Ex-Refugees’ Chief To Head UN…

by N. Sathiya Moorthy


Antonio Guterres

In the normal course, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s three-day India visit should have made great news in the Sri Lankan media and for the people. But it was not to be. Instead, the nation is shifting its focus between issues of constitution-making, starting with Northern Province Tamil Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran’s seemingly toughening position on ‘unresolved’ aspects of Centre-State relations in the ethnic context.

When PM Ranil landed in Delhi, Sri Lanka’s position on the ‘indefinite postponement’ of the Islamabad SAARC Summit, following India’s ‘surgical strikes’ against ‘terror launch-pads’ in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), had added to the already overflowing bilateral plate filled to the brim with the ethnic issue, fishers’ problem and trade pact. Sure enough, the two sides discussed all this and possibly more. But back home, the Prime Minister and his Government have their hands full, on more immediate issues, still pertaining to aspects of what still remains Sri Lanka’s ‘national problem’ sans LTTE terrorism.

An interesting sidelight could be the ‘straw poll’ decision of the real decision-making veto-members of the UN Security Council, to name a successor for incumbent ‘Big Boss’ Ban Ki-moon. Their choice of former Portugal Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, for UN Secretary-General’s job, may have greater consequences for Sri Lanka than may have been considered/thought of, just now.

For starters, Guterres is a former chief of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), whose concerns are centred on ‘refugees’, including internally-displaced persons (IDPs), especially the products of wars, including civil wars. His initial and natural affinity to the department cannot be helped. Two, Guterres is seen as a hands-on man, with proven track-record in UNHCR engagement in other recent crisis-points like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka has IDPs, Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalas, from the decades-old ethnic war, needing to be rehabilitated.  It remains to be seen if the incoming UN chief is going to act on the prevailing global mood, which recognises only the plight of the ‘Tamil IDPs’, and not the others, in the Sri Lankan context. Such a continuing approach could widen the existing divide, which is expanding even without external aid of any kind.

Even without an ex-UNHCR chief as its head, the UN and its affiliates have been focussing enough on the war-time Tamil IDPs in the country, their rehabilitation, and also on the return of their lands, some of which continues to be in the possession of the armed forces, despite the ‘pro-active’ initiatives of the incumbent government. The armed forces at various points and different sectors have indicated it’s thus far, and no more, citing their own in-built security concerns and requirements.

To the extent the incumbent Government continues to haul up erstwhile armed forces commanders on allegations of corruption and wrong-doing, as different from alleged and at-times non-existent charges of ‘accountability issues’, they may please none but themselves. Maybe, the Fonseka precedent may be cited, but when situations change, so could be fortunes – not just of government leaderships, but also of governments – but neither would have any bearing on the armed forces’ assessment of the lands in their possession.


Attitude & approach

It’s another matter that the recent outbursts of CM Wigneswaran at the Tamil People’s Council’s controversial Jaffna rally did mention the return of the Tamil lands (including those of the IDPs), now in continued possession of the armed forces. Independent of other issues that he and other, moderate, Tamil leaders too have flagged, the incoming UN chief’s attitude and approach to the issue would be watched with interest and/or concern, within the country.

As the UNHCR chief, Guterres may have dealt with Sri Lanka’s Indian neighbour, if at all, only in the context of the continued welfare of close to a hundred thousand Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. They are variously housed, either in Government-run camps or allowed to live outside on their own, for anything between 10 and 30 years, so to say.

The UNHCR in particular has been keen on their rapid return home, but it cannot have complaints against the Government of India and the Government of Tamil Nadu.  That the UNHCR continues to be upset over India not signing the 1951 Convention, nor having a ‘Refugee Law’ of its own, should not bother Sri Lanka. Nor is Guterres’ elevation now as UN chief going to change the Indian commitment to the well-being of refugees from across the neighbourhood or to its conviction, not to have a refugee law of its own.


Encirclement feeling

What should be of concern to Sri Lanka however could be a lingering feeling of being encircled by UN agencies, one after the other, be it purposefully like the UN Human Rights Council (UNHCR), or the accidental elevation of an ex-UNHRC chief as the head of the parent organisation. The incumbent Government’s comments, more than the commitment, could depend on what the other side says and does not say, and does and does not do.

There can be no two opinions that the UN, the UNHCR and the rest of the West-centric ‘international community’ are all tuned onto the incumbent Government leadership of President Maithiripala Sirisena and PM Ranil than was the case with predecessor Rajapaksa regime. It’s yet anybody’s guess if they are all satisfied with real progress on the ground vis a vis their expectations on these different front, going beyond the general ‘feel-good factor’ that the regime-change had inspired.

By hindsight, the question may also be asked if the international community was prepared for the ‘regime-change’ that the Sri Lankan people effected through the presidential elections of January 2015 and consolidated the same in the parliamentary polls of August that year. Or, were they only hoping to use it all as an ‘ace’ to pressure the Rajapaksa leadership to yield on a variety of fronts in the post-war ethnic context, especially based on the ‘promises’ that the Government of the day had made?

The reality of the present is as much as those of the past. Independent of what the international community may have prescribed, and what successive governments may have promised, there is only so much that the latter could yield, without jeopardising the larger nation’s feel-good factor as far as the end of the war and of LTTE terrorism. Independent of the government leadership of the time(s), all of it also involves larger aspects/concepts of political stability and national security, as perceived by the Sri Lankan State apparatus on the one hand and the majority Sinhala population (influenced by hard-line opinion or not).


Wholly unaddressed

It’s in this context that CM Wigneswaran’s current and other recent utterances need to be contextualised. It’s not as if he is saying anything new. In a way, he is saying what all Tamil hard-liners before him had said. In doing so, he is also only reminding the Sinhala polity and the Sri Lankan State about the promises that they had made about ‘looking into’ Tamils’ problems and aspirations – and have left them all only as ‘promises’.

If thus that Wigneswaran is flagging some of the Tamils’ concerns, it’s also because every reference of the present Government on issues before the Constituent Assembly has left the ethnically-critical ‘power-devolution’ and related aspects wholly unaddressed. That’s even if the Government, Sinhala and Muslim parties leave the re-merger issue untouched. In New Zealand before his India visit, PM Wickremesinghe revived and reiterated the pre-poll commitment to the abolition of Executive Presidency.  Back home however some senior ministers, who were still with the Rajapaksas at the time of the presidential polls, too have reiterated some of the known reservations to such abolition.

In Auckland, and not New Delhi, PM Wickremesinghe also referred to adopting the ‘New Zealand model’ of elections with modifications than the ‘German model’, which was also reportedly under consideration, for incorporation in the new Constitution. Already, the Government and the nation have reportedly looked up to the South African model on ‘truth-finding’ viz war-time ‘accountability issues’ before the UNHCR.

Already, the Prime Minister has promised a new constitution draft by December, advanced by a month, by his Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, just ahead of the September session of the UNHRC. It all can deflect from the international community’s insistence on ‘accountability probe’ with international participation.

Yet, since his Inauguration, and even during his poll campaign, President Sirisena has been talking about a ‘Sri Lankan model’ for every political problem(s) of the kind, facing the nation. He said as much in his most recent international appearance at the UN General Assembly.

Where from here the ethnic issue, the Tamils’ legitimate aspirations, and an even more legitimate solution to those aspirations that would hold good on the ground, is the unanswered question of all times, post-Independence.  Where from here would the new UN chief want to take it, in which direction and with what all priorities would also be the sub-text.

The sub-text may not decide the final text that Sri Lanka wants to script for itself. If however the text remains non-wholesome, the international community could end up making it the sub-text for a new text that would still have to be written, all over again. Does the international community thought about an end-game, and has a game-plan for the same? Or, is it going to keep shifting its own goal-post, and also let others, especially the Sri Lankan Government, to do the same?

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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