The annual meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is upon us once again. Much like last years UNHRC meeting – and the one held before that –the United States have prepared a proposal which condemns the Rajapaksa government’s human rights record. And just like these previous two meetings, the United Kingdom, the European Union and India have all expressed unconditional support for Washington’s proposal, while China and Russia are once again standing by President Rajapaksa. Judging from the success of the United States’ last two proposals against the Rajapaksa government, a third successive resolution condemning Rajapaksa seems likely. Furthermore, UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay has voiced her full support for Washington’s proposal and advocated “an international inquiry mechanism to further investigate the alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law”. While the increased international pressure for an international inquiry marks a slight change from the previous UNHRC proposals against the Rajapaksa government, it all feels strangely familiar. One can’t help thinking: is it really necessarily to go through this pantomime all over again? Whose interests is this meeting really serving? As we will see in this article, a number of political forces, both in Lanka and abroad, are benefiting from the yearly UNHRC merry-go-round, most notably President Rajapaksa himself.
While the bourgeois press commonly hail the UNHRC as a fearless international body that punishes the world’s most repressive and authoritarian governments, the reality is very different. Far from causing the Rajapaksa government any cause for discomfort, the criticisms made over the past two years by the UNHRC have actually helped President Rajapaksa’s efforts to appear as an ‘anti-imperialist’. By rejecting the repeated criticisms of the West, President Rajapaksa has managed to present himself to the Lankan people as a great nationalist who courageously fights off foreign interference. It is for this reason that the Rajapaksa government has decided to hold the provincial councils elections on 29 March – just as the UNHRC is scheduled to conclude. President Rajapaksa knows all too well that by flooding the airwaves with his own brand of defiant Sinhala nationalism, he cannot be defeated.
By using the UNHRC criticisms to appear like a great ‘patriot’ to the Sinhalese majority in Lanka, President Rajapaksa has cunningly concealed his true nature. This is nothing new. Time and time again, President Rajapaksa has tried to play up the brave struggle his government is waging against hostile foreign forces. Speaking at the recent Independence Day celebrations, the President stated that “as we celebrate the 66th anniversary of our independence, we restate our commitment to safeguard the freedom and rights of our people, and decide on our future free of dictates from the re-emerging forces of colonialism”. However, underneath this carefully constructed public image lurks something much different. Far from safeguarding Lanka’s independence in the face of “re-emerging forces of colonialism”, a closer analysis reveals that the Rajapaksa government has in fact ushered in an era of unprecedented subservience to foreign interests.
Since coming to power, the Rajapaksa government has overseen the increase of direct foreign investment from US$ 220 million in 2005 to more than US$ 1.3 billion in 2013 – an increase of around 450%. And this is only the beginning: recently, the Rajapaksa government announced they are targeting to increase its direct foreign investment to US$ 2.5 billion for 2014. To achieve this figure, the Rajapaksa government has indicated it will be creating several new investment zones in the country – known as Export Processing Zones (EPZ) – adding to the thirteen that currently exist in Lanka. These zones – which cover around 1,329 hectares across Lanka and house more than 270 international corporations – offer foreign business significant tax concessions of up to 25 years. If that was not enough, the safety of foreign investment is even guaranteed by the constitution! There is no wonder that the Board of Investment proudly declare that “Lanka is the one of the safest countries in the world to invest in due to a number of mechanisms in place to protect investors”. Australian billionaire James Packer’s recent plan to build a Casino complex in Colombo is only one of many examples of foreign capitalists coming to Lanka to exploit the Rajapaksa government’s neo-liberal program.
This rapidly increasing rate of foreign investment undermines President Rajapaksa’s independence. By turning Lanka into a playground for foreign capital, the Rajapaksa government has ultimately relinquished control of the national economy. In spite of President Rajapaksa’s stirring rhetoric condemning the “re-emerging forces of colonialism”, his government’s vigorous pursuit of foreign investment has ironically allowed these very same ‘colonialist forces’ to re-enter Lanka. Just as when the British, Dutch and Portuguese colonialists ruled Lanka, today all profits made by foreign businesses operating in Lanka are promptly siphoned out of the country and into the coffers of foreign capitalists. After amassing enormous fortunes off the sweat of the Lankan worker, these foreign capitalists then utilise their growing political influence to ensure their economic interests in Lanka remain protected.
The Rajapaksa government’s recent attempt to pass the business-friendly ‘Seed and Planting Material Act’ – as well as its constant campaign to privatise the Lankan education system – demonstrates the growing power of foreign capital within Lanka. This economic reality exposes what President Rajapaksa has tried to keep secret – today, the Rajapaksa government is anything but independent. However, as long as the population of Lanka continue to be brainwashed by Rajapaksa’s ‘nationalist’ and ‘independent’ political image – made possible by the annual UNHRC meetings – this secret will remain hidden.
In a similar fashion to how the Rajapaksa government has used the UNHRC meetings to further its own political program, the opposition in Lanka – led by the United National Party – have also benefited. On 15 February, the UNP released a lengthy statement criticising the Rajapaksa government’s human rights record. "Even at this very late hour” the statement declared, “the UNP calls on the ruling regime to address the serious allegations levelled against it. A mature state does not engage in blanket denial when allegations and aspersions are cast at it. It listens to those accusations, reflects introspectively, and attempts to set the record right as much for its own people, as for international consumption”. The UNP further stated that “it is in our collective interest that our government protects our inalienable rights. The right to education, right to dignity, right to justice and a fair trial are all human rights just as the right to life and the right against torture and arbitrary arrest". Released on the same day the UN sent out a damning 20-page report criticising Rajapaksa, the UNP’s statement was clearly designed to exploit the UNHRC meeting for its own political advantage. However, just as President Rajapaksa has tried to conceal his duplicity with his noisy defiance of the UNHRC, the UNP’s support of the UNHRC has also concealed its true political program. While on the one hand the UNP state that they “believe in a Sri Lanka that is unified, democratic and truly free”, this runs in complete contradiction with the UNP’s own record on human rights.
During 1987-1989, the UNP government – led first by President J.R Jayawardene then later by President Premadasa – conducted the bloodiest campaign of repression ever witnessed in Lanka. Faced with the growing threat of the JVP’s armed insurrection, the UNP created a number of paramilitary groups to wipe out the JVP and its supporters. These paramilitary groups – the Green Tigers, the Black Cats, the Hawks, the Scorpions, the People Revolutionary Red Army (PRRA) and the Yellow Cats to name only a few – roamed the country side killing JVP members and sympathisers. Many others who were not affiliated were also indiscriminately killed. According to C. A. Chandraprema – an outspoken enemy of the JVP – between August 1989 and January 1990, the government forces killed around 15,000 in this manner, or roughly 100 killings per day. While no reliable statistics exists, many believe the real number to be far greater.
In the three decades since the tragedy of 1987-1989, the UNP has not made any attempt to prosecute the party officials responsible. Consequently, in 2009 Amnesty International published a report criticising the failure of successive Lankan governments to investigate the large number of “enforced disappearances” that occurred during the JVP’s 1987-1989 insurrection. Although the Lankan government has since 1991 conducted nine “ad hoc” commissions of inquiry, Amnesty International stated that these commissions lacked credibility and consequently resulted in “very few prosecutions for human rights violations”. Until the UNP address the many skeletons in their own closet, it can hardly be taken seriously as a ‘defender of human rights’. Even with the recent discovery of 154 skeletal remains at the Matale mass grave – which were traced back to the 1987-1989 period – the UNP has been conspicuously silent. Consequently, when one compares the actual substance of the UNP and SLFP’s commitment to human rights, there is very little separating them.
Just like President Rajapaksa and the UNP, the United States also stands to benefit from the yearly UNHRC resolutions against Lanka. Beginning with the recession of the US economy in 2008, the Obama administration has increasingly looked to spread its influence over the Asia-Pacific region. Considering China’s traditional dominance of the area, Obama’s push toward Asia – known as the “strategic pivot to Asia” – is clearly an attempt to contain China’s expanding influence throughout the region.
Ever since the Rajapaksa government ended the economically debilitating civil war in 2009, the country has emerged as a key battle-ground between Chinese and American interests. Considering that the world’s busiest international shipping lane runs off Lanka’s south coast, China has directed an increasing amount of its investment toward the island nation. For example, China’s recently announced $US 1.3 billion investment to build a 108 hectare port city in Lanka’s south made China by far the biggest foreign investor in the Lankan economy during 2013. Sensitive to China’s growing network of ports which spread all across Asia’s most important sea lanes – known as China’s ‘string of pearls’ – the US is desperately trying to curb Chinese influence in Lanka. An “international inquiry” by the UNHRC into the Rajapaksa government human rights record will no doubt provide the US with the perfect opportunity to spread its influence in Lanka. If successful, it will provide the US with an invaluable bargaining chip to pressure the Rajapaksa government away from China and toward the West.
Karl Marx once wrote that “all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided”. In the case of political manoeuvrings that surround the coming UNHRC meeting, it is clear that nothing can be taken on its appearance alone. What is clear, however, is that at no point has the sufferings of Lankan people – Tamil and Sinhalese alike – formed an important part of the politics surrounding the UNHRC. Indeed, it seems that everyone but the oppressed masses in Lanka have something to gain from the UNHRC meeting. As many powerful bourgeois forces – both inside and outside Lanka – are using the UNHRC probe in Lanka to further their own politics agendas, it is imperative that the proletarian movement in Lanka keeps its involvement in the current human rights debate at arms length. After all, the workers struggle in Lanka is chiefly concerned in the struggle of the oppressed masses, not in joining the tussles of competing bourgeois interests.