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Last Week, Last Chance In Geneva

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

( March 23, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) If as Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics, it is an even longer time in diplomacy.

The upcoming week is the most significant in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history since the victories of May 2009, almost five years ago. Already the security blanket in the North indicates that a polarising resolution in Geneva will strengthen ‘the dark side of the force’. It is also likely to push most of the citizenry over to the dark side. However, Sri Lanka still has a week to dodge the cyanide-tipped arrow that is a UN mandate for an OHCHR led international inquiry.

The Northern Provincial Council has unanimously resolved to participate in discussions with President Rajapaksa, provided these discussions are without preconditions. OK, I know that sounds as if unconditionality is a precondition, i.e. that the condition for discussions is that they be unconditional. But that’s the only way to do it because there shouldn’t be, and shouldn’t have been, any conditions on talking with a formation, be it parliamentary or provincial, which has a democratic mandate. It was absurd for conditions to have been stipulated while discussions had commenced in 2011 without such conditions.

The offer to enter talks with the President is a last chance for the government to position Sri Lanka better in Geneva so as to open up space for a modification of the resolution, or if that fails, to narrow the margin of defeat. Though the intention of the NPC resolution may have been something else altogether, a speedy response on the part of the Government can turn this into a lifeline.

Even if the talks do not commence or cannot be announced before the vote next week, it is vital that they take place and make headway. The resolution or at least the management of Sri Lanka’s Northern Question was always at the heart of resolving the protracted crisis of the Sri Lankan state and society. It is unavoidable if Sri Lanka’s post-war impasse is to be overcome. More pressingly, resolving the Northern Question is at the very core of resolving Sri Lanka’s problems with the world.

If the Sri Lankan government fails to seize this opportunity and talk to the TNA and the NPC, it will soon be overtaken by a dynamic of political escalation located in a Tamil Nadu which is more influential than it is after the election. Colombo must realize that it is better to talk to Mr Sampanthan and Mr Wigneswaran than it is to deal with Jayalalithaa and Mr Modi. It is far better to settle with the TNA than be caught on two fronts, post Geneva: the UNHRC resolution/OHCHR investigation and a referendum-pushing Jayalalithaa.

After a heavy defeat for the GoSL in Geneva, the commencement of an OHCHR probe and the advent of a coalition government in which Tamil Nadu is a key player, Tamil politics and collective political behaviour in Sri Lanka will operate in a different register. Things may spiral way out of control. The only brake may be a process of serious political dialogue between the President and the elected Tamil leadership.

A problem immediately confronts us, namely the trust deficit. Neither side trusts the other and understandably so. A further and related question that cannot be avoided is why the earlier talks broke down and what can be done to prevent a repetition.

Given that I was part of the loop, though only a peripheral one, my sense is that the talks between the TNA and GoSL broke down for four interconnected reasons: behaviour on either side which went against the expectations of the negotiating partner and was promptly seized upon by the hawks on both sides; a lack of realism which prevented both sides from grasping the actual balance of forces on and outside the island; the conscious projects of disruption and escalation by the hawks on both sides; pressure from below or on the flanks from the more intransigent elements in civil society or in the Diaspora.

How then is one to push for the unconditional recommencement of a process of political dialogue and protect the process if it did commence?

The only way that I can see that happening is with external facilitation. More concretely, the only way I see talks re-starting seriously and being kept on track is if a new quartet of concerned external players were constituted as a collective facilitator. The parties I would suggest for this collective effort are South Africa, India, Japan and Australia.

If the Sri Lankan leadership invites these states to undertake the task of facilitation and agrees to a compressed time frame, we may be able to present in Geneva a joint commitment which permits the dilution and deferral of an intrusive, polarising external inquiry.

Of course, given the fate of the written undertakings of May 21 and May 23 2009 made by the Sri Lankan leadership, not to mention that of the Sri Lankan Ambassador/Permanent Representative who took these reformist commitments at face value and was sacked a mere six weeks after Sri Lanka’s resounding success in Geneva, I wouldn’t blame any state, however friendly and well-intentioned, of being exceedingly wary of buying-in. Given the ‘zero casualty-zero credibility’ reputation the Sri Lankan government has accumulated (what with ‘Gopi’ making it to the United Nations Human Rights Council!), I certainly wouldn’t blame the UN HRC for hesitation to believe it.

The only way to proceed then may be for the implementation of the commitment to be strictly time-bound, giving GoSL, say, six months, to comply i.e. until the September 2014 session of the UNHRC.

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