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 The much heralded visit to Sri Lanka earlier this month by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, was conducted and concluded with much fanfare. Quite predictably, in her final press conference she lamented the dire state of human rights in the island, condemned all participants in the conflict and called for independent - i.e. external - human rights monitoring. When Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe sitting next to her, bluntly rejected external monitoring, she simply got on her plane home. What is of relevance to the Tamils is not Arbour's acquiescence, but the utter silence from the international community after her pointless visit - especially given that the abductions, disappearances and extra-judicial killings are continuing.
The Tamils are apparently to understand that, without the Sri Lankan government agreeing to external rights monitoring, nothing can be done to stop the abuses against them. Indeed, slipped in among the very principled stances that Ms Arbour so passionately espoused – on the universal human rights of each individual, on the responsibility to protect, on the need for international monitors – was that quiet admission that sovereignty still matters. As she made it clear to many during her visit, she was a guest of President Mahinda Rajapakse and, as such, had certain ‘constraints.’
However, until she landed, many voices in the international community were hailing Arbour’s visit as some sort of landmark event in human rights protection. The European Union - for the third time in a year - dumped its much hyped resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council reportedly pending the outcome of Arbour’s visit, ahead of which, various human rights groups issued calls for monitoring, arguing this, rather than firm action against Colombo, was key to stopping the abuses. Now that the UN has told by Sri Lanka that its presence on the ground would never be welcome, let alone be invited, these voices have all suddenly gone quiet. This is not because international community is reconsidering its options, but because Arbour’s visit has served its purpose: taking the steam out of the human rights pressure on Sri Lanka and buying Rajapakse a little more time for his military project.
No-one seriously expected Sri Lanka to voluntarily accept international monitors on the ground – that would, after all, have been an admission of incompetence and a surrender of sovereignty no state could reasonably have been expected to make. Sri Lanka, moreover, has always been vocal in its implacable opposition to external interference of any kind – except of course the UNP government of 2001 which was banking on the ‘international safety net’ to destroy the LTTE and curb Tamil aspirations and was therefore prepared to accept external oversight on any aspect of governance that its international backers deemed necessary (the UNP is paying for that acquiescence now).
But the present international silence is actually not about respecting sovereignty, which, after all, is routinely breached by the world’s more powerful states. For the international community, Sri Lanka’s sovereignty is not some cardinal principle to be respected but a convenient strategy to be followed. As we have argued before, the international community wants the war it is financially, politically and militarily supporting in Sri Lanka to conclude successfully - although it would certainly prefer the Rajapakse regime to fight it more cleanly. The robust international support for the $500m bond that Sri Lanka recently launched is a case in point. The bond is meant primarily to support the war effort. Whilst there has been much talk of cutting international aid, in reality, funding has simply been temporarily been put on hold until Rajapakse completes his military project – in any case, not much development can be attempted when a war is also being fought.
Human rights are thus only matters for states and actors out of favour with the international community to be concerned about. The international community is more concerned with stability than with justice. In short, the most important requirement of Sri Lanka’s government is that it ends the war, either by talks or by military victory - and Rajapakse isn’t preparing a peace proposal to put before the Tamils. The central lesson Tamils must draw from international indifference to their plight is that the only way to be physically secure is to effectively assert their own sovereignty. Indeed, East Timor, Eritrea and, now, Kosovo are standing examples of how new zones of sovereignty can readily be created out of former ones when it suits the international community’s interests.