Relations between Sri Lanka and the United States, the world’s sole super power, continue to plunge towards a new low as the ding-dong diplomatic battle persists. If round one was arguably won by Sri Lanka, not with a written apology but a simple clarification, round two threatens to obscure it.
The row was sparked off after US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s remarks to the UN Security Council last week. Taking on the presidency of the Council, which goes by rotation, here is what she said:
“Now, reading the headlines, one might think that the use of rape as a tactic of war only happens occasionally, or in few places, like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sudan. That would be bad enough, but the reality is much worse. We’ve seen rape used as a tactic of war before Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. In too many countries, the perpetrators of this violence are not punished, and so this impunity encourages further attacks.”
As expected, Ms. Clinton’s remarks drew an angry response from the Sri Lankan Government. Besides Government leaders, adverse public comments and critical media reports against the US, barely weeks after its new Ambassador Patricia Butenis assumed office in Colombo, no doubt, caused embarrassment all round.
As exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times front page news report last week, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, summoned Ms. Butenis and called for a retraction of the comments by Ms. Clinton. He delivered a demarche expressing the Sri Lanka Government’s displeasure and demanding the apology. A demarche is a formal diplomatic representation of the official position or view of a Government to another. Ahead of this meeting, the US Embassy in Colombo had spelt out Washington’s response.
The US embassy’s web posting quoted Ambassador Butenis as saying, “During the 26-year long war in Sri Lanka, there were allegations of rape and sexual violence, just as in other conflicts. Secretary Clinton’s statement was to raise awareness of such brutality, not to implicate specific perpetrators. As reference, allow me to include a link to the Secretary’s remarks in which she mentioned Sri Lanka. She made no reference to the Sri Lankan Army or to the LTTE.”
When it comes to the US Department of State, it appears it is no different to Sri Lanka’s own Foreign Ministry in some ways. Two subsequent statements by US officials followed. All three, dealing with Ms. Clinton’s remarks, were inherent with contradictions. Here are excerpts from the French news agency AFP which reported the two other statements.
The response from Melanie Verveer, US Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues:
“The United States, responding to protests from Sri Lanka over the remarks by Ms. Clinton, said it had no recent evidence of women being raped while in Sri Lankan government custody. The response came in a letter addressed to Foreign Minister Bogollagama.
“However, the State Department noted that the US government and international human rights groups over the years had detailed, "numerous cases of rape and sexual violence in Sri Lanka, particularly acts committed against women held in detention by the government."
“The letter signed by Melanie Verveer, ambassador at large for global women's issues at the State Department said that ‘in the most recent phase of the conflict, from 2006 to 2009 ... we have not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war, as they clearly have in other conflict area around the world.’
“ ‘We hope that this clarification puts the issue in its proper context,’ the letter said, adding that Washington remains concerned about extrajudicial killings, disappearances and detainee abuse in Sri Lanka. Secretary Clinton believes that Sri Lanka must focus to the future and move forward on the promotion of peace and the protection of human rights,’ the letter said.”
Ms Verveer’s letter, as interpreted by some Governnment officials, was neither an apology nor a retraction. She has expressly stated it is a “clarification” and expressed hope it “puts the issue in proper context.”
Now to the third statement, this time by P.J. Crowley, US Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs on Wednesday. The AFP report said:
“He said the US Ambassador at Large on Women's Issues, has written a letter to Sri Lankan government that Hillary’s mention on this issue during a debate in the UN Security Council, was not specific to the recent conflict during which the Sri Lankan Army defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
"There were some questions raised by the Sri Lankan government, because in the intervention at the Security Council, the Secretary did -- among -- in pointing out a number of countries where we've had this concern in the past, mentioned Bosnia. She mentioned Sri Lanka," Crowley said in response to a question during his interaction with reporters at the Foreign Press Centre.
"Melanie Verveer, who is our ambassador at large for women's issues, sent a letter over the weekend to the Sri Lankan government clarifying that the reference that the secretary made, you know, was to, you know, very well-documented reports of significant levels of rape that were documented through, I think, 2002 or 2003 in a variety of reports, including State Department reports and also reports done by Amnesty International,” he said. At the same time, Ambassador Verveer did clarify that the reference was not specifically to the most recent phase of the tragic conflict in Sri Lanka,” Crowley said.
|Hillary Clinton making the rape allegations at th UN Security Council
The three different statements spell out the US position somewhat differently. Ambassador Butenis says Ms. Clinton’s statements were not to implicate “specific perpetrators.” However, the US Secretary of State’s remarks that rape has been “used as a tactic of war” make it specific. Who fought the war in Sri Lanka? It is the Sri Lankan Security Forces? The implication, therefore, is that they used it as a “tactic of war.”
Ms. Verveer says "in the most recent phase of the conflict, from 2006 to 2009 ... we have not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war, as they clearly have in other conflict area around the world." She thus contradicts Ms Butenis who claims the statement was to “raise awareness” and “not implicate specific perpetrators.” Furthermore, Crowley supports Ms Verveer’s “clarification” but adds there are “a variety of well documented reports of significant levels of rape” that were documented through 2002 – 2003.
By the time the three different statements came, Government leaders had spoken out. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressing a rally for yesterday’s Southern Provincial Council elections said:
“For 30 years we fought the war. Some have forgotten. Some are trying hard to forget it. Some are trying to give wrong impressions for their own political gains. Only four months have gone by. Some go overseas and speak against the soldiers and try to discredit the government. False allegations have been made that women were raped as a war tactic.
“I am telling them not to disgrace the armed forces in that manner. They are disciplined forces. There wasn’t a single such allegation against the forces. I am challenging Clintons wife not to make false allegations. I am calling upon the US Government to make a written apology to correct that statement. I can clearly say that during the last three and half years, there were no such allegations against the armed forces.”
Prime Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake was more outspoken. He was being interviewed live on the state-run Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation’s (SLBC) Subharathi programme on Wednesday. He commented on a wide range of issues, from the Southern Provincial elections to the resettlement of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
When Mr. Wickremanayake was asked questions on international pressure he said that no powerful country or not even the UN could interfere in the internal matters of another country. “Meka Mara Magulakne, Clinton Nonata Monica gena Amathakawela wage” (This is a hell of a problem, Ms (Hillary) Clinton has forgotten the Monica Lewensky episode it seems).
He went on to say that Ms. Clinton should put her house in order without trying to live in a glass house and pelt stones at others. No body will be allowed to undermine the victory of the soldiers and their achievements. The people in this country have acknowledged this victory and it has been reflected at the elections.
Premier Wickremanayake’s remarks incensed the US Government. As our front page news report reveals, it has lodged a strong protest with Sri Lanka. The fall out of this new development, Foreign Ministry sources said yesterday, could be heavily damaging.
Interesting enough, the development came as the Sri Lanka Embassy in the US sought the help of the Washington-based public relations firm Paton Bogs to prepare a group for a meeting with Ambassador Robert Blake at the State Department. Those present at the residence of the Ambassador for a dinner meeting were Sena Basnayake, father of Patton Boggs staffer Vinod Basnayake, Nihal Gunawardene, consulting firm ISTI CEO, Sanath de Silva DC resident Dayananda Weerakkody, JJ limousine co owner, Nazeer Aziz, Dr. Lal Fernando of Florida, Dr. Sarath Hemachadra and Dr. U. B. Gunasinghe.
They had a meeting with Mr. Blake where he articulated the US Government’s position on various issues. This is what the State Department’s website had to say:
“Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake met with 16 Sri Lankan-American community representatives, including representatives of U.S.-based Sri Lankan-American cultural and media organizations, to discuss the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka and prospects for political reconciliation on October 9.
“Assistant Secretary Blake welcomed the opportunity to listen to the concerns and perspectives of Sri Lankan-Americans and to share the steps the United States is taking to help address the humanitarian crisis and to promote the urgent need for national reconciliation. He reviewed the long friendship between the U.S. and Sri Lanka, noting that the United States has provided over $56 million in humanitarian assistance in 2009, including $6.6 million in demining assistance.
“While the Government of Sri Lanka has made some progress easing camp congestion, registering IDPs, and expanding access by humanitarian organizations, much remains to be done, Assistant Secretary Blake said. In particular, he emphasized the importance of the government allowing freedom of movement for IDPs.
“Assistant Secretary Blake underscored the importance of political reconciliation. The U.S. has stressed to the government that to achieve a lasting peace, it must promote justice and political reconciliation for all parties and dialogue with all parties, including Tamils inside and outside Sri Lanka, on new mechanisms for devolving power. The government must also seek to improve human rights and accountability. Assistant Secretary Blake recommended that Sri Lankan Americans seek opportunities to channel their resources and expertise toward supporting national reconciliation and the reconstruction of Sri Lanka.”
Even if demands for a written apology were made by Government leaders, it was not forthcoming. What came was only what has been officially termed as a “clarification.” This is why Foreign Minister Bogollagama said last Thursday in parliament: the US State Department “has responded to me by letter stating ‘…..we have not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war…..’
Concluded Bogollagama, “We hope that this clarification puts the issue in its proper context.”
If a clarification, and not an apology, has settled one issue, another arising from Prime Minister Wickremanayake’s remarks has just begun. The ding dong diplomatic battle continues.
Ironically, it comes at a time when there is an inter-agency review in Washington about US policy towards Sri Lanka.