The USA threw the strategic baby and kept the human rights bathwater
Posted on February 4th, 2021

Malinda Seneviratne

The Committee on Foreign Relations of the US presented an analysis on Sri Lanka to the Senate on December 7, 2009, i.e. almost seven months after the war on terrorism ended with the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) being comprehensively defeated by the Sri Lankan security forces. The document was titled, ‘Sri Lanka: recharging US strategy after the war.’  It was presented by John F Kerry and Richard G Lugar on behalf of the Committee.

There was analysis and there were recommendations to the Obama administration, international financial institutions, the US Congress and the Sri Lanka Government. The main concerns regarding Sri Lanka were about resettlement of the internally displaced, i.e. the hundreds of thousands held hostage by the LTTE and duly rescued by the Sri Lankan security forces at heavy costs to personnel.

The rest of the recommendations were nothing more than the usual noises about democracy, nothing to make a song and dance about. No mention of ‘war crimes.’ Nothing of the need to haul Sri Lanka over the coals in Geneva, so to speak, as has been the case since an intemperate and maverick diplomat angered Israel and earned the wrath of Washington following heavy lobbying by the Jewish lobby in the USA.

Indeed, it brings to mind observations on Sri Lanka made by Lord Naseby, during the course of an intervention in the House of Lords debate on the ‘Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, designed to protect British troops from ‘vexatious charges’ (or, provision of immunity for all excesses including crimes against humanity): ‘I made a Freedom of Information Act inquiry because I was told by the UN that there were 40,000 casualties. I asked the Foreign Office about Colonel Gash’s independent dispatches, which took two years to obtain. They made it clear that no war crimes were carried out in Sri Lanka.’

The Kerry-Lugar submission also observed, ‘Real peace will not come overnight to Sri Lanka and cannot be imposed from the outside.’ Such wisdom seems to have been tossed out in deliberations regarding Sri Lanka. Most importantly, the Kerry-Lugar report noted that the US focus on IDPs and ‘civil society’ (quotes mine) as opposed to the economy and security sector had isolated Sri Lanka economically and politically from the West. The recommendation for the then administration included support for Sri Lanka’s efforts in resettlement, reconstruction and rehabilitation, and assistance for development in all parts of the country. There is some mention of strengthening justice system by supporting police reforms, but certainly nothing about war crimes tribunals and the kinds of mechanisms that the US later pushed for at the UNHRC.

Following a fairly comprehensive analysis of geopolitical realities pertaining to the region, the committee proposed that the Obama administration ‘take a broader and more robust approach to Sri Lanka that appreciates new political and economic realities in Sri  Lanka and U.S. geo strategic interests.’ Such an approach, according to the Kerry-Lugar submission, ‘should be multidimensional so that U.S. policy is not driven solely by short-term humanitarian concerns but rather an integrated strategy that leverages political, economic, and security tools  for more effective long-term reforms.’
What happened though? The US essentially sought to secure its strategic interests by concocting a lie (as evidenced by the massive distance between the privileged narrative on human rights and the observations embedded in the Kerry-Lugar Committee, the International Red Cross and Colonel Gash), leveraging it to harass the then Sri Lankan regime to a point that would enable ‘regime change,’ i.e. to obtain strategic goals through a US-friendly regime. It worked. Perhaps in order to ‘press advantage home,’ the US used its Sri Lankan pawns to co-sponsor an anti-Sri Lanka resolution.

What happened then? A regime whose incompetence was compounded by the perceived sell-out was comprehensively defeated. The ‘bad guys’ were back.
And now what? Well, the Kerry-Lugar thinking is certainly not being revisited. Instead, it’s same-old, same-old. Well, not exactly, because the US of 2009 is not the US of 2021. The China of 2009 is not the China of 2021. The veiled threats issued by the US mission and that of the principal US ally, the UK, echoing the ‘tough words’ of the USA’s best friend in Geneva, Michelle Bachelet, the chief of UNHRC, are all based on lies agreed upon, lies which, the Kerry-Lugar committee, to be fair, had not thought fit to conjure back in December 2009. There’s talk of pushing for action in the UN General Assembly. There’s talk of sanctions. There’s talk of the matter being taken to the Security Council.

Now leaving aside the blatant disavowal of the principle of equality in treatment (the UK, for example, was found guilty of war crimes by the International Criminal Court and was let off ‘on account of demonstrating genuine interest in implementing correctives’ even as that country sought to provide constitutional cover for its forces who, let us not forget, have a considerable track record as criminals against humanity — the UK, ladies and gentlemen, will not be touched by Bachelet), these threats will certainly have repercussions. Sri Lanka will not be a happy recipient. However, leaving Sri Lanka with few choices, the USA will essentially push the island nation into the (waiting) arms of China and of course Russia.

So there was and is a baby: US strategic interests. It was bathed in toilet wash. The US and her allies have washed the baby so many times that when the baby was thrown there was only bathwater left. Maybe it seems warm. Maybe the preference for closed-noses and closed-eyes made for a kind of oblivion. The US is wallowing in the gooey stuff. 

We don’t know where John F Kerry and Richard J Lugar are right now. Sri Lanka, however, does know where China is. And it seems that the US has not ‘taken a broader and more robust approach to Sri Lanka that appreciates new political and economic realities.’ The ‘humanitarian concerns’ are no longer on the table, resettlement being done and dusted years ago, reconstruction outstripping development in areas outside the principle combat areas, democratization completed and livelihoods restored to levels on par with any other part of the country. It’s been ‘short term human rights concerns’. Well, ‘concerns’ (within quotes).

Sri Lanka will have to pay a price for refusing the inhabit the USA’s version of Sri Lankan reality. Sri Lanka will be made to pay, rather. The USA will also have to deal with some costs: the strategic baby that Washington has tossed out in ill-willed and ill-conceived fixations with bathwater.

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