US Foreign Policy and Sri Lanka

November 19, 2011

Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights of Sri Lanka, addresses the Human Rights Council's Special Session on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka. Source: United Nations

After three decades of war, Sri Lanka is still a mess. President Mahinda Rajapaksa could not care less about national reconciliation. Here is a president who did not hesitate to assert his authority at the end of the war. Yet now, he is afraid to be a strong and thoughtful leader, reluctant to take a stand.

The widespread human rights violations that occurred during final phases of the war (by both government forces and the LTTE) have been well-documented.

Unfortunately, nothing has been done to address this, as government security forces continue to harass civilians in the country’s predominantly Tamil north and east. What members of the international community have failed to understand is that a lack of accountability for what transpired in 2009 has only encouraged further human rights violations, which are still widespread.

Impunity in Sri Lanka is not sporadic, but systemic. It is a cancer that will continue to grow as long as the current regime faces no repercussions for its actions. The Sri Lankan military’s intrusion into virtually all aspects of civilian life is appalling. State security forces should not promulgate the idea that the words “ethnic minority” and “inferior citizen” are synonymous. When it comes to the media, Sri Lanka is one of the least free places in the world.

The Tamil people do not need a separate state, although they do need a political settlement, a matter that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has proven that they are ready to discuss. But Rajapaksa and his cronies are dragging their feet and avoiding the issue. Perhaps Rajapaksa’s aversion to a political dialogue with the TNA stems from his fear of dethronement.

As Barack Obama has recently indicated, US foreign policy priorities in East Asia will only become more important in the coming decades.

He recently gave a speech in Canberra, Australia that a Financial Times columnist referred to as “one of the most significant foreign policy statements of Mr. Obama’s presidency.”  The speech “brought together several important shifts in US strategy that have been taking shape over the past two years and are aimed at addressing the rise of China.”

That is fine. But getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan does not mean that the US should ignore South Asia.

And just because China’s rise sits atop America’s foreign policy agenda does not mean that the promotion of international human rights should be placed on the back burner. Obama is not well-positioned to lecture China on human rights for obvious reasons. Sri Lanka, however, is a different story.

The Obama team must rethink their strategy when it comes to Sri Lanka, getting away from the empty rhetoric and prevarications that observers have seen thus far.

Libya and Uganda were hardly foreign policy priorities and yet the US devoted resources to both causes.

“Quiet diplomacy” should not mean dormant diplomacy. The idea of strengthening US-Sri Lankan military relations must be taken off the table.

The 2009 WikiLeaks cable which reveals that current Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake asked the Sri Lankan government to contribute troops to Afghanistan is disappointing.

Although it is not all that surprising since it has recently become clear to many people that Robert Blake is a member of a growing contingent in Washington who are part of the problem. After all, the man recently went to Jaffna and did not seem all that concerned with the military’s increased presence there. Blake saw what he wanted to see—nothing. The seasoned diplomat holds degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins. Intelligence is not what he lacks, but courage.

Real, sustained pressure needs to be put on Rajapaksa to reform.

It is all too easy to peel back the regime’s thin layer of vacuous, self-congratulatory propaganda.

President Obama has had some notable foreign policy successes during his first term, for which he deserves credit. However, the man’s inability to lead on certain issues (both domestic and foreign) is disconcerting. Between now and next November, Obama will be fighting for his political life. In spite of this, he should not ignore Sri Lanka.

Have we not recently seen that the choice between stability and true democracy is a false dichotomy anyway? When will policymakers learn that nearsighted diplomacy and the embrace of aspiring autocrats like Rajapaksa are inimical to long-term US interests? If the Obama administration (and to a lesser extent India) does not care, nothing will happen. Rajapaksa will continue to revel in his “Executive Presidency” and quietly turn this island nation into a full-blown dictatorship.

The US and other nations are waiting for the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) —yet another Sri Lankan commission of inquiry purportedly designed to ensure accountability and help the country move forward—to be made public. Once this happens, people will see if the “Sri Lanka fatigue” that appears to have set in was fleeting or a sign of more permanent diplomatic inaction.

Of course most knowledgeable people expect that the LLRC’s report will be a joke.

But perhaps the scarier scenario is the publication of a mediocre report that will allow other countries to look the other way on human rights in Sri Lanka. If this happens, authoritarianism will be consolidated. Tyranny will become institutionalized. And any hope for national reconciliation in the next several decades will turn into a pipe dream. Talk of minority rights and good governance will be esoteric water cooler banter discussed only by thoughtful academics and human rights activists.

Over the coming decades, the United States will have a much different role in world affairs, but for now American primacy remains vibrant. For better or worse, the world still looks to American leadership to solve global collective action problems, not perpetuate them. Barack Obama does not need another black mark on his presidential résumé; his first three years have been disappointing enough. Hopefully, the inspirational figure who campaigned on a platform of hope and change will heed his own words.

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What have you against dictatorships, military dictatorship, absolute religious (dominant) dictatorships, dictatorships of the (communist), dictatorships of (US) democratic style, dynastic dictatorship of Saudi Arabia and India? This world was made by these rulers. The entire history is replete with hundreds of such fine examples. Democracy may be an alternative, a very pale, weak and useless substitute, indeed. Judging from the recent events in the good old USA, say in the past fifty years or so, what we find is a tendency for American presidents to dictate country's foreign policy. Devoid of any (general) public input. Major and minor foreign wars became standard to assert American (style) imperialism, causing more deaths, destruction, construction and reconstruction that has no parallel in the history of humanity. Take it or leave it, America, if not a dictatorship, according to the definition, it certainly, accepts dictatorships in strategic relationship. Human rights, whatever that term means, are violated in every single major countries, including America. I don't have to list all of such instances here. America is trying to woe India, the largest democracy in the world, for America's own interests. Regional supremacy against China. All that love expressed by president Barack Obama, including dancing and prancing with the politicians and (common, aka poor) people in his last visit to India was meant for China, India's northern neighbor with ambitions to destabilize India over international border disputes, going back to the imperial British days. Again, in the past week alone, Obama and Dr Manmohan Singh met in private where Obama expressed his desire to keep Pacific Rim countries, so called, need to join hands to protect themselves against Chinese dominance, aka designs. Such a silly notion. Dominance does not translate into territorial ambitions. For Japan, in the past, maybe. China is going to dominate the world, not with the guns but with their roaring economy. ...and I am Sid

Libya not a policy priority? Ha ha ha...;=PA123&lpg;=PA123&dq;=sri+lanka+and+tamil+swrd+bandaranaike+dudley+senanayake&source;=bl&ots;=CdDFIvD29V&sig;=0yh_lGnL9Q6ByYsxmxTpdcrsi_8&hl;=en&ei;=R1fLTtqOJMO38QPA-K3MDw&sa;=X&oi;=book_result&ct;=result&resnum;=6&sqi;=2&ved;=0CFMQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q;=sri%20lanka%20and%20tamil%20swrd%20bandaranaike%20dudley%20senanayake&f;=false  The breakup of Sri Lanka - The Sinhalese Tamil conflict. ISBN 1-85065-033-0 this is a good book tells us the real history, how Sri Lankan leaders cheated Tamils. As usual Rajapaksa is also cheating and fooling the world, by talking with TNA for the last 18 months. US invited Tamil National Alliance, had a discussion. US do not have the courage to tell Rajapaksa to settle the Tamil problem or face genocide charge .

Quote "Sri Lanka is still in a mess" Really Sri lankans don't think like that. Only ltte sympathizers do.

Great article. LLRC is a joke. Sadly, US and other countries "waiting" to see the report. 30 countries, including US helped the Sri Lankan govt to massacre Tamil civilians in the name of eliminating LTTE. Now US playing "good cop" to the Tamils to show that they care about human rights and crimes against humanity. President Obama said recently "never again" for Genocide. He watched (and still watching) the Genocide of Tamils happened (and happening). I am not sure what the real policy for US when it comes to human rights

Thanks for a great article. There are 2 kinds of enemies for Tamils in Sri Lanka 1) China and  2) US. The Tamils know that China is an enemy- an enemy that directly supported the Rajapaksa government in the war that finished the LTTE. China is an open enemy. It does not pretend to be a protector of human rights nor friend of the Tamils. The US State Dept. is the other enemy that pretends to be friends of the Tamils and shakes hands with the LTTE on the pretense of being lovers of peace. But underneath, it is a practices rogue diplomacy and covert insidious actions that led to the massacre of 40,000+ Tamil civilians. The role of the pentagon(pacific command) in the massacre is not clear, though Wikileaks reveals clandestine support to the Rajapaksa govt. A good article here by a Sri Lanka politician who was duped by Robert Blake can be read here:;=33903