Senate Report Urges Warmer Ties With Sri Lanka

Despite ongoing concern about the country’s human rights situation, the United States should seek a more positive relationship with strife-torn Sri Lanka, primarily for geopolitical reasons, according to a new report released here Monday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The 18-page report, which was released on the eve of a two-day visit to the island by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs Robert Blake, calls for a "more multifaceted U.S. strategy" that would use the resumption of military aid, among other tools, to gain influence in Colombo and halt its "strategic drift" toward China.

"The United States cannot afford to ‘lose’ Sri Lanka," the report, which was authored by two Committee staffers who traveled to the island last month, concluded. "This does not mean changing the relationship overnight or ignoring the real concerns about Sri Lanka’s political and humanitarian record."

"It does mean, however, considering a new approach that increases U.S. leverage vis-à-vis Sri Lanka by expanding the number of tools at our disposal," it concluded.

The report, which was endorsed by both the committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry, and the ranking Republican member, Sen. Richard Lugar, came under immediate attack by human rights and conflict-resolution activists who have long urged Washington to condition any aid to the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa on improvements in its human rights performance.

"This report is an incredibly shoddy, ill-informed piece of work that grossly overstates the strategic importance of Sri Lanka to the United States and woefully understates the degree of abuses carried out by the government there," said Robert Templer, director of the Asia program at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG).

"Maybe the people who wrote the report don’t know anything about Sri Lanka or maybe they’re of the school that says that everything on the planet is strategic," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

"The huge human-rights and humanitarian problems that continue there are not small; they’re central to any principled diplomatic engagement with Sri Lanka at this point. So [the notion] that we are in a competition with China, which I think is driving this, is misplaced," he told IPS.

The report comes amid growing concern among many activists that President Barack Obama’s policy of diplomatic engagement with abusive or authoritarian governments, such as China, Burma, Iran, Sudan, and Syria, is being pursued at the expense of human rights.

In that respect, the report’s release, coming on the eve of Blake’s first visit as assistant secretary – he served as U.S. ambassador in Colombo from 2006 until earlier this year – appeared somewhat ominous, especially given Kerry’s close association with and support for the administration’s engagement policies.

But the State Department Monday declined to comment on the report, noting that officials there had not yet had a chance to review it. A spokesperson, who declined to be identified, said U.S. policy remained unchanged.

While she praised the government’s announcement last week that all internally displaced persons (IDPs) will be permitted to leave camps where they have been held since the military’s defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency last May, she also repeated that human rights continue to be a major concern here.

"We continue to stress to the government of Sri Lanka the importance of ending human-rights abuses, including media intimidation; investigating and holding accountable those responsible for past abuses; and pursuing meaningful dialogue and cooperation with Tamil and other minority communities to ensure that there is no return to violence," she said.

Under the administration of President George W. Bush, Washington proved generally supportive of the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to suppress the Tigers, who were added to the State Department’s terrorism list first in 1997 and again in October 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks.

Although the insurgency had no known links to al-Qaeda, the Bush administration largely accepted Colombo’s depiction of the conflict as consistent with the "global war on terror" and provided it with military, as well as economic and humanitarian, aid – even after a shaky cease-fire was signed in 2002.

While not formally ended by the Rajapaksa government until 2008, the cease-fire broke down amid heavy fighting in 2006. As the conflict intensified amid reports of serious rights abuses by both sides, the U.S. Congress cut most military aid at the end of 2007.

Washington and other Western capitals became increasingly critical of the government as it pushed its final offensive against the Tigers, displacing tens of thousands Tamil civilians, closing off the war zone to journalists and human rights and other independent monitors, and ignoring Western appeals for a humanitarian cease-fire.

Between 7,000 and 20,000 non-combatants were reportedly killed in the fighting between January and the Tigers’ surrender in May, according to the UN and human rights groups. When the government placed some 250,000 IDPs in detention camps after the surrender, U.S. and Western criticism – which included an unsuccessful effort to stall a $2.6 billion IMF loan in July – grew.

Ties between Washington and Colombo dipped to their lowest point in October when Congress released a detailed report on alleged war crimes committed in the conflict’s final months by both sides, and visiting Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka’s top military officer, was asked by U.S. officials to be interviewed on the responsibility of Defense Secretary Gottabaya Rajapaksa for government abuses. Gottabaya, the president’s brother, is a dual U.S.-Sri Lankan citizen.

While the committee’s report acknowledges the human rights and humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka as serious – noting, for example, that "a culture of fear and paranoia permeates society" and calling for Washington to tighten visa restrictions and revoke U.S. citizenship for anyone shown to have committed war crimes – it warns that the "growing rift" between the two countries could have adverse geopolitical consequences.

"Along with our legitimate humanitarian and political concerns, U.S. policymakers have tended to underestimate Sri Lanka’s geostrategic importance for American interests," the two authors, Fatema Sumar and Nilmini Gunaratne Rubin, write.

Sri Lanka, the report asserts, sits "at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean," while "communal tensions in Sri Lanka have the potential to undermine stability in India," particularly in Tamil Nadu.

While the report notes that Rajapaksa has cultivated ties with Burma, Iran, and Libya, it expresses greatest concern about China, Colombo’s most important source of military supplies in recent years.

It notes that Beijing is developing a deepwater port in the south at the fishing village of Hambantota, suggesting that it may serve as part of a chain of future Chinese naval bases along Asia’s southern periphery.

"Even for those that dismiss China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy as overblown," the report adds, "there is concern about growing Chinese influence on the Sri Lankan government."

Citing one Sri Lankan minister who spoke with the two authors, "President Rajapaksa was forced to reach out to other countries because the West refused to help finish the war against the LTTE. These calculations – if left unchecked – threaten long-term U.S. strategic interests in the Indian Ocean."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.