Sri Lanka’s defiance of international criticism over the past two years has been interpreted by some as proof of the lack of international leverage over Colombo’s conduct.
Nothing could be further from the truth. President Mahinda Rajapakse’s disastrous visit to Britain last week clearly reveals that even as his government haughtily rejects criticism, it also craves acceptance. For all its bluster, the regime desperately seeks international respectability.
Crucially, however, Sri Lanka is unwilling to observe international norms to this end. The Rajapakse administration has rejected international demands for credible investigations into war crimes during the armed conflict, and brushed off calls for a meaningful solution to the Tamil question. Instead, it has fired angry missives at international critics, rejected visas to diplomats, aid workers and journalists, and sponsored noisy demonstrations against the UN, Britain and international ‘interference’ generally.
Nonetheless, it was to Britain President Rajapakse eagerly flew last week to generate international support for his ‘development vision’. And the importance attached to his address to the – half empty – United Nations assembly earlier this year was palpable.
Despite years of tirades against Norway and Oslo’s peace initiative, Rajapakse’s office made much of his brief meeting at the UN with Erik Solheim, the much vilified former Peace Envoy. Unable to secure a meeting with German leader Angela Merkel, President Rajapakse had a photographer standing by when he accosted her at a diplomatic reception.
Indeed, Sri Lanka’s political and official elite eagerly grasp any opportunity for international diplomatic ‘contact’. Last week, for example, President Rajapakse sought any meeting possible with British figures. Unable to secure official engagements, Colombo nevertheless widely circulated images of the President’s ‘private’ meeting with the British Defence Secretary and even other relatively unknown politicians. The hand of any foreigner is grasped – provided they don’t question Sri Lanka’s conduct, that is.
Neither the Sinhala political elite, nor the Sinhala population, have the stomach for international isolation – especially from the West. Despite noisily rejecting international demands, Sri Lanka also desperately wants to come in from the cold – and is throwing money at Western public relations firms to this end.
Therefore, far from lacking influence in Colombo, the international community actually has considerable leverage over Sri Lanka’s conduct. Colombo’s repression can be checked by - and clearly only by - its fear of international isolation and exclusion.
The international community must make clear that acceptance into international society comes with conditions, and that these include not only accounting properly for war crimes committed during Colombo’s military campaign, but demonstrating, not merely promising, that the Tamils can live in peace and dignity in their homeland.