Sri Lanka's day of reckoning

At the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Sri Lankan and U.S. governments are facing off this week over a resolution that the U.S. has proposed but neither side wanted. Sri Lanka's response to the events at the end of its toxic war — the subject of that resolution — has become the driving issue in Sri Lanka's relations with the United States. The resolution may not have much impact on the reconciliation process that is so critical for Sri Lanka's future. For the sake of Sri Lanka, the region and indeed Washington, it is important that reconciliation actually takes place.

Human rights have had a high profile in U.S.-Sri Lankan relations for at least three decades. Only since the end of the long civil war in 2009, however, have human rights and war crimes issues come to dominate the relationship. The problem started out as an entirely predictable emotional disconnect between the two countries. Sri Lanka's victory was won in the face of the scepticism of most of its international friends, and in the teeth of its aid donors' urging not to seek a military solution to its ethnic problems. After defeating one of the world's nastiest terrorist organisations, Sri Lanka expected congratulations. Instead, those aid donors, while welcoming the end of the war, put their post-war emphasis on preventing a humanitarian catastrophe and on human rights. Europe and the U.S. reacted to Sri Lanka's declaration of victory by calling for disbanding the camps where displaced Tamils were living in misery. The demands for accountability became more insistent, and from Sri Lanka's perspective more threatening, with the release of information suggesting that Sri Lanka might have committed war crimes in those terrible final days, notably the British Channel 4 news film, replayed in recent days and highly controversial in Sri Lanka.

Sour tone

From the U.S. perspective, on the other hand, the sour tone that has come to dominate Washington's dialogue with Colombo stems from the Sri Lankan government's unwillingness to take these issues seriously. Sri Lanka became a symbol of human rights problems, a country where the U.S. could show that it was pursuing a serious policy. Washington has other interests in play in Sri Lanka, such as the island's business and economic ties with the U.S. and its strategic location. However, without some indication that the human rights and war crimes issues were moving toward resolution, those in the Obama administration who championed a broader dialogue with Colombo were outgunned in the Washington policy debate. Proposing a resolution in Geneva was the result.

But U.S. introduction of a resolution on Sri Lanka triggered a ferocious reaction in the island. In an unprecedented diplomatic effort to fight back, Sri Lanka sent its Foreign Minister all over Africa in an effort to line up votes. Even more striking was the reaction at home. Minister Wimal Weerawansa publicly called for a boycott of U.S. goods and services, and charged that “local Americans” were trying to kill him as a result. At an interfaith prayer service, thousands of monks joined by a few Christian and Muslim clerics spoke of the need for unity “to protect the country.” Dark suspicions were voiced that the resolution represented a U.S. effort to divide the country. The narrative of a beleaguered island facing the world is a familiar one in Sri Lanka; it gave the government's lurid charges about the content and motivation of the resolution even greater resonance at the popular level.

The resolution itself is actually quite bland. Its bottom line is to urge Sri Lanka to implement the “constructive recommendations” advanced by the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. This commission was created by the Government of Sri Lanka, which had offered it as evidence that it was moving forward to deal with the after-effects of decades of civil war. The government had indeed spoken of plans to implement its recommendations. The commission had been criticised by international human rights-watchers as insufficiently independent and lacking in authority, but its recommendations were nonetheless clearly the most plausible home-grown starting point for binding up the wounds of war. Unfortunately, if the resolution passes, the furore it sparks will mean that any forward movement in this area will need to be camouflaged so as not to look like Colombo's submission to it.

'Peace dividend'

Washington's economic interests may not suffer too much, whether or not the resolution passes. The Sri Lankan government is eager to reap a “peace dividend,” and its diplomats in the U.S. are working zealously to attract more U.S. trade and investment. This is likely to continue whatever the resolution's fate. As to U.S. strategic interests, the “China card” no longer has the galvanising impact on Washington that it did in earlier decades. Nonetheless, the U.S. cannot ignore changes in China's military presence in the Indian Ocean, an increasingly important zone of military and oil transit, and the centrepiece of an increasingly active U.S.-Indian security dialogue. By the same token, U.S. ability to work with all the riparian states, including Sri Lanka, now has real strategic significance. That will be harder in the short term.

The Geneva drama also plays out against the background of Sri Lanka's recovery from its long civil war. After its declaration of victory, the Sri Lankan government has pursued “reconciliation” in two channels. The first was talks with the Tamil National Alliance. A recent visit to Colombo left me with the feeling that this effort was at best going round in circles, unlikely to break down completely but equally unlikely to produce a breakthrough. The TNA continues to speak in the pre-war vocabulary of “devolution” (giving provinces greater authority) and “merger” (combining the North and the East), recognising that merger is unlikely. In fact, neither the government nor its Sinhalese supporters have any interest in either. The opposition United National Party has a dramatically reduced presence in parliament. Even if it were inclined to pursue a more energetic reconciliation policy, it would not be well placed to put pressure on the government. It is an open question how long this process can keep the politics of the ethnic conflict quiet.

The second route to reconciliation was the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. The TNA was critical of the document, but did find some aspects to praise. However, there is no movement toward serious implementation of its recommendations, at least not yet. The longer the report sits on the shelf, the greater the likelihood of old grievances being nurtured and eventually bursting out.

The Sri Lankan government, starting with those closest to the President, is more interested in two other avenues: local government and economic development. It sees in local elections and service as local officials a kind of safety valve for Tamil political aspirations. It remains to be seen whether the leadership is prepared to move ahead more energetically to hold these elections in Tamil-majority areas.

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. A generation of young people has grown up with an education — one of Sri Lanka's signal success stories — but no job skills. The government is encouraging investors to look at Jaffna, and at least some of those funding the rapidly growing tourist industry are starting hotel projects in Jaffna. Unfortunately, their efforts to hire local construction workers are stymied by the scarcity of people who know how to build modern buildings. Training programmes may eventually fill the gap; other kinds of investment may eventually follow the lead of the hotels. That is the one source of hope for the future.

Will economic development and local elections be enough to secure what one observer called “a grumpy peace”? That question will determine the future of Sri Lanka, and will powerfully influence the peace and security of the island and its neighbours. A positive answer would also be good for Washington, not only because it fosters human rights, but also for reasons of its own national security. 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.

(Teresita C. Schaffer is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, and co-editor of southasiahand.com. She spent much of her 30-year diplomatic career working on South Asia, and served as U.S. ambassador in Sri Lanka from 1992-1995.)

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