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Biden’s Foreign Policy, Human Rights and Sri Lanka



by Rajan Philips

Human Rights are among what has been called the “seven pillars” of President Biden’s foreign policy. The new President, who is really a very old hand “in the sausage-making process of foreign policy” through his long involvement in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered his first major policy statement on February 4, at the State Department. “America is back,” Biden declared, in clear repudiation of Trump’s ‘America First’ unilateralism. The choice of venue also signaled the return to institutional governance after four years of egotistical aberrations. Every American institution suffered under Trump, but none more than the State Department, traditionally the highest ranked in the Executive Branch.

Trumps’ foreign policy agents, from the Secretary of State George Mike Pompeo to UN Ambassador Nicky Hayley, had little background or even literacy in international affairs. Hayley’s “cesspool” comment about the UNHRC was typical of Trump staffers making speeches not to persuade the audiences they were addressing but to please the boss watching them on Fox News at the White House. Now, as part of the Biden Administration’s emphasis on Human Rights, America is back at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, even though the US is not among the current 47 country Members of its Council.

America’s exit from UNHRC under Trump and its return to the agency under Biden have been having political echo-effects in Sri Lanka. America’s position at UNHRC looms very much larger in Sri Lankan politics than Sri Lanka would ever figure in American foreign policy calculations. That is part of the natural order of things in a world of grossly unequal power relationships. As well, speculating about the motives of the US or other ‘core countries’ is not going to help Sri Lanka in its dealings with the UNHRC. Regardless of what the US says or does, Sri Lanka is stuck with the UNHRC for the foreseeable time unless and until the Sri Lankan government enlightens itself to find an internal solution to its external problem, which in itself is the externalization of a much older internal problem.

The reason why Sri Lanka is stuck in Geneva is not only because of its postwar hangovers but also because – as the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reminded Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Mohan Pieris: “it is important to recognize that in today’s world there is a growing concern and interest including international institutes from the human rights and legal dimensions on post conflict situations, mainly reconciliation and accountability.” The reminder was a rejoinder to Mr. Pieris’ needless intervention during a special session of the General Assembly for the presentation of the Secretary General’s Annual Report on January 28.

His pique was that his government was not being “made to feel that we are in it together” with the rest of the world because “the global temperature for Sri Lanka, particularly in the Human Rights Council has been maintained at an all time high.” The Secretary General assured the Ambassador that outside involvement will disappear when the Sri Lankan government starts responding substantially to questions of reconciliation and justice in Sri Lanka. It is now 12 years since the war ended and the first UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka was passed. More than anyone else in the world, the people of Sri Lanka deserve a substantial response from their government.

The fault of the previous government was in co-sponsoring the 2015 UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka while utterly failing to do anything substantially within the country either to win support for it among the Sinhalese, or to do anything significant to address the postwar difficulties in the northern and eastern provinces. The present government, for all the expectations that were invested on it, appears to be totally at sixes and sevens not only in Geneva but in every department of governance in Colombo. I am not imagining anything ridiculous to lampoon the government. The government’s key supporters, its protective commentators and even government ministers are getting frustrated with the ways the government is misfiring on all fronts and on all cylinders. And they are venting their frustrations, albeit for different reasons and for different purposes.


The global context

Specific to Geneva and the UNHRC, it is difficult to imagine that the government has anything smart up its sleeve or can find a way to extricate itself from the quasi-legal tangles that it has gotten itself into. More seriously, and tragically, it is difficult to expect this government to find an internal solution to our national problem, or its external manifestation at the UNHRC forum. In a way, Sri Lanka has lurched from the inept globalism of the previous government to the autarkic incompetence of the present. But there is no running away from the global context which insofar as Sri Lanka is concerned is heavily loaded with human rights considerations given the country’s postwar hangovers.

There is no question that the global context of human rights is not a level playing field. And President Biden is already showing that America will not engage with all countries equally. Saudi Arabia is more equal than others. Biden acted swiftly to end support to military operations in Yemen which has been devastated for seven years by the Saudi led war. The US will now shift to humanitarian operations. He informed the Saudis that he will only be dealing with King Salman and not the notorious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). He made public the American intelligence report, that Trump had suppressed, implicating MBS in the killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Washington Post journalist was killed and dismembered like in medieval times but with modern electrical knives in the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, in October 2018. But President Biden will not move to sanction the culpable prince. Saudi Arabia is too important an ally in the Middle East power game. So, thus far and no further, insofar as ‘recalibrating’ the US relationship with Saudi Arabia goes. Many of Biden’s supporters including White House staffers are not happy. Welcome to old school realpolitik.

But in a sign of the times, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has filed a compliant of over 300 pages with the German office of the Federal Prosecutor accusing the Saudi Prince and his associates of crimes against humanity. Such litigations were made possible by Germany’s Code of Crimes Against International Law (VStGB), which became law in 2002, allowing prosecution of crimes outside Germany and not involving Germans. Last month, a German court convicted a former Syrian secret service member of crimes against humanity. These indications are baby steps in transnational justice and universal jurisdiction.

The appropriate venue for trying the Saudi Prince is the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. But as a “treaty-based court” created by the 1998 Rome Conference, it cannot try a Saudi as Saudi Arabia is not a signatory or ratifier of the ICC, unless the case is referred to it by the Security Council. That is hardly possible because three permanent members of the Security Council, with veto powers, have not ratified the ICC. Of the 12 investigation initiated by the ICC only three are outside Africa (Myanmar, Georgia and Libya). All the others are African countries, many of them on self-referral in what is known as “out-sourcing” justice by African countries to resolve internal disputes.


Colonial Continuity

In her January 2021 report on Sri Lanka, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet outlines the options available to Member states for taking action against Sri Lanka, including referral (by another state) to the International Criminal Court, taking actions in their own national courts under universal jurisdiction, and applying targeted sanctions against state officials. But only targeted sanctions are included in the recommendations. Neither ICC referral nor action under universal jurisdiction is carried into the recommendations. The choices are indicative of the need for consensus even among the core countries. And universal jurisdiction is easier suggested than achieved. Already courts in the UK (2010), Australia (2011) and the US (2012) have rejected lawsuits and arrest requests against then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The problem for the government in the Commissioner’s 2021 report stems from its own actions and inactions during the last 15 months. These actions are seen by the Commissioner as “Emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability, and human rights.” The government protests too much that the Commissioner has no business in the country’s ongoing domestic matters, but it cannot pretend that the ongoing militarization, constitutional aberrations, setting up presidential commissions, and the alienation of religious minorities are all meant for the well-being of the people and the protection of their rights and interests.

The government considers the draft resolution based on the Commissioner’s report to be too much or too strong. On the other hand, the more ardent Tamil groups consider it to be too weak or too little, and a dilution of the Commissioner’s report. We do not know what the final resolution might turn out to be, but we can be sure that this is not going to be the end of it all.

In a way, what is being contested in Geneva can be seen as a continuation of the contest that began at least over 70 years ago in the twilight years of colonial rule. That was when the island’s political leaders communally jostled for post-independence power and position by submitting petitions and making special pleadings before the departing rulers. Perhaps the most dramatic forum where these contests played out before independence was the Soulbury Commission. And the most dramatic persona who stole everyone’s thunder, but actually accomplished little with his fifty-fifty cry was GG Ponnambalam.

Ponnambalam’s appearance before the Commission was all drama and eloquence and has for long been the stuff of Tamil political lore. As EFC Ludowyk, then Professor of English, would later critically record it for history, Ponnambalam “was responsible for several hours of impassioned oratory that enthused his supporters, but failed to persuade the tribunal which he exhorted.” The Soulbury Commission was quietly persuaded by the Board of Ministers to accept the constitutional proposals that Sir Ivor Jennings had prepared for them. Ponnambalam would eventually become a powerful minister in the first Senanayake government after independence. Then everything fell apart. Seventy years later, there is little drama in Geneva and the roles are somewhat reversed. The same contest continues, however, but with different actors and in the new language of human rights .

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Have Humanities and Social Sciences muddied water enough?



By Maduranga Kalugampitiya

The domain of the humanities and social sciences is under attack more than ever before. The relevance, as well as usefulness of the degrees earned in those fields, is being questioned left, right, and centre. The question of whether it is meaningful at all to be spending, if not wasting, the limited financial resources available in the coffers to produce graduates in those fields is raised constantly, at multiple levels. Attempts are being made to introduce a little bit of soft skills into the curricula in order to add ‘value’ to the degree programmes in the field. The assumption here is that either such degree programmes do not impart any skills or the skills that they impart are of no value. We often see this widely-shared profoundly negative attitude towards the humanities and the social sciences (more towards the former than towards the latter) being projected on the practitioners (students, teachers, and researchers) in those areas. At a top-level meeting, which was held one to two years ago, with the participation of policy-makers in higher education and academics and educationists representing the humanities and social sciences departments, at state universities, a key figure in the higher education establishment claimed that the students who come to the humanities and social sciences faculties were ‘late-developers’. What better (or should I say worse?) indication of the official attitude towards those of us in the humanities and the social sciences!

While acknowledging that many of the key factors that have resulted in downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day, I wish to ask if we, the practitioners in the said fields, have done our part to counter the attack.

What the humanities and the social sciences engage with is essentially and self-consciously social. What these disciplines have to say has a direct bearing on the social dimension of human existence. It is near impossible to discuss phenomena in economics, political science, or sociology without having to reflect upon and use examples from what happens in our lives and around us. One cannot even begin to talk about teaching English as a second language without taking a look at her/his own experience learning English and the struggles that many people go through at different levels doing the same. One cannot talk about successful ways of teaching foreign languages without recognizing the need to incorporate an engagement with the cultural life of those languages at some level. No reading of an artwork—be it a novel, a movie, a painting, a sculpture, a poem, whatever—is possible without the reader at least subconsciously reflecting upon the broader context in which those artworks are set and also relating her own context or experience to what is being read. A legal scholar cannot read a legislation without paying attention to the social implications of the legislation and the dynamics of the community at whom that legislation is directed. The point is our own existence as social beings is right in the middle of what we engage with in such disciplines. To steal (and do so self-consciously) a term from the hard/natural sciences, society is essentially the ‘laboratory’ in which those in the humanities and social sciences conduct their work. There may be some areas of study within the humanities and social sciences which do not require an explicit engagement with our social existence, but I would say that such areas, if any, are limited in number.

Needless to say that every social intervention is political in nature. It involves unsettling what appears to be normal about our social existence in some way. One cannot make interventions that have a lasting impact without muddying the water which we have been made to believe is clear. How much of muddying do we as practitioners in the field of humanities and social sciences do is a question that needs to be asked.

Unfortunately, we do not see much work in the humanities and social sciences which unsettles the dominant order. What we often see is work that reinforces and reaffirms the dominant structures, systems, and lines of thought. Lack of rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory is clearly one of the factors which prevents some scholars in the field from being able to make interventions that are capable of muddying the water, but the fact that we sometimes do not see much muddying even on the part of the more adept scholars shows that lack of rigorous training is not the sole reason.

Muddying the water is no simple matter. To use a problematic, yet in my view useful, analogy, a scholar in the said field trying to make an intervention that results in unsettling the order is like a hydrogen atom in H2O, ‘water’ in layperson’s language, trying to make an intervention which results in a re-evaluation of the oxygen atom. Such an intervention invariably entails a re-evaluation of the hydrogen atom as well, for the reason that the two atoms are part of an organic whole. One cannot be purely objective in its reading of the other. Such an intervention is bound to be as unsettling for the hydrogen atom as it is for the oxygen atom. Similarly, in a majority of contexts, a scholar in the area of the humanities and social sciences cannot make an intervention, the kind that pushes the boundaries of knowledge, without unsettling the dominant structures and value systems, which they themselves are part of, live by, and also benefit from. For instance, the norms, values, and practices which define the idea of marriage in contexts like ours are things that a male scholar would have to deal with as a member of our society, and any intervention on his part which raises questions about gender-based inequalities embodied in such norms, values, and practices would be to question his own privilege. Needless to say that such an intervention could result in an existential crisis for the scholar, at least temporarily. Such interventions also entail the possibility of backlash from society. One needs thorough training to withstand that pressure.

In place of interventions that unsettle the existing order, what we often see is work, which re-presents commonsensical knowledge garbed in jargon. To give an example from an area that I am a bit familiar with, much of the work that takes place in the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) identifies lack of motivation on the part of the students and also teachers and also lack of proper training for teachers as the primary reasons for the plight of English education in the country. This reading is not very different from a layperson’s understanding of the problem, and what we often see as research findings in the field of ESL is the same understanding, albeit dressed up in technical-sounding language. Such readings do not unsettle the existing order. They put the blame on the powerless. Very limited is the work that sees the present plight of English education as a systemic or structural problem. Reading that plight as a systemic problem requires us to re-evaluate the fundamental structures which govern our society, and such re-evaluation is unsettling is many ways. I argue that that is what is expected of scholarship in the ESL field, but unfortunately that is not what we see as coming out of the field.

If what gets produced as knowledge in the humanities and social sciences is jargonized commonsense, then the claim that such fields have nothing important to say is valid. If what a scholar in those fields has to say is not different to a layperson’s understanding of a given reality, the question whether there is any point in producing such scholars becomes valid.

In my view, the humanities and social sciences are in need of fundamental restructuring. This restructuring is not the kind which calls for the incorporation of a bit of soft skills here and a bit of soft skills there so that those who come out of those fields easily fit into predefined slots in society but the kind that results in the enhancement of the critical thinking capacity of the scholars. It is the kind of restructuring that would produce scholars who are capable of engaging in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence, in other words, scholars who are capable of muddying the water.

(Maduranga Kalugampitiya is attached to Department of English, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall thatparodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Selective targeting not law’s purpose



By Jehan Perera

The re-emergence of Donald Trump in the United States is a reminder that change is not permanent. Former President Trump is currently utilising the grievances of the white population in the United States with regard to the economic difficulties that many of them face to make the case that they need to be united to maintain their position in society. He is coming forward as their champion. The saying “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is often attributed to the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, among many others, though Lord Denning in The Road to Justice (1988) stated that the phrase originated in a statement of Irish orator John Philpot Curran in 1790. The phrase is often used to emphasise the importance of being vigilant in protecting one’s rights and freedoms.

Ethnic and religious identity are two powerful concepts by which people may be mobilised the world over. This is a phenomenon that seemed to have subsided in Western Europe due to centuries of secular practices in which the state was made secular and neutral between ethnicities and religions. For a short while last year during the Aragalaya, it seemed that Sri Lanka was transcending its ethnic and religious cleavages in the face of the unexpected economic calamity that plunged large sections of the population back into poverty. There was unprecedented unity especially at the street level to demonstrate publicly that the government that had brought the country to this sorry pass had to go. The mighty force of people’s power succeeded in driving the leaders of that government out of power. Hopefully, there will be a government in the future that will bring the unity and mutual respect within the people, especially the younger generations, to the fore and the sooner the better as the price is growing higher by the day.

But like the irrepressible Donald Trump the old order is fighting to stage its comeback. The rhetoric of ethnicity and religion being in danger is surfacing once more. President Ranil Wickremesinghe who proclaimed late last year that the 13th Amendment to the constitution would be implemented in full, as it was meant to be, and enable the devolution of power to be enjoyed by the people of the provinces, including those dominated by Tamils and Muslims, has gone silent on this promise. The old order to which he is providing a new economic vision is clearly recalcitrant on ethno-religious matters. As a result, the government’s bold plan to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as promised to the international community in 2015 to address the unresolved human rights issues of the war, is reportedly on the rocks. The main Tamil political parties have made statements that they will not legitimise or accept such a mechanism in the absence of a genuine devolution of power. Politics must not override policies.


The sense of threat to ethnicity and religion looms too large once again for forward movement in conflict resolution between the different communities that constitute the Sri Lankan nation which is diverse and plural. Two unlikely persons now find themselves at the centre of an emotion-heavy ethno-religious storm. One is a comedian, the other is a religious preacher. Both of them have offended the religious sensibilities of many in the ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist majority community. Both of their statements were originally made to small audiences of their own persuasion, but were then projected through social media to reach much larger audiences. The question is whether they made these statements to rouse religious hatred and violence. There have been numerous statements from all sides of the divide, whether ethnic, religious or political, denouncing them for their utterances.

Both comedian Nathasha Edirisooriya and pastor Jerome Fernando have apologised for offending and hurting the religious sentiments of the Buddhist population. They made an attempt to remedy the situation when they realised the hurt, the anger and the opposition they had generated. This is not the first time that such hurtful and offensive comments have been made by members of one ethno-religious community against members of another ethnic-religious community. Taking advantage of this fact the government is arguing the case for the control of social media and also the mainstream media. It is preparing to bring forward legislation for a Broadcasting Regulatory Commission that would also pave the way to imprison journalists for their reporting, impose fines, and also revoke the licences issued to electronic media institutions if they impact negatively on national security, national economy, and public order or create any conflict among races and religions.

In a free society, opportunities are provided for people to be able to air their thoughts and dissents openly, be it at Hyde Park or through their representatives in Parliament. The threat to freedom of speech and to the media that can arise from this new law can be seen in the way that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights has been used and is being abused in Sri Lanka. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. It is very likely that the Broadcast Regulatory Commission bill will yield a similar result if passed into law. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become yet another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Pastor Jerome Fernando is out of prison as he is currently abroad having left the country a short while before a travel ban was delivered to him.


The state media reported that a “Police officer said that since there is information that she was a person who was in the Aragalaya protest, they are looking into the matter with special attention.” This gives rise to the inference that the reason for her arrest was politically motivated. Comedian Edirisooriya was accused of having violated the provisions in the ICCPR in Section 3(1) that forbids hate speech. Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act prohibits advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, violence or hostility. The international human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, has pointed out that in the case of Edirisooriya that for speech to be illegal on the grounds of being hate speech it requires “a clear showing of intent to incite others to discriminate, be hostile towards or commit violence against the group in question.” Amnesty International also notes that “When the expression fails to meet the test, even if it is shocking, offensive or disturbing, it should be protected by the state.”

Ironically, in the past there have been many instances of ethnic and religious minorities being targeted in a hateful manner that even led to riots against them, but successive governments have been inactive in protecting them or arresting their persecutors. Such targeting has taken place, often for political purposes in the context of elections, in blatant bids to mobilise sections of the population through appeals to narrow nationalism and fear of the other. The country’s political and governmental leaders need to desist from utilising the ICCPR Act against those who make social and political critiques that are outside the domain of hate speech. The arrest of Bruno Divakara, the owner of SL-Vlogs, under the ICCPR Act is an indication of this larger and more concerning phenomenon which is being brought to the fore by the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission bill.

The crackdown on the space for free expression and critical comment is unacceptable in a democratic polity, especially one as troubled as Sri Lanka, in which the economy has collapsed and caused much suffering to the people and the call to hold elections has been growing. The intervention of the Human Rights Commission which has called on the Inspector General of Police to submit a report on the arrest and its rationale is a hopeful sign that the independence of institutions intended to provide a check and balance will finally prevail. The Sri Lankan state will hopefully evolve to be a neutral arbiter in the disputes between competing ethnic, religious and partisan political visions of what the state should be and what constitutes acceptable behaviour within it. Taking on undemocratic powers in a variety of ways and within a short space of time is unlikely to deliver economic resurgence and a stable and democratic governance the country longs for. Without freedom, justice and fair play within, there can be no hope of economic development that President Wickremesinghe would be wanting to see.

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Girl power… to light up our scene



Manthra: Pop, rock and Sinhala songs

We have never had any outstanding all-girl bands, in the local scene, except, perhaps…yes The Planets, and that was decades ago!

The Planets did make a name for themselves, and they did create quite a lot of excitement, when they went into action.

Of course, abroad, we had several top all-girl bands – outfits like the Spice Girls, Bangles, Destiny’s Child, and The Supremes.

It’s happening even now, in the K-pop scene.

Let’s hope we would have something to shout about…with the band Manthra – an all-girl outfit that came together last year (2022).

Manthra is made up of Hiruni Fernando (leader/bass guitar), Gayathma Liyanage (lead guitar), Amaya Jayarathne (drums), Imeshini Piyumika (keyboards), and Arundathi Hewawitharana (vocals).

Amaya Arundathi and Imeshini are studying at the University of Visual and Performing Arts, while Gayathma is studying Architecture at NIMB, and Hiruni is the Western Music teacher at St. Lawrence’s Convent, and the pianist at Galadari Hotel, having studied piano and classical guitar at West London University.

They have already displayed their talents at various venues, events, weddings, and on TV, as well (Vanithabimana Sirasa TV and Charna TV Art Beat).

Additionally, the band showcased their talent at the talent show held at the Esoft Metro Campus.

The plus factor, where this all-girl outfit is concerned, is that their repertoire is made up rock, pop, and Sinhala songs.

Explaining as to how they came up with the name Manthra, founder member Hiruni said that Manthra means a word, or sound, repeated to aid concentration in meditation, and that the name was suggested by one of the band members.

Hiruni Fernando: Founder and leader of Manthra

She also went on to say that putting together a female band is not an easy task, in the scene here.

“We faced many difficulties in finding members. Some joined and then left, after a short while. Unlike a male band, where there are many male musicians in Sri Lanka, there are only a few female musicians. And then, there are some parents who don’t like their daughters getting involved in music.”

With talented musicians in their line-up, the future certainly looks bright for Manthra who are now keen to project themselves, in an awesome way, in the scene here, and abroad, as well.

“We are keen to do stage shows and we are also planning to create our own songs,” said Hiruni.

Yes, we need an all-girl group to add variety to our scene that is now turning out to be a kind of ‘repeating groove,’ where we see, and hear, almost the same thing…over and over again!

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