As the Southasian leaders conclude their speeches on the first day of the SAARC Summit, one thing is quite clear: the Summit is increasingly becoming a platform for making and discussing trade and the economy while ceding its charter objective of striving for social justice. The most explicit expression of this tendency came from the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who, while acknowledging human rights as a “moral and ethical concept”, claimed that it shouldn’t be a “political tool”. Rajapaksa comes fresh after announcing an early presidential election at home in which he seeks to extend his tenure for an unprecedented third term. His bid for re-election, however, faces an unexpected challenge with the defection of five high-ranking members of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, including health minister Maithripala Sirisena who has been named as the common candidate of the opposition.
Members of the president’s family occupy several institutions of state power and have blatantly used the military to deepen and extend their political control. Sri Lanka has also been consistently opposed to and accused of obstructing United Nations efforts to conduct an inquiry on war crimes and human-rights abuses, particularly those committed during the latter stages of the country’s civil war, or as Rajapaksa put it in his speech, the “neutralisation of the terrorist group”. In what can only be an effort to subvert the UN and international efforts to bring war crimes under scrutiny, he warned the member states against “extra-regional entities” intervening in the region “in the guise of human rights”; abstaining from bilateral issues would “be morally in keeping with the SAARC spirit”. Clearly, Rajapaksa is using the Summit and its regional potential to deflect attention from investigation of war crimes during the 2009 military campaign.
~ Shubhanga Pandey and Puja Sen are Assistant Editors with Himal Southasian