US must not ignore Sri Lanka’s human rights violations

Though largely unnoticed in Washington, the United States has been making a big push to strengthen ties with the South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka. This policy shift began during Barack Obama’s tenure and, thus far, has continued since Trump assumed the presidency. Public remarks from U.S. government officials (about the current state of affairs in Sri Lanka) have been misleading and even inaccurate. Unfortunately, the continuation of excessively congratulatory remarks from the Trump administration would probably discourage needed reform in the country.

To be clear, Sri Lanka experienced a big political change in January 2015 — when longtime authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in his quest for an unprecedented third term. U.S.-Sri Lanka relations during Rajapaksa’s tenure soured due to rising authoritarianism and allegations of wartimes abuses which occurred during the end of the civil war. Shortly after Sirisena’s ascension, the U.S moved quickly to rebuild the relationship, principally for geopolitical reasons.

That said, Sri Lanka’s new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is obviously floundering. Tricky coalition politics and, more importantly, a lack of political will mean that we should not expect dramatic changes in the coming years.

Yet, instead of providing a more accurate assessment of where things stand, it appears U.S. government officials may simply create fictitious stories for domestic and international consumption.

For, example, according to remarks by American Ambassador Atul Keshap on April 1:

“Our growing military-to-military cooperation reflects the progress Sri Lanka has made on reconciliation and justice. As Sri Lanka continues to make progress in implementing its commitments to its people and the international community, this will form the basis of further cooperation between our militaries.”

What on earth is Keshap talking about?

Put bluntly, Keshap’s comments are ridiculous and a slap in the face to the country’s Tamil community (an ethnic minority in a country that is largely comprised of ethnic Sinhalese). There’s no question that Tamils are the group that has suffered the most due to the war. Furthermore, the reality is that the country has not really made any progress on reconciliation and justice. (No, singing the national anthem in Tamil does not count.)

“Sri Lanka has not made any significant gain in anything as far as reconciliation is concerned,” notes Kusal Perera, a senior journalist based in Colombo.

In fact, Sri Lanka’s lack of progress in these areas was made abundantly clear during the recently concluded 34th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), where another co-sponsored resolution was passed on Sri Lanka. Accordingly, the country’s transitional justice process will be monitored by the HRC for an additional two years, although many people are now pessimistic about how things have been going and where they might be headed.

Indeed, the U.S. is so eager to renew ties with Sri Lanka that inconvenient truths will be ignored and more “alternative facts” may emerge in the weeks ahead. Washington’s promulgation of a hugely misleading Sri Lanka narrative, is partly meant to justify increased security cooperation with a military tarnished by credible allegations of war crimes and ongoing reports of torture and sexual violence. Let’s not forget that, eight years after the country’s civil war ended, a debate on demilitarization has yet to begin and security sector reform is nowhere in sight.

Since Sirisena was elected president, America’s Sri Lanka policy has been disappointing, shortsighted and naive. It appears that the U.S. will continue to deprioritize human rights concerns in general and minority issues specifically. These regrettable decisions will not go unnoticed — especially by Tamils residing in the country’s Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Taylor Dibbert, a writer based in the Washington, D.C. area, is affiliated with the Pacific Forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2011 to 2014 he worked for a human rights organization in Sri Lanka. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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