A new beginning
The Government led by President
Maithripala Sirisena has barely completed one month in office, but fresh
winds are already blowing in the arena of Sri Lanka's foreign relations
which sank to a nadir during the previous regime. It is clear that the
new administration is seeking a distinct change in the foreign policy
direction that will benefit all Sri Lankans.
Part of the credit should go to the new Foreign Minister Mangala
Samaraweera, who has lost no time in renewing our ties with traditional
allies such as India and the USA. The Government has also reiterated
that strong ties will continue with China, with President Maithripala
planning to undertake a State Visit in March, while dispelling any
unfounded fears on this relationship. He will also visit India this
month, his first official trip abroad after assuming office.
The previous Government believed in confrontation with the
international community, whereas this Government believes in
consultation. There is no use in being pushed to a corner and engaging
in rhetoric instead of properly managing and facing the multitude of
challenges we face on human rights and other fronts.
There is no doubt that the biggest challenge before us is the issue
of war crimes charges or violations of International Humanitarian Law
that are alleged to have taken place during the final days of the
conflict in the North in 2009. Sri Lanka has already lost three
resolutions in this regard at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
and another one is due to come up this year. Several adverse UN reports
have been issued against Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka is a member of the United Nations and there are certain
responsibilities and obligations that come with its membership. There is
a civilised manner in which countries should deal with the UN and its
officials, even if they do not like what is being discussed about them
at the UN. The previous Government completely ignored this dictum, going
to the extent of name-calling senior UN officials and berating the
friendly countries that sponsored resolutions focusing on Sri Lanka.
For example, it was alleged that the former UN High Commissioner for
Human Rights Navi Pillay was biased towards the LTTE because she was of
Tamil origin. They either did not know or chose to ignore the fact that
UN officials are shorn of such partiality in discharging their duties.
In the end, little or no effort was made to engage constructively with
the UN or the countries that opposed us. The gulf grew wider day after
It is true that some Western countries that opposed us had no clear
grasp of the ground realities of the war or the efforts by the Security
Forces to rescue the Northern civilian population in the midst of LTTE
barbarism. It is also true that certain sections of the Tamil Diaspora
in those countries may have influenced some lawmakers to look negatively
at Sri Lanka. But instead of providing them with an opportunity to
understand our side of the story, everyone who spoke in favour of
justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka was lumped together with the
Tamil Diaspora and branded LTTE sympathisers by the previous Government.
On the other hand, having realised the value of true diplomacy in the
modern world, the present Government has already initiated a dialogue
with the UNHRC and countries which were not exactly on good terms with
us over the HR issue. Senior Presidential Advisor on Foreign Relations
Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala, who counts years of experience in the UN system,
has already met the new UN Human Rights Commissioner Prince Zeid Ra'ad
Al Hussein for a discussion on various issues including the pending UN
probe on Sri Lanka. It is understood that Hussein would be invited to
visit Sri Lanka and see for himself the ground situation.
Sri Lanka has also initiated a fresh dialogue with the USA, relations
with which were strained to breaking point during the previous regime.
US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia,
Ms. Nisha Biswal was in Colombo last week, outlining the US
Government's desire to work closely with the new Government in Colombo.
"There is such a strong commitment that's visible in this government to
want to address issues such as reconciliation and we very much want to
work with them to see that happen," she said.
US National Security Adviser Susan Rice has included Sri Lanka
alongside Myanmar and Tunisia as a country "in transition." "We'll help
countries in transition - like Burma, Tunisia, and Sri Lanka - become
more open, more democratic, and more inclusive societies," Rice said in
a speech at the Brookings Institute. State Department spokeswoman Marie
Harf said the United States had commended the steps taken by President
Maithripala Sirisena to address post-war reconciliation and
long-standing issues such as governance and accountability. "Certainly
we have seen some positive steps there," she told a regular news
briefing. Minister Samaraweera is also due to visit Washington this week
for discussions with Secretary of State John Kerry on a range of issues
including the HR situation.
Moreover, emissaries will be despatched to Europe to discuss the fish
exports ban, GSP Plus issue and the lifting of the ban on the LTTE. This
is a positive step and if these issues are resolved, Sri Lanka stands to
gain economically and diplomatically. Even some of Sri Lanka's most
virulent critics such as Human Rights Watch have begun to appreciate the
steps being taken by the Government to achieve post-war reconciliation
and ethnic integration.
Some critics of the new Government have described this approach as a
sign of weakness and an act of bending down before powerful countries.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Diplomacy is the best way to
resolve disputes that arise among nations and there is nothing to be
ashamed of in engaging constructively with the rest of the world. The
previous government tarnished our international image by engaging in an
unnecessary confrontation with well-meaning friends of Sri Lanka and
this Government is striving to undo the damage caused.
Yet, the best way for Sri Lanka to deal with this issue and avoid
foreign interference could be by strengthening its domestic justice
mechanisms. The recent changes in the upper echelons of the judiciary
could be a harbinger of such a positive direction. Minister Samaraweera
has gone on record saying that a strong judiciary at home coupled with
good governance would be the best way to ward off any international
inquiry. The previous Government and the new Government have rightly
rejected any international investigation on Sri Lanka, saying that Sri
Lanka should be given an opportunity to deal with its own problems.
Sri Lanka has to come to terms with its past including the 30-year
conflict and ensure justice to the victims of the war. In doing so, a
strong, impartial and independent domestic justice mechanism is
essential. It is up to the Government and the Opposition to decide on
the parameters and composition of such a domestic probe. That may
pre-empt any move by the international community to intensify their
scrutiny of Sri Lanka which has renewed its efforts to seek lasting
peace and reconciliation.