By Daya Gamage –
A staunch critic of the manner in which Sri Lanka’s Eelam War was fought under President Mahinda Rajapaksa – while being a top official in Obama White House, and thereafter – a well known crusader of human rights, rule of law, war crimes and genocide, Dr. Samantha Power was unanimously cleared by the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be President Biden’s Administrator of the most vital United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on which most developing countries heavily depend .
The appointment of Samantha Power is not very good news for the incumbent administration in Sri Lanka which is headed by the onetime defense secretary, who executed the war against the separatist Tamil Tigers, and the president who headed the administration that annihilated the Tigers now functions as its prime minister. Ms. Power has openly declared them as war criminals.
Both Rajapaksa brothers were in Dr. Power’s radar when she was a top policymaker in the Obama administration, and thereafter when international bodies such as UNHRC commenced scrutinizing the manner in which the Eelam War was executed.
And now back in the government when she heads Washington’s premier economic assistance agency, she brings her concept of tying aid to human rights. The March-2021 released US State Department Human Rights report on Sri Lanka for the year 2020 was critical of Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration saying it violated of human rights and degraded rule of law.
On Thursday April 16, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved Dr. Power to head the USAID. It is interesting to note that the Chairman of the Committee Senator Robert Menendez in December 2019 has gone on record inquiring from the Chief Executive of the MCC at a Hearing “Is that the alleged war criminal Gotabaya Rajapaksa elected president in Sri Lanka?”.
Dr. Power looked at the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration in a very unpleasant manner: “The incumbent Rajapaksa administration had governed largely through divisiveness and fear, and it had persecuted critics,” said Power in October 2015, several months after Sirisena had taken office. “And that’s why it’s so encouraging that, at the same time it’s confronting some of the darkest and most painful chapters in its country’s past”.
Not so good news on the way to Sri Lanka is that once Samantha Power is confirmed by the full Senate, President Biden is expected to place her on the White House National Security Council (NSC), the supreme body in the U.S. that formulate foreign policy.
Under the Obama administration, she served as a White House national security staffer from 2009 to 2013, before going on to become the US ambassador to the UN until 2017. It was during her tenure at the UN she took some interest when Sri Lanka was on UNHRC agenda.
Power’s first visit to Sri Lanka – as a member of the White House NSC – came in 2010, just over a year after Sri Lankan government forces defeated the LTTE. This visit clearly denotes how the White House NSC works in which she will be member soon.The war news peaked just months into the Obama presidency and caught the attention of the new administration while activating Ms. Power.
“I had successfully pushed for Obama to raise his voice against the wartime atrocities being carried out in countries such as Sri Lanka,” wrote Power in her 2019 book, The Education of an Idealist. And though the US president addressed the situation personally, the US government faced widespread criticism for doing little to stop what Obama himself would later term as “ethnic slaughter”.
The United Nations failed to “prevent ethnic slaughter in places like Sri Lanka” said former US president Barack Obama in his memoir, ‘A Promised Land’, reflecting on his time at the White House.
On eve of Samantha Power assuming the reigns of America’s premier foreign aid agency, it is imperative to note the mind-set of Power had toward Sri Lanka, especially the Rajapaksa brothers who are currently at the helm, and how she views the dispatch of foreign aid to countries that have questionable human rights issues.
Few doubt Ms. Power’s zeal — given her career as a war correspondent, human rights activist, academic expert and foreign policy adviser — even if it has meant advocating military force to stop widespread killings.
Now, a President Biden’s nominee to lead the United States Agency for International Development, she is preparing to rejoin the government as an administrator of soft power, and resist using weapons as a means of deterrence and punishment that she has pushed for in the past.
It is interesting to note that USAID and the State Department have budgeted about $2 billion on programs to foster democracy, human rights and open governance abroad in the 2021 fiscal year.
It is an area that Ms. Power is expected to expand. The Biden administration’s first budget blueprint, released on April 9, asserted it would commit an unspecified but “significant increase in resources” to advance human rights and democracy while thwarting corruption and authoritarianism.
In a briefing to the International Crisis Group (ICG) in November 2018, Samantha Power urged the US to consider suspending aid and imposing targeted sanctions on Sri Lanka, in response to the Island’s political crisis, the period President Sirisena fired Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to install Mahinda Rajapaksa.
“The dangers of [Sri Lanka] constitutional crisis are clear: violence is possible & Rajapaksa’s return to power will likely end flagging efforts at ethnic reconciliation,’” Power posted on Twitter.
Stating that the proposed prime minister appointee Mahinda Rajapaksa stands “credibly accused of war crimes,” Power noted that “institutions in SL are bending but not breaking”.
It is interesting that Sri Lanka take note of what shape America’s premier aid agency could take with Dr. Samantha Power as its Administrator.