By Dharisha Bastians –
“I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”
Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN in New York, on the Clinton Administration’s failure to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda
On the afternoon of April 23, the maiden meeting of the Atrocities Prevention Board, formed by President Barack Obama, was chaired by a 42 year old official with long blonde hair. The Board was set up following a Presidential Study Directive in August 2011, which articulated that ‘preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.’ The Atrocities Prevention Board is meant to coordinate action across the entire government on stopping genocide and liaise with the NGO community. The US intelligence arm has also been asked to prioritize intelligence-gathering on mass atrocities as part of this policy initiative.
In other words, as the White House website indicates, President Obama has made the prevention of atrocities a key focus of his Administration’s foreign policy. The key influence in the Obama White House on issues pertaining to atrocities and genocide and a major driver in the US’ genocide prevention movement, Power, is credited with being the ‘intellectual imprint’ on the US decision to intervene in Libya during the bloody struggle to oust Muammar Qaddafi. As an increasingly powerful member of the White House hierarchy, Power is guiding President Barack Obama’s policy on civilian security and is a hardliner on autocratic regimes that are heavy abusers of human rights.
If Samantha Power seems almost over-zealous in her commitment to the prevention of mass atrocities, it is because she was an eyewitness to it in the Bosnian war as a 25 year old reporter. If she seems passionately journalistic about her cause, it is because she is a Pulitzer winning author, recognized for her 2003 account of the Bosnian Wars and criticism of US inaction during the Srebrenica massacre of 1995. In her book, titled, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide she accuses the United States of intentionally ignoring genocides and is a strong advocate of military action to prevent mass killing. On her return to the US following her war coverage in the Balkans, Power attended Harvard Law School, where she wrote a paper entitled, ‘Bystanders to Genocide’. So if it seems as if her experiences in Bosnia have shaped her worldview for life and made her single-minded in her mission to ensure America, under President Obama’s watch at least, lives up to the slogan, ‘never again’ when it comes to genocide – it is probably because it has.
Power has been part of President Obama’s inner circle since 2005, when she began working in his Washington office when he was a Chicago Senator and is even credited by the US President for having read through the drafts of his second book, The Audacity of Hope. While she has been a part of President Obama’s team since 2008, Power’s resurgence and prominence occurred in tandem with the Arab Spring, with her role becoming more defined and influential as the US government grappled with its reactions to the monumental changes occurring in the Middle East and North Africa.
If the reports are true, the Lankan delegation is also to meet with US Ambassador Susan Rice, the powerful UN Ambassador in New York, who led the charge on passing UN Security Council Resolution 1973, that authorized NATO intervention in Libya last year. Ambassador Rice carries the burden of being part of the Clinton Administration and the National Security Council between 1993-1997, that chose not to intervene during the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutu majority in Rwanda in 1994. Like Power, Rice is another senior and influential official in the present Administration that is shaping the US government’s policy on human rights abuses, mass atrocities and autocratic regimes oppressing its citizenry.
Needless to say, of Minister Peiris’ entire itinerary with the possible exception of Secretary Clinton, the Power-Rice meetings are the most significant. They also signal that somewhere in the last year or so, the focus on Sri Lanka has shifted somewhat from being the sole purview of the US Department of State, to being part of the general agenda of the present US Administration to ensure civilian security and hold regimes accountable. The Power meeting, if in fact it is to take place, is the sharpest and most distinct sign of that shift.
To their credit, this may have been, as some foreign relations analysts point out, exactly what Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian affairs Robert Blake and others in the State Department were attempting to prevent all along. Where State Department officials, in this instance Blake and US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis, would attempt to engage Sri Lanka on her post-conflict issues bilaterally, the entry of Power and Rice into the melee signals that the US is both ready and willing to take the Sri Lankan case on multilaterally, as was demonstrated also by the decision to bring a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in March. From Colombo’s perspective, this shift does not bode well for Sri Lanka’s future prospects at the UN and poses the very grave potential of having further international action being constituted against the country if the promises made by the government are broken. It also means that while Secretary Clinton and her team will likely focus on the UN Resolution calling for the implementation of the LLRC Report and essentially post-conflict reconciliation and power sharing arrangements, Samantha Power and Ambassador Rice are likely to make accountability their main focus, given the ideological positions they hold.
If the Power and Rice factors prove to be troublesome for Sri Lanka and the delegation in Washington, it would be an interesting juncture at which to ponder the manner in which Colombo approached its engagement with the US, since the end of the war in 2009. The dressing down of Assistant Secretary ‘Bob’ Blake, the ‘summoning’ of Ambassador Butenis, the irrepressible need to be seen as ‘telling off’ the West, may have all contributed to the Sri Lanka issue slipping into the hands of powerful US officials who deal with human rights offenders and violators of international law on a multi-lateral level. As recently as January, Minister Peiris used the visit of Assistant Secretary Blake to ‘reprimand’ the latter for allegedly leaking private diplomatic communications from Secretary Clinton to Sri Lankan newspapers. The government continues to make the monumental mistake of taking on US officials based on their ‘proximity’ to Colombo’s power centres, little realizing perhaps that each of these negative encounters reflect very poorly on the regime’s conduct and engagement of the US back in Washington.
And as if to just heat things up a little bit more during this crucial political week abounding with speculation about the release of political prisoners and victory day parades, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga delivering a speech at the launch of the book ‘Gota’s War’ detailing Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s battlefield experiences, took huge swipes at India, blaming New Delhi for having a big hand in planning and executing terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Also a guest at the launch was Indian High Commissioner Asok K. Kantha. Undoubtedly, these jabs are motivated by the fact that Colombo is still smarting from India’s decision to vote with the US on the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka in March. But all the while, the dots fail to connect for senior officials in the government that the US role in South Asia, how much pressure is applied or how little, is ultimately decided in New Delhi. It is elementary then, that to incense New Delhi further would only result in Sri Lanka digging herself a little deeper into a dark hole. If the events in Washington and the future trajectory of international pressure and action prove hellish for Sri Lanka, the government can console itself that by and large, it has at least been a hell of its own making.
Courtesy Ceylon Today