Blake’s visit resets priorities right?

As was to be expected, Sri Lankan media had received the Blake visit with skepticism, as usual. Yet, US Assistant Secretary of State, Robert Blake, might have reset the priorities right on the ethnic front in Sri Lanka.  By conceding the Government’s point on rehabilitation and the TNA’s demands on the political issues, he may have also balanced mutual issues and concerns. It may still be something, compared to the heat and dust kicked up by the international community’s increasing interest in ‘war crimes’ charges to the near-exclusion of immediate issues on hand.

The coming weeks in Geneva would show if the US follows it up logically. It would imply that the US should defer a discussion on the Darusman report of the expert panel set up by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to a later session. External Affairs Minister G L Peiris had argued that Sri Lanka’s turn at the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva should come only by this time next year. The general impression is that it could be deferred at least until the March session.

Such expectations owe to the promised submission of report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), now scheduled for November this year. Given the voluminous work that the Commission was entrusted with, no one should complain if it sought more time. Yet, given the commitment made to the international community at this point in time, the Government could not afford to be lax, or tactical.

In a way, the US position remains unchanged between Blake’s recent visit and the one in May. But critics of the US in Sri Lanka would remain unconvinced if the visit was timed for the Geneva session to commence. Their suspicions would also revolve around Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon forwarding the experts panel report to the Human Rights Council and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, for follow-up action.

Critics had argued that the Secretary-General might after all adopt such a course, circumventing the Security Council, where questions of legitimacy of the panel might have been raised. Sri Lanka would need to wait to see what China and Russia, the veto powers on its side, do or say in the Security Council – or, what President Mahinda Rajapaksa would or could tell the General Assembly later this month.

Sri Lanka has had a problem with UNHRC Navneetam Pillay almost from the start. The Geneva session now is no exception. It is personal, and is different from the academic issues flagged at the Secretary-General’s panel. Colombo’s reservations demand greater attention if the current processes are to lead to the pronounced path, if not to presumed and/or promised goals.  The Sri Lankan State also has had a problem all along about deciphering what those goals really are.

Given his preceding experience as UN envoy to Sri Lanka, Blake had confined his public comments this time round too, to specifics. After a day-long visit to the North, he referred to the continuing presence of para-military forces in the Province. News reports indicate that he may have acknowledged the fact that no weapons were on display, but in specific he did name the EPDP constituent of the ruling SLFP-UPFA.

EPDP’s Douglas Devananda, as has been his wont, has promptly denied the charge. While walking out of the Geneva-II talks with the Rajapaksa dispensation in 2006, the LTTE cited the Government’s inability/unwillingness to put the para-militaries on leash. The Government had committed to the same at the first round of talks earlier that year.

Sri Lankans have to pause and ask themselves why they needed the visitor to announce the resumption of talks between the Government and the TNA. It is more so in the case of the Government. It has all along claimed that it’s for Sri Lankans – Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims – to sort out their problems, themselves. The avoidable sequence would indicate that either the Government was waiting for international intervention of the kind, or would not act without international invention.

Blake’s reference to the need for ‘Tamil policemen’ in Tamil areas is a case in point. Minister Vinayagamurthy Muralitharan alias Karuna, lost no time in declaring that there was only the Sri Lankan police, not Tamil or Sinhala police. The Government has however come out with recruitment figures for ‘Tamil policemen’ in these months after the end of the ethnic war. The figures are meagre to say the least, though the reasons should also be understandable in a way.

It is unclear though if Blake’s pronouncement implied that the US – and by extension, the rest of the Western community – supported the Government’s position on employing Tamil policemen in the Tamil-speaking areas without having to confer Police powers on their Province(s). Instead, it could also reflect on the continuing ignorance, inadequacies and inconsistencies in the approach of the international community to highly sensitive domestic issues, as in post-war Sri Lanka. ———–

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