By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
“So in Sri Lanka’s case, I don’t think anybody’s disputing the right of a sovereign government to put down a rebellion within its territory, never mind one as brutal as the LTTE, but the question is, how you go about doing that and whether you observe the laws in war. Again, my government – Louise Aarbour is here from the International Crisis Group that has done very important work on Sri Lanka, on the ground there, in terms of what was done. Again, the reason that we have these principles is to stand by them.
“In the event that they’re just thrown out there, then there can be perverse consequences, but again, I think our struggle is to rationalize and ensure that they are more binding than they have often been.” – Samantha Power, at an International Symposium on preventing genocide and mass atrocities while serving as US President Barak Obama’s Special Assistant for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights.
Samantha Power is the Ambassador of the United States to the United Nations and her high profile job goes hand in hand with her work as a human rights activist. She was a war reporter from 1993 to 1996 covering Yugoslav wars for US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, The Economist, and The New Republic.
She is also considered to be US President Barack Obama’s ‘focal person’ who monitors human rights actions, investigates, researches and establishes policies on human rights, genocide, war crimes, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) for the administration’s specific understanding.
She is in town today.
Already her visit to Sri Lanka has made many frown and doubt because of her veracity against genocide, human rights violations and crimes against humanity, a subject Sri Lanka is wrapped up and trying harder to free itself from.
Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Secretary MP Udaya Gammanpila on her visit last week said, “it’s a mysterious visit as her twitter or Facbook or any other social media does not state about her visit to Sri Lanka and silent on it.”
The MP also said that she has the right to travel all over the US, which is fair enough as she is the US envoy to the UN. “She may present the situation in her country to the UN as that is her job. But why is she touring Sri Lanka? Is it because the Americans see Sri Lanka as a colony which they recently conquered? Do they assume that Sri Lanka is the 51st State of the US?” he queried.
He obviously picked on the issue because Power is an expert on human rights and lectures around the world on the subject.
But, the fact remains that the MP and the former regime went against the West without having the will to bring about either social reform or a solution to the Tamil issue and they were the same ones who invited the West to walk in here, as pointed out by Foreign Minister Managala Samaraweera.
Digging into past
The possibility that she would ‘dig into the past, present and the future’ cannot be ruled out. US Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal, who visited Sri Lanka earlier, was in praise of the new government which appears to be willing to work closely with the US but she did not create an impact nor impressed on the subject of the truth finding mission on alleged war crimes. Even the academics and the civil societies during her visit thought the human rights issue would basically be swept under the carpet.
Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, diplomat and political scientist, who analyzed Power, recently stated that the Rajapaksa administration’s frontline team pitted against this highly intelligent, opinionated and articulate woman included the troika; Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, utterly unimpressive and inadequate for the task, the unlettered, thuggish Sajin de Vaas Gunawardena, and the scheming, shrewish Kshenuka Seneviratne. He said that was the period of ‘Sri Lanka’s diplomacy of the absurd’.
Power in Sri Lanka
Power’s presence in Sri Lanka, unlike in 2010, on usual fact-finding mission as many overseas delegations undertook, could be felt stronger and ‘thornier’ after the Maithri-Ranil Government committed to the UNHRC in Geneva, and to be a co-sponsor of the US resolution. The joint operation undoubtedly brought the UN Working Group to Sri Lanka having given access to places no one would tread.
The government says they are currently working on the technical aspect to address the war crime probe, however so far it is ‘vague.’
At the outset of a lack of political will to bring about reform in the Constitution, the foreign diplomatic circle is also in a quandary as to how the government is preparing to address the US resolution and a homegrown method to solve the problem.
Foreign Missions played a vital role in ‘paving the way’ for a new Sri Lanka with a vibrant future with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The fact that they voted for the US/Lanka co-sponsored resolution should also be highlighted at this point.
Visit to North
Power as the UN representative of the US Government would be, by now, informed on the UN experts findings and she would be more ‘convinced’ when she visits the North where she would be meeting the families of missing persons, a visit to the Uthayan Press and be hinted on the ‘no progress’ in the efforts to rebuild Sri Lanka after addressing the missing persons issue.
The US State Department on her visit said, “While in Sri Lanka, Ambassador Power will travel to the northern city of Jaffna to meet local government officials and organizations and communities affected by the conflict. There, she will meet members of the local press corps, by visiting the headquarters of Uthayan newspaper, which was targeted during the war. Ambassador Power will also participate in the inauguration of a new wing of Osmania College, which suffered significant damage during the conflict, as well as tour the Jaffna Library, where she will announce the US support for the local restoration of ancient Tamil manuscripts.
Power’s visit to the North shows her keen interest to rebuild society that underwent trauma, intimidation and disappearances at the hands of State operators.
She may also push on the political prisoners’ dilemma where the Tamil National Alliance claimed last Friday that although some have been on bail, based on Court orders, were asked to be present at the criminal investigating unit in Vavuniya once in every two weeks which is again creating a fear psychosis in the Vanni people.
Besides the claim that the US has vested interests in Sri Lanka over its strategic positioning – along the East-West sealine which is also vied by the Chinese, the question remains whether the Sri Lanka/US co-sponsored resolution would take a shape leaving no stone unturned in the case of finding the truth on the alleged war crimes and it would be keenly watched over, mainly by the Tamils globally and some serious Sri Lankan human rights activists.
The dispute within the Tamil National Alliance, Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran’s strong stance on genocide and war crimes, and the sudden ‘hatred’ towards certain members of the TNA may also be highlighted to Power during her visit to Jaffna on her ‘fact-finding mission.’
On her official fact-finding tour to Colombo in June 2010 she met former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and then Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, who fervently denied that there were human casualties and the LTTE is the one to be blamed mostly for all human rights violations in the country.
US foreign policy
Power who calls a spade a spade, outrightly criticized US foreign policy particularly the US’ blind eye on many mass atrocities and her book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide quoted US intentionally ignoring genocides, won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 2003. She also called Hillary Clinton ‘a monster’ and later apologized to her.
She found the best opportunity recently to speak about the Rajapaksa regime while she addressed the Open Government Partnership Global Summit (OGP) held in Mexico last October. Nearly half the speech was banked on Sri Lanka.
She lashed out that Rajapaksa administration had governed largely through divisiveness and fear and it had persecuted critics.
She went on to state that a labour organizer who had gone into hiding during the Rajapaksa administration resumed his work, saying he no longer feared being targeted for what he was doing. A journalist who had been routinely harassed for his reporting said, ‘the fear has gone.’
She also announced that the OGP members that include Sri Lanka, in the coming years the US President Obama will give an award to a reformer whose efforts embody the spirit of OGP in advocating for anti-corruption, transparency or accountability.
Power who is an Irish migrant herself has been working closely with NGOs, men, women and children who want to make a difference in society and they are her favourite subjects.
Her visit to India before she flew to Sri Lanka yesterday is exemplary where she met hosts of activists and social reformists and she keeps Tweeting and on her Face book she is constantly on the lookout for human rights-related happenings.
She also criticized the failure of the United Nations’ structure to thwart or prosecute the atrocities committed in the Syrian conflict.
Power was the key person in persuading President Obama to intervene militarily in Libya and she is the very same person who also argued that America has a moral obligation to examine all tools in the toolbox (diplomatic, economic, political and military) to respond to mass atrocities and argued that the circumstances in which military intervention may be appropriate to prevent genocide.
US Prof. Alan Dershowitz, a staunch defender of civil liberties on Power’s appointment as the UN Ambassador said, “Power was a perfect choice. She has real credibility to expose the UN’s double standards on human rights” – such is the ‘power’ of Power and Sri Lanka will have to deal with her in the next few years whether she likes it or not.