By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, February 17: It is an indisputable fact that the United States uses human rights not for humanity’s sake but to further its strategic interests across the world. It’s recognition of human rights violations or its blindness to them is determined by its strategic needs.
For example, to retain India as a strategic partner in its fight against emerging eastern power China, the US is turning a blind eye to Narendra Modi’s oppression of the Kashmiris, the lynching of Muslims and the anti-Muslim citizenship law in India. Modi, who was barred from the US after the Gujarat anti-Muslim carnage in 2002, was white washed after he became India’s Prime Minister and signaled a pro-US tilt. The US ignored the 2002 carnage and lifted the ban on him. That the US is highly biased in its application of human rights principles is evident in the way it tolerates gross violations by the Saudi and Israeli governments.
On Thursday, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo banned the entry of the Sri Lankan army chief Lt.Gen.Shavendra Silva into the US, for allegedly committing “war crimes” when he was one of the frontline commanders of the army in the last phase of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009.
It is noteworthy that the ban should come eleven years after the war and when there is a government in Colombo which is branded in the West as “pro-China”.
Though the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva was seized of the issue of “war crimes” in Lanka from 2009, there was no punitive action against Lanka between 2015 and 2019 when there was a pro-West government in Colombo headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In fact, between 20015 and 2019, the annual resolutions of the UNHRC on Lanka became progressively mild.
MCC and SOFA
The US got the Wickremesinghe regime to seriously consider entering the Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) to digitalize land records with the ultimate aim of making private land saleable to foreigners. But this was bitterly opposed by Lankan nationalists. Despite opposition, the Wickremesinghe government got cabinet approval for the MCC. However, it could not implement the decision because it lost the November 2019 Presidential election to the nationalist candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Gotabaya government put the decision on hold and set up a committee to study the MCC’s compact from the Sri Lankan angle and also its performance in other countries.
The other pact which the US tried to push down Lankan throats was the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and an expanded version of the already existing Access and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA). When the details came out, Sri Lankan nationalists were up and arms. SOFA and the new ACSA severely abridged Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. US troops coming to and operating in the island were to be governed by US and not Sri Lankan laws. The Gotabaya government completely rejected SOFA leaving the US peeved.
Pressure To Sign MCC and SOFA
The US State Department then sent Alice Wells to apply pressure on President Gotabaya to accede to the MCC and SOFA in toto, but the Lankan President stuck to his guns.
With the UNHRC to begin its session in late February, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thought the moment was opportune to manifestly and tellingly twist Colombo’s arm by announcing the designation of Lt.Gen Shavendra Silva.
Tamils Welcome Ban
While the majority Sinhalese are irked by the ban on a “war hero” who rid the country of terrorism, the minority Tamils have welcomed it. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) issued a statement recalling that it had, in August 2019 itself, condemned Lt. Gen. Silva’s appointment as Army Commander due to allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations against him.
The TNA said that it hopes that the ban will open the eyes of the Lankan Government, which had opposed taking accountability measures even ten years after the war. “We consider this as a minor improvement as a result of continuous protests by the war-affected Tamil people,” the TNA said
Hostility in Colombo
However, the majority Sinhalese and the government deplored the ban as a violation of Lankan sovereignty and that too on specious grounds. US Ambassador Allaina B. Teplitz was summoned by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on Sunday to be told about Lanka’s displeasure.
A press release from the Foreign Ministry said: The Government reiterates that Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva was appointed as the Commander of the Army by the then Head of State, taking into account his seniority and that there were no substantiated or proven allegations of human rights violations against him. His elevation as the Acting Chief of Defense Staff by the current Head of State President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was on account of his being the senior most serving military officer.”
“While the timing of the imposition of this travel restriction 6 months after Lt. Gen. Silva’s appointment as Army Commander is of concern, it is disappointing that a foreign government should question the prerogative of the democratically elected President to call upon persons with proven expertise to hold key positions on national security related matters.”
“The Government of Sri Lanka requests the United States to verify the authenticity of the sources of information and to review its decision,” it added.
The Sunday Times said that it was significant that the ban should come days before the UNHRC was to issue its report on Sri Lanka. The UNHRC report is expected to call for an “International Court of Inquiry” to probe alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.
The US had designated Gen. Silva on the basis of “credible information” of his involvement, through command responsibility, in gross violations of human rights, namely extrajudicial killings, by the 58th Division of the Sri Lanka Army during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s Civil War in 2009. Pompeo made the declaration under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act.
But the Lankan Foreign Ministry said the charges against Gen.Silva were based not on independently verified information but on “unverified” information.
They had been compiled, not on the basis of a filed study by independent observers, but on accounts of refugees and Tamil politicians with a vested interest. While the UN and Western agencies had said that 40,000 to 70,000 had been killed in the last phase of the war, government censuses commissions of inquiry put the death toll at around 8000. The latter estimate is more or less borne out by the fact that out of the population of 300,000 in the war zone, 290,000 had been evacuated and housed in camps on the border of the war zone.
Meanwhile, in the UN Security Council, Lankan Ambassador Kshenuka Senewiratne said that the actions of the Sri Lankan security forces during the conflict were against a group designated as a terrorist organization by many countries (including the US), and even described as ruthless by some. They were not aimed at any community in the country.
She spoke about the modus operandi of suicide attacks adopted by the LTTE, which for the first time in history, deliberately targeted civilians using its human bombs.
In an email to the Sunday Times the US embassy in Colombo said the ban on Gen.Silva “does not place additional restrictions on security assistance or military engagement in Sri Lanka nor does it represent a shift in policy or desire to limit engagement more broadly with the government and people of Sri Lanka”.
It will not have any impact on military-to-military cooperation such as training and joint operations, economic/technical assistance and trade, the embassy added. But Sri Lankans wonder how cooperation is possible if their army chief was humiliatingly designated?
Advantage For China
The designation of the Lankan army chief, who is considered a war hero in the 30 year battle against Tamil terrorism, will gravely damage America’s relations with Sri Lanka, where no political party of the majority Sinhalese community will support a measure which will harm their interests.
Deemed as a hostile act, the designation will nullify any prospect of the US succeeding in getting the Sri Lankan government to sign the MCC SOFA pacts, which the US has been very keen on to get control over Sri Lanka’s land and security.
The designation will be counterproductive also on account of the fact that it will drive Sri Lanka further into the hands of China which is America’s Number One enemy in the Indian and the Pacific Ocean region. And when Sri Lanka veers more towards China, it will be disadvantageous to India also given its deep strategic interest in the island nation.
(The featured picture above shows Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena talking to US Ambassador Alaina Tiplitz)