Op-Ed: Why the US’s policy on Sri Lanka needs a reset
WHEN Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena unexpectedly replaced Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with strongman and former-President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Oct 26, the move was seen as the fallout from internal rivalry caused by domestic issues such as corruption, poor economic performance and political power play.
While this is undisputable, what should not be ignored is that the policy of western democracies – led by the United States – of over-emphasising military-to-military relations with Sri Lanka to the detriment of human rights accountability, has weakened their hand to play a constructive role in this crisis.
Electoral victories in 2015 by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe installed a national unity government that promised to usher good governance and address past human rights violations, including accountability for mass atrocities.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, which replaced the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime, pledged to neutralise his close ties to China with a policy of equidistance between Beijing and the West, led by the United States, and its South Asian ally India.
The new government and the international community agreed on a pathway to address past mass atrocities and ensure nonrecurrence through the adoption of UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 30/1 in September 2015.
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The resolution, which rested on four transitional justice mechanisms, also called for the removal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and for a new constitution. The resolution was cosponsored by, among others, Sri Lanka and the US.
Expressing satisfaction at the turn of events following the adoption of the resolution, then US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “it lays out a path to provide truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence … while safeguarding the reputation of those, including within the military, who conducted themselves with honor and professionalism.”
The new government’s announcement that it would pursue a balanced foreign policy gave Washington a long-awaited opportunity to bring Sri Lanka within its broader military strategy of containing Beijing. Military collaboration burgeoned, mostly with Sri Lanka’s navy.
While training under IMET continued, new programs between the US Marine Corps and the Sri Lanka Navy that began in 2016 laid the foundations for a marine corps unit in the country.
More important, Sri Lanka became part of joint exercises in the Indian Ocean with regional navies to protect and keep sea routes open. Enhancing the scope of the Galle Dialogue from 2016 was one of them.
While Washington, with Europe and India were busy enhancing military relations, they lagged on persuading the Colombo to make good on its promises on human rights and democracy.
By the end of 2015 it was clear that the implementation of transitional justice was tardy and below the expectations of the victims. Further, the government that had pledged good governance was guilty of torture, militarisation and denials that mass atrocities had even taken place.
An opportunity for the international community to do right by the victims presented itself in March 2017 when the 2015 resolution came up for review before the UNHRC.