In one of my favorite Archie stories (from the comic), Archie Andrews is trying to find a job over the summer vacation. He finds someone selling subscriptions to an encyclopedia for which he has promised a 10% commission. Selling is not easy, however. As he fumbled from house to house only to be turned away and turned away, he becomes frustrated. Finally, he decides to call it a day, offering the reader a reason to throw everything in: “After all, 10% of zero is zero.”
Recorded and modified, that sums up our recent meeting in Geneva pretty well: with 22 votes in favor of the resolution on Sri Lanka, 11 against and 14 abstentions, it was a victory for the core group, not so much for us. Those 11 nos shouldn’t count; To paraphrase Archie: 23% of 47 are also zero.
You can view Geneva as one of two things: a battlefield of powerful states (rightly called “human rights imperialists”) against the little ones, or a platform for rights, ethics, ideals and ideas. The two don’t contradict each other, but whichever tactic is used is.
If Geneva is a battlefield where “big fish eat small fish”, you don’t care what comes from there: you claim victory even in the event of defeat and demand global solidarity against the human rights imperialists. On the other hand, if Geneva is a platform for universal ideals, do whatever you can to achieve a high score and gain diplomacy at the table what you gain on the battlefield through the military.
The first strategy seems to be that of this government; the second thing the government was before. I prefer the third: engaging with ideas and at the same time demanding the humbuggery of human rights imperialism. You don’t do this by putting your sovereignty up for sale, nor can you do it by being inconsistent with the world. You do this through engagement, give and take, and TIT-FOR-TAT, by making friends while operating from a moral standpoint.
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sirisena-Wickremesinghe governments have disagreed on most matters, but despite their opposing approaches to every other issue, their way of handling the Geneva vote has led us to roughly the same result: an extension of the Inevitable. In the case of co-sponsorship – which Sirisena-Wickremesinghe chose in March 2015 – it was about doing what Dayan Jayatilleka called “Jihadi John” in terms of the sovereignty of the country. In the case of the “whataboutery” to which the current government is indulging, the issue was that domestic cramps stand in the way of foreign policy requirements. So, contrary to what Dinesh Gunawardena might say, Geneva 2021 was no different from Geneva 2015, with the exception that Geneva 2015, while 2021 turned the odds against us, had the weakest characteristics of a Pyrrhic victory.
I remember mocking Mangala Samaraweera’s attempt to play with the results of local government polls in 2018 to “prove” that the anti-Rajapaksa vote was up from the August 2015 general election while the SLPP won the election. This, of course, has been a classic case of large oranges and small apples, and it is only fair to invoke the metaphor when another minister is doing the same in a different context. For Dinesh, Gunawardena called Geneva a victory: he seems to believe that 14 abstentions show that the majority voted for us.
Forget wrong logic and linguistic theater here. The fact is that Sri Lanka has traditionally relied on the non-aligned – hardly irrelevant even nowadays – and on the G77 vote. Given the left’s support for Palestine, Sri Lanka was also dependent on IOC countries. Ergo, the strategy should and should be to get support from these blocks.
Such a strategy is twofold in its current form: you convert the man in the middle to your side and prevent the man who once stood for you from going into the middle. It is easier to convert the neutralist; Not the guy who set up camp against you. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to convince the man who will vote against you, but it does mean that men who don’t vote should be at the top of your list. Two rules: negotiate with them from their world, talk to them on their terms.
Seen in this light, and in all fairness to Minister Gunawardena, Geneva brought home a double defeat in 2021: based on the number of countries that voted for the resolution (the highest since 2009) and the no-abstention ratio (the highest) since 2009 when it was 6:29).
I still believe Dinesh Gunawardena is the best foreign secretary we’ve had in years, and that says a lot when you consider how many thought his Jahapalanist predecessors were better. (For the record, they weren’t.) Geneva 2021 therefore didn’t reveal his flaws as much as the boundaries within which he had to work, both inside and outside the ministry.
The failure to receive support from many of our traditional allies – particularly those in the Islamic world – says a lot to me about two things: a general failure to confront the world and a specific failure to reflect, like us treat other countries in the world as we treat ourselves.
What we have achieved instead is what I would call a “foreign policy reversal”. The way we solve local problems contradicts the way we interact with everyone else outside of our coasts. As for the choice of many Muslim countries not to vote for or against, this reversal is due to one thing and one thing alone: the burial controversy.
I’m not talking about the months of delay in obtaining permission for COVID-19 burials. I’m talking about the dithering the government is addressing after announcing to the world that it will resume its compulsory cremation policy. That is unfortunate. You don’t convince people by telling them one thing and doing the opposite. Likewise, don’t let domestic convulsions and prejudices get in the way of promises to other countries.
But such basic principles do not seem to have gotten into the minds of those who seek blood for trifles. Mahinda Rajapaksa understood it all too well: That is why he announced the U-turn burials in parliament. But for the ultra-nationalists, external relations just don’t matter. As long as their prejudices turn into politics, the rest of the world can go where they want. When effective foreign policy does not involve total give or total take, these people want everyone not to give. This strategy has a name: zero sum. The US is committed in some way to this. We are not the USA.
The foreign policy reversal works in the short term. Not so long. The previous government made a huge mistake in relying almost entirely on foreign assistance towards Geneva. that didn’t help them at the ballot box. Ranil Wickremesinghe with the ceasefire agreement and Chandrika Kumaratunga with the P-TOMS agreement made the same mistake; Geneva 2015 showed that they had not learned the lessons from both encounters. The current government has taken the opposite approach: by replacing the global with the local, it seems to believe that support from within can offset resistance from outside. That didn’t help us in 2009 and that helped us lose in 2021.
None of this means that we should measure the success of our diplomatic maneuvers against Western benchmarks. For this reason, I disagree with those who are bringing the regime to justice to seek the voices of “serious human rights abusers”: Eritrea and Myanmar, to name just two. Such criticisms fall on their own logic for two reasons: first, because “serious human rights violators” are also on the other side, and second, because in the final vote, very many of these “violators” left us and went to the other side. If we want to plan our foreign policy on the basis of ideals and standards decided and affirmed by the guys at the top, we will eventually get caught up in the duplicity that the guys at the top are dealing with. One example will suffice. Brazil, a country known for “grave human rights violations” and led by a right-wing militarist allied with the US, voted for the resolution and against us. What does this tell us about human rights politics?
From today’s perspective, a balance needs to be struck between the need to assert ourselves and the need to work and negotiate from a position of moral superiority. That balance needs to be maintained by another: between the need to counter duplication of outfits like the core group and the need to develop a coherent strategy that transforms those in the middle into our gun friends. This is not achieved when one refuses to give or when one expects to get everything. The government must therefore meet its critics on two issues and defeat them: constructively and pragmatically, share power with the periphery and deal with minorities. It is unfortunate that the world expects more than we seem ready to part with. Without giving anything, however, we risk losing everything.
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