Sri Lankan diplomacy and the British monarchy
Tuesday, 24 June 2008
By Kath Noble
Britain was given the opportunity to grasp an important point the other day. The United Nations Human Rights Council took advantage of a regular review of the situation there to urge the British government to call a referendum on the formulation of a written constitution and preferably a republican one that would confer sovereignty on the people instead of vesting it in the British monarchy.
It was considerably less revolutionary than many of the suggestions that are made on almost a daily basis to Sri Lanka. British politicians seem to delight in telling their counterparts here that a unitary state won't do or that there should be no foremost place for Buddhism. And it was rather more diplomatically put. The Sri Lankan ambassador proposed the idea while also emphasising that deciding what to do about it was entirely up to Britain.
Sri Lankan pundits were quick to condemn what they described as an unnecessary dig at a big power. They claimed that there was nothing to be gained from upsetting a country that really ought to be kept as a friend in these troubled days. Revenge would be exacted for the offence caused by this embarrassing rebuke, they said. Sri Lanka is apparently well on the way to diplomatic isolation and it will surely end in disaster for the incumbent administration.
I find all of these arguments to be rather silly. They rely on what can only be called a schoolboy version of international relations.
The British government wasn't in the slightest bit bothered by the incident. It gave the proper response explaining that there was no appetite for a referendum on the proposed issue and expressing its admiration and support for the role played by the British monarchy. That was an obvious requirement. And it moved on. There was absolutely no indication of any real concern. Of course not. The British government is almost certainly a lot keener on the idea than voters in Britain.
Kath Noble is a freelance writer from the United Kingdom. An Oxford University graduate in Mathematics, she has worked as a researcher with various organisations campaigning on issues of global governance both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in South Asia, Africa and Europe. She now writes a column for The Island (Colombo).
This isn't the only reason. The British government has on many occasions shown itself to be perfectly willing to ignore the wishes of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism demonstrated this point in the same week. He criticised legislation being presented to extend the length of time people suspected of terrorist offences can be held without charge to 42 days. Western nations haven't gone so far outside of Guantanamo Bay. He called for the plan to be scrapped. The British government didn't appear to have even noticed his statement and cheerfully pushed through the bill despite a rebellion from a fair number of its own MPs. The United Nations Human Rights Council holds little power over a state that can veto any action against it from its thoroughly undeserved seat on the Security Council.
The British people are rather different. The incident provoked some interesting responses from them and this is what really matters.
The United Nations Human Rights Council is probably an entirely unknown phenomenon to the majority of my compatriots and its activities don't tend to get a lot of coverage in the press. This story only appears to have been picked up by two newspapers. Very few people will have heard about it. The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Express both overreacted in their coverage and deliberately misrepresented the proposed referendum as a demand for the abolition of the British monarchy.
United Nation Human Rights Council Session - Geneva
I must admit to wholeheartedly agreeing with this sentiment. The British monarchy seems to me to be a symbol of the divisions in our society. It is all about inherited privilege. We are royal subjects not citizens. And it doesn't unite us. The British government is busy trying to prove this point by pushing school leavers into swearing allegiance to the crown in their new citizenship ceremonies. Catholics, Muslims, Hindus and others, who actually constitute the majority of active worshippers in Britain, are asked to dedicate themselves to an institution from which they are officially excluded. Atheists and agnostics might almost not exist, despite making up at least one sixth of the total population, for they are completely forgotten when it comes to the British monarchy. Sovereigns and their families are barred from becoming or marrying anybody other than members of the Church of England. It is but one example of the problems associated with the establishment. We shouldn't consider this to be quaint.
Democracy is obviously the weaker for it too. Sovereigns retain the ability to appoint the prime minister, dissolve parliament and block any act that they dislike. They are also the commanders in chief of the armed forces. It doesn't mean a great deal. They wouldn't last long if they tried to interfere with elected representatives, but this is no reason not to remove these powers at once. Traditions can be maintained in other ways. Sovereigns also still exercise the right to advise the government. They receive copies of all cabinet minutes, they are briefed on the latest developments once a week by the prime minister, and they announce government plans for the coming year on opening the new session of parliament. The current incumbent has done all of this admirably quietly, but the next in line is already misusing his position to pontificate in public on everything from architecture and genetic engineering to the situation in Tibet. Sovereigns have rather more opportunities to make their opinions count. This isn't charming either.
The British monarchy is doing its best to stay relevant. Sovereigns and their families spend a lot of time supporting charities. But let them do this on the basis of their personal fortunes. They may only cost the taxpayers an annual sum of about Rs. 150, but 1,500 teachers would provide the country with even better value for money. It isn't even the real source of their popularity. The British people like the royal family because they have become a part of the celebrity culture.
I digress though. The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Express seemed to be determined to get the masses and the chattering classes agitated about the incident. The Daily Telegraph set the tone with the following headline: 'Britain should get rid of the Monarchy, says UN.' The Daily Express opened with: 'Britain has been told to get rid of the Queen in an official United Nations report.' It sounded almost as though the royal family might be dragged out of their palaces and shot. Or transported to America. The Daily Telegraph reported that they were astonished. The Daily Express said that there was outrage. Responsible journalism based on calm reporting of the facts was largely abandoned.
Readers left some useful comments on their websites too. The United Nations took a lot of the blame. It was accused of wasting time on unimportant issues. The simmering dislike of international bodies, which are often presented by the conservative media as unaccountable and ineffective, was fuelled. Its reputation took another hit. Nobody thought to put the incident in context either. The fact that all kinds of proposals are made to pretty much every state in the same forum was completely ignored. The British people became just a bit more inclined to blindly support something more along the lines of John McCain's misguided vision of a restricted entry club like a League of Democracies.
Member states were criticised on their own records too. They were told to sort out their problems at home before telling others what to do. But there is an important point to be noted here. Sri Lanka was hardly mentioned, despite being the country that made the suggestion in the first place. Cuba and Saudi Arabia were the preferred targets for attack, with supplementary efforts against Sudan and Zimbabwe. Public opinion is shaped in ways that we can't always anticipate.
Sri Lankan commentators might recognise some of these tendencies. People here react in a similar manner when they are told that a unitary state isn't appropriate or that preference shouldn't be given to Buddhism. And these are much more radical proposals. Let's not even begin to discuss the chorus of voices calling for negotiations with the LTTE. People have rather more reason to be concerned about foreign intervention here too. This country only has power in proportion to its size. But this isn't my point. Sri Lanka isn't unusual. It would seem that the chattering classes and the masses are more or less the same throughout the world.
The United Nations Human Rights Council was actually just doing its job. The regular review of each nation is supposed to bring up all possible worries. The absence of a written constitution and the continuing powers of the monarchy were reasonable points to make, if hardly the most important issues to tackle with Britain. The British government surely ought to answer a few more probing questions about human rights. Whatever. The member states speak up about particular concerns without reference to their own situations because they will be scrutinised in turn. It is as simple as that. The United Nations Human Rights Council either does this work or it closes down.
The British government ought to have understood from this experience that these kinds of suggestions from outsiders don't usually go down very well with the public. The normal result of a perceived attack on an institution is increased support for it and decreased respect for the agency responsible. And threats are all too easily imagined even when none exist. It isn't completely rational. But people don't always behave that way. The Sri Lankan ambassador did us all a favour by highlighting the problem.
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(Courtesy : Department of Information Sri Lanka )
Last Updated ( Monday, 02 February 2009 )