By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Last Sunday’s news report in a leading newspaper captioned “U.S. to assist in drafting a new Sri Lankan Constitution” is indeed food for thought. US Ambassador Atul Keshap, during a reception on board USS New Orleans, docked in at the Colombo Port on a three day goodwill visit, had reportedly held sway of his country’s desire to partner with the Sri Lankan military while assisting the government in drafting a new constitution and meeting commitments it had made to the United Nations Human Rights Council with regard to accountability issues. He supposedly welcomed new staff to the American embassy in Sri Lanka to work, amongst other things, on “human rights cooperation, rule of law and justice”. He has stated “we are working to strengthen our relationship with all of the different facets of the Sri Lankan government, including the armed forces, because we believe that a professional military is essential to the development and success of any viable democracy”. He has further expressed America’s desire to “partner with the security forces and move forward on the very important issues that had attracted the attention of Sri Lankans which encompassed development of a new Constitution and cooperation with the international community to address commitments with regard to accountability issues made in September of last year”.
Both Sri Lanka’s Constitution and Judicial system has its share of imperfections. So does the American Constitution and Judicial system. Court proceedings commence with a contradiction. Accused are required to take an ‘honesty oath’ or affirmation to “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Immediately thereafter, an accused may plead the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution which is a part of the Bill of Rights and protects a person from being compelled to be a witness against himself in a criminal case. It invokes the privilege that allows a witness to decline to answer questions where the answers might incriminate him or her. In short, he or she does not need to “tell the truth”. In light of the ability to plead the Fifth Amendment, the need for an ‘honesty oath’ or affirmation is a contradiction.
Strengthening Relations & partnering Sri Lankan military
Dozens of US officials have visited Sri Lanka since January 2015. The Indian born Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal recently visited Sri Lanka for the sixth time. Even the current Secretary of State John Kerry saw it fit to visit Sri Lanka. Elements of the US navy have paid more than a half dozen ‘goodwill visits’ to Sri Lanka.
Intelligence assistance provided by US in the later years of Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism need be acknowledged with gratitude. That said, the lack of other forms of military assistance, America’s disinterest in partnering our military and absence of goodwill visits by US naval craft during the decades Sri Lanka spent fighting terrorism need be highlighted. In light of America’s attitude towards Sri Lanka since mid-1980s, motives for its sudden desire to “strengthen relations”, to state mildly, is questionable.
America has indeed come long way from the dark days in mid-1987 when then Sri Lanka’s pro American President JR Jayewardene (JRJ) desperately attempted to speak to then US President Ronald Regan. In his naivety, JRJ wanted Regan, who had previously entertained him to dinner in the White House, to prevail upon pro Soviet India to desist from a possible invasion of Sri Lanka (ship loads containing Indian Black Cat commandos could be seen from Galle Face, supposedly on standby by to evacuate Indian nationals in Colombo). Regan who declined to accept the telephone call had notoriously stated “tell him to talk to Spain” (James W Spain was the then US Ambassador to Sri Lanka). Left with no alternative, JRJ agreed to the infamous Indo – Sri Lanka Accord, the IPKF and the 13th Amendment. Thereafter, there were hardly any US bigwigs or underlings who came by Sri Lanka except in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami when two former US Presidents, US Secretary of State and a naval contingent visited Sri Lanka in connection with relief operations.
A Professional Military
Professionalism of Sri Lanka’s military was proved by their defeat of the LTTE terrorist group. That is not to say, certain excesses did not take place or to deny the need to investigate such cases, not forgetting the concept of ‘collateral damage’, a justification regularly used by America. The US army’s professionalism, in spite of access to superior fire power, technology and virtually unlimited funds spans all the way from Korea to Vietnam to Beirut to Somalia to Iraq to Afghanistan. Narration of excesses by US forces abroad would require volumes. Two random examples would suffice for the purpose.
The My Lai massacre committed by US forces killed 504 (subsequently reduced to 347 by US military investigators) unarmed civilians in South Vietnam in 1968 within a few hours. Victims included men, women, children, and infants between ages of one and eighty-two. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.
Members of the US Army and the CIA committed a series of human rights violations against dozens of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They included physical and sexual abuse, torture, rape, sodomy, and murder.
America led the western pack at the UNHRC in Geneva by sponsoring a Resolution against Sri Lanka in September 2015. Sri Lanka, facing the threat of international sanctions had no option but to accept the resolution even though the need to co-sponsor it is understood only by those responsible for the decision. Since then, the international community cabal has never failed to remind Sri Lanka of its ‘commitments with regard accountability made in September 2015’. Recent history is strewn with examples of abuse of Human Rights by US during the Vietnam war, in Guantanamo Bay, unjustified regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan to name a few. One is left bewildered trying to understand the logic of perpetrators of excesses in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and rendition, thousands of miles away from US soil sponsoring a resolution against Sri Lanka, accusing it of alleged human rights violations during its endeavor to defeat a terrorist group advocating separatism on its own soil.
Raymond Allen Davis, a private security firm employee, and contractor with the CIA, killed two reportedly armed men in Lahore, Pakistan in 2011. The U.S. government claimed diplomatic immunity for an employee of a contractor on the basis he was an employee of the U.S. Consulate in Lahore. Nevertheless, Davis was jailed and criminally charged by Pakistani authorities with double murder and the illegal possession of a firearm. In a back room deal, Davis was released after the families of the two killed men were paid $2.4 million in diyya (a form of monetary compensation or blood money).
The absence of a credible judicial investigation to investigate pogroms in July 1983 is a clear case of the lack of a credible and robust judicial system in Sri Lanka. Such an investigation would have no doubt contributed immensely towards reconciliation. However, considering America’s own poor track record in such matters, one is left wondering if Ambassador Keshap’s new team of Americans now in Sri Lanka to work on “human rights cooperation, rule of law and justice” are the right people for the task.
After the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses related to the massacre. However, only Lieutenant William Calley Jr, a platoon leader was convicted. Found guilty of killing 22 villagers, he was originally given a life sentence, but served only three and a half years under house arrest before being released. The US Judicial system has left it to the imagination of the public to deduce the manner in which the remaining 482 lost their lives.
Lynndie Rana England, a former United States Army Reserve soldier along with eleven other soldiers was convicted of war crimes and torture in the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal by Army courts-martial for inflicting sexual, physical and psychological abuse on Iraqi prisoners of war. She was sentenced to three years in prison and dishonorably discharged from the army. She served 521 days of her 1,095 days’ prison sentence before being paroled. After multiple investigations, human rights organizations stated that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were not isolated incidents, but were part of a wider pattern of torture and brutal treatment at American overseas detention centers, including those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Several scholars stated that the abuses constituted state-sanctioned crimes. Allegations have also been made of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld having authorized some of the actions.
CIA contractor Raymond Allen Davis was never tried in US for his crimes.
It is left to the discerning reader to fathom if Lt. Calley and his twenty-five fellow soldiers, Lynndie Rana England and her eleven fellow soldiers and Raymond Allen Davis would have received different sentences, had they been tried under Vietnamese, Iraqi and Pakistani law. Further, would US have agreed to any “special courts” to prosecute the likes of Lt. Calley, Lynndie England, their fellow soldiers and CIA contractor Davis with “foreign assistance” and participation of “foreign Judges and expertise”?
Partiality and leniency towards members of its armed forces and nationals committing crimes abroad against foreign nationals, practiced regularly by US, is a perversion of its judicial system.
The incidents narrated herein should not be taken in isolation but in totality with US actions abroad since WWII, too numerous to be narrated in a single essay. The US has been responsible for thousands of acts similar to those narrated. They do illustrate a distinct pattern of sheer impunity and absolute disregard to international humanitarian law, when it involves America’s own interests and its forces.
Ambassador Keshap is the public face of America in Sri Lanka. Considering America’s track record, it behooves the Ambassador to explain to us Sri Lankans, his nation’s credentials, competence and suitability to assist this country on “human rights cooperation, rule of law and justice”.