Sri Lanka’s Geneva Month in a Europe awash with Syrian Refugees

by Rajan Philips

September has become Sri Lanka’s Geneva month. The 30th Annual Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which begins tomorrow in Geneva is expected to be congenial to the new Sri Lankan government unlike the previous sessions that were decisively hostile to the now defeated Rajapaksa regime. But the broader European context to the 2015 UNHRC Session in Geneva, Switzerland, is the Syrian refugee crisis that is tearing apart the rest of Europe. Geneva and Switzerland once again stand isolated from yet another periodical European turmoil. The UNHRC session will go on, but the crisis in the rest of Europe illustrates the failure of half-hearted and opportunistic international interventions, as well as the absence of principled and effective interventions. The Syrian and European crises are matters on which those of us who are preoccupied with Sri Lankan politics can hardly say anything of consequence. But these are experiences from which Sri Lanka can draw useful lessons for effectively mixing international support and internal resources to resolve its national problems.

The Syrian Crisis

The scale of the Syrian refugee crisis is itself a useful lesson in proportionality – in appreciating the relatively modest magnitude of our problems and that they require equally modest solutions and not the grand rhetoric, spurning the western countries – either on the grounds that western imperialism has no business in Sri Lanka (that is the grand Sinhalese rhetoric), or on the grounds that western imperialism can never understand the aspirations for national self-determination (which is the grand Tamil rhetoric). The tasks of the 40-member United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that include dealing with Sri Lanka, are nothing in comparison to the challenges facing its sister UN agency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). According to UNHCR estimates, 4.3 million refugees have fled Syria to other countries, while another 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced within the country. That is a total of nearly 12 million, or more than half of Syria’s national population that used to be 22 million. At the going rate, if the war is not stopped all of Syria will be either refugees abroad or internally displaced.

The tragic story of a father failing to save his two little sons from drowning in the waters between Turkey and Greece and the image of one of the boys being washed ashore on a Turkish beach unnerved the West. Europe became the centre of the refugee crisis even though only 10 percent of Syrian refugees, less than half a million, are struggling to find a safe haven in Europe. There are 1.2 million of them in Lebanon, 1.9 million in Turkey, over 0.6 million in Jordan, and about a quarter million in Iraq, Egypt and North Africa. They have been fleeing to these countries since 2011 when the internal Syrian conflict was ignited. While the current preoccupation is with humanitarian responses to the crisis, given the magnitude of this problem there is no permanent solution without bringing the Syrian war to an end. The humanitarian crisis has divided Europe into those who are generous and welcoming in their responses and others who are ungenerous and unwelcoming. The manifest heartlessness of East European governments is in stark contrast to the example set by the governments of West Germany and Sweden. In Britain, David Cameron was late and reluctant in coming to the table of generosity.

Across the Atlantic, the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has got into electoral hot water in trying to use terrorism and security as excuses for his government’s reluctance to respond to the Syrian crisis in a manner that is consistent with Canada’s long tradition of accepting large influxes of refugees and asylum seekers, notably from Hungary in the 1950s and from Vietnam 30 years later – a tradition that has been honoured by both Liberal and Conservative governments in the past. Now in the throes of a national election campaign, Mr. Harper, Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party, totally misread the public mood and is facing likely defeat after 10 years in office. Pat Carney, a ‘progressive’ conservative and former Federal Minister, has called for the defeat of the Harper government unless it agrees to accept 100,000 Syrian refugees before the end of this year. South of the border, President Obama after a long silence has instructed his administration to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year. Sadly for Mr. Obama, the Syrian crisis has swept aside any celebration of his remarkable foreign policy achievement – the nuclear agreement with Iran. Refugee advocates are criticizing the President for the too little, too late response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Unbeknownst to its usual anti-imperialist critics, the US annually admits 70,000 refugees from around the world, and the domestic refugee critics see the presidential directive to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year as being inadequate by America’s own standards. If this is legitimate humanitarian criticism of the Obama presidency, there is an even more legitimate political criticism of America’s actions and inactions in regard to the Syrian war. The well-known Arab League and UN Diplomat of Moroccan origin stationed in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, has warned that the west’s preoccupation with the refugee crisis is obscuring Syria’s real problem, which is the war itself. If the war continues, another eight million Syrians will be fleeing to Europe according to Europe, according to Lamani. “Help the refugees, by all means. But put most of your energy into ending the war,” Lamani has pleaded. In his view, the warring factions still believe that their side can win the war militarily, and therefore there is no alternative to a solution being “imposed from outside.”

There seems to be growing consensus among western countries that the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is no longer the precondition to any solution, but that he must remain as part of an interim solution. Rami Khouri, Beirut based political commentator has said that for a successful outside intervention, “the US, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia must converge on a middle-ground transitional plan that will see him (Assad) in place for a while.” Khouri is convinced, on the other hand, that a permanent solution to the crisis will have no place for Assad in Syria. Khouri’s prescription is a modified revival of the 2012 Geneva Communique, endorsed by the UN Security Council, which called for a transitional governing body to rule the country after ending the violence. The proposal was rejected by the combatants, and its proponents couldn’t agree on whether Assad should stay or go. Russia and Iran wanted him to stay but the west wanted him to go. Now the stakes are higher, even graver, for diplomatic convergence between the west and Russia and Iran. The recent experience of the nuclear deal involving Iran could facilitate such a convergence. If nothing happens quickly, Mokhtar Lamani has warned, the world will “wake up one morning to a genocide carried out in Syria.”

External catalyst, not imposition

UNHRC032213Sri Lanka had its exodus, internal displacements and killings for 26 years, from the riots in 1983 to the end of the war in 2009. Even though they were a trickle in comparison to the current human tsunami in Syria, the tragic human experiences at the level of affected individuals and families are no different whether they were in Sri Lanka then, or they are in Syria now. If the internationalization of the Sri Lankan problem began with the Tamil exodus in 1983, its arraignment in Geneva was brought about by the failures of the Rajapaksa government to deal with the postwar humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka and its prewar political problems. Unlike the fleeing Syrians, Sri Lankans woke up not once but twice this year to find that they have a new President and a new government both democratically elected by the people on the promise that they would govern differently and would relate to the rest of the world differently from their predecessors who were defeated in their bid for re-election. The promised difference is to be seen in the new government’s handling of both the domestic situation in the country and its external relations. The outcome of this difference is to be seen in the UNHRC Sessions starting tomorrow.

The agenda on Sri Lanka will begin with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mangala Samaraweera, addressing the Sessions. He is expected to outline the new government’s approach to achieving reconciliation and addressing war crimes accountability issues. The government is reportedly considering a three-pronged approach comprising, (1) a permanent office for dealing with concerns over missing persons; (2) a Truth & Reconciliation Commission based on the South African model; and (3) a Special Prosecutor to deal with violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during the final stages of the war. Two weeks into the Sessions, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, will present to the Council the report of his Office (OHCHR) on war crimes allegations involving both the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka. A new resolution on Sri Lanka endorsing the government’s three-pronged approach is expected to be passed by Council towards the end of the Sessions in early October. Overall, the upcoming Sessions will be a totally different experience from the circus that used to be staged in Geneva in the name of Sri Lanka.

But there will be critics of the process and its outcome from both sides of the ethnic divide. There will be those who say that the new government has sold out the Sinhalese, and others who will say that the Tamils have been taken for a ride. The substance of the truth and the possibilities for the future will be in the middle and far from either of the two extremes.

There will be much to write home once the Sessions get underway and the Minister’s speech, the OHCHR report, and the final resolution become public one after another. Syria has suffered because the UN’s 2012 Geneva Communique was rejected in Syria and could not find common ground for its implementation among its proponents.

In the case of Sri Lanka, notwithstanding the modest scale of its problem and equally modest external intervention, the Sri Lankan voters have voted in favour of collaborative reconciliation and rejected intransigent grandstanding. The new UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka will be an external catalyst to the reconciliation process, and not an external imposition as is being prescribed for Syria. It is up to the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government and the TNA (opposition) to meaningfully use the external catalyst and deliver on the mandate that the people have given them.