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What hypocrisy! : America’s push for accountability in Sri Lanka

| by Bandu de Silva
( Views expressed in this article are author own)

( February 14, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) For a small country like Sri Lanka, meeting the challenge of a superpower like the US is an uphill task. There is no comparison at all. Sri Lanka does not have the economic resources that Iran has, or what Libya had under Col. Gaddafi, to hit back at the US as they once did in their own way – occupation of the US Embassy, and the bombing of the Pan-Am plane, respectively. Nor does Sri Lanka have the missiles or the few nuclear warheads as North Korea possesses, in case of a US military threat.

Sri Lanka has been a peace loving country historically, nurtured in the peaceful religion of Buddhism but which had to fight wars in defence of its territorial integrity for near two millennia against inroads from neighbouring lands, and later from the Western colonial powers. It was as a result of the recent three-decade-long terrorist war, which was originally foreign supported that Sri Lanka had to shift to a programme of building its defence capacity. It is presently under immense international pressure to provide proof of accountability in respect of the war against terrorism, how it was fought and subsequently won, with great sacrifice of material and human resources.

The country has devised its own mechanism to meet these demands but all round pressures seem overwhelming, and try to create a breakdown of the system of governance. These challenges are manifest in the way the US Embassy in Colombo has been responding, more in a hegemonic role, by wielding a big stick and interfering in the country’s internal affairs, rather than in a helpful, pacifying role. The usual claim is that the US’ own commitment to this and that, R2P, amongst others, forgets that the US passed its ‘US Servicemen Protection Act’ and withdrew from the Rome Treaty, which it had initially supported. It even punished other countries which had supported the Treaty. What hypocrisy!

This is not a situation that even the most servile country can endure. Neighbouring India reacted very strongly recently over the manner in which one of her senior diplomatic officers was treated in New York. This was despite all the high profile bi-lateral relations the two countries had developed in recent years.

Belling the cat

Am I right in noting that it is the Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and not the Ministry of External Affairs, who has been questioning the actions and remarks of the US Ambassador and the visiting US officials? These have come out one by one in recent days. The US Ambassadors in Colombo, not being seen in the traditional diplomatic role of building cooperation with the host country, in contrast to what their predecessors did. This shift was especially noticeable from the time of Ambassador Patricia Butenis, and is now continued by her successor, Michele J. Sison.

Recently, I queried if this was due to some personal deficit on the part of female occupants of the high position, as such demeanour was not seen in the former heads of diplomatic missions, including Ambassador Robert O’ Blake.

In this context, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa took on US Ambassador Sison consequent to her recent visit to Jaffna and her meeting with Ananthi Sasitharan, the wife of former LTTE political leader of Trincomalee, and as well as other reasons, (read my article: ‘Gota Has a Case’ Ceylon Today, 31 January 2014). This can be viewed as a first response by a government spokesman on any matter that the US Ambassador had been engaging in recently. There was no indication, however, of the Ministry of External Affairs raising any issues.

The Defence Secretary, met the visiting US Assistant Secretary, Nisha Biswal, (who had also met Ananthi Sasitharan), who was interfering in the country’s domestic affairs. The latter along with Bishop Saundranayagam, and Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C.V. Wigneswaram, had said Biswal “was ignorant” of affairs in Sri Lanka. That was after she addressed a media conference at the end of her visit.

Now comes the news that the US Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp, during his visit to Sri Lanka, had met former LTTE cadres at the office of the International Organization of Migration (IOM) in Killinochchi, which meeting had been facilitated by the IOM. It was also reported that Ambassador Rapp had forced his way into military detachment at the Boossa Camp.

Are these indications of Sri Lanka, though clawless, wants to take on the US ‘Tiger on the Mountain?’


I have gone into in detail on Biswal’s visit in my last article published in Ceylon Today on 4 and 5 February 2014, but for the purpose of this article, with due respect to the Secretary of Defence, I beg to differ from his assertion on matters of emphasis. I would hesitate to call the Biswal affair a case of blissful ignorance as it might appear, but rather one of self-imposed ignorance arising from subscribing to a view that has been incubated and nurtured in the State Department under Hillary Clinton’s administration, and ably supported by Biswal’s immediate predecessor, Robert O’ Blake. Biswal has nothing more to add to the Sri Lanka dossier but to follow the US Government’s policy guidance that has been laid down in relation to dealing with Sri Lanka.

As I quoted a former powerful President of the US, the task of the Assistant Secretaries is to implement the policy set down by the President and others who immediately assist him. One cannot think that the situation has changed under President Barack Obama unless he was deficit in foreign policy decision-making, or he has abdicated foreign policy decisions to others. One would think that he wanted to give his former Party rival for the Presidency, Hillary Clinton, a free hand in decision-making in the realm of foreign policy in her capacity as State Secretary during his first term in office. Clinton was a competent person at that, as a lawyer and former Senator, but whether or not Clinton herself drafted her policy speeches or she depended on her assistants and secretaries, is moot.

Clinton’s prejudice against Sri Lanka

Clinton disclosed her prejudice against Sri Lanka – one should not forget that it was disclosed that the Tamil Diaspora, especially Raj Rajaratnam, had contributed to Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s election funds – in her statement on rape as being a “war tactic,” as the US representative in the Security Council at the session in which she had presided 2009. That was when she had listed Sri Lanka along with offenders like Congo, Sudan, Bosnia and Burma, but had ignored the rape committed in Iraq, Palestine, as well as in Guinea.

What I wrote on rape – ‘Clinton’s rape story in Sri Lanka – a mutual bail out’

“…Nor have any of the other members of the Security Council and the Secretary General endorsed what Hillary Clinton said about Sri Lanka though a number of them made reference to the situation in Congo. The Libyan representative made reference not only to Congo but also to Iraq and Palestine as well as Guinea. Pointing out that perpetrators of sexual violence irreversibly maimed survivors, and calling for the adoption of legislation to ensure that those crimes did not go unpunished, he drew attention to (yesterday’s) scenes from Conakry, Guinea, where women had been raped, tortured and then killed, it was truly horrific…Any perpetrator of such crimes, whether in Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Palestine, must be brought to justice,” he concluded. (See statement by Abduurahman Shaglam of Libya at the UNSC session).

“On the contrary, Hillary Clinton dragged Sri Lanka’s name while omitting a country like Rwanda where during the 1994 genocide, up to half a million women were raped; and Sierra Leone, where incidents of war-related sexual violence from 1991 to 2001 numbered about 64,000; (Matthew Lee) and in Guinea, where rape was reported as the Security Council session presided by her was taking place.

“UN records refer to 200,000 cases of rape in Congo, Sudan (unlimited?); Balkans (60,000 cases of rape in 1990s).” (Matthew Lee’s report of 30 September 2009 for the Associated Press)
“The omission of Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Guinea (where rape was raging as the Security Council was meeting) in Hillary Clinton’s speech could not have been accidental considering that (she) thought of including Sri Lanka, which country as Ambassador Patricia Butenis explained later, was one where there were “allegations” just as in other conflicts. (The Ambassador) had moderated her Secretary of State’s statement whereas the latter held no such reservation to use the word ‘alleged’ but was firm in calling Sri Lanka a country ‘which had practiced rape as a war tactic.’

“Matthew Lee reporting for the Associated Press on the adoption of the UNSC resolution could not agree. Obviously he saw the weakness of including Sri Lanka in that list. He observed in general that rampant sexual violence was also evident in other conflict zones in Africa, Asia and Europe – from Bosnia to Myanmar. He thought including Sri Lanka in the category of other countries short-listed by Hillary Clinton whose record as documented at the UN…was horrendous.” – ‘The Island’ - 10 October 2009

Why did Clinton not retract?

Clinton could not have retracted her statement about Sri Lanka without damaging her credentials in the face of critics like Dr. Nile Gardiner, Director of the Margaret Thatcher Centre for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, London, who wrote about her flagging foreign policy postures, in “Invisible Secretary of State: Hillary Clinton’ Failure of Leadership on the World. (http://www.heritage.org/Research/worldwideFreedom/wm2548.cfm 17 July 2009)

Open letter to UN Secretary General

In an open letter addressed to the UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki-moon on 14 October 2009, published in another newspaper, I wrote:

Hillary Clinton’s book on Rape has blank pages on Okinawa
“One may not be able to accuse the US troops today of practicing rape systematically as policy, not even in Okinawa I have taken up in this paper, but it did happen in Vietnam in Mai Lai. Here is what Nick Terse wrote on 31 August 2009 (not long ago) in American Empire Project. (http://usmacmillan.com/HenryHolt.aspx.

“If you recall what actually happened at My Lai, Calley’s more-than-40-years-late apology cannot help but ring hollow. Not only were more than 500 defenceless civilians slaughtered by Calley and some of the 100 troops who stormed the village on 16 March 1968, but women and girls were brutally raped, bodies were horrifically mutilated, homes set aflame, animals tortured and killed, the local water supply fouled, and the village razed to the ground. Some of the civilians were killed in their bomb shelters, others when they tried to leave them. Women holding infants were gunned down. Others, gathered together, threw themselves on top of their children as they were sprayed with automatic rifle fire. Children, even babies, were executed at close range. Many were slaughtered in an irrigation ditch.”

These were not events that took place in Ceylon in 1818 during the Wellassa rebellion or the later 1848 Matale uprising, though there were enough of them here like decapitating all males above 14 years in Kandyan families in the late 20th century in Asia. I continued to quote Nick Trese, in order to show the mockery of justice in the US on Calley’s confession.

Mock justice

“For his part in the bloodbath, Calley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. As it happened, he spent only three days in a military stockade before President Richard Nixon intervened and had him returned to his “bachelor apartment,” where he enjoyed regular visits from a girlfriend, built gas-powered model airplanes, and kept a small menagerie of pets. By late 1974, Calley was a free man. He subsequently went on the college lecture circuit (making $2,000 for an appearance), married the daughter of a jeweller in Columbus, Georgia, and worked at the jewelry store for many years without any hue or cry from fellow Americans among whom he lived. All that time he stayed silent and, despite ample opportunity, offered no apologies.

“Still, Calley’s belated remorse evidences a sense of responsibility that his superiors -- from his company commander Capt. Ernest Medina to his commander-in-chief, President Lyndon Johnson -- never had the moral fibre to shoulder. Recently, in considering the life and death of Johnson’s Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, who repudiated his wartime justifications for the conflict decades later (“We were wrong, terribly wrong.”), Jonathan Schell asked:

“(How) many public figures of importance had ever expressed any regret at all for their mistakes and follies and crimes? As the decades of the 20th century rolled by, the heaps of corpses towered, ever higher, up to the skies, and now they pile up again in the new century, but how many of those in high office who have made these things happen have ever said, ‘I made a mistake,’ or ‘I was terribly wrong,’ or shed a tear over their actions? I come up with one, Robert McNamara.”

“Because the United States failed to take responsibility for the massive scale of civilian slaughter and suffering inflicted in Southeast Asia in the war years, and because McNamara’s contrition arrived decades later, he never became the public face of slaughter in Vietnam, even though he, like other top US civilian officials and military commanders of that time, bore an exponentially greater responsibility for the bloodshed in that country than the low-ranking Calley…”

I wrote further:

“Marching forward” is the name of the game that critics against those who quote WW II atrocities and impingement on freedom of its own citizens like the Japanese Americans recommend. But there was no “marching forward” by America even two to three decades later if one looks at the horrendous crimes committed by American troops in Vietnam; and more recently in Iraq and now in Afghanistan. It is much worse. This is not long past. It is in our memory. The crimes by the Pol Pot regime are now under investigation.

“What is America’s response to the situation in Vietnam? The American Servicemen’s Protection Act of 2002 I suppose! How could Hillary Clinton as her country’s representative at the UNSC express no word of repentance or even express shame as the British representative did, during the UNSC debate on 30 September 2009. Or, at least, say the US has ‘marched forward’ since then. How high would the bona fides of the UNSC itself have risen if such a response was forthcoming from her, rather than trying to pick holes in a small country like Sri Lanka and find herself in the embarrassing situation of allowing her administration to swallow her words later, almost admitting that she said an untruth. 

What a shame!

“Now the situation of rape and violence against the Okinawan women by US soldiers is a serious one. Your Excellency (Secretary General), it is happening very close to the doorstep of your home country! Many cases have been reported, some investigated and the perpetrators penalized. There are horrendous cases like the rape of a 10-year-old girl; and the abduction, gang rape and murder of by marines of a 12-year-old girl from the Kin village which received wide publicity. These cases were highlighted not by me but by Emeritus Prof.

Charmers Johnson, one of the leading intellectuals of the world (some may not agree) who was the co-founder of the Japan Research Institute and its current President at San Diego University, a former consultant of CIA, and the author of a number of studies on Japan, China and Japan-US relations; and more importantly, the author of bestselling books Blowback Trilogy-Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic and numerous other works and interviews. He raised the plight of Okinawan women in an article he published in the ‘Asia Times’ of 7 March 2008.

What prompted the writing in the 'Asia Times' was a long series of sexual violation of young Okinawan girls I had referred to. 'Other incidents of bodily harm, intimidation and death continue in Okinawa on an almost daily basis, including hit-and-run collisions between American troops and Okinawans on foot or on auto-bikes, robberies, bar brawls and drunken and disorderly conduct,' Prof. Johnson wrote.

"As he says, after each of these incidents and innumerable others that make up the daily police blotter of Japan's most southerly prefecture, the Commander of the US Forces in Okinawa and the US Ambassador in Tokyo, made public apologies for the behaviour of the US troops. ...Occasionally, the remorse goes as far as the Pacific Commander-in-Chief or in a recent case to the (former) Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and still ends in an apology. The officers responsible for discipline of the US troops in Japan invariably promise to tighten supervision of the 92,491 troops, civilian employees and dependents. 'That is as far as things go. Nothing ever changes.' Always the usual apology; and at best an invocation of the 'friendly relations which exist between the two countries' diplomacy.

"While Your Excellency and other representatives of member countries of the UNSC last month elaborated, the high principle that was expressed about women victims of the war, in these pious declarations, and the Resolution adopted the case of the Okinawian women, have gone by default. It was only the Russian representative who said that over-emphasis on war situations might tend to overlook the general problem of rape in society and suggested a comprehensive approach. The Japanese representative at the UNSC remained lock-jawed over the situation in Okinawa. What does that indicate? On the one hand, it is a case where pathetically, one is unable to raise the issue of one's own country. On the other hand, aren't these Okinawan women caught up in a situation where they are being raped and even murdered occasionally, over which the UNSC or the General Assembly have expressed no interest as no war situation exists there. This proves the point how this excess emphasis on rape in a war situation has come to overlook other situations where rape had been committed.

"As some of the bloggers claimed in respect of Sri Lanka, there could be other cases that are unreported in Okinawa because of the social stigma attached to rape. On the other side, the poor victims receive no solace from the Japanese Government as it looks the other way, when diplomatic niceties like 'friendly relations' are invoked by the country of the offenders; and the American Servicemen's Protection Act of 2002 hangs over them like the Sword of Damocles. The author of the article in the 'Asia Times' attributed it to the Japanese Government speaking with a forked-tongue. It is because Okinawans are compelled to live with 37 US military bases around them. Tokyo condemns the assaults but that is as far as it goes on the Japanese side too," he wrote.

Where does Okinawan fit in the UN system?

It is hoped that under the current presidency of the UNSC under Vietnam, the issue of rape and murder of women during America's war in Vietnam would be placed in proper perspective and the issue of the Okinawan women will be correctly focused. Please do not allow new empire builders to sweep these situations under the carpet by using weapons like cutting military and economic aid as was done in the case of the Rome Statute.

Consequently, it was up to Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large on Women's Issues, Catherine Russell's predecessor, who wanted to visit Sri Lanka this month but was asked to delay the visit (the US Embassy said she was refused a visa), to try to explain that the cases Clinton referred to in Sri Lanka took place before 1995, that is, before President Rajapaksa entered the scene. This is why I called it a 'mutual bail-out.'

Why have I extensively quoted Hillary Clinton's remarks on rape in Sri Lanka? It is because this single case aptly demonstrates the prejudices the US is currently holding against Sri Lanka. That shows the basic foreign policy stance of that country towards this small country. It might be argued that the US is trying to bring Sri Lanka back on the path of democracy from which she is seeing her deviating. Is that an argument?
Granting that everything was not alright in Sri Lanka, which had faced a 30-year war against brutal terrorism, and there could have been instances of aberration, is an adversarial position the best method that should be used to coax the country back to the path that the US and others who set their own agenda on commitment to certain Western-originated values, born primarily out of the Judaic-Christian environment, want?

Adversarial policy towards Sri Lanka

Why is an adversarial stance being taken towards Sri Lanka? Is it because it is too small a country – a 'peanut' as former Indian High Commissioner, J.N. Dixit might want to say, a country not worth such application of soft diplomacy, and which could be brow-beaten with an iron-fist?

The explanation is that America is committed to uphold certain norms (read the US Embassy explanation on Russell's proposed visit to Sri Lanka: Ceylon Today, 4 February 2014). In other words, she wants to impose her will on other countries which she has identified for selective treatment. It is the same attitude that Ambassador Michele J. Sison took on the issue of the activities of American Evangelists in Sri Lanka.

Aren't there other ways of soft diplomacy similar to what President Clinton had used through the medium of the Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, Clinton's well-honed journalist friend whose discussions with Jaswant Singh, then an adviser to the Indian Government and who later went on to become the Foreign Minister of the BJP Government? Didn't that type of diplomacy make major gains for the US by winning over India to the US' way of thinking, and make her abandon decades of not-so-pro US policies to anti-US policies followed by this leading Asian country, and later led even to cooperation in nuclear technology, to selling nuclear reactors to India by US companies for which there was a ban earlier, in view of India not having signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty? Hasn't the US succeeded through this soft diplomacy to make India shed her dependence on the former Soviet Union under the Security Treaty signed between the two countries in the aftermath of India's border war with China?

Challenges to globalization

This is now becoming unacceptable in a changing global system, as I told visiting Prof. Ernest Petric, Judge of the Constitutional Court of Slovenia, when he delivered a lecture at the Kadirgamar Institute recently. As I said, this is a situation now emerging differently from the current concepts of globalization, with the re-emergence of countries like China (reaching world economic power status) and India similarly calling for a share for their own cultural traditions, over which Europe with its changing face after the admission of countries in Middle and East Europe and the Mediterranean, was well suited to play a mediating role between the West and the East.

The fact that US or any other State being committed to certain values and programmes, based largely on Judaic-Christian values, cannot be accepted anymore, or imposing them on other countries even if they might have gained the imprint of UN sanction. People are seeing this as manipulation of international bodies by vested interests to keep the former colonized countries which form the Third World under further bondage to satisfy the economic and political needs of the West.

Arising from this concourse is the conclusion one can come to that, it is not the Assistant Secretary, Nisha Biswal, or Ambassador Sison or Ambassador-at-large, Catherine Russell who determine bilateral or multi-lateral policy in the US. They are all cogs in the wheel supporting the pre-set agenda and have the freedom to fill in the gaps.

The policy determination takes place according to the US' geo-political and strategic interests in which entities other than the State Department are involved. This was clear from the change of US policy on other countries of the Asian region like India from the days of President Clinton (as described above), and has now progressed under Obama-Manmohan Singh, to an understanding to cooperate in the nuclear field, permitting US firms to sell nuclear reactors to the country which had rejected the non-proliferation treaty; encouragement given by Hillary Clinton to selected ASEAN countries to resist China's claims over islands in the South China Sea, and to Japan to resist China's claim over Senkuku Island (Diagou) in the northern sea.

These US functionaries have room for free action to fill in the gaps that are needed to achieve the basic objective of pre-determined policy. The traditional idea that an ambassador's main task is to promote close bi-lateral relations between the host country and the sending country, is not in operation here in Sri Lanka, any more. What is now on is denigration of the principle of State sovereignty to directly interference in internal affairs of States. The role of the US Ambassador in Colombo now is to create as much embarrassment as possible to the Government of Sri Lanka. This has reached high proportions under the present incumbent and the head of mission immediately preceding her, Ambassador Patricia Butenis, who even had the temerity to make some presumptuous pre-departure comments before she arrived in Sri Lanka, and make a true demonstration of her commitment by meeting members of the Tamil Diaspora in the US including the LTTE rump, which made me write 'It did not matter to Sri Lanka if it was a Butenis or Haramanis'.

China at the bottom?

The US is not seen to have abandoned her strategic interest in Sri Lanka as a country, which lies on the strategic oil supply route to the West and East. Her collaboration with India to keep the pot simmering in Sri Lanka over the ethnic issue can be seen as her present strategy of keeping the growing Chinese influence at bay in the island. All the resolutions at the UNHRC in Geneva and other actions through the UN are all part of that strategy, and have the least to do with any moral compunctions arising from commitment to so-called values.

As I asked five years ago, where are the US' apologies to the countries she had devastated, starting with the dropping of the Atom Bomb on two, highly populated civilian centres in Japan, and dropping of millions of napalm cluster bombs in Indo-China, hundreds of thousands of which did not explode; and more recently, to the people of Iraq where millions of children were made to die of starvation due to sanctions applied, not to speak of the war dead, mothers included. For that matter, where are the apologies to the German people in Dresden who were subjected to aerial bombing for days as punishment after the end of the war? After all, Churchill did not die without blood-soiled hands!

Consequently, there is not going to be any change in US policy towards Sri Lanka, however, much the Sri Lankan Government shows progress on investigations into allegations of human rights and humanitarian law violations during the war against LTTE terrorism.

In conclusion

In conclusion, on the basis of the (above) discussion, it can be assumed that under President Obama's administration, the US policy towards Sri Lanka has not been fair; it is unjust and selective in relative terms. The credibility of the US to engage in such a policy is in question looking at her own record of expressing no regrets, not to speak of apologies, for her own horrendous record commencing with the end of WW II as committed in Japan and Germany, in Indo-China, and more recently, in Iraq and other theatres of war where the US was the principal, belligerent party. There is no indication of any policy changes since the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, took over. The same Clinton policies continue, with officials seemingly demarcating the parameters. The same process of destabilization which marks US policy elsewhere is very much in operation here.

(Bandu de Silva is a former Sri Lankan Ambassador to France and the Vatican)

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