What Ban Ki-moon visit means to us

He came, he saw, he concurred, but did it mean anything at all for Sri Lanka?

Last week’s visit of United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is being hailed by the powers that be as a great diplomatic victory for Sri Lanka but is it, really?

True, there was nothing controversial about moon’s visit this time around, in stark contrast to his previous visit in 2009. That was undertaken barely a fortnight after the war with the Liberation Tigers Eelam (LTTE) had ended, when the world was coming to terms with the enormity of what had just happened.

While Sri Lanka was rejoicing–along with a few trusted and tested allies such as China, Russia and Pakistan – at ending a thirty-year war that had cost thousands of lives, much of the Western world and indeed the UN was not very happy. They wanted ‘accountability’ for the final phase of the war.

MahadenamuttaThat is why the Foreign Secretary of Britain and the Foreign Minister of France undertook a hitherto unprecedented joint visit to Sri Lankan to ask Colombo to call a halt to the final military offensive. Had that call been heeded, we would still be fighting the LTTE today.

Fortunately, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whatever his other faults may be, had the political courage to say ‘no’. The rest is history. Ironically, the countries which advised Sri Lanka to halt our offensive against terrorism are fighting a no holds barred battle against terror at their doorstep today.

Therefore, when Ban Ki-moon visited Sri Lanka in 2009, there was a tangible sense of diplomatic angst. Although moon left after issuing a joint statement with President Rajapaksa in which the latter promised ‘accountability’ for alleged human rights violations in the war, the matter did not end there.

Soon, Colombo and the UN were at diplomatic war. Pressured to act by western nations, moon appointed a ‘panel of experts’ to inquire into the circumstances of the final stages of the war. Sri Lanka, furious at this insult, rejected the inquiry.

The so-called ‘experts’ did not visit Sri Lanka, knowing that they will not be welcomed here. They conducted the inquiry anyway and came to the conclusion that both Sri Lankan troops and the LTTE indulged in human rights violations. Colombo rejected the findings outright.

Seven years and one government later, there is still no clear solution in sight to this conundrum. While the Rajapaksa government has fought against resolutions moved to malign Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the present government has agreed to facilitate a probe into the alleged abuses. But the shape and form of such an inquiry is still to be determined.

That is just one of the reasons why Ban Ki-moon’s visit last week was not the major diplomatic triumph it was made out to be.

True, he did not lambast Colombo and create a scene. Instead, he ducked questions from the media about the inquiry and whether it will have international adjudicators. More importantly, he did not rule out that prospect either. What he did was to offer some platitudes of praise to the present government and beat a hasty retreat.

There is a reason for that. Moon is now a lame duck Secretary General. His term of office ends on December 31, after a period of ten years. As the outgoing Secretary General who has only a few weeks more to serve in his office, he is not in a position to impose or enforce any major decisions.

That would explain his neutral stance. Nevertheless, it would be foolish for Sri Lanka to be lulled into a sense of complacency just because Moon has given us his tick of approval. Colombo must know that very soon, a new Secretary General will be at the helm of the UN. And, nothing has changed regarding the resolution now before the UNHRC.

So, rather than crow about how kind and considerate Ban Ki-moon was when he was in Colombo, the  government needs to get its strategy right about how to deal with the UNHRC and the next boss of the UN.

Sri Lanka, unlike most other countries in the world today, won its war against terror. Now, it must win the peace as well, so it can sustain that victory.

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