UNHRC: GovERNMENt burnt bridges with India & Muslim world, and now pleads for help By Ranga Jayasuriya

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  • The government’s ethnic relations, driven by ideological compulsions of the ultra-nationalist pole bearers have done immense damage to Sri Lanka’s image in the Muslim world
  • Sri Lanka’s current troubles of the UNHRC are also a result of its own making when it chose to give the middle finger to the co-group and withdrew the co-sponsorship from the previous UNHRC resolution (30/1) 
  • Much of the Sri Lankan approach towards the UNHRC resolution has been incoherent ramblings in a discordant strategy  

As Sri Lanka is heading towards a showdown in the UN Human Rights Council, which will vote on an adverse resolution on Sri Lanka today, leaders in Colombo are scrambling to avoid a near-certain defeat. 

On Sunday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa called the Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Yousef A. Al-Othaimeen and ‘discussed with him the existing relations between the OIC and Sri Lanka as well as the situation of the Muslim community in the country’, according to a statement by the OIC.  Earlier, President Rajapaksa called India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and discussed ‘topical developments’.  Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Bangladesh, a voting member of the UN Human Rights Council, which has now assured its support to Colombo. On the weekend, the Prime Minister telephoned Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the deputy king of Bahrain, a current member state of the UNHRC and an OIC member state.

Matter-of-factly, much of the damage the president is trying to undo was self-inflicted during the 14 months of his rule. The OIC is a vocal critic of Sri Lanka’ compulsory cremation policy of Covid related dead bodies, which violated Muslim religious beliefs and funeral rites. OIC also raised concerns over Sri Lanka’s forced cremation at the UN Human Rights Council last month. Though the government has recanted the policy during the visit by the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, the policy left a large hole in Sri Lanka’s relations with the Muslim nations.
To make matters worse, while the UN Human Rights Council sessions are in progress, Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera announced in an event in a temple that the government will ban the full-face Islamic veil, Niqab and Burka. While the decision has its own dispassionate logic in terms of national security and ethnic integration, it was announced at the worst possible time –and by an individual with a reputation for borderline bigotry. It did not age well, and the government was soon on the backfoot. The OIC raised concerns over the Burka ban as well.

The government’s ethnic relations, driven by ideological compulsions of the ultra-nationalist pole bearers have done immense damage to Sri Lanka’s image in the Muslim world. The country has historically prided in its good relations with the Islamic nations and also relied on the support of the OIC nations during the previous human rights council resolutions. Sri Lanka’s traditional friends in the Muslim world are hardly the torch-bearers of human rights and civil liberties. However, there is a strong thread of transnational Islamic identity (Umma) that drives Muslim policies, and often used for domestic political mobilisation in these countries. Perception cultivated by the government’s recent policies towards Muslims have burnt bridges with the Muslim world. . Paradoxically, after getting bombed by the Islamist terrorists, Sri Lanka is now being viewed, not as the victim, but as the perpetrator of Islamaphobia due to a policy of dog-whistling racism indulged in by the government. Another factor is India, the only country if it desires could swing the vote, which however has maintained a stoic silence. The only sign of the Indian posture is the scripted statement delivered by its UN envoy, who positioned India’s policy on its commitment to  Sri Lanka’s territorial unity and sovereignty, and also the political aspiration of Tamils.

The ideologues of the current government have however plotted to abolish the 13thAmendment. Though a thinly veiled rebuff by the Indian external affairs Minister had made them volume down the campaign, the government’s leaders have not yet announced their position on the 13thAmendment.

The draft resolution on Sri Lanka also calls on the Government to fulfil its commitments on devolution of power, and “respect local governance” by holding Provincial Council Elections and ensuring all Provincial Councils can function effectively in accordance with the 13th Amendment, with special reference made to the Northern provincial council.

That Sri Lanka’s new rulers are fast retreating to China’s fold is not lost in India. To add insult to injury, the government backtracked on a previous agreement for the joint development of the Colombo Eastern terminal with India. Such policies of geopolitical brinkmanship have historically cost this country dearly, losing the Indian vote in the UNHRC is the least of the potential repercussions.

Sri Lanka’s current troubles of the UNHRC are also a result of its own making when it chose to give the middle finger to the co-group and withdrew the co-sponsorship from the previous UNHRC resolution (30/1) and the related rollover resolutions. That act of foolhardily provoked a new UNHRC resolution which has incrementally hardened the position and proposed an independent evidence-gathering mechanism on Sri Lanka.

A trademark false pride and self-harming bravado have guided the Sri Lankan foreign policy.

Much of the Sri Lankan approach towards the UNHRC resolution has been incoherent ramblings in a  discordant strategy. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, though the nationalist minders of the government might have favoured him for the job over traditional foreign policy pundits, now seems to be feeling uncomfortable. He has resorted to sovereign equality, claimed the resolution is a violation of sovereignty, and a ‘ political move’.  The foreign secretary, Rear Admiral Jayanath Colombage who has overshadowed the minister has taken to media interviews to woo the Indian leaders. He is on record urging India’ not to abandon Sri Lanka and later telling India had assured its support to Colombo at the UNHRC. Though the officials in South Bloc have denied that, Admiral Colombage says Sri Lanka “greatly appreciates” India’s position, “being the superpower they are.”
Sri Lanka’s envoy in Geneva, C.A. Chandraprema has been criticised for not being able to canvas among foreign diplomats. The failure he has blamed on the Covid related difficulties.

What next?

There is a sense of resignation and nonchalant in the government ranks about the inevitable outcome.  The UNHRC resolution that would be voted today will lead to the creation of an independent evidence gathering and preservation mechanism on Sri Lanka’s allegations of war crime and rights abuses during the final phase of the war. This would effectively open pandora’s box for trials under the universal jurisdiction. The withdrawal of the co-sponsorship of the previous resolution was about grandstanding at home. However, its repercussions are now risking a series of legal troubles and potential targeted sanctions.

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Disclaimer: UNHRC: GovERNMENt burnt bridges with India & Muslim world, and now pleads for help By Ranga Jayasuriya - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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