By Daya Gamage –
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – reported in the Sri Lanka media – has considered sending parliamentarian Mahinda Samarasinghe as Sri Lanka envoy to Washington. Samarasinghe has handled the Human Rights portfolio, among others in different times during previous Rajapaksa administrations, and had been a diplomat in many parts of the world before entering parliament.
Appointing him as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States is somewhat puzzling when he had expressed serious opposition to the Rajapaksas’ handling of human rights and rule of law during the offensive against the Tamil Tigers while he was a cabinet minister assigned with the portfolio of human rights. The issues of the alleged abuses of human rights, rule of law, violation of international humanitarian law (IHL) and lack of transparency had been serious allegations during and since the Eelam War IV. Samarasinghe goes to Washington when the UNHRC is examining these issues, and at a time the Biden administration has made human rights one of its core policy planks.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration is having serious difficulties in opening its diplomatic discourses with the Biden administration as Sri Lanka’s image has sunk to the bottom: a week ago, at a zoom meeting – this writer had – with Prof. Dina Titus, Democratic Member of the US House of Representatives and member of the South Asian Sub-Committee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when she declared “Sri Lanka is very unpopular in the US Congress and in Washington”.
What goes through Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mind in nominating one of his known critics as envoy to Washington is very interesting.
The mindset of Mahinda Samarasinghe, then Minister of Disaster Relief and Human Rights, was well displayed when he had a discourse with then American ambassador Robert Blake on January 30, 2007 well documented in a – onetime classified – diplomatic cable where he had expressed concern that “the President and his two brothers have rendered his human rights and humanitarian access efforts ineffective and that he would not sacrifice his political career to become “part of a white wash” for the Government of Sri Lanka’s (GSL) recent human rights violations.”
The question now is, in the year 2021 when Sri Lanka’s human rights and rule of law is widely discussed at UN forums, whether Samarasinghe’s emergence in Washington is to ‘white wash’ the incumbent Sri Lankan administration. As the State Department is aware of Samarasinghe’s past positions on human rights and rule of law, he could be the ideal candidate to face Washington where – according to US Congresswoman Dina Titus – Sri Lanka is most unpopular at present.
The diplomatic cable sent to Washington authored by Ambassador Blake noted: “Ambassador met with Minister of Disaster Relief and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe January 30 to share with him a list of requests from non-governmental organizations regarding access and the ability to work in Sri Lanka. Ambassador explained that the list grew out of a meeting the Ambassador chaired with all of Sri Lanka’s major human rights organizations. The Ambassador had asked for their advice of what steps the Government should take to address the deteriorating human rights situation.”
One of the issues addressed by the NGOs was “Investigate immediately human rights abuses, specifically abductions and extrajudicial killings and take appropriate measures to prosecute and punish those responsibly. Ensure transparency so the public is aware of actions taken to punish human rights violators.”
Blake told Washington ”Samarasinghe noted that he had “been working on the same issues” but felt ineffective against the influence of the President’s brothers, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, both of whom have taken a hard line view toward human rights. Samarasinghe agreed with the Ambassador that the GSL would face increased international criticism and pressure to address the human rights record in 2007. He remarked that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers “must stop the rhetoric and start delivering. There doesn’t seem to be a feeling of urgency among the President and his brothers of the need to take action against what is happening. I’m very concerned.”
The diplomatic cable further said “Minister Samarasinghe lamented that he had been appointed “for damage control” and to add credibility to the GSL’s human rights efforts, but lacked true effectiveness.”
Having known the position he took during that period to incumbent president Gotabaya when he was defense secretary, will Samarasinghe as ambassador in Washington be successful in “damage control” at a time there are fresh allegations of rights abuses such as one of his state ministers terrorizing several Tamil detainees at Anuradhapura State Prison at gun point.
Ambassador Robert Blake made the following comments at the conclusion of the diplomatic cable sent to Washington: “Mahinda Samarasinghe is an eloquent and candid interlocutor who understands the problem but feels deeply frustrated that the President and his brothers have thus far failed to heed his repeated entreaties to them to take action to address the grave human rights situation.”
The manner in which Washington works – especially the Department of State – Mahinda Samarasinghe, whose credentials are well known to senior policymakers, could have a better opening for ‘fruitful dialogue’, if that’s what the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration expects to shield itself from global onslaught of Sri Lanka’s questionable human rights and rule of law record. The incumbent secretary of state Antoney Blinken was Democratic staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007/2008 when – at the insistence of senior Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy – drastically cut military assistance to Sri Lanka on human rights and rule of law issues.
*The writer is a retired Foreign Service National Political Specialist of the U.S. Department of State