By adapting the geo-political terminology ‘Indo-Pacific’ without second thought about the propriety and desirability in employing the same for an allegedly non-partisan international organisation as the UNHRC, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet may have committed an irreversible lapse. Yet, by using the terminology to criticise, nations, including Sri Lanka, ‘over arrests for expressing discontent over Covid19 situation’ is based on an inherently flawed approach of the UN subsidiaries when it came to their handling of Third World nations.
None of these governments have denied the arrests. But all of them very clearly explained that the detentions were for violating the lockdown norms in force to check on the community-spread of the Covid19 pandemic, not for demanding freedom of expression in such stressful times. In Sri Lanka, those like TNA spokesperson M A Sumanthiran, who is also a member of the dissolved Parliament and is a party candidate for contesting the same, did talk about the constitutionality of the lockdown/curfew. But the fact that in none of these countries has any citizen moved their courts dealing with fundamental rights, should show that they were not protesting or demanding freedom of expression, as derived by High Commissioner Bachelet.
Sumanthiran, for instance, as a leading Supreme Court lawyer, was only pointing to a constitutional lacuna, which could have been avoided through proclamation of emergency. But obviously those in government seemed to have thought over things. The list possibly included the need for extending the lock-down for a longer period than otherwise thought of.
There was no Parliament in existence, and the Constitution says the government has to get monthly parliamentary approval for imposing emergency. It was an in-built safeguard against misuse and abuse. But like on the twin issues of demands for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reconvening the dissolve Parliament and fixing a new date for polling, this one too was/is linked to the pandemic, which the Constitution-makers did not know would come down on this entire earth in the Year of Our Lord 2020.
Clearly, High Commissioner Bachelet did not seem to have heard about the Pacific part of the people’s demands and protests over some US States imposing a lockdown of the Asian/European kind. That the US President Donald Trump was/is all for freedom of expression and of free movement should have gone without saying, as long as the protestors were not demanding justice for George Floyd. But for the UNHRC chief, too, seemingly overlooking both is clearly incomprehensible – to put it mildly.
The least the High Commissioner Bachelet can do is to activate/re-activate (and not de-activate) her field offices in the US. Conversely, the current statement of her kind are prime examples of her over-active her staff are in Third World nations, especially in Asia and Africa (as always?)
Coming as it did in the midst of the all-consuming ‘George Floyd case’ in Minneapolis in the American State of Minnesota, the UNHRC’s blind-folded approach to human rights violations is palpable – at times, pitiable, too. It is nobody’s case that the 46-year-old African-American was a gem of a citizen, but it is all about how a (white) police officer choked him to death in an attempt to subdue him by kneeing the other man’s throat.
Floyd’s audible cries (in the camera) did not seem to have fallen on the ears of the police officer concerned. If news reports are to be believed officer Derek Chauvin’s wife has walked out on him for what most sane people consider is unhuman, brutal and unwarranted, but the UNHRC does not seem not seem to have no views on the subject. Let’s not quote chapter and verse of the UNHRC Charter to say one thing about one nation or nations and say not anything about another or others.
Poll issue, again?
One fall-out of such statements from the UNHRC chief at a time when Sri Lanka is preparing for the delayed parliamentary polls. Covid may have already pushed the nation’s faltering economy and the non-existent sense of security in the individual. The predecessor-government, whose leaders are now in the divided Opposition, cannot escape blame on both counts.
The economy was anyway in such a bad shape that the current leadership of Brothers Rajapaksas could not have been able to address them before parliamentary polls, originally fixed for 25 April, as their supporters may want one believe. Nor is it going to give them the exclusive that Covid spoiled it all for them setting right the economy, or stop with blaming it all on their predecessors.
People are losing jobs, incomes and thus a means to livelihood. They are worried about the next meal, the next day. Telling past stories is not going to convince them. Yet, measures like the Government’s decision to reopen the nation’s tourism to paying foreigners, may not help. It takes two hands to make sound.
The foreign tourist, who has stayed away from Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the ‘Easter Sunday serial blasts’ in April last year, too, is now, bitten by the job-loss bug. He has been bitten even more by the coronavirus-fear even more. By the time, the tourists have overcome their fears, about the money in his pocket and also the covid fears nearer home, in Sri Lanka and while in transit, may not have gone away in time for the ruling Rajapaksas to gain from the issue, electorally.
The avoidable statements of High Commissioner Bachelet also has the potential to bring back ‘war crimes’ and ‘war crimes’ probe into the electoral campaign, all over again. There are nations that want to whip up the issue in the September session of UNHRC, without wanting to wait until March next, when alone it may become due.
The timing for the September session may coincide with the campaign time in Sri Lanka. If those that are sponsoring such initiatives expect that the Tamil victims of the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ are going to be impressed, they are wrong. Such campaigns cannot bring in one extra vote for those whom such initiatives seek to identify with. Nor are the Sinhala NGO/rights types going to make a decision on their future, based on what is becoming an avoidable embarrassment for their larger cause in their own circles.
Instead, any campaign of the kind against Sri Lanka can only consolidate the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ vote-banks even more. No marks for guessing, whom it would favour. If anything, electoral adversaries of the Rajapaksas-led ruling SLPP-SLFP combine from within their Sinhala-Buddhist polity may be put on the defensive all over again. Divided as they are already, they do not need another hit on their head on election-eve.
It is in this context, TNA leader R Sampanthan’s congratulatory message for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the latter’s completion of 50 years in public life, should make a lot of public sense. A gentleman-politician even otherwise, Sampanthan was telling the truth when he referred to Mahinda R, who was the war-time President, as a ‘people’s leader’.
The term cuts both ways. People will listen to him, as Sampanthan points out. But it also means that he needed to listen to (his) people, on issues that they feel strongly about. Else, he may cease to be a people’s leader, as many before him. JRJ defeated Sirimavo and even disenfranchised her, not because of he was a people’s leader.
People wanted Sirimavo out, and JRJ disenfranchised her even when the voter’s ‘dislike’ for the world’s first woman Prime Minister had died. It was done through Parliament, where JRJ had a brutal majority, not through a referendum. In such a case, the verdict might have been different, independent of the people’s continued decision not to have her back in power.
But then, the Bachelet kind of messaging can do more harm than good for Sri Lanka, especially Sri Lankan Tamils, if the UNHRC and the nations voting against the country, keep pressing the past back (only) on the nation, and none else last time, the US-led campaign led to the UNHRC resolution of 2012, it also ensured that the TNA walked out of the post-war political negotiations with the then Rajapaksa Government.
This time round, again, such efforts could destroy whatever internal hopes that the TNA may have for the Tamils of the country. Second, and even more seriously, they need to remember President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Independence Day declaration, about the nation exiting international organisations if they continued to target Sri Lanka.
Leave aside the very act of it – which cannot be stalled even by an Opposition-majority Parliament, post-poll – it could jeopardise the chances of permanent political reconciliation between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan State…. Or, at least force the Tamils, now or later, to negotiate with the Sri Lankan State through the instrumentality of the government of the day, without their continual claims to make the ‘international community’ force it all down Colombo….
Tit is again a flawed approach, one more time. For, the Tamils would have been disarmed and orphaned without even the non-existing protection and backing of the international community, and yet negotiate only with the Sri Lankan State and government of the time, which can go on for years and decades. Is it that the Navi Pillay and Bachelet and the rest of the world want for the Tamils of Sri Lanka?
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)