17 September, 2021

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Biden’s Foreign Policy, Human Rights & Sri Lanka

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Human Rights are among what has been called the “seven pillars” of President Biden’s foreign policy. The new President, who is really a very old hand “in the sausage-making process of foreign policy” through his long involvement in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered his first major policy statement on February 4, at the State Department. “America is back,” Biden declared, in clear repudiation of Trump’s ‘America First’ unilateralism. The choice of venue also signaled the return to institutional governance after four years of egotistical aberrations. Every American institution suffered under Trump, but none more than the State Department, traditionally the highest ranked in the Executive Branch. 

Trumps’ foreign policy agents, from the Secretary of State George Mike Pompeo to UN Ambassador Nicky Hayley, had little background or even literacy in international affairs. Hayley’s “cesspool” comment about the UNHRC was typical of Trump staffers making speeches not to persuade the audiences they were addressing but to please the boss watching them on Fox News at the White House. Now, as part of the Biden Administration’s emphasis on Human Rights, America is back at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, even though the US is not among the current 47 Member states of its Council.  

America’s exit from UNHRC under Trump and its return to the agency under Biden have been having political echo-effects in Sri Lanka. America’s position at the UNHRC looms very much larger in Sri Lankan politics than Sri Lanka would ever figure in American foreign policy calculations. That is part of the natural order of things in a world of grossly unequal power relationships. As well, speculating about the motives of the US or other ‘core countries’ is not going to help Sri Lanka in its dealings with the UNHRC. Regardless of what the US says or does, Sri Lanka is stuck with the UNHRC for the foreseeable future unless and until Sri Lanka gets a government that would enlighten itself to find an internal solution to its external problem, which in itself is the externalization of a much older internal problem. 

The reason why Sri Lanka is stuck in Geneva is not only because of its postwar hangovers but also because – as the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reminded Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Mohan Pieris: “it is important to recognize that in today’s world there is a growing concern and interest including international institutes from the human rights and legal dimensions on post conflict situations, mainly reconciliation and accountability.” The reminder was a rejoinder to Mr. Pieris’s needless intervention during a special session of the General Assembly for the presentation of the Secretary General’s Annual Report on January 28. 

Mr. Pieris’s pique was that his government was not being “made to feel that we are in it together” with the rest of the world because “the global temperature for Sri Lanka, particularly in the Human Rights Council has been maintained at an all time high.”  The Secretary General assured the Ambassador that outside involvement in Sri Lanka will disappear when the Sri Lankan government starts responding substantially to questions of reconciliation and justice in Sri Lanka. It is now 12 years since the war ended and the first UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka was passed. More than anyone else in the world, the people of Sri Lanka deserve a substantial response from their government.    

The fault of the previous government was in co-sponsoring the 2015 UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka while utterly failing to do anything substantially within the country either to win support for it among the Sinhalese, or to do anything significant to address the postwar difficulties in the northern and eastern provinces. The present government, for all the expectations that were invested on it, appears to be totally at sixes and sevens not only in Geneva but in every department of governance in Colombo. I am not imagining anything ridiculous to lampoon the government. The government’s key supporters, its protective commentators and even government ministers are getting frustrated with the ways the government is misfiring on all fronts and on all cylinders. And they are venting their frustrations, albeit for different reasons and for different purposes. 

The global context

Specific to Geneva and the UNHRC, it is difficult to imagine that the government has anything smart up its sleeve or can find a way to extricate itself from the quasi-legal tangles that it has gotten itself into. More seriously, and tragically, it is difficult to expect this government to find an internal solution to our national problem, or its external manifestation at the UNHRC forum. In a way, Sri Lanka has lurched from the inept globalism of the previous government to the autarkic incompetence of the present. But there is no running away from the global context which insofar as Sri Lanka is concerned is heavily loaded with human rights imperatives given the country’s postwar hangovers.

There is no question that the global context of human rights is not a level playing field. And President Biden is already showing that America will not engage with all countries equally. Saudi Arabia is more equal than others. Biden acted swiftly to end support to military operations in Yemen which has been devastated for seven years by the Saudi led war. The US will now shift to humanitarian operations. He informed the Saudis that he will only be dealing with King Salman and not the notorious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). He made public the American intelligence report, that Trump had suppressed, implicating MBS in the killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

The Washington Post journalist was killed and dismembered like in medieval times but with modern electrical knives in the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, in October 2018. But President Biden will not move to sanction the culpable prince. Saudi Arabia is too important an ally in the Middle East power game. So, thus far and no further, insofar as ‘recalibrating’ the US relationship with Saudi Arabia goes. Many of Biden’s supporters including White House staffers are not happy. Welcome to old school realpolitik.   

But in a sign of the times, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has filed a compliant of over 300 pages with the German office of the Federal Prosecutor accusing the Saudi Prince and his associates of crimes against humanity. Such global indictments have been made possible by Germany’s Code of Crimes Against International Law (VStGB), which became law in 2002, allowing prosecution of crimes outside Germany and not involving Germans. Last month, a German court convicted a former Syrian secret service member of crimes against humanity. These are baby steps in transnational justice and universal jurisdiction. 

The appropriate venue for trying the Saudi Prince is the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. But as a “treaty-based court” created after the 1998 Rome Conference, it cannot try a Saudi as Saudi Arabia is not a signatory or ratifier of the ICC, unless the case is referred to it by the Security Council. That is hardly possible because three permanent members of the Security Council, with veto powers, have not ratified the ICC. Of the 12 investigation initiated by the ICC only three are outside Africa (Myanmar, Georgia and Libya). All the others involve African countries, many of them on self-referral in what is known as “out-sourcing” justice by African countries to resolve internal disputes. 

Colonial Continuity

In her January 2021 report on Sri Lanka, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet outlines the options available to Member states for taking action against Sri Lanka, including referral (by another state) to the International Criminal Court, taking actions in their own national courts under universal jurisdiction, and applying targeted sanctions against state officials. But only targeted sanctions are included in the recommendations. Neither ICC referral nor action under universal jurisdiction is carried into the recommendations. The choices are indicative of the need for consensus even among the core countries. And universal jurisdiction is easier suggested than achieved. Already courts in the UK (2010), Australia (2011) and the US (2012) have rejected lawsuits and arrest warrant requests against then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. 

The problem for the government in the Commissioner’s 2021 report stems from its own actions and inactions during the last fifteen months. These actions are seen by the Commissioner as “Emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability, and human rights.” The government protests too much that the Commissioner has no business in the country’s ongoing domestic matters, but it cannot pretend that the ongoing militarization, constitutional aberrations, setting up presidential commissions, and the alienation of religious minorities are all meant for the wellbeing of the people and the protection of their rights and interests.  

The government considers the draft resolution based on the Commissioner’s report to be too much or too strong. On the other hand, the more ardent Tamil groups consider it to be too weak or too little, and a dilution of the Commissioners report. We do not know what the final resolution might turn out to be, but we can be sure that it is not going to be the end of it all. 

In a way, what is being contested in Geneva can be seen as a continuation of the contest that began at least over seventy years ago in the twilight years of colonial rule. That was when the island’s political leaders communally jostled for post-independence power and position by submitting petitions and making special pleadings before the departing rulers. Perhaps the most dramatic forum where these contests played out before independence was the Soulbury Commission. And the most dramatic persona who stole everyone’s thunder, but actually accomplished little with his fifty-fifty cry, was GG Ponnambalam.  

Ponnambalam’s appearance before the Commission was all drama and eloquence and has for long been the stuff of Tamil political lore. As EFC Ludowyk, then Professor of English, would later critically record it for history, Ponnambalam “was responsible for a virtuoso performance of several hours of impassioned oratory that enthused his supporters, but failed to persuade the tribunal which he exhorted.” Behind the stage while Ponnambalam performed, the Soulbury Commission was quietly persuaded by the Board of Ministers to accept the constitutional proposals that Sir Ivor Jennings had prepared for them. 

The Board of Ministers proposals became the essence of the Soulbury Constitution. Perhaps the least contentious and the most benign of the three constitutions that Sri Lanka has had, not counting the new one that is now cooking to soon boil over. Ponnambalam would eventually become a powerful minister in the first Senanayake government after independence. Then everything fell apart. Seventy years later, there is little drama in Geneva and the roles are somewhat reversed. The same contest continues, however, but with different and unglamorous actors, in the new global language of human rights . 

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Latest comments

  • 4
    1

    Reference, “Emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability, and human rights.” – Michelle Bachelet.
    Reference the issue of Accountability, first and foremost, One way to counter issue of lack of Accountability claim and overcome would be take it on Head-On.
    If no wrongdoing has been committed, (as Ex President MR has stated several times – Zero Tolerance) what is the reluctance to go through a process of testing the material UNHCR has, by a judicial process transparently and make sure there is foreign oversight as much as we do not like it, this is sine quo none, for acceptance of the probity and outcome
    In the absence of this process, SL is tarnished with having committed HR crimes and Genocide”.
    The scourge is continuing as a never ending process, year after year; Hopefully end at the conclusion of the Judicial process.
    Hope Sensible thinking prevails and results in a good outcome to all Sri Lankans

  • 4
    4

    G.G.Ponnambalam is a Traitor to Tamils. When I say Tamils I not consider only Jaffna and Batticaloa Tamils, I also consider the Upcountry Tamils. If only G.G.Ponnambalam did not act treacherously to vote with the then Government to take away the right to Sri Lankan Citizenship of Tamil estate workers from India who arrived since 1900, Sri Lanka would be in a much stronger position to negotiate with the Government today. This act of G.G also paved way for the upcountry Tamils to be suspicious of Northern Tamil parties.

    At least Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam should have the courtesy to ask pardon from the upcountry Tamils for his Grand Father’s actions.

    • 4
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      B1
      I do not approve of GGP’s conduct in the matter. But there have been explanations defending his intentions by several leading figures since then. You could confront them rather than challenge Gajendrakumar.
      Why should G apologize for another’s deeds, even if it is his father’s?
      *
      Do those attacking G for his grandfather’s actions appreciate what his father did? He was the only Tamil leader who dared to speak up for the Tamils in the 1990s.
      I always disagreed with Kumar Ponnambalam’s separatist line, but his courage is still unmatched.

      • 0
        2

        In developed civilized societies the Govts that come after generations apologize to acts in the past generations not because of anything else but because there will be a process of forgiving by the community that got affected. This would bring closure to the subject. To date there has been no closure on the subject as the harm done had weakened Tamils solidarity in Sri Lanka.

        Gajaendrakumar who has lived abroad would know and understand this process but he has still not apologized. Why?

        • 0
          0

          B1
          But individuals anywhere are answerable only for their words and deeds.
          Collective guilt is something else.

      • 1
        2

        In developed civilized societies the Govts that come after generations apologize to acts in the past generations not because of anything else but because there will be a process of forgiving by the community that got affected. This would bring closure to the subject. To date there has been no closure on the subject as the harm done had weakened Tamils solidarity in Sri Lanka.

        Gajaendrakumar who has lived abroad would know and understand this process but he has still not apologized. Why? Even during P2P walk when all the parties agreed to send the 10 point demand to UN, Gajan after signing the all party demand, he separately signed another few demands which were LTTE demands to UN, this clearly shows he is doing the same in a modern version what his Grand Father did in the past. He technically once again broke the solidarity of the Tamils.

        • 0
          0

          B1
          I reject Gajaendrakumar’s approach as well as those of other Tamil leaders.
          *
          There is much manipulation going on in the Name of Tamil unity.
          P to P started to fall apart when it was suspected to be aTNA stunt.
          If it was genuine, it would have brushed aside all dissent and forged ahead into a mass movement.
          *
          I have seen how the FP leaders conspired to keep Gajaendrakumar out. They did it to Kumar Ponnambaam and even to SC Chandrahasan (of whom I am not an admirer).
          *
          Tamil Unity is a vote gatherer that is losing steam fast.

  • 2
    3

    RP: please read the books to educate your self about the real state of play of the Human Rights Game at the UNHRC

    1. The United States of War by David Vine 2020
    2. The ISIS is US: the Shocking truth behind the Army of Terror
    3. Cold War Monks: Buddhism and America’s Secret Strategy in Southeast Asia (2017) Yale University Press
    4. Keenie Meenie: The British Mercenaries who got away with War Crimes” 2020 Zed Books

  • 3
    4

    Also Rajan: What is the relationship between the UNHRC show resolution in Geneva and the Rajapakse regime’s cover-up Report of the PCoI into the Easter Sunday 2019 ISIS claimed attacks in the context of the fact that everyone knows that the CIA owns and operates the IS narrative?

    Is the UNHRC circus against Sri Lanka the thin edge of the wedge, used to ensure that the US citizen Rajapaksa brothers in a GOP-Dem. Deep State style bi-partisan corruption racket with US puppet Ranil Wickramasinghe, (a bi-partisan UNP-SLFP/PP corruption racket), to suppress the truth about the Foreign Forces identified by Cardinel Malcom Ranjith and anyone with a brain, behind the Easter Sunday Bombings in 2019 Sri Lanka, and fact that the Easter Sunday carnage was a US-Saudi operation staged in Sri Lanka to give Trump-Biden’s America an excuse to set up military base in Sri Lanka under the pretext of fighting ISIS and saving Christians?

  • 3
    2

    Gothas presidency is doomed not just because of Bidens foreign policy and Human Rights violation but also two women who are are Tamils advising him. Add to that another women Ahimsa who for personal reasons is making Gothas life difficult with a trial pending after his presidency and immunity ends.

  • 2
    2

    Human Rights has been a mighty weapon in the armoury of the US since the end of the Cold War.
    HR has served to undermine and overthrow governments that did not do the bidding of the US.
    Let us not imagine that the theatre that is Geneva has anything to do with the internal affairs of Sri Lanka. It has everything to do with Sri Lanka’s foreign relations.
    *
    As for Biden’s conduct of foreign policy, the VP has discussed inter-state matters with three important heads of state in a matter of weeks with no reference to President Biden.
    Will we soon be discussing the Kamala Harris de facto presidency?

  • 2
    0

    It is discouraging to read analytical writing in most mainstream Sri Lanka media. A few old timers who possess a strong fist, including the above “casual” writer, now write only sparingly. That could be because of poor reward or of being squeezed out by the inept minds of gratis contributors. Media is to blame for this journalism decline. Young reporters with independent and strong opinions seem to be discouraged. In their place simpletons willing to toe the line or those with strong political connections appear to be encouraged. An instance in the recent past in local media, including state-owned media, has been writings on the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka and its Commissioner Michelle Bachelet. The journalese was distressing. No effort was made to inform and educate. Instead keyboard warriors, who themselves appeared not to have a grounding on the subject, foolishly set out to inflict deep wounds on the UNHRC and its commissioner. They did so by abusive and slanderous writings. The shallow intentions obviously being to impress editorial and political benefactors, and perhaps their coterie of likeminded unwise friends. Instead young reporters should be promoted and encourage to write material that is defiant and thought-provoking. Their absence can only bring about a nation that is ill-informed, narrow-minded and lacking in critical thought.

    • 1
      0

      Sonali
      I admire your spirited defence of the UNHRC and the Commissioner.
      Can I expect that spirit in other matters on CT pages where personal abuse comes to the fore when political argument weakens?
      We have yet to rise above personalities in commenting on right and wrong.

      • 0
        0

        Bachelet governed Chile for 8 years with the Constitution of a genocide, the inherited Magna Carta of the civic-military dictatorship of Pinochet. What did she do to change the Constitution? She used it to repress the Mapuche people and persecute students.
        Her adverse report of human rights in Venezuela in 2018 says not a word about how the US imposed sanctions and backing for the criminal opposition is hurting the country.
        The legacy of Pinochet lives on in Chile, and will take a major mass uprising to be rid of.

  • 0
    4

    Rajan Philips,
    What is the ‘National Problem’ for which you want the Government to find an internal solution?

    “…it is difficult to expect this government to find an internal solution to our national problem,,,”

    • 0
      0

      Eagle,
      “What is the ‘National Problem’ for which you want the Government to find an internal solution?”

      It’s not your problem, it’s our problem. You ran away and are a foreigner. Don’t interfere.

  • 1
    2

    ” But President Biden will not move to sanction the culpable prince.”
    In half of his essay’s body, Rajan Philips is analyzing Khashoggi’s murder. A private SA citizen killed an American citizen in a third country. Rajan Philips recommendation is to call ICC. America, SA and Turkey did not sign Rome Accord. Because the murder took place in Turkey, Turkey always has the jurisdiction. Because its anti-America, Anti- SA policy, it consider Khashoggias as SA and American citizen, it is ok he get killed. Interestingly it did not close SA embassy even. Did anybody go to ICC when many Russian Journalists were Plutonium Coffee fed or Kim Jong Un killed his brother? It so waste everybody’s time when a socialist compare A genocide to a private case. Did Chandrika or Ranil or Old King allow Nalanayakam case handled ICC. What about Lasantha 0r Eknaligoda? Why didn’t Yahapalanaya call in ICC? Then why do we bring a private murder? Khashoggi’s case come here as a distraction only. The problem is, because his 200 years old Marxism, he cannot recognize the contemporary world. All the communists are some kind of artificial souls.

  • 1
    1

    Sri Lanka is stuck with the UNHRC for the foreseeable future unless and until Sri Lanka gets a government that would enlighten itself to find an internal solution to its external problem, which in itself is the externalization of a much older internal problem.
    What is this at all? Rajan Philips has difficult time to understand it that Appe Aanduwas is not the one put the matter in the hand of UNHRC to externalize it. Chandrika made a smart deed, instead of finishing it with India; she brought in 32 Countries to help her, using Kathirgamar. At the end it was the 32 nations passed it to UNHRC, when, after willingly inviting UN SG & making a joint statement with him Colombo, by old King. For 75 years Aanduwas has been creating, nursing and bringing up Tamils’ problem. Now the tree has branched into-two three neighbors’ compound. They too have been eating the fruits from the tree branches. So neither China nor India is going to let Lankawe to cut the tree without compensation for them. The most stupid talks where there was no one locally to solve the problem for 75 years, the time Britain handed over the power, now a writer writing that all should wait until Prince Kumara is to be born and resolve this problem. Comedy Thamai!

  • 1
    1

    Late or in time, now many educated Buddhists Sinhalese think, it not just Tamils, even they have a problem. They don’t believe that this government may go home without some incidence like Burma. After seeing about 40 deaths over there in protest, recently in Rangoon, these Buddhists Sinhalese fear to talk against the War Criminal Patriotic Heroes. That is where they need to be given a hand to reach UNHRC for their problem, unlike jobless Rajan Philips, who wants to go for Khashoggi’s case to UNHRC, but not against the Royals.
    Even the Paramilitary communist, UOJ Saddampy will be able to think and write better communism than this, though.

  • 0
    2

    The writer of this article is commended for using tempered language to illustrate his point. He concedes that the arena of “Human Rights” is not a level playing field. In other words, it is open to manipulations. That alone is enough to show that it is one rule for one set and yet another for others, indicating that the noble principles of Human Rights being used as a platform to bully nations. Let us assume the worst meaning that the Western Oriented countries will decide to shun Sri Lanka and treat it like say North Korea or Iran. Isn’t that the surest way for Sri Lanka to be a fully-fledged Chinese colony? What if there is a Chinese assisted fisheries program for the North especially in view Indian fishermen even damaging the fishing nets of Northern fishermen? It will blow the minds of the Quad nations. I don’t think the Western world doesn’t want that either. It wants to satisfy certain electoral compulsions in those localities to some degree.

    • 0
      0

      GS
      “Let us assume the worst meaning that the Western Oriented countries will decide to shun Sri Lanka and treat it like say North Korea or Iran. Isn’t that the surest way for Sri Lanka to be a fully-fledged Chinese colony?”
      Does this suggest that North Korea is a Chinese colony? Or that Iran is on that route?
      North Korea has asserted its independence for over 7 decades now, and will not be bullied by even the biggest global bully.
      Iran has defied every power that tried to order it about. That is why EU is taking a soft approach.
      *
      “Human Rights” is the most powerful weapon in the hands of imperialism in the post Cold War era.

  • 1
    0

    Perhaps Sonali is thinking about some commentators here when she mentions people who are “ill-informed, narrow-minded and lacking critical thought”. Such individuals are unable to focus on the matter under discussion, on the crux. One man’s obsession is Mr. G.G. Ponnambalam. Another gives us a list of books supposed to have been read, obviously with the intention of demonstrating how learned the individual is. Someone else wants Mr. Rajan Philips to tell him what the “national problem” is. Yet another man’s dogged emphasis is on the Khashoggi murder. These diverse matters, if they figured in Mr. Philips’ article, were merely incidental. The focus was the upcoming UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. But some of us drive about like the busses and cars on our roads, crashing into each other or falling off precipices.

  • 1
    0

    Sarath
    When an article, even casually, refers to matters outside its theme, people are bound to comment on them.
    Then there are the compulsive trolls and b** s******s.
    It is all part of the game.
    Very few comments relate to the essay after the first few.

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