By Bandu de Silva
The paucity of comments on the U.S. Senate’s unanimous Resolution on Sri Lanka so far except for the official response of the Ministry of External Affairs and a very brief comment in the Editorial in the Sunday Island March 3, 2011.and an equally brief reference in The Sunday Times Political Column of the same day, makes me wonder if this is an indication that the Senate Resolution is not being taken too seriously over here since it is a non-binding one, as the editor of The Sunday Island commented?
Even the External Affairs Ministry’s strategy in its response was to concentrate on the significance of the LLRC and not to meet any other points arising from the Resolution such as the pressure it exerts on the international community in general, and the UN Secretary General in particular, “to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to look into to reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka and to make recommendations regarding accountability”; as well as on the President [of the U.S.], to take measures to “develop a comprehensive policy towards Sri Lanka that reflects United States interests, including respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, economic interests, and security interests”.
These other points arising from the Resolution not commented upon by the Ministry of External Affairs, cannot be ignored even if the resolution was not binding. The minimum that could be expected is the cascading effects it will cause in other countries of the West where the Diaspora is active. Already such manifestations have appeared in the legislatures of Britain and Australia. More is expected in some E/U countries. What that means is adding to international pressure against Sri Lanka on human rights and other allied issues.
Taken along with Assistant Secretary Robert Blake’s remarks in the subsequent interview with AFP, they point to an emerging convergence of opinion within the U.S. on the Sri Lankan issue, the human rights and alleged war crimes by the government and the LTTE between the legislative arm and the administration. This convergence is even more significant not only because the Senate Resolution has gone a step beyond the administration’s position, but it has reversed its position demonstrated a few months earlier at the height of the State Department’s preparation of a Report for the government when it stepped in to warn against pushing a former friendly country towards the other extreme. Not that it mattered much to America what this “peanut “ of a country (my apologies to Rajiv Gandhi!) could do by herself but they were certainly mindful about the ever growing influence of their bête noire, China, over there.
Perhaps, the earlier idea of the Senate of offering the carrot to remove the Chinese factor has been set aside since in favour of the stick. In real terms, it is a long way for China to reach the blue-water capabilities of the U.S. and venture into the strategic Indian Ocean though they seem to be having interests in ports in Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka now for facilities for their navy. India’s superiority in naval power in the Indian Ocean over China’s was confirmed very recently by B.Raman, former Assistant Secretary to the Indian Cabinet, presently, Director of the Institute of Topical Studies in Chennai, at a recent Seminar held in Bangalore.
The Senate Resolution goes beyond the administration’s position in that it seeks no role by the Sri Lankan government by itself to conduct an internal investigation into alleged violations of human rights and war crimes but it wants “the Sri Lankan government, the international community and the United Nations to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka and to make recommendations regarding accountability”.
According to my understanding of diplomatic nuances, this shift of emphasis in the Senate’s position seems to be the culmination of a strategy on the part of the U.S. administration which saw some set back a few months back when the Senate took up a positive attitude towards Sri Lanka in the face of an impending unfavourable report by the State Department, now supported by the pro-Eelamist Diaspora to closing the divergence in view with the Senate. That is to see a more positive support from the legislature (read the Senate) than what it took earlier. In other words, to create a pressure point within the US system outside the administration, so that the latter could steer along a seemingly less abrasive course.
The position about the US administration’s point should be clear from the initial observation of Ambassador Butenis when she welcomed the appointment of the Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC); and now by Assistant Secretary Robert Blake’s confirmation of the same when he acknowledged subsequent to the Senate Resolution that the US government welcomed the LLRC and it had urged that the Commission applies best international practices so that there could be a credible investigation, and was looking forward to the Commission submitting its report to President Rajapaksa in May. It also expected that the recommendations would be made public. He also stated that the U.S. was encouraged that the Sri Lankan government had acted on some of the recommendations of the Commission.
It is then all clear that the administration’s point of view is in support of an internal investigation by the government of Sri Lanka. This is to be understood in the context of America’s own stance that she has by her Laws prevented American citizens from being tried abroad by any international or other tribunal, for any crimes, war crimes included. Then America should be the first country to recognize the right of another country and in the case, of Sri Lanka, with its long tradition of a legal system, her capacity to conduct such internal measures.
This is where the US administration’s position on Sri Lanka is still open and veering towards an internal investigation but with the caveat that the Commission applies best international practices so that there could be a credible investigation. Robert Blake did not close the account when he stated that [US] was looking forward to the Commission submitting its report to President Rajapaksa in May and that it expected that the recommendations would be made public. His observation that [the U.S.] was encouraged that the Sri Lankan government had acted on some of the recommendations of the Commission is an expression of hope.
Then as far as the U.S. administration is concerned, much depends on the nature of the findings by the LLRC and what its recommendations would be and how far the government is ready to go to implement them. Robert Blake’s quoted statement to the AFP correspondent that “, if the Government does not carry out an accountability exercise in a "manner that is consistent with international standards…" the US would favour an international war crimes probe on Sri Lanka. That is only when national domestic recourse is unavailable.
There is controversy, however, over what these "international standards" are. (e.g. raised by Nalin Ladduwahetty (Sri Lanka Guardian of March, 10,2011). Ladduwahetty says what is lacking during this entire episode is that the international community that includes the US does not state precisely what these "international standards" are, and that if such standards exist there would not be a need for the UNSG to appoint an expert panel to advise him on the standards to be used to guide an accountability exercise. And if international standards do NOT currently exist, what international standards is Ambassador Blake referring to?”, he asks.
To come to the Resolution itself, the first para of the Operative section which is a commendation of the UN Secretary General Ban- ki -_Moon for creating the three-person panel to advise the Secretary-General on the implementation of the commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka to human rights accountability has no meaning to be incorporated in an Operative para, and the wording used suggest that the idea is simply to draw attention to it to give more credence to the Resolution. But its inclusion there points to the UNSG’s act of appointing a panel to advice him was mere eyewash.
The real objective was, as the Senate Resolution reveals, in the absence of any prospects of a Security Council support, the UNSG is seeking a way to create a role for U.N. to establish an “independent international accountability mechanism” to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka and to make recommendations regarding accountability, through some manipulation by getting the Sri Lanka government to voluntarily accede to it, even if the Security Council may not endorse it? In the absence of a Security Council request, the International Criminal Court (ICC) could go into it if such a voluntary request is made.
It is the next Operative para of the Resolution that lets the cat out of the bag. It is the request calling upon the Government of Sri Lanka, the international community, and the United Nations to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka and to make recommendations regarding accountability. The inclusion of crimes against humanity is significant. It can be interpreted in many ways. The absence of an independent role for Sri Lanka in the Resolution is quite clear.
Another problem that the Resolution seeks is for the GOSL to allow humanitarian organizations, aid agencies, journalists, and international human rights groups greater freedom of movement, including in internally-displaced persons camps. This is an important point. A good number of these agents which contributed to causing instability in the country are now constrained. A few have returned after recent flood damage to meet which the government needs external support. The cost is going to be around a staggering Rs. 50 billion, if I am correct, meeting which may put the government’s other ambitious projects under severe strain, the rhetoric of not requiring foreign support notwithstanding.
The issue of NGOs is a very important one to watch. I am personally aware, how during the ten years I attended Sri Lankan Aid Group meetings in Paris, the programme of international aid to Sri Lanka was turned from around the early 1980s from direct government to government financing, or granting loans to companies in donor countries engaged in projects in Sri Lanka, - support to hard-pressed local companies as much as helping Sri Lanka which would finally pay the debts - into programmes to be disbursed through NGOs. So NGOs proliferated and causing serious implications for the security of the country. Today, as I write, there is report of a big financial scam on a global scale by one of the most vociferous NGOs in the field of human rights. The LLRC mandate should have included an investigation into their activities. At least, a separate Commission should be appointed without delay to go into their activities to Learn Lessons from their destabilizing role.
One cannot also ignore the reference in the Senate Resolution among other things to U.S. security interests contained in the request to the [U.S.]President to develop a comprehensive policy towards Sri Lanka that reflects United States interests, including respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, economic interests, and security interests. It was in this particular Operative paragraph that I see the hand of the Department of State in this Resolution as a precursor to action to facilitate moves by the government.
With or without the Resolution, Assistant Secretary Blake’s remarks should not be taken too lightly. Blake was quoting the case of Libya incidentally. This is what he said: “I want to make a point here, which is that the United States is not holding Sri Lanka to any special standards here. You will note that, for example, over the weekend the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution against Libya on Saturday night. One of the provisions of that resolution was to refer Moammar Qadhafi to the International Criminal Court so that they could investigate alleged war crimes and abuses against his people. So this is a very common thing……”
What is the significance of this statement? Doesn’t one recognize the analogy? If the Libyan regime could be accused of bombing its own people in rebellion in which over 6000 are claimed to have perished, couldn’t the argument be that a similar case be made against the Sri Lankan government, for the deaths of several thousands in the war against the LTTE? Did anyone call for proof in the Libyan case? I am not saying this but I am only analyzing the statement made by the Assistant Secretary. He had stopped short of saying everything but the nuances are quite clear.
Now, the U.S. Navy is at the door step of Libya. The British government too has said that its Naval forces are ready to proceed at any moment. Internal turmoil like this is what these nations are waiting for. Sri Lanka, as a country not producing oil, is of not direct interest to the Western world like Iraq, Iran or Libya. Today ‘oil’ remains a major objective. The need for re-access to oil resources in Libya which led Britain to close the Lockerbie case and release the Libyan suspect from jail, points to how all these so called principles in pursuit of which the West acts are thrown aboard when it comes to final gains to a country. Even within Britain there is a serious division of opinion on this issue.
The British oil companies are back doing very well in Libya now. So do the Americans who do not want to be left behind. But Gaddafi was still a mercurial personality. These interests could provide enough reasons for the U.S. and Britain to look for prospects of intervention there. Human right violations and indiscriminate bombing on her own citizenry, whether they are in rebellion or not, can be used as the alibi for intervention. It could have been in the interest of Western countries to throw President Gaddafi out and create instability like in Iraq, whoever may be instigating the present chaos, so that they could continue to exploit the oil resources of these lands.
As a country which does not produce oil, Sri Lanka may not offer such attraction. But the reference to “[U.S.’s] security interests” in the final Operative par of the Senate Resolution should not be lost sight of. That could portend the direction that U.S., at least the Senate for the present, may want to follow finally. So far despite the LTTE issue having presented an opportunity for U.S. and the West to intervene, the Indian interest in the Sri Lankan issue, had kept these forces away from our shores. However, it is a situation of general internal turmoil that the Western powers are looking for.
The reasons for internal dissatisfaction are those arising from the government’s moves for retaining and consolidating its political power as political expediency, through means which have been questioned widely, resulting in downgrading the role of the legislature and the judiciary and other major institutions, it is a situation which many expect to be counterproductive in the long run and destructive at the end to the country as a whole.
Though these are pure internal affairs of the country, the present government’s programmes like close friendship with China and other countries like Myanmar, Libya and Iran which are on the U.S. Black List and others like the free play of NGOs have not been to the liking of America and other Western countries. The Senate Resolution itself summarises this in the ‘security’ concerns it has expressed which it is asking the U.S. President to take note of and formulate a policy.
The situation in Maghreb, Bahrain and other places in the Arab world recently, and in Indonesia earlier, as an analogy that some sections within the country are trumpeting up may look far too much optimism in the context of the triumphant psychosis that the government has been able to build up. However, any show of use of force to counter any popular manifestations could be counterproductive as demonstrated in these other countries.
This is a time that the government has to tread cautiously not only in the diplomatic front, but also over the local situation. There could be interested forces at work as it happened in 1970 and again in July 1983 –the latter still not investigated – waiting to create trouble profiting by growing discontent. It is the timely removal of the irritants and deep division caused in the political stream in the country on which the government should turn its mind in order to remove causes of instability.
Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has called for patience till the LLRC Report is out. The present over- emphasis on the LLRC report itself by the Sri Lankan government, like Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe’s statement (The Island, March 9, 2011), is bound to raise expectations very high. If it does not deliver, as the U.S. and the so called international community expects, what next, is a big question. It should be remembered that even South Africa’s much publicized Truth Commission has not succeeded in meeting all its recommendations, especially, over compensation to those who suffered under the Apartheid regime. That despite the country’s riches.
Ambassador Butenis’ meeting with the President on post-conflict developments is mere diplomatic eye-wash, as long as America pursues human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity as priority areas in her agenda and insists that if the Sri Lankan Government does not carry out an “accountability” exercise in a "manner that is consistent with international standards…" the US would favour an international war crimes probe on Sri Lanka.
Finally, it may not be irrelevant to ask what our diplomatic representative and the hired PR firms in Washington were doing while the Senate was changing its earlier positive stance held on Sri Lanka a few months back to a negative one? The Ambassador was more conspicuous playing the role of a ‘tourist guide’ to some U.S. Tour Operators, than following up on the gain made earlier as if guiding tourists had far greater priority to the country than the issue now brewing affecting the country’s overall image and other consequences.
On the other hand, what this development of the Senate Resolution and Robert Blake’s remarks reveal is that the new pro-LTTE leadership in the U.S., the Diaspora and the NGOs have been far more successful and have scored what they think is a triumph in the U.S. legislature on the eve of the Geneva sessions of the Human Rights Commission which was expected to debate the Sri Lankan issue. One immediate effect of Libyan development is that it over-shadowed the focus on the debate on human right and other allegations brought against Sri Lanka because priority had to be accorded to the debate over current developments in Libya. However, will the major issue of “reported” ” human rights violations, crimes against humanity” raised in the Senate Resolution disappear altogether?