Has American criticism on alleged human rights violations by Sri Lankan armed forces during the last phases in the war against LTTE terrorism, ceased? Going by US rhetoric during recent weeks, it does seem to have abated but United Nations attacks continued, probably with American backing.
Meanwhile, there has been much speculation on possible changes in US-Sri Lanka relationships with the appointment of Prof. G.L. Peiris as the minister of external affairs. There has been speculation about a sea change being brought about with the professor’s appointment, but it should be said that the professor being the intellectual academic he is, would not have contributed to such a view. The foreign policy of the superpower cannot change with the appointment of an individual as a foreign minister, whatever his capabilities are, particularly when he is from a middle ranking third world country.
GL and the Clintons
There is also speculation bordering on fantasy, that G.L. Peiris and Bill Clinton having been Rhodes scholars at the same time at Oxford, friendship between the two would have helped in building bridges to Hilary Clinton, now the Secretary of State. A wag makes the point that given reticent ways of Peiris and the more egregious ways of Bill Clinton, it would have been highly unlikely that their paths would have crossed even during their student days!
The matter at issue is whether US policy towards Sri Lanka has changed and if so what had been the reasons? Strong backing of human rights everywhere has been one of the main prongs of President Barack Obama who strikes very high tones of morality in his addresses on foreign affairs, even though the notes are not as resounding when it is Afghanistan, Iran or Pakistan. He is continuing with the Right to Protection (R2P) policy — others say is the ‘Right to Intervention’ in third world countries — that do not toe Western policies. This right to intervention is being applied in many third world countries to varying degrees from Sudan, Serbia, to Sri Lanka, using various instruments of coercion such as finance and diplomacy.
Western pressures to permit an international investigation into the alleged human rights violations here, have failed and it is unlikely to succeed. Western powers appear to have hit a blank wall and are unable too proceed.
Human Rights and China
Western insistence on teaching pedagogical lessons to Sri Lanka in human rights has provided a glorious opportunity for China which does not share the same concerns about human rights. While Sri Lanka was being ignored by America and the West, China has sailed into the former small fishing harbour in Hambantota and is building a multi billion dollar harbour a few miles away from the busiest East-West shipping routes.
India, America’s regional ally had let this chance slip through – Sri Lanka having first offered Hambantota to New Delhi. India now has to be content with the development of sea and airports of far less global importance in the North such as at Kankesanturai and Pallaly as noted in the joint Indo-Lanka agreement signed last week. Neither America nor India can shrug off this loss, particularly in the context of China’s strategy of projecting its naval power into the Indian Ocean. China, it is now clear, wants ports spread out in Asia and Africa under a strategy with the West called the ‘String of Pearls’ and Hambantota is likely to be the priceless pearl in this necklace.
While the US State Department has been obsessed with human rights violations here, the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year noted with alarm, the loss of American influence in Sri Lanka particularly with regard to inroads being made by China. ‘We cannot afford to lose Sri Lanka’, the US Foreign Relations Committee concluded.
Sword of Damocles
It is well known that US foreign policy is not something static and varies according to its national interests. If it is necessary, soft pedal the human rights issue and it could well be put on the back burner. With China’s full backing economically, diplomatically and in defence affairs, the Rajapaksa government appears to be sitting pretty. But this is to forget the Sword of Damocles hanging on Sri Lanka’s head from the tip of the Indian sub-continent.
As things stand, Sri Lanka will only be vulnerable to pressures from New Delhi, but these pressures have to be generated in Tamil Nadu. Last week the power of India over little Lanka was well-demonstrated when the much-hyped Indian International Film Academy show on which the Sri Lanka government has spent millions turned out to be a damp squib. Enraged Tamil Nadu Indians protested about holding the festival in Sri Lanka which they are certainly not fond of —- at least not now — and the big stars of the Bollywood zodiac failed to materialise.
Last week President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in New Delhi holding talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and signed the Indo-Lanka joint declaration. It was all hugs and namasthe, but the once much touted Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which India was keen on, has been cast aside to be considered late this year. There were widespread protests against this agreement, the contents of which is yet unknown even to our politicians. It has been said that the CEPA will place Sri Lanka firmly in the economic grasp of the Indians.
So far, the United States has watched India as the regional power, play a key role in Sri Lankan affairs. But the Hambantota port is too close for comfort for India to feel secure and so will it be for the United States as well for unhindered navigation in the Indian Ocean.
It will be pertinent to note that Indian naval strategists of yore have written that the security of the conquest of the Indian sub-continent was through invasions by sea and not overland.