By Daya Gamage –
Cooperation between some U.S. State Department officials and members of the Tamil Diaspora has been truly extraordinary. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo was very open in its reporting to Washington that the Tamil Diaspora in the U.S. had long “been a source of funding and hard-line support for the LTTE.” At the same time, two months before the defeat of the LTTE, U.S. Ambassador to Colombo Robert Blake was recommending that the USG strengthen its official dialogue with several U.S.-based Diaspora organizations with which the embassy had established a rapport through “almost daily” email communications. In a cable on March 19, 2009, the embassy argued that:
“Recognizing the difficulty of engagement, Post recommends a redoubled effort to reach out to Tamil groups in the U.S. A number of organizations, including Tamils for Justice, Tamils for Obama, and PEARL, remain active politically, and opportunities to interact with them should be sought. . .” Ambassador would welcome opportunities, either in combination with senior State Department officials or just with Colombo diplomatic Mission staff, to meet and converse with the U.S.-based Diaspora through DVD. Such meetings would allow U.S. Embassy to brief the groups on USG efforts to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the civilian population in the safe zone and U.S. actions urging the government to offer credible political proposals for lasting peace.
What is remarkable and unusual in this recommendation is the importance the Ambassador Blake ascribed to his relationship with US-based lobbying groups, including one conspicuously supporting the U.S. president politically, rather than efforts to establish a more constructive dialogue with the GSL. There is no indication that he sought these relationships as a channel through which to persuade the LTTE to cease its human rights abuses, release its civilian hostages, or shorten the bloodshed by surrendering.
Privileging ethnic minorities over bilateral dialogue with an elected national government is an unusual diplomatic approach. Nor it is usual for an ambassador to befriend the very groups that have been supporting rebellion against the democratic government for over twenty years, and then to criticize the government for not being more open to devolution and dialogue. This diplomatic tack is especially unorthodox when the self-described representatives of an ethnic minority are known to have provided material support to a militant group recognized by the USG as terrorist.
Even the defeat of the LTTE as a fighting force did not cool the welcome that some USG officials accorded leaders in the Diaspora.
Blake and other State Department officials, it should be noted here, met with sixteen representatives of the Tamil Diaspora – from US-UK-Germany – in August and October 2009 in Washington, D.C. In each of these meetings the U.S. officials stressed that the USG was pressing Colombo to promote lasting peace through justice, reconciliation, and dialogue with Tamils both inside and outside Sri Lanka, thus again supporting the status of Diaspora organizations as legitimate political interlocutors. In both meetings the U.S. officials assured the Tamil representatives of the centrality of “new mechanisms for devolving power” to achieving U.S. goals in Sri Lanka. U.S. officials pushed this federalist agenda despite awareness that devolution along the lines demanded by Diaspora activists would involve a fundamental redistribution of power in Sri Lanka to favor just 8 percent of the national population. American proponents of devolution appeared never to question whether, in a democracy, it would be tenable politically to favor so small a minority by giving it control over one-third of the land mass of the island.
The efforts of Tamil lobbyists have been facilitated in U.S. administrations by the fact that a number of key foreign affairs officials had strong human rights, Sri Lanka, or Tamil backgrounds. Dr. Samantha Power, before being appointed the U.S. Ambassador to the UN in 2012, was on Obama’s national security team, handling human rights, war crimes, and genocide, and heading the newly inaugurated White House Office of Genocide Prevention. Dr. Susan Rice, onetime U.S. envoy to the U.N. and subsequently Obama’s National Security Advisor, had similarly strong experience with issues of international humanitarian law, human rights law, and crimes against humanity. Taara Rangarajan, special assistant to Amb. Susan Rice, had family roots in Mumbai, speaks Tamil, and had worked on human rights issues at the U.S. Embassy in Colombo. Michael Newbill had worked in the U.S. Embassy in Colombo and the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai before being appointed in 2010 as the South Asia Director on the Obama National Security Council staff. Their backgrounds made them particularly susceptible to the human rights appeals, however one-sided, of LTTE partisans. Tamil activists proved resourceful in exploiting these cultural and ideological affinities when lobbying key policymakers.
The LTTE-supporting members of the worldwide Diaspora have been extraordinarily skillful not only in supporting one of the world’s most deadly terrorist organizations, but also in driving a postwar campaign to wreak judgment on the Colombo government and force it to relinquish control over Tamil-majority parts of the island. Their sophistication as lobbyists in exploiting the opportunities that liberal polities offer organized minorities to exert outsized influence on policymakers is truly remarkable. Not only have most of the agents of the LTTE within the Diaspora escaped prosecution as enablers of LTTE crimes, but they have succeeded in persuading many people of good will in foreign governments and organizations that they represent the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Nominally defending the GSL from coordinated charges of human rights abuses was a Sri Lankan envoy to Washington – 2008-2014 – who was considered by many U.S. officials as flagrantly incompetent. This diplomatic weakness on the part of the GSL was not unusual. For decades Sri Lankan policymakers displayed a poor understanding of how the American foreign policy establishment works and how they might use public diplomacy and strategic communication to counter the influence of the Tamil Diaspora. The persistent ineffectiveness of Sri Lankan diplomacy in Washington was a major reason why, in the final months of the war (March/April 2009), the USG threatened to block a $1.9 billion IMF loan in the hope of dissuading the GSL from continuing its final military campaign. The U.S. threat proved unsuccessful (mainly for intra-governmental reasons), but the additional stress it placed on bilateral relations could have been avoided if the GSL could have developed better rapport with Washington through more professional diplomacy.
The international implications of the Western attempt to bully a victorious Third World state into making fundamental political changes were obvious within days of Prabhakaran’s death. On May 27, 2009 the UNHRC dropped a Swiss-EU draft resolution calling for an investigation into possible war crimes and adopted Sri Lanka’s counter resolution. The latter welcomed “the liberation by the government of Sri Lanka of tens of thousands of its citizens that were kept by the LTTE against their will as hostages”. 
The resolution passed by 29 votes to 12 with six abstentions. Regional powers with restive minorities of their own—such as Russia with Chechnya, India with Kashmir, and China with Tibet—backed Colombo’s text along with Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, Myanmar, Pakistan and other developing countries. The vote was perceived widely as a slap to Western states and NGOs that have sought to extend, through doctrines like international jurisdiction, their judicial power to examine the treatment of foreign individuals under international human rights and humanitarian law.
Despite this set-back, the U.S. persevered with its efforts through the United Nations system to secure accountability and constitutional change in Sri Lanka. The USG predictably sponsored all UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka between 2012 and 2017. It also supported the September 30, 2015 report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which recommended that foreign investigators and commonwealth legal experts, with GSL collaboration, initiate an accountability process. None of these resolutions had any positive effect in obtaining accountability or a federal system, but they did serve to increase tensions in U.S.-Sri Lankan relations, harden Sinhalese nationalism, embolden politicized members of the Tamil Diaspora, and push Colombo into the arms of U.S. adversaries like the Chinese.
On March 23, 2021, the UNHRC passed a new resolution (22 in favor, 11 opposed, 14 abstaining) entitled “Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability, and Human Rights in Sri Lanka” that authorized a budget of $2.8 million for the establishment of a new office under the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor human rights violations there.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement saying it was a co-sponsor.
It is not a coincidence that less than two months after the passage of the UNHRC resolution, the Sri Lankan parliament ratified by a two-thirds vote the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill. This controversial legislation established a mechanism for governing the China-funded $1.4 billion Colombo Port City being constructed on reclaimed land along Colombo’s sea front. In return for its investment the PRC has been granted the right to use 62 hectares of marketable land on a 99-year lease from the GSL. Although the Rajapaksa administration denies it, the new administrative arrangement decreases judicial oversight of the new economic zone, indirectly increases the power of the president, and presumably will increase the role of the Chinese in managing and commercializing the Port City.
But constant attacks on the Rajapaksa government and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa personally by Western governments and NGOs diminished the influence they might have had to persuade Colombo to better balance is strategic alignment.
One might well ask why a democratic nation like the U.S. would persist in censuring a friendly democracy for actions taken more than a decade earlier while fighting a terrorist insurgency if, by being censured, the latter country is being driven into the orbit of one of the U.S.’ most powerful and autocratic antagonists. One reason, of course, is that influential foreign policy actors in the U.S. are genuinely committed to human rights values. Another reason is that victims of abuses among the Sri Lankan Tamil and Muslim communities seek justice and relief and see foreign governments and NGOs as the most likely agents to accomplish that. This raises other questions, however. Why has the U.S. persisted in supporting U.N. resolutions calling for criminal investigations and constitutional re-structuring when such an approach through the UNHRC is demonstrably ineffective in forcing sovereign countries like Sri Lanka to take actions that are opposed by the majority of their populations?
At the same time when Washington was pressuring Colombo to accept “national, international, and hybrid mechanisms to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared” during the war, the USG had not itself ratified the UN convention of 2006 requiring states party to criminalize enforced disappearances and take steps to hold those responsible to account. Despite a resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on November 19, 2020 calling on the USG to ratify the international convention, this still has not happened. The U.S.’ long history of rejecting accountability is strongly rooted in legislation. The American Service-Members Protection Act (ASPA) was an amendment to the 2002 Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R. 4775) passed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the launch of the Global War on Terror. The ASPA aims to “protect U.S. military personnel and other elected and appointed officials of the Government against prosecution by an international criminal court to which the U.S. is not a party.” Among other defensive provisions the Act prohibits federal, state and local governments and agencies (including courts and law enforcement agencies) from assisting the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It even prohibits U.S. military aid to countries that are parties to the Court. In 2002 the GSL during the administration of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe signed with the U.S. an “Article 98 Agreement,” agreeing not to hand over U.S. nationals to the Court.
Given how many Sinhalese opposed these international agreements as intolerable abrogation of Sri Lankan sovereignty, it is not surprising that the wartime defense chief, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, won the presidency easily in 2019, sweeping the Sinhalese electorate. It is equally unsurprising that the new president—himself an accused war criminal– announced that the country was withdrawing from UNHRC resolutions 30/1, 34/1 and 40/1—all of which purported to promote “reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.” The Rajapaksa government claimed the resolutions were never presented in Parliament nor approved by the Cabinet of Ministers before being co-sponsored by the previous government, in a betrayal of national interests. In reaction to the censorious UNHRC resolution of March 23, 2021 Rajapaksa called his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and expressed his “heartfelt gratitude” for Beijing’s vote against the resolution and for providing 600,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Xi responded by pressing the Sri Lankan leader to speed up Beijing’s major infrastructure projects on the island under the Belt and Road Initiative.
It is difficult to deconstruct a complex foreign policy into its component motivations, but it is clear that lobbying by the Tamil Diaspora has been one influential driver. The so-called “core group” that pressed for the March 2021 resolution on Sri Lanka in the UNHRC, including prominently the U.K., Canada, and Germany, and a number of influential governments that co-sponsored or voted in favor of the resolution, like the U.S. and some EU countries, are all liberal democracies with their own checkered histories of human rights shortcomings. They are also countries with active lobbying campaigns by domestic Tamil organizations. This is not an argument that these governments have pursued justice in Sri Lanka so assiduously for over a decade solely because of pressure from their Tamil constituents. Rather, the (Tamil) activists among these constituents have successfully raised the human rights profile of Sri Lanka, shaped the international perception of the GSL, and thus strongly influenced—and narrowed– their nations’ overall policies toward Sri Lanka. Such unwavering focus on human rights makes no sense in terms of the U.S.’ long-term strategic interests, the longer-term health of Sri Lanka’s democracy or the welfare of Sri Lankan minorities. It is difficult otherwise to explain why, during a decade that has seen such appalling oppression, mass murder and dislocation by autocracies around the world, Sri Lanka has received consistently so much critical attention from the West despite its success in defeating a tyrannical insurgency and its continuing stability as a democracy with free and fair elections. A respected Washington-based political analyst, writing on another friendly but problematic country, expressed this idea thus: “Biden’s human rights drive will succeed only if it’s grounded in local action, rather than hectoring from afar.”
 Colombo Telegraph article quoting Wikileaks on a cable from the U.S. Embassy to the State Department on March 19, 2009. (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/wikileaks-mahinda-told-clinton-that-there-was-no-shelling-in-the-safe-zone-but-basil-told-yes/)
 https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2009/aug/127195.htm; https://2009-2017.stste.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2009/oct/130470.htm
 Laura MacInnis, “U.N. Rights Body Backs Sri Lankan Resolution on War,” Reuters, May 27, 2009
 The New Indian Express, “Gotabaya Rajapaksa thanks Xi Jinping for China’s vote against UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka,” March 30, 2021
 David Ignatius, “How to Handle a ‘Friendly’ Authoritarian,” Washington Post, February 26, 2021, p. A23.
*The writer is a retired Foreign Service National Political Specialist of the U.S. Department of State