of regime change or nothing.
Given the bleakness of the situation as a whole, the continuing fault lines in our polity, the abysmal depths to which the war torn societies have sunk, both culturally, socially and economically, I think there may be in this case, something to what Schaffer says. Or perhaps not.
In any event, those who are investing in the North should understand the special responsibility placed on them; help build a real civil society in that province. Support fundamental rights; and make the possible suturing of economic growth to constitutional freedoms a strong one. This doesn’t take tub thumping or flag waving. It’s quiet work, and it needs to be done.
Published in print, and on the web, in the Nation.