The day after the Government’s declaration in Geneva of withdrawal from the co-sponsorship of the 2015 Resolution and its successors, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, tendered her observations on the human rights situation and trends worldwide, with reports on an array of countries including Sri Lanka.
Michelle Bachelet is a two-time President of Chile, who won with 53% of the vote the first time (2006) and 62% in her comeback (2013). She was a Socialist leader, a former defence minister, the daughter of an Air Force General, and a victim of torture – as were her parents, one of whom died of the experience—under a rightwing military dictatorship.
I’ve had to respond pointedly to two of Bachelet’s predecessors as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour and Navi Pillay, resisting on behalf of fair play for Sri Lanka. Regrettably I never had the privilege of facing Zaid al Hussein. Resolution 30/1 of 2015 which then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Samaraweera co-sponsored, explicitly rested upon and flowed from his selective, imbalanced and highly subjective if not downright biased OISL tome on Sri Lanka.
Michelle Bachelet is very different from all three former UN High Commissioners of Human Rights.
She is not a former judge, lawyer or diplomat. She was a political activist, a political leader, and the twice-elected leader of a significant country of the global South: the first woman President of Chile, and the first woman President in Latin America whose political capital was not inherited from a spouse. I was in Geneva when she addressed both the UN Human Rights Council and the ILO, and the audiences in both places were quite understandably bowled over by her lucid progressivism and democratic humanism.
Having been elected Chairman of the ILO’s Governing Body, I worked closely with the iconic Director-General Juan Somavia. Somavia was a leading Latin American socialist intellectual who had been a close supporter of Salvador Allende, and after the downfall of the military dictatorship, a stellar ambassador to the UN who organised the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen (1995), which fired in the multilateral system the first salvo against neoliberalism.
Long after I left Geneva, he quit in the middle of his unprecedented third term as Director-General (secured against US opposition when I was Chairperson), in order to help Michelle Bachelet in a presidential comeback campaign. When she won, he was appointed her advisor and after she moved on from the presidency, Somavia headed the higher diplomatic training academy.
The reason that my friend Juan Somavia left the summit of the ILO and Geneva, to return to Chile and plunge into Michelle Bachelet’s comeback campaign was obvious to all of us who knew something about the history of Chile.
Bachelet’s father was a General in the Air Force who was tortured until he died of a heart attack, by the very military he belonged to, for his opposition to the rightist coup of September 1973 and his loyalty to martyred ‘Companero Presidente’ Allende. Michelle Bachelet’s mother and she too were tortured. Released from custody after negotiation by a foreign intermediary she spent years in Australia and studied later at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig, GDR. She braved a return to Chile to practice medicine, a mere six years after the coup and her father’s killing.
Militarisation, democracy, civic space
Michelle Bachelet earned great respect as a Socialist political figure and was Minister of Health and later, of Defence, in the centre-left coalition government of Ricardo Lagos. Her education as a doctor specialising in paediatrics and her postgraduate credentials in Defence Studies in Chile and Washington DC, earned her the two portfolios. She succeeded Lagos as the first elected socialist woman President in Latin America.
After her first stint as President she made a comeback after a few years and won again. She was a leading figure in the Latin American ‘Pink Tide’ as the democratic Left wave was dubbed.
As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights she has the advantage of a supportive, synergistic equation with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres. Gutteres, with whom I interacted often and constructively in Geneva during our war years when he was UN High Commissioner for Refugees, shares with Bachelet the political characteristic of having been the respected Socialist leader of his country, Portugal.
In her presentation to the Human Rights Council last week, Michelle Bachelet didn’t sound like she was impressed by the unilateralist gesture and discourse of the new Sri Lankan Government or its promise of yet another indigenous high-level inquiry (one might add, without even the credibility of a time-bound commitment to implement the accountability recommendations of earlier indigenous commissions). Soberly but determinedly she also focused a laser pointer on some negative dynamics in Sri Lanka, thereby placing them not merely on the record but also on the world’s mental map.
Given her background, there is very little that Michelle Bachelet does not know about politics, leadership, presidency, democracy, elections, human rights, defence, militaries—both positive and negative—and the process of militarisation.
The specialist doctor in her went into diagnostic mode, making a pointed reference to a contemporary phenomenon in Sri Lanka: “Sri Lanka’s independent institutions, strengthened under the 19th Constitutional Amendment, are a key pillar in its democratic structure. And the space for civil society and independent media should be protected. I am therefore troubled by the recent trend towards moving civilian functions under the Ministry of Defence or retired military officers…”
She was clearly signalling that a new, transitional trend with dangerously distorting structural implications, very well-known throughout Latin America where it has been bitterly experienced, resolutely resisted and rigorously conceptualised, has not escaped her experienced scrutiny.
Non-Aligned and/or Neutral
Her presentation of human rights country reports was followed by the responses of various states and coalitions of states. The only one of them which made even a supportive mention of Sri Lanka’s declaration the previous day of unilateral delinking from Resolution 30/1, was our all-weather friend Pakistan. No member of BRICS or any representative of the recognised regional groupings in the UNHRC endorsed or mentioned Sri Lanka. Neither India nor China touched even tangentially on our move and attended argument. Nor did the statement of the Nonaligned Movement as read out by Azerbaijan. The NAM statement, just as those of so many others, was deeply respectful and warmly positive towards UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.
The solitary discordant exception in the hall was the delegate of Brazil, representing the rightwing authoritarian-nationalist Bolsonaro regime.
In the official statement delivered by Foreign Minister Gunawardena at the ‘High Level Segment’ of the Council at the very beginning of the sessions, Sri Lanka proclaimed that it was “following a nonaligned, neutral foreign policy”, prefacing it with a reference to “its [Sri Lanka’s] traditional neutrality”. Our new Foreign Minister, by instinct a pragmatic progressive in foreign policy, was merely channelling the recent doctrinal repositioning from above (dating back to 2018) which marks a deviation from and dilution of the traditional foreign policy of the SLFP, the centre-left, and the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency.
“Neutrality” was a word that never once appeared in the well-known Bandung principles, 10 in number, enunciated in 1955 at the Afro-Asian Conference. Furthermore, “Non-aligned” and “neutral” are neither synonyms nor on a continuum, and indeed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has never used the term “neutral” since its founding in 1961. Nor has Ceylon/Sri Lanka in any foreign policy statement or speech from our founder-membership of NAM in 1961 through numerous governments (including those of the UNP). Traditionally we have neither proclaimed our “neutrality”, nor have we previously proclaimed our “traditional neutrality”. We should know the difference between the Bandung principles and their successor Nonalignment on the one hand, and neutrality on the other, having been one of the founders of NAM and hosted a NAM summit in 1976.
The Sinhala neoconservatives draw enormous comfort from a notion that they are part of an international (rightwing) nationalist-populist tide. They are guilty of a classic ‘category error’.
They do not understand that the countries in which this ideology is hegemonic are of an identifiable category to which Sri Lanka manifestly does not belong: USA, UK, Brazil, India, Turkey and Israel. One is a superpower, another a great power, and the others are big powers or pivotal regional powers. Israel is sui generis because of the open-ended commitment of the USA.
All these countries have strong, large economies and robust industrial capitalist classes. Sri Lanka is not of this ‘type’ at all. Some ideologues might counter that Myanmar is a possible role model, but it is on the border of China, just as Pakistan shares an overland route with China, while Sri Lanka has only Tamil Nadu as a neighbour across 18 miles of water, and the ocean at its back.
It would be problematic if Sri Lankan foreign policy and diplomacy—which reflect our way of being in the world—are to be guided, not by a secular notion of the National Interest but by an (ethno)cultural or (religio)civilisational redefinition and recasting of the State and State policy, because there is no cultural or civilisational zone to which we belong which has an international presence, still less operates as an international actor or factor, unlike the Ibero-American, Francophone and Lusophone zones and corresponding groupings. Sri Lanka has no cultural-civilisational rear base or rearguard it can rely on.
The hawkish Sinhala nationalist perception is that the only reality is the national, and that too, understood as their own cultural zone the southern two-thirds of the island and its extension as the Sinhala diaspora network.
More charitably, they think that some realities are more real than others. There is no comprehension of the workings of the global, the dynamics of the external and the texture of the international.
Insofar as the country’s heartland and the majority are more organic, tangible and solid than the ensemble of the external, this Government is stronger than the last one, but insofar as the logic of the whole, the totality, is more important than that of a peripheral piece of the world system (however strategically located), the overall correlation of forces—with the balance of power as driver—cannot but tilt against it in the final analysis, unless there is a shift back to the centre, in a sharp mid-course correction.
At the very foundation lies the question of the nature, role and self-image of the state. Is the Sri Lankan State the mirror of the island as a whole and “the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multicultural people of Sri Lanka,” as Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena defined it with perfect accuracy in his address to the High-level segment of the UNHRC session? Does the Sri Lankan State reflect this “multiethnic mosaic” (Mervyn de Silva), or is it a magnifying mirror held up before the majority community, or an ensemble of power shaped in and stamped with the image of that cultural majority rather than of the sovereign, pluralist people as a totality?
Which is the legitimate source and ultimate repository of political sovereignty, i.e. who enjoys political sovereignty? The entire people of the island in all their diversity, or the cultural majority? Or is the answer “both”, but as a two-tier hierarchy? Is the cultural majority regarded as more “organic” than the long-standing cultural minorities on the island?
Do the ubiquitous discursive markers “national”, “homegrown” and “indigenous” denote the cultural majority—a perspective which renounces the potential advantage accruing to the National Interest by the fact that the minorities are interfaces with the wider world and other cultures/civilisations? In the dominant nationalist discourse, are the minorities perceived as foreign beachheads rather than bridges? Is the larger world outside somehow “alien” and must the majority remain alienated from it as mental inoculation and quarantine protecting a pure, superior “homegrown, indigenous” way of thinking and being from the threat of universality and universal norms?
Sri Lanka’s vote-winning coalition and successful diplomatic defence in Geneva 2009 with its much researched and written about “norm contestation”, took place entirely on the shared—and therefore contestable and contested—terrain of universality.
A state of the whole people will find it easier to bridge the gap between itself and the international consensus, or if the international community is too demanding, to resist such intrusiveness in a unified manner rather than a polarised and polarising one. Conversely, a state that represents solely the will and wishes of the cultural majority and tries to pass it off in the name of democracy (in its most simplistic, caricatured sense) and as the sentiment of the country/nation as a whole, will find that the gap between itself and the world does not close, but widens dangerously.