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    South Asia
     May 27, 2009
Page 1 of 2
Sri Lanka wards off Western bullying
By M K Bhadrakumar

The strange lineup of the member countries of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for or against Sri Lanka at the special session of the body scheduled to take place in Geneva on Tuesday underscores the maritime Great Game unfolding in the Indian Ocean.

Geopolitics is drowning the lamentations over the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils for equity, justice and fair play and the perennial human-rights questions that arise when the state violates the integrity of the individual. Control of the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean through which 70% of total world traffic of petroleum products passes - and half of the world's container traffic - takes precedence over the tragic plight of the 300,000

 

ethnic Tamils of Sri Lanka uprooted from their life. The focus of the world powers is on becoming the "Lord of the Malaccas".

The special session is being convened in Geneva at the request of 17 of the 47 members of the UNHRC, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Britain. Hovering in the background is the United States. The initiative is primarily of the European Union (EU) and it aims at forcing Sri Lanka to face charges of gross human-rights violations in its war against the Tamil insurgents. An UNHRC recommendation to set up an international commission of inquiry will not mean the end of the world, but it can be a needless headache. An UNHRC special session has been called only on 10 previous occasions.

However, Colombo is not browbeaten. The seasoned poker player has tabled a counter resolution titled "Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and Protection of Human Rights". Believe it or not, the Sri Lankan resolution commends Colombo for its victory over terrorism and solicits funding from a grateful international community. The 12 co-sponsors of the Sri Lankan resolution include China, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

Russia, China backing Colombo
The outcome of the UNHRC special session can be foretold. The EU won't get anywhere. It had better think of approaching the International Criminal Court based in The Hague. But then, Sri Lanka is not a signatory state. The "international community" can get the United Nations Security Council to refer the case to the ICC, in which case the ICC is mandated to summon a non-signatory state. But then China and Russia wield veto power.

As soon as Colombo declared victory in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu took friendly note of it. "As a friendly neighbor, China has kept a close eye on how the Sri Lankan situation developed. We sincerely hope Sri Lanka will make efforts to accomplish national reconciliation, social stability and economic progress," Ma said.

Equally, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko "welcomed" Colombo's success in "restoring control over the entire territory of the country" and liberating the civilians held hostage. Russia "supports the fight of the Sri Lankan government against terrorism and separatism and for state sovereignty and territorial integrity" and stands ready to "strengthen further its cooperation [with Sri Lanka] ... both in a bilateral format and in regional and international organizations on counter-terrorism and on other themes of mutual concern".

China and Russia will ensure that the "international community" cannot torment Colombo. They have invited Sri Lanka to come close to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a "dialogue partner". In essence, Sri Lanka is transforming as the theater where Russia and China are frontally challenging the US's incremental global strategy to establish a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence in the Indian Ocean region.

The US has succeeded in bringing NATO up to the Persian Gulf region. In October 2007, NATO conducted its first-ever naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. The alliance is swiftly expanding its relationship with Pakistan. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told a US Congressional hearing on Thursday, "Where I see NATO going is increasingly towards a broader and more in-depth relationship with Pakistan, because of the common interests." But it is Sri Lanka that will be the jewel in NATO's Indian Ocean crown. Russia and China (and Iran) are determined to frustrate the US geostrategy.

US pressure won't work
But the US has taken a position of high principles - the human-rights situation in Sri Lanka. It can block Sri Lanka's application for a US$1.9 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Sri Lankan economy is in dire straits. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on May 15 that this "is not an appropriate time" to talk about the IMF loan. She confirmed that the US had "raised questions about the IMF loan at this time".

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly has linked the release of the IMF loan to Colombo allowing the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international aid agencies, to access the camps where "hundreds of thousands" of internally displaced Tamils uprooted in the fighting are sheltered.

Washington is peeved that Colombo already forgot it was the vehement US support that enabled Colombo to launch the military operations against Sri Lanka in 2006. But the Sri Lankan government would say it reciprocated the US backing by signing in March 2007 an Access and Cross Servicing Agreement with the US that allows American warships and aircraft to use facilities in Sri Lanka.

At any rate, the US feels snubbed that Sri Lanka spurned its offer a few months ago to dispatch a naval force to evacuate or provide humanitarian assistance to the Tamil civilians trapped in the war zone. An "assessment team" of the US Navy visited Sri Lanka with a view to work out the range of options for the operation. But Colombo somehow developed cold feet about the wisdom of inviting US "humanitarian intervention". Quite possibly, third countries might have alerted Colombo to the risks involved.

Unsurprisingly, Washington is pressuring Colombo. Kelly said on Thursday, "The international community needs to make an assessment of exactly what happened and consult with the Sri Lankan government on the way forward ... we need to take things a step at a time. We need to focus on the humanitarian situation, and we need to focus on starting a political reconciliation process. Once we take those steps, we can start looking at the broader issue of economic and trade issues [IMF loan]".

However, the US pressure tactic may not work. Like in the case of Myanmar or Sudan, if Washington steps up pressure, China may come to Sri Lanka's help. There is moral muddiness all around. Simply put, a "containment strategy" on the part of the US towards Sri Lanka becomes unworkable. Testy times lie ahead.

On Friday, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa accused unnamed foreign powers of having tried to stop the military operations against the LTTE by "threatening to haul us before war crimes tribunals" and that he was ready "to go to the gallows".

On Saturday, Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (who is the president's brother) told an Indian TV channel, "If one talks of taking our military to a war crimes tribunal, before that you have to take US troops, UK troops, all those troops and all those leaders, into war crimes [tribunals]." He was angrily responding to the EU demand for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes by Sri Lankan army.

Continued 1 2  


Colombo savours victory (May 22,'09)

Tigers leave unfinished business
(May 20,'09)

Colombo sticks to its guns (May 12,'09)


1.
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2. Easy bets with other people's money

3. Al-Qaeda keeps its eyes on Afghanistan

4. Very bad - and getting worse

5. The pressure of an expanding war

6. Slouching towards balkanization

7. China picks core new leaders

8. Underage sex trial tests China's courts

9. BOOK REVIEW: The dragon's shadow

10. Israel plays on Obama's Iran policy

(May 22-25, 2009)

 
 



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