That Sri Lanka this week failed to garner enough votes at the United Nations to get on to the Human Rights Council will bring cheer to many, including a coalition of international human rights groups and the three Nobel laureates who had publicly called for Colombo’s bid to be rejected. However, this moment is neither some sort of watershed in the Sinhala state’s fortunes nor of any consequence to the ongoing suffering of the Tamil people. In short, whether Sri Lanka is on the council or not, is largely an irrelevancy.
To begin with, it beggars belief that Sri Lanka could even be a credible candidate, given the brazen confidence with which the Sinhala military and its paramilitary allies murder, ‘disappear’, torture and, as news reports are beginning to acknowledge, rape - assuming, of course, that the HRC is taken seriously as site of human rights protection in the first place. Remember that Sri Lanka has actually been on the council for the past two years. Whilst the concept of ‘human rights’ has for almost two decades been promoted by powerful Western states and their associated institutions and organization as supposedly a key principle of modern governance, in practice it has proven remarkably brittle. Not because human rights are still violated, but because both Western states and their developing world favourites have been able to do so without real consequence.
Thus, rather than some sort of ‘universal’ principle, the concept of ‘human rights’ has, in actuality, served mainly as a tool for the West-led international community to (re)order the world to their preference. This is not to say that human rights, in themselves, are not of moral value. As a people who have endured sixty years of oppression, including thirty years of militarized violence by the Sinhala state, the Tamils have long documented and protested their suffering in the language of human rights. Our problem, rather, is the manifest hypocrisy of the West which has, whilst lecturing us solemnly on the overarching morality of human rights, steadfastly backed the state that brutalizes us.
This hypocrisy has become glaring in the past three years, as the Sinhala-supremacist regime of President Mahinda Rajapakse has enjoyed every practical assistance it requires from the West. This assistance has admittedly been rendered amid much admonishment. But harsh words won’t hurt a state like Sri Lanka. No matter how brazen Sri Lanka’s abuses against the Tamils are, concrete steps against the Sinhala state will not be forthcoming: the recent assurance by the EU – which in particular makes much about ‘human rights’ - to extend its trade concessions for three more years is a case in point.
Moreover, what is interesting about this week’s tussle over Sri Lanka the UN is the polarization between various state groupings. For example, whilst Sri Lanka was passionately opposed by Western human rights groups and some states, the Sinhala regime was actively supported by China, India and, according to some reports, Japan. Clearly, this is not to say these states either have no respect for ‘human rights’ nor that they believe Sri Lanka was actually qualified to be on the council. Rather, what we are seeing is interest-driven international politics at play. Indeed, amid such polarization amongst powerful states – not in the overarching sense of the West and the Soviet Union, but on selected issues – the term ‘international community’ is increasingly losing its coherence.
We argued recently that, two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of new poles (with their own interests and values) has raised serious challenges to the US-led West's interests, as well as the ideological values it has promoted in the service of those interests. We also argued the Sinhala state is making a deliberate shift to the East and away from the West and that the logic behind this realignment is that Sinhala majoritarianism will inevitably always remain in tension with West’s vision of global liberalism.
Sri Lanka has long been on the frontline of the West’s efforts to expand this liberal order. The Norwegian-led peace process was the most ambitious effort yet to do this. The West mistakenly believed the UNP-led government of Ranil Wickremsinghe was a partner in the project. In reality, whilst the UNP regime was prepared to go along with the Western project (of which Japan, one of the Co-Chairs alongside the US, EU and Norway, was a reticent member), and shared the project’s free-market logic the UNP had no more commitment to liberal political values than the SLFP. Rather, both Sinhala parties are committed to Sinhala majoritarianism and communalism. This has been demonstrated by the lurch towards the Sinhala right the UNP has attempted in the past three years (the Sinhala voters, however, trust the SLFP more than the UNP to safeguard their privileged position).
These dynamics are also at play in the Eastern Province, where, following the laughably unabashed rigging of the Provincial Council elections on May 10, Sivanesathurai Chandrakan, alias Pillayan, the leader of the Army-backed paramilitary group, the TMVP, has been appointed Chief Minister. It was clear that the Western states were clearly hoping for the UNP would win the elections, prompting the Sinhala ultra-nationalist Champika Ranawake, Sri Lanka's Environment minister, to mockingly declare the UPFA’s election victory as a defeat for the 'West-backed Eelamists.'
The point here is that repeated insistence by powerful states, especially the United States, that Sri Lanka is not a strategic concern in no way diminishes their active involvement in the micro-dynamics of the island’s politics and conflict. From the very outset, in the early eighties, of the armed resistance phase of the Tamil liberation struggle, countries such as the United States and India, for example, have sought to pursue their interests through such localized involvement.
What this means for the Tamils is that their grievances only matter when taking these up serves the geopolitical and geoeconomic interests of powerful states. The long-running efforts by the wider Tamil liberation movement to ‘internationalise’ the Tamil cause has therefore not been merely to seek sympathy abroad, but to make it clear that it is not the Tamil demand for independence that makes Sri Lanka a zone of instability and disruption in the international order, but, rather it is the ferocity of the Sinhala state’s efforts to maintain its chauvinistic domination of our people.
The main point for Tamils to bear in mind is this: the world’s powerful states have no more commitment to sovereignty than to human rights. Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity is no more important to them than Tamils’ freedom. It’s just more useful at this point. And as the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston put, ‘we have no permanent friends and we have no permanent enemies. We have permanent interests’. It is no different for any other state in today’s world.
It is in this context the LTTE leader, Vellupillai Pirapaharan, observed in 1993: “Every country in this world advances its own interests. It is economic and trade interests that determine the order of the present world, not the moral law of justice nor the rights of people. International relations and diplomacy between countries are determined by such interests. Therefore we cannot expect an immediate recognition of the moral legitimacy of our cause by the international community. ... In reality, the success of our struggle depends on us, not on the world. Our success depends on our own efforts, on our own strength, on our own determination..."