UNHRC Resolution: Threat or Opportunity?

by M.A. Sumanthiran, MP, 'Daily Mirror,' Colombo, March 11, 2013

UNHRC Resolution: A Threat or an Opportunity?

In his book ‘Sri Lanka – What Went Wrong: J.R. Jayewardene’s Free and Righteous Society’, writer and political commentator V.P. Vittachi refers to a mode of speech he describes as ‘plonking’. Quoting from Stephen Potter’s ‘Lifemanship’ he says,

“For maximum irritation remember, the tone of voice must be ‘plonking’…What is Plonking? If you have nothing to say, or, rather, something extremely stupid… say it, but in a plonking tone of voice – i.e. roundly, but hollowly and dogmatically.”

(Hitachi, Sri Lanka – What Went Wrong: J.R. Jayewardene’s Free and Righteous Society, New Delhi, 1995, p. 50)
Hitachi then goes on to say that ‘the era of plonking as an instrument of high government policy had arrived.’ (p.51)
The ‘plonking’ of the Sri Lankan government today is all too apparent in its response to the upcoming resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Take the statement made by Ravinath Aryasinghe — Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Geneva — following the screening of Channel Four’s latest documentary film on Sri Lanka, ‘No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’ at the ongoing 22nd session of the UNHRC.

The conclusion of the film includes statements by various government representatives amounting to blanket denials of any such crimes.
To an audience which had just witnessed the images screened, such statements were indeed reminiscent of Vittachi’s ‘plonking’. Ambassador Ariyasinghe chose not to be present in the hall during the screening of the film, entering the room only after its conclusion. The sentiments he expressed were hollow and dogmatic and reminiscent of Vittachi’s ‘plonking’. This statement did neither the Ambassador nor the government he represents, any favours.

The Sri Lankan Government and the Ambassador are of course entitled to their opinion regarding the authenticity of the film, the credibility of its allegations and the propriety of screening it at the Council. Most importantly, the presence of a representative of the Sri Lankan government would have signalled the willingness of the government to constructively engage with the international community on issues of concern.

The attitude of the government was also clearly expressed by Minister Samarasinghe in his address at the UNHRC sessions.
He said, “We must be lectured to; taught even. We must be instructed by people who know little of our history, culture and socio-political background. Mr. President, from the Ashokan Rock Edicts of the 3rd Century before the Christian era, societies in our region have been guided by values underscoring good governance and human rights. We do not need to be told. We do not need to be taught.”

The Minister certainly did not mince his words. His audience was left in no doubt that the Sri Lankan Government was determined to adhere to its position that efforts of the Council and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights were unfair, unjustified and part of a larger agenda to ‘target’ the country. The minister’s subsequent failure to attend a meeting called by Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay in Geneva further underlined this message.

The government’s overall approach although disappointing, is hardly surprising. It has consistently adopted a similar position in response to local and international calls for accountability relating to allegations of war crimes and other human rights abuses during the war and the post-war period. It was this attitude that the Government adopted in the prelude to the Resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in March 2012. In fact, it has adopted this attitude of defensive, belligerent defiance from the time of the last stages of the war in 2009 to date. Instead of being magnanimous in its victory, it still behaves as if it is fighting a war.

The implications of such behaviour for the government’s own political survival are serious. Defiantly crying foul over the positions taken by other members of the international community may impress audiences at home in the short term. However, the long term impact of this defiance of the international community will be felt on international trade, industry, and commerce. Ultimately, it is the Sri Lankan people who will be forced to bear its economic consequences.
A further rise in the cost of living that is already crushing even the middle class will inevitably overwhelm any nationalistic fervour the government is able to whip up. Thus, public support garnered by playing on misplaced patriotism can only be short lived.

” Achieving reconciliation can only be possible if the truth is uncovered. And for this to happen, an impartial, unbiased and transparent process must take place ”

The attitude of the government today can only result in a loss of public support in the not-too-distant future.
One cannot fool all the people all the time. The Government cannot veil its feeble attempts to save itself from the inconvenience of accountability with its rallying call against conspiratorial international forces for much longer. It will not be long before it is apparent to all that it is not, and indeed never was, a question of saving the country from the international community, but of saving the country from the Government.

Its own political survival aside, it is time the government realizes that it can no longer win playing the game of finger pointing. It can no longer attempt to distract the Sri Lankan people by its accusations against countries supporting the proposed resolution, the UNHRC and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The immediate concern of the Government should not be about the human rights record of countries supporting the proposed resolution; or even whether the Council and the High Commissioner are without fault. The immediate concern of the Government must be about our country.

Achieving reconciliation can only be possible if the truth is uncovered. And for this to happen, an impartial, unbiased and transparent process must take place.
The most effective way of silencing those making allegations the Government claims are unjustified by participating actively in a truly impartial, truth-seeking process. The Government must show a genuine commitment towards this to win the trust of all its peoples, especially of the Tamil people.
It cannot do this by attempting to sweep these allegations under the carpet, dismissing them as the ‘conspiracies of traitors to the nation’ or ‘imperial forces’. It cannot do this by a farcical inquiry, in which the accused are the judges and the victims have no voice.The proposed resolution must be viewed not as a threat, but as an opportunity. It is an opportunity for the government to display its co-operation and goodwill towards the international community, for the good of all its people.
The TNA urges the Sri Lankan Government to cooperate with the proposed UNHRC Resolution. If its claims that it has nothing to hide are true, then its best defence is it willingness to embrace transparency and accountability.

It is now time for the government to listen to its critics and attempt to constructively engage with them.
Sir Winston Churchill once said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
The Sri Lankan Government has spoken. It will perhaps do well to consider whether it is now the time to sit down and listen.

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