Sanctions are a diplomatic tool for the international community to peaceably compel recalcitrant governments into conforming with accepted international norms. This is the basis on which a variety of sanctions have in the past been successfully applied to regimes in Libya, Zimbabwe and Apartheid South Africa amongst many others. The logic of sanctions is simple: economic isolation of a state compels its discomforted people to pressure their leadership to change its behaviour and adhere to sought after international principles.
Thus, it is especially on ultra-nationalist leaderships that rely on popular support, like President Mahinda Rajapskse's government in Sri Lanka or former President Slobodan Milosevic's in Serbia, that sanctions can be most effective. Moreover, irrespective of questions of efficacy, as exemplified by the cases of Serbia and Saddam's Iraq, sanctions are the only means, short of the use of armed force, to compel states to adhere to internationally accepted codes of conduct.
Amid Sri Lanka's unabashed defiance of international human rights and governance norms, the European Union, press reports this month suggest, is considering withdrawing the GSP+ subsidy for firms that import from there. This, according to Sri Lanka's supporters, should not happen as it will "hurt" 250,000 'Sri Lankans'. But that, surely, is the logic of sanctions. It is only when the majority Sinhalese who support President Rajapak-se's ultra-nationalist regime are compelled by economic hardship into bringing internal pressure to bear on it that international demands over human rights and political reconciliation, for example, will even draw lip service from it.
There are two related factors inherent to economics in Sri Lanka. Firstly, the vast majority of people involved in the export-manufacture sector make up the Sinhala vote bank on which President Rajapakse's political fortunes, short of him imposing a militarized dictatorship, depend. Secondly, manufacturing is non-existent in the Tamil-speaking Northeast, which has been ravaged repeatedly by the thirty years of war. In other words, under these conditions, further foreign investment or subsidies in the southern (Sinhala-dominated) economy will not only further secure the Rajapakse regime and entrench the rampant chauvinism that has swept the country in the past three years it will fuel the ethnic polarization.
Since 1977, foreign subsidies and investment have benefit the Sinhala only while structurally excluding the Tamils. This is as true of the major infrastructure projects supported by donors, as the majority of their 'poverty-alleviation' efforts. As forthcoming research from the University of London reveals, this is no outlandish claim, but self-evident from where - and how - donors have undertaken their efforts for thirty years.
That most wealth is concentrated in Sri Lanka's Western province does not mean the rest of the Sinhala south and Tamil-speaking Northeast have been equally 'excluded'. On the one hand, there is the militarized repression under which Tamils have lived since liberalization began in 1977, the devastating firepower unleashed against Tamil towns and villages during the war and the proclivity of donors to simply ignore the Northeast whilst waiting for the government to win the war. On the other hand, there is the Sinhala dominance of the state, the flow of massive infrastructure development in Sinhala areas (for example Hambantota port), the political patron-client networks and the military remittances that have ensured the Sinhalese has been far better protected against economic hardship than the Tamils for the past few decades.
This year, Sri Lanka has massacred tens of thousands of Tamils; 20,000 in the last weeks of the war against the Liberation Tigers. It continues, despite near daily international protest, to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of people, precisely because they are Tamils, while blocking international humanitarian and media access. For years, President Rajapakse's regime has murdered, 'disappeared', and tortured with complete impunity. Indeed, it has thumbed its nose at the international community, daring it to do its worst.
Conversely, international inaction has allowed the regime to project itself internally as successfully standing up to the international community. Popular support, thus bolstered, has in turn fuelled chauvinism and repression. The international community can thus support the Sinhala state and hope for lasting peace or it can act to constrain Sinhala chauvinism and bring about one. Meanwhile, as more than one international observer has realized, Sri Lanka is in inexorable transition - between one war and another.