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
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
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
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
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.