South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

H.M.G.S. Palihakkara



Following is the full text of the speech by H.M.G.S. Palihakkara at the inauguration of BCIS Diploma Course on 9 March

My topic today sounds an unenviable warrant calling for an arduous road map. However, given the imponderables involved and the time limit of 30 minutes, please bear with me if I confine myself to some random thoughts on a few selected issues.

In our own neighbourhood, it is most likely that collective regional diplomacy and cooperation will continue to suffer from the political vicissitudes inherent in the inter-state affair we call the SAARC process. Recent spike in cross border attacks and counterattacks between India and Pakistan, Pulwama/Balakot respectively, and their lingering aftermath, are a stark reminder of the stubborn persistence of these negatives. There is no room for despair, however. 

Failure of regional diplomacy must make us redouble our bilateral diplomacy. We are fortunate to witness unprecedented economic progress in our sub region but we must not overlook the misfortunes – among them the dangers of a nuclearised South Asia especially in the light of recent escalations, and growing inequalities within and between States. 

This would also mean that we must hold our ‘track-two diplomacy’ close to our hearts and minds. These alternatives and parallels have ushered in some remarkable progress in electricity grid integration, multi modal transport, digital connectivity, people to people contacts, etc. Very often in South Asian regional cooperation, we have seen that peoples lead where leaders fail. Hence the importance of track two for the future.

The global scene will continue to be marked by change, entailing challenge and risk. That change can be both disruptive and constructive. Equally, progress in some areas is bound to be contrasted by distress in other areas. The much acclaimed trend of integration in Europe is now confronted by an unprecedented contest between interdependence and independence, signified by Brexit and right- wing populism that seems to proliferate. 

Meanwhile, the multilateral system is being weakened in a multitude of areas and ways e.g. from climate change to arms control to trade. The United States, a prime mover of the post war idea of modern multilateralism, is now seen, under its current presidency, as a driver of these negative trends. Countries like Sri Lanka that rely on the rules based order of the multilateral system to safeguard their interests, need to redouble efforts to support that system while also keeping their bilateral tracks well and alive. 


Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship 

The task of consolidating the all-important bilateral relationship with India in a mutually-beneficial manner will continue to be a priority well into the future. The emerging geopolitical landscape of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ and the intense strategic focus thereon by the major powers , both regional and extra regional, have added complexity and tension to this task of small countries like Sri Lanka. 

The much-talked-about location value of Sri Lanka was described as the nexus of the East-West trade route by a VIP of a major maritime user visiting Sri Lanka recently. Whether this ‘nexus’ will become an economic asset or a geopolitical liability will depend on the prudence of the foreign policy posture we craft for ourselves. 

The logic of the Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relationship lies in our history, geography and many cultural affinities we have. However, it has also remained a very turbulent one. Although no interstate armed hostilities occurred between the two countries, mismanagement of relations was a key factor contributing to a long drawn out intra-state conflict in Sri Lanka. 

A remarkable rebuilding of relations later led to it being described as one of ‘irreversible excellence’ by the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. However it again became tense and sore just a few years ago, amid charges of regime change, internationalising human rights issues, etc. Recent times saw yet another restoration effort coupled with a healthy growth in business and people to people contacts. Building on this foundation, the two oldest parliamentary democracies of the region need to further deepen and widen relations. 

The task will remain quite a challenge though, given our ‘all weather friend’ China’s strategic outreach and India’s perception, whether well founded or ill founded, that the Chinese out lays in Sri Lanka, (esp. the Belt and Road initiative or BRI) will have strategic and security implications for India. 

Allaying such fears through a policy of strategic prudence while maximising the economic benefits of the BRI’s financial and other inputs will be a complex but indispensable foreign policy task for our political and institutional establishments. It would also be in Sri Lanka’s national interests to build such confidence with India if we were to reap the full benefit of the rising purchasing power of the huge Indian market, the potential of the Indian investors, large capacities in the Indian grid and digital connectivity, etc. 

Reciprocally, there is a challenge for Indian diplomacy as well. It is to demonstrate to Sri Lanka, and indeed to other smaller countries in its neighbourhood, that a turbulent past notwithstanding, India is not a threat but an opportunity for them.


Relations with the West

As was the case with India, relations with the West, primarily the US, and some EU got side tracked during the latter period of the conflict in Sri Lanka. Coincidentally, relations with China grew deeper and wider and received a ‘military and geopolitical up grade’ as it were, when the two countries progressed from (what was described as) ‘everlasting friendship’ to ‘strategic cooperation’ during the tenure of the former Government. This was perceived by some as a deliberate strategic gravitation towards China. 

Large Chinese financial out lays in Sri Lanka and related debt management tasks were seen as further cementing this trend. The former US Government’s activism in internationalising Sri Lanka’s human rights challenges and the former Sri Lankan Government’s failure to forge a domestic consensus on accountability and reconciliation vitiated the diplomatic discourse with these countries not only on human rights but on a range of governance issues. 

This dialogue inevitably assumed a contentious character generating acrimonious debates both in Geneva and in Sri Lanka. It spilled over to our interactions with the West on a host of other matters, economic, trade, GSP, military and even people to people contacts signalling an adversarial shift predicated on human rights issues.

The current Government’s bold but much criticised policy of ‘over-correcting’ this coupled with the imprudent handling of some BRI projects of China, has led to yet another polarising domestic debate on a host of issues concerning foreign relations and accountability. 

Accordingly, consensus building within the Government, let alone across the party lines, became ever more elusive. It continues to date. Consequently, we are obliged to witness a strange, if not bizarre, phenomenon today viz. the Presidential and the Prime Ministerial arms of the same Government taking diametrically opposite public positions on HR Council’s Resolution on Sri Lanka at its session in Geneva. Sri Lanka cannot afford to let this divisive debate continue further into the future. Allowing human rights issues to become foreign policy issues is not smart diplomacy.

The challenge therefore is to free the business of foreign relations from these two extremes and restore an element of equilibrium between international cooperation and constitutionally feasible commitments on accountability, whether at the HRC or in the domestic context. Foreign interlocutors, esp. those in the West need to be persuaded to strike a pragmatic balance between values-based elements and strategic elements of relations for mutual benefit. 

For this to happen, a domestic consensus of the type envisaged by the LLRC on accountability and reconciliation will be needed. Based on such a bipartisan platform, a diplomatic initiative to modulate the HRC Resolutions approach towards deliverable domestic commitments, will be the task before our foreign policy and governance establishments. 

That also seems to be the pragmatic way of freeing our relations with the West from their adversarial oscillations while placing our domestic accountability and reconciliation effort on a sustainable footing.


Policy trends

Policy trends emerging in the US and Europe on international cooperation on human rights seem to provide timely opportunities for exploring these avenues. Whilst our institutions including the foreign policy establishment think through this, the critical mass for its progress must come from the country’s political leadership. They need to forge a bipartisan understanding on post conflict peace conducive to local sustainability and external rebuilding. During the recent constitutional crisis our institutions have admirably demonstrated that they can act independently and robustly in this regard. It is time that political leaders took the cue.

There will be other challenges, both bilateral and multilateral, that Sri Lank will have to grapple with. It is a wide stretch – from climate change to terrorism, transnational crime to migration, FDI/economic development to digital connectivity, and many more. Obviously time and space available will permit only a few comments.

It is claimed that the economic centre of gravity is in motion from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. It is obvious that Ocean economies provide significant scope and comparative advantage to players like Sri Lanka whose territorial economy has only limited capacity to generate savings, capital and purchasing power. Accordingly, the task is twofold – invest more time and effort to bilaterally exploit those opportunities while also contributing to multilateral efforts to develop a rules-based order for the Indo Pacific. Those rules must not belong only to key players but to all players. 


Why should we worry about rules? 

Fortunately or unfortunately, the world is a mosaic of asymmetries. The best way, perhaps the only way to convert these asymmetries to complementarities that will be beneficial to smaller players as well, will be through multilateral processes. Bearing in mind what three small countries-Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malta- did in a similar diplomatic enterprise in the UNCLOS (UN Law of the Sea) some decades ago, defining our role in such a rule building or codification process for the Indo Pacific warrants serious attention in our public policy corridors.

Two more challenges are clear and present. They constitute pivotal matters requiring domestic political consensus – not unanimity but a general consensus – in our foreign policy discourse, especially in the short and medium term:

(a) The Chinese financial outlays, particularly the BRI in the context of the manifest prominence of the Indian Ocean and the Indo Pacific,

(b) Post conflict peace building matters in Sri Lanka, especially accountability and reconciliation.

First, a few words on the Indian Ocean region where China’s BRI and other interests including those of Sri Lanka’s interact: 

The magnitudes of the IO are obvious: 70m Sq Km, 20% of water on earth, world’s second largest share of nutrition stock of tuna [FAO2016], 80% of world’s seaborne oil trade goes through the IO region and its choke points while 40% of offshore oil is from the same region.

Second, the economic importance of the IO region: The former US Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris speaking at the Galle Dialogue last year characterised the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) in Indian Ocean as ‘the lifelines of world economy’. One can debate what this portends – whether it means a conflict-ridden future or a cooperative future. What is beyond debate is the critical importance of the IO region, strategically and economically, for global wellbeing.

Third, there are positives and negatives in this regional scenario. The positives: The region has seen spectacular growth of capacity to produce and consume as well as to create and export wealth. It includes the largest middle class in the world that is poised to expand further. It also means creativity and rising purchasing power as well as rising expectations and ambitions in many nations – India, ASEAN, China, Australia, Japan and so on.

The negatives: The rising ambitions and expectations, both strategic and developmental, bring with them inherent risks and dangers. This is demonstrated by the rising capabilities of the emerging powers in the IO region, e.g. in the realm of land, sea and air power in conventional and nuclear domains as well as in tactical and strategic fields. These capabilities are being weaponised in a big way, according to organisations like the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, SIPRI.

Second, flash points like South China Sea and North Korea as well as choke points like the Strait of Malacca and Strait of Hormuz remain potential trouble spots. Ongoing tensions between Iran and the US are a stark reminder. Imponderables like North Korea vs. US dynamics could drag the region and even the world into a nuclear or conventional catastrophe.

Third, much has been written and speculated about the potential for conflict between the established power and the rising power – between the US and China – and the role of India therein. (the so-called Thucydides trap). This may not unfold as readily as the pundits have suggested but the conflict ingredients are clear and present in the region. A recent Asia Foundation survey cogently summed it up – Asia has an abundance of prosperity and a paucity of security!


China’s BRI

Lastly, any discussion of the IO and its strategic importance in the current geopolitical context will not be complete without touching upon the elephant in the room – the BRI of China. In fact some describe the BRI as the 21st Century avatar of what was the Marshall plan to post war Europe. I would not like to go that far and be that simplistic to compare the two. However, the enormous resources China is committing to the BRI, its territorial coverage and the interlocking relationships it is going to create not only in the region but in global value chains, will have a significant impact on the economic and geopolitical architecture the region and beyond.

Has Sri Lanka, located as it is at a unique pivot of this value chain, used the BRI to maximise its national interests while maintaining a diplomatic posture of geopolitical prudence? Both the former Government and the current Government do not seem to have scored brilliantly on this score – in fact some say they lost their way in that endeavour. We appeared to have treated the BRI related Chinese investments as ‘bilateral donor programmes’ for use in parochial politics of local elections. 

Our political leaders have yet to capture it as a holistic idea for developing our niches in the global value chains through multinational investments and multilateral diplomacy.

Notwithstanding varied pronouncements, some of them valid and others over-blown, concerning China’s ‘strategic scheming abroad’ and its simmering problems at home, China will remain a most formidable merchandiser of capital, industrial capacity and purchasing power, regionally as well as globally. Any country, esp. those in the ‘Indo Pacific’ will ignore this home truth at their own expense – more so for Sri Lanka given its long standing friendship with China.

The challenge therefore is to define and adopt policies and practices that will enable Sri Lanka to develop economic alliances while remaining strategically non-aligned. Some call this a policy of ‘strategic promiscuity’ or the ‘non-alignment of the Indo-Pacific era’. 

Whatever the terminology we use, for Sri Lanka, the sub text of the policy manthram is clear:

It has three benchmarks:

Firstly, China must be made to understand that BRI investments are strictly commercial and Sri Lanka cannot afford any strategic mischief or military foot print in these investments. 

Second, India and the US must be made to understand that these are Sri Lanka’s sovereign economic imperatives which she will pursue with the vigour they deserve, but without entailing anything inimical to the security interests of the US and India.

Third, politicians in Sri Lanka must comprehend that these delicate calibrations require policy consistency and predictability backed by bipartisan support, and therefore, they are not up for horse trading in this incredibly injurious local enterprise called the election campaigning in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka’s challenge is to fashion this Chinese input without a military foot print so that we do not get sucked into the looming strategic rivalry in the Indo Pacific in any form, either hard power or soft power. 

A good start will be the public articulation of an enlightened port call policy—a policy that will inter-alia invite all vessels plying the indo pacific waters to visit us to boost our port incomes, barring those on overt or covert conflict related missions and those carrying nuclear weapons.

Another aspect of converting this challenge into opportunity is to rethink the current inclination to demarcate certain areas of the country exclusively for certain investing powers .This is because ‘a weighing scale approach’ to such geopolitical matters may not always work.

Instead, an FDI policy that may not create foreign policy binds for us may be to open all processing zones to multinational investments and to proactively engage in multilateral diplomacy to promote a rules based order for the Region. This will help us identify investment zones not with the label of investing power but with the services or products they provide so that we do not have exclusive country zones scattered over the Island, e.g. a Chinese value addition Hub in Hambantota or Indian energy Hub in Trincomalee or a US logistics Hub in the same area. 

As we know, these are the subjects of controversial and unhelpful local political debates that polarise and strongly militate against common approaches to these difficult issues of economic and strategic significance.

We can take a leaf out of the brief book of one of our friendly neighbours. Partisan political rivalry of the two major political parties there is bitter and widely known. This notwithstanding, they have been visionary in crafting a consensus on FDI policy in general and its involvement in the exploitation and development of their vast LNG resources in particular. This shows that when you get your political/governance act together, getting your foreign policy act together becomes less of a problem. The home truth is that foreign policy by itself cannot make miracles oblivious to ongoing partisan bickering on domestic public policy issues.


Foreign policy challenges for Sri Lanka

This brings me to my next point about the FP challenges that lie ahead for SL. The challenge of consensus – or the lack of it is perhaps the more appropriate term—on a range of bilateral and multilateral foreign policy issues. This is in sharp contrast to a very constructive past tradition of multi-party cooperation on a series of complex matters like the Rubber Rice Pact, Katchcathivu Agreement, Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, VOA station in the cold war era, NAM postures, IOPZ, UNCLOS, post-conflict accountability issues of the southern insurgency (1970s) and many more.

As the complexity of the geopolitics in our region grows along with the potential for conflict with existing and rising powers or others, so too will be defining Sri Lankan posture on those issues. The task will be rendered even more challenging if the current paucity of consensual approaches to foreign policy continues within the domestic political establishment. Partisan differences touch on a wide range of issues including but not limited to Human Rights to accountability and reconciliation, anti-terrorism legislation to disarmament, FTAs to United Nations matters, the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with the US to vote on Palestine, etc. 

In view of time constraints. I will briefly touch upon only two issues – accountability/reconciliation and FDIs.

There is a sheer lack of consensus among local politicians on a home grown process of post conflict peace building as recommended by LLRC. That deficit allowed the accountability and reconciliation process to migrate abroad and morph into a highly divisive and controversial Human Rights Council affair – HRC Resolution 30/1.

Human rights issues have thus become foreign policy issues – a pretty dismal show of political leadership and policy making. Consequently, the Government spends time and effort defending its human rights record rather than defending citizens’ human rights. 

This anomaly works to conflate foreign relations discourse with that of human rights which often assumes an adversarial character. Such trends need to be arrested and possibly reformed into a cooperative endeavour that is also deliverable domestically. The current divisive conversation cannot continue further into the 21st Century. The only way to meet this challenge is to enable and empower domestic institutions, not necessarily external drivers so that these local institutions can prosecute and judge independently and vigorously. The recent actions of our judicial institution have validated this contention. To this end, our leaders must deviate from narrow partisan politicking and enter consensual territory based on LLRC type approaches and a great deal of common denominators available with Sri Lanka’s foreign interlocutors.

Similarly, on the issue of FDI in general and the BRI investments in particular, or even the SOFA agreement with the US or the FTA with Singapore , fundamental issues of national interest seem to get mired in very divisive partisan debates and controversies which do not seem to have a substantive basis. Both the current Government and the former Government have welcomed these initiatives at times of their choosing and then denounce the very same initiatives again at times of their choosing. That is a clear case of partisan interests knifing through the national interests and undermining the nation’s ability to do effective and credible foreign policy formulation and delivery supportive of economic benefits for the country. Again this is a trend that needs to be arrested and a challenge overcome by developing harmonised political approaches through Parliamentary Consultative committee procedures and other constructive political leadership initiatives.

I emphasise on the critical role of political leadership in building consensus on vital public policy issues for meeting these challenges not because our institutions are of less importance but because the principal failure belongs to the former. In fact despite some obvious draw backs, our institutions – the Judiciary, security forces and the public service have shown much maturity, resilience, robustness and their apolitical credentials during the recent constitutional crisis—a crisis which was again the handy work of our politicos on both sides! 

Institutional backstopping therefore exists for us. The post-independence history offers us many lessons. The bigger challenge staring at us in the policy domain is that of achieving political maturity and leadership.


Updated On: Monday, 1 July 2019 00:00