Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Making foreign policy on the street

By Dr. P. Saravanamuttu | Groundviews

The declared threat, the demonstration, siege, fast unto death outside the office of the UN in Colombo by the Wimal Weerawansa led National Freedom Front, raises interesting and alarming questions about policymaking in our country.

Wimal Weerawansa announced that he would call upon his supporters to surround the UN office until the UN Secretary General disbanded the advisory panel he has set up on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. It was reported that the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) had informed the UN that these were the views of an individual and not that of the GOSL. Days later, Weerawansa, a cabinet minister and key supporter of the president and regime, leads a demonstration of hundreds to the UN office, blocks the entrances and exits to the building, declaring that they will not move until the panel is disbanded.

It has also been reported that the police attempted to disperse the demonstrators but were withdrawn, according to one report on the instructions of the Defence Secretary, and that a senior police officer was man-handled by the protestors. The Foreign Secretary subsequently visited the office along with NFF representatives and managed to ensure that the besieged UN staff could be evacuated with police protection. In a subsequent press conference, Weerawansa declared that unless the panel was not disbanded within a day, his supporters would embark on a fast unto death. It is understood that the GOSL maintains that it will provide security to the UN staff at the same time as it respects the right of the NFF to demonstrate. UN staff, were instructed to work from home following the demonstration and attempted siege. Later, essential staff were allowed to return to work in the building and Weerawansa commenced his fast.

Weerawansa and his supporters were effectively placing the UN office under siege. No one disputes their right to demonstrate, but to besiege the UN office surely raises questions about collective cabinet responsibility, our international obligations and policy –making? Can a cabinet minister and indeed one who is known to be so close to the president of the republic, mouth off, bluster and threaten in this way on an issue which the regime has placed such overwhelming importance and can the government stand by and say he is acting in his individual capacity? Can a cabinet minister unilaterally engage in such egregious action with possibly grave policy implications? Is collective cabinet responsibility so far removed from all of this? Indeed if he was acting without the consent and/or support of the president, will any action be taken against him for encroaching on the turf of what surely should be that of the minister of external affairs and for bringing the country into disrepute by besieging the office of the United Nations? He is reported to have said that he is prepared to lose his cabinet position if the powers that be disagree with his action.

Mr Moon’s panel, pilloried by the regime, is the object of Mr Weerawansa’s “patriotic” ire. Is this populist politics way out of control answering to the needs of a regime pathologically in need of an enemy and hyper sensitive to the war crimes charge or is this an excess of righteous enthusiasm in defence of our sovereignty?

The regime has gone to great lengths in a) insisting that Mr Moon has exceeded his powers under the Charter in appointing this panel and b) in insisting that there is no need for one since no such alleged crimes were committed by the security forces and that in any event as per the joint communique issued by Mr Moon and the president, the regime has set up its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

On a) there appears to be difference of opinion. Whilst a number of member countries of the NAM and Russia and China agree with the regime, others, mainly from the West do not and have urged the regime to call upon the expertise of the panel, seeing it as complementing the LLRC. The panel – incidentally headed by a former Indonesian attorney –general Darusman who the regime chose to appoint to the Independent International Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) attached to the Commission of Inquiry (COI) whose report nothing has been heard of since – is an advisory panel to the Secretary General. It will make recommendations to him. Any further action by the UN can only be pursuant to a Security Council resolution, which in turn will be vetoed by the Chinese and Russians, unless of course they are too embarrassed and/or appalled by the siege.

On b) were the panel to conclude that no war crimes were committed by members of the security forces the matter would effectively be laid to rest on the word of an international panel. Likewise, were the panel to conclude that such crimes were committed by the LTTE, it would dispel the attempts to keep alive the “atrocities” of May 2009 as a means of galvanizing support for the secessionist cause.

In this context it should also be noted that the LLRC does not deal with accountability in respect of allegations of war crimes but rather into the causes of terrorism. It does not have investigative powers. Nor is it empowered by a victim and witness protection mechanism. Neither does it meet the criteria enunciated by the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice for such commissions, which were endorsed by the minister of external affairs. Corresponding to the regime’s imputation of Darusman and other panel members’ bona fides is the point that the head of the LLRC was the former attorney general with whom the IIGEP had many problems. There is also a committee that was appointed in response to the State Department report to the US Senate Appropriations Committee on allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka. Some LLRC members sit on this committee. This committee was to have reported in December last year. Its deadline was then extended to April 2010 and now to July 2010. Note, the LLRC has a mandate for four months.

Most worrying is the state of our foreign policy. Both the GSP+ issue and the Moon Panel have been badly mismanaged. The regime has misled the public over GSP+ form the outset-making it out to be a negotiation when it was an agreement with stated obligations and eminently amenable to a win-win outcome whereby the concession would have been extended and human rights protection strengthened. The regime insisted too that it was politically motivated and the subject of a conspiracy hatched by local traitors and the international community bent on avenging the military defeat of the LTTE. Whilst the final letter from the European Commission could definitely have been better drafted – a point reportedly made by some of the member states- it is relevant to ask as to whether the 15 conditions laid down in it were in response to eventual entreaties from the regime as to what it needed to do to secure extension of the concession or as to whether it was an unacceptable and unilateral ultimatum from the Commission to a sovereign state – as the regime insists it is.

Mr Moon’s panel has been blown out of proportion as the thin edge of the wedge in respect of an international war crimes probe. As a consequence, the regime has invited speculation of the “ she doth protest too much” variety and it will have to fight the panel tooth and nail and probably not much else. Yet another zero-sum situation that could have been avoided. The regime wants to present a picture of political stability, peace and reconciliation but cannot resist confrontation, bombast and turbulence. Their brand of populist politics and pseudo-patriotism leads them to dig policy holes for themselves and destroys the goodwill this country has earned over the years as a respected member of the international community.

Foreign policy cannot be made on the street and God forbid that Weerawansa alone on a tiny stage, except for a motley crew of cohorts, fasting to death outside the UN building should be emblematic of Sri Lanka in the international community.

© Groundviews

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