By Daya Gamage –
Sri Lanka is currently in a foreign relations wilderness. When the Biden administration took office, during an interview to a question how Washington’s new regime could affect Sri Lanka, Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage said ‘it has no effect’, and further said ‘the U.S. needs to organize its own terrain’. Angered by this short sighted, undiplomatic statement, Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated in a zoom meeting with officials of the UNHRC in Geneva that Sri Lanka needs accountability for its actions during the final stage of the Eelam War.
Previously, Sri Lankan authorities never took notice of a question raised by a senior U.S. Senator in December 2019 at a hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee whether “an alleged war criminal is now elected as president of Sri Lanka”. When his Democratic Party took control of the Senate in January 2021 this Senator – Robert Menendez – became the Chairman of the Committee. Sri Lanka is yet to establish working relationship with this Senator.
The Rajapaksa administration doesn’t seem to have any knowledge the individuals in the Biden White House who manage, formulate, and administer America’s foreign policy apparatus. The Colombo regime doesn’t seem to evaluate the mind-set of those who are at the helm of Washington’s foreign policy.
The result: Sri Lanka is in a foreign relations wilderness. What the Rajapaksa administration does not realize is: Foreign Policy is Domestic Policy as well as Domestic Policy is Foreign Policy.
The two foreign relations committees in the Congress are the most vital instruments of the American system which maintain constant rapport with any administration in Washington. The senior members of both committees maintain contacts with the White House National Security Council, the Council that formulates foreign policy in collaboration with the State Department.
It is known fact that the active representatives of the Tamil Diaspora maintain constant contact with Members of the Senate and House in the Congress to push their agenda connected to allegations of violation of international humanitarian law (IHL), war crimes, the plight of the minority Tamils, devolution of power to peripheral provinces, civilian deaths and the importance of holding a referendum in the Tamil majority north-east region.
Coinciding with the 12th anniversary of the completion of the war, the U.S. House of Representatives on 18 May 2021 presented a resolution “honoring the lives lost, and expressing support for justice, accountability, reconciliation, reconstruction, reparation, and reform in Sri Lanka to ensure a lasting peaceful political solution”.
The Resolution, now referred to the House Foreign Relations Committee, “urges the international community to advocate for and protect the political rights and representation of the historically oppressed northeastern region of Sri Lanka and work towards a permanent political solution to address the underlying issues that led to ethnic conflict”.
The inactivity of Sri Lanka is well manifested when the U.S. Members of the House of Representatives still strongly believe that ‘northeastern region is historically oppressed’ and officials in the Rajapaksa administration’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs are yet to come closer to the policymakers and lawmakers in Washington to find out why they believe in it.
Does the officials of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and/or the Presidential Secretariat aware that American policymaker and lawmakers strongly believe that the conflict that the Government of Sri Lanka had was against ‘various armed Tamil independence organizations’ and that the LTTE also falls within that category of ‘Tamil independence organization’
The U.S. House Resolution declares: (Quote) whereas May 18, 2021, marks the 12-year anniversary of the end of the 26-year armed conflict between the Government of Sri Lanka and various armed Tamil independence organizations, including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (End Quote).
The American lawmakers – quite possibly policymakers – belief that north-eastern region is Tamil Homeland is well reflected in the Resolution as “Whereas the northeastern region of the country, the traditional Tamil homeland, remains heavily militarized with up to one soldier for every two civilians in the most war-affected regions”.
Washington’s belief that the current Rajapaksa administration is militarizing the nation is reflected in a another section of the House Resolution as “Whereas Sri Lanka’s COVID–19 response has been led and executed by the military, exacerbating longstanding concerns regarding state surveillance, harassment, and discrimination against Tamil and Muslim communities”.
The Resolution further notes:
(Quote) Whereas a 2021 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that theGovernment of Sri Lanka has, over the past year—
(1) elevated individuals implicated in war crimes to senior governmental positions;
(2) pardoned a convicted war criminal;
(3) reversed key democratic reforms and consolidated power behind the office of the President;
(4) obstructed efforts to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of war crimes;
(5) allegedly employed security forces to abduct and torture dissidents; (End Quote)
Reflecting Washington’s sentiments, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee declares in the Resolution: “Whereas no effort has been made to bring to justice those who are alleged to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, no investigations have begun even on emblematic cases, evidence gathering is hindered through arbitrary arrests and threats by the state, and impunity prevails in the country with the outdated and the excessively harsh Prevention of Terrorism Act, which does not comply with international standards and has still not been repealed despite repeated promises by the government”.
The Congressional Resolution “urges the United States to work with the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council, and the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish a credible and effective international mechanism for accountability for the grave crimes committed during the war in Sri Lanka”.
The co-chair of the U.S. House ‘Sri Lanka-America Caucus’ Congresswoman Dina Titus, expressing her frustration of the manner in which the current Sri Lanka administration is handling domestic affairs, is relinquishing the position. Dr. Titus was one of the few American congresspersons who kept close contact and rapport with the Sri Lanka expatriate community. It is her party – Democratic – currently controls the White House and both Houses of the Congress. The strong indication is that the ‘professionals’ attached to Sri Lanka’s Presidential Secretariat and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are yet to establish contacts with leading and influential lawmakers of both Houses of Congress, and officials in the White House National Security Council who are assigned to handle South Asia, Human Rights and Rule of Law.
One could understand how strenuous the current Sri Lanka Ambassador to Washington Ravinatha Aryasinha’s diplomatic duties could be due to this scenario.
On the American soil, those who are maintaining contacts with such Washington officials are several Sri Lankan expatriates; one such person needs to be mentioned here is Sanjay Sedera, a leading Democratic Party official activist from the State of Nevada, whose reach goes to Washington D.C., who says that the Rajapaksa administration is yet to tap professional experts who have developed broader knowledge and understanding of the American governing system – some of Sri Lankan expatriates who had worked in the system – that could be most helpful to Sri Lanka.
Canadian Ontario Province on May 6 became one of the first jurisdictions in the world to recognize genocide against Tamils in Sri Lanka as the bill passed third reading in the legislature.
Bill 104, the Tamil Genocide Education Week Act, establishes seven days each year, May 11 to 18, during which Ontarians “are encouraged to educate themselves about, and to maintain their awareness of, the Tamil genocide and other genocides that have occurred in world history.”
With no assistance from Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry, a group of Sri Lankan expatriates –led by Dr. Neville Hewage – in Canada went global using webinars – attended by Lord Naseby and other professionals – to dismiss that a genocide took place in Sri Lanka during the separatist war, and educate the global recipients about national issues in Sri Lanka, a task Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry should have undertaken. The irony is that not a single official of the foreign ministry commended the Canadian Sri Lankan expatriates for the colossal ‘foreign policy’ task they undertook.
The U.S. House of Representatives’ Resolution table on May 18, 2021 – the 12th anniversary of the conclusion of the war – it is understood – is a preparation for ‘Genocide Resolution’ in the U.S. Congress.
When the Rajapaksa administration does not know to tap qualified and experienced persons among the expatriate community, expatriate Sri Lankan political activists whose rapport goes as far as Washington, D.C., undoubtedly it is in political wilderness. The value of this caliber of persons is that they maintained over the years close rapport with those who matter on the American soil rather than act like diplomats who are stationed her for a year or two.