For whom does the bell toll at Geneva?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

With their habituated behaviour of adding new template models to old ones that have failed them without revisiting or revision, the ‘international community’ (read: West) seems determined to commit their old mistakes one more time, this time in the case of Sri Lanka. Even as they continue to go after the Colombo government, especially the reigning Rajapaksas, at the UNHRC especially, they, as always, have failed to look at the day-after. They have not noted the fast-tracked withering away of the divided Tamil polity, which is supposed to be the actual recipients of the benefits from the UNHRC processes and beyond, for and on behalf of the larger community.

The UNHRC is a template model of the West to haul up nations that otherwise manage to get veto-defenders at the UN Security Council (UNSC). Founded in 2006, the UN affiliate now ends up serving their political demands of the 21st century. UNSC veto-powers like China and Russia did not bother much initially on the premise that at the end of it all, an ‘offender-nation’, reported as such by the OHCHR and the UNSC still had to be brought up before the UNSC. But such nations as brought up before the UNHRC, the bi-annual process becomes as much a routine as it is sapping.

What the Sri Lankan experience with the UNHRC has shown is something entirely different, and more. Governments as institutions, elected or not, are constant. The world body can go after them independent of the leadership in power. It is just as a civilian hauling up his government before local courts, independent of which party or leadership initiated a new law. As long as he could prove to the satisfaction of the court that his rights had been illegally curtailed, or the law under which the action was taken was untenable under the nation’s Constitution, he has the hope of getting a favourable verdict.

In the case of the ongoing UNHRC process viz Sri Lanka, the change of government did not impact on the process, as was witnessed between 2015 and 2019. There was an agreement between the West and the then government to give the latter time to side-step the processes that had been initiated with the then ruling Rajapaksas in mind. Now that the Rajapaksas are back in power for two years now, the UNHRC seems wanting to stick to the letter of their laws.

Nothing else explains the continuing vehemence with which high commissioner Michelle Bachelet & Co is coming after the Colombo government even when the council vote for Resolution: 46/1 was below par. Only 22 of the 47 voting members approved of the resolution. The majority, including a high number of abstentions, was on the other side. Yet, the high commissioner and team are going about their tasked job as if they are on auto-mode, and that a future vote could undo what all they are doing. If such a vote asks the high commissioner’s office to pay up all the money expended on what they could then describe and dismiss as a wild goose chase, what would the present team have to say at the time?

Cataclysmic changes

All of it sounds theoretical. But there is a more practical part of it, which the West seems to have ignored or not even noticed with the seriousness that it deserves. Translated, the question is this: ‘For whom does the bell chime at Geneva?’ The reasons are not far to seek.

The UNHRC’s is a process, which takes its time and its turns. For instance, many nations, including the Indian neighbour who had voted for the US-sponsored motion in the past, abstained from voting on 46/1. With every periodic change in voting members, which is as political as the way individual nations vote also in the council, the very composition changes. This has led to a situation in which ‘accused nations’ and their governments need only to wait for the right composition in the council and work their way up to that point. Then, they get a breather, however short it be.

That is not the case with the beneficiary people, for whom the UNHRC is fighting their case. In Sri Lanka’s case, through the past 12 years of post-war trauma, the victimised Tamil community has been undergoing cataclysmic changes in the composition of its political leadership, the real negotiator for the community and the actual recipient of the global benefits that the West is so keen to confer on the community. It is sad but that is the truth.

Tamil political arrogance

Going by Tamil media reports, which does not find adequate coverage in the so-called ‘national media’ in English, the Tamil polity, already divided, is going through the worst phase, so to say. If left unchecked, there is no way anyone can stop the self-destruction of the very idea of a larger Tamil polity from within. And no one, including the prosecutors at the UNHRC, can blame the government, the Rajapaksas or whoever in their place, as some of them had done with the case of the military weakening of the LTTE from within, in its time.

For some years now, the anti-Rajapaksa Tamil polity is divided under three main camps. The TNA remains at the top, with the TNPF of Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam and TPNA of Justice C V Wigneswaran forming the two flanks, but all three separated more by personality egos than political ideology of any serious kind. Given the inherent ‘Tamil political arrogance’, it is not going to go away even if the polity is destroyed and future generations not only migrate but also their leader are born in Australia or Canada or Norway. They may then be fighting for the leadership of the TGTE, which now remains the only monolith Tamil organisation, Diaspora or not.

As per current reports, the TNA is now falling apart even more than at the end of the war. Two of the three constituents, namely, TELO and PLOTE have all but walked out on the ITAK leader, and without ‘provocation’. In the past, they used to play out this gimmick before every election for TNA’s octogenarian leader R Sampanthan to placate them with more seats and preferred electorates. This time, no one is talking about any election still, but the chasm has built up.

First, TELO took the unprecedented step of calling for a meeting of all Tamil parties and leaders, a job generally left to the ITAK leadership if it were to involve a result-oriented unification of action, if not minds. Then, TELO and PLOTE went on to sign a common memorandum to the UNHRC, without consulting or involving the ITAK in the process. That the memorandum may have reached high commissioner Bachelet long after she had finalised her ‘oral statement’ to the council was/is beside the point.

It did not stop there. Within the leading ITAK, there is further chasm, with at least two MPs in a total of nine being charged with signing a ‘non-party’ memorandum to the UNHRC over the head of the leadership. Some of the leading signatories have been blowing hot and cold on affixing their signature. Under pressure from a section of the cadres, the leadership has issued a show-cause notice to them all.

The chances are that no real action would follow even if the allegations against the nine are found to be true – the proving of which is going to be difficult, one way or the other. The ITAK, truth be told, is not ready to sack two MPs, now or ever. So, indiscipline would continue to creep in, more and more, in the coming months and years…

Waiting on the wings

Today, Sampanthan, aging and ailing, has been the binding force for both the ITAK and the TNA. Just as his manipulative skills have kept him at the top and also kept many others from the coalition, it has also helped the Tamil community to present a strong, if not unified political leadership in the TNA. But Sampanthan has been losing his grip with each passing day, if not hour.

Then, there are ITAK in-house quarrels in which equations and combinations keep changing, yes, by the hour. Party president Maavai Senathirajah, who could not retain his seat in Parliament in last year’s elections, now wants to be Northern Province chief minister, whenever the much-delayed elections are held. There are others who have been angling only for that post within the ITAK, without setting their sights at a parliament seat, either.

But on a day-to-day basis, the party is at sixes and sevens. Senathirajah does not have the appeal of the late Amirthaligam, or the cunning of his and that of Sampanthan. He either assumes he already has both, or wants to have it all. There is none else with even as much reach as him in the party, though parliamentarian and international spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran has greater acceptance, more so outside, in the international community. And the international community does not vote in Sri Lankan elections, including those in the Tamil North and the East.

Clearly, the mainline Sinhala parties are waiting for the Tamil polity to collapse for their traditional constituencies to take their place, if only over time. They have seen the writing on the wall, even before the war ended. It suited the undivided UNP to let the Tamils’ anger against the Rajapaksas peak so that the alternative to the TNA at collapse would be their party. The Rajapaksas used to harp on the Tamils preferring SLFP’s Hector Kobbekaduwa to UNP’s JRJ, but not any more.

Today, the SJB has sort of replaced the UNP. The Rajapaksas’ SLPP has done it to parent SLFP. But their ambitions and hopes for garnering Tamil votes have not diminished. If anything, going by the voting-pattern in the post-war era, when the Tamil votes along with that of the Muslim minorities and Upcountry Tamils made the difference to the vote-count, if not results, the mainline Sinhala parties are not going to leave the Tamil community to decay as their parties have been at present.

Unless the West has acquiesced itself to the Tamils identifying with the ‘lesser of the Sinhala evils’, and are not a part of the larger plot, which includes a long waiting game since the end of the war in 2009, they need to acknowledge the existing and emerging vacuum in Tamil political leadership. They may have humbled the Sri Lankan state and also the Rajapaksa leadership, if at all, but then they would have none from the Tamil polity and community, to offer those benefits – and for keeps, for all future!

(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:


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