The recent visit of Ambassador Samantha Power to our shores reminded me of an American President who occupied the White House exactly a century and two years ago. President Woodrow Wilson elected in 1913 was instrumental in creating the ‘League of Nations’, the forerunner of the United Nations. He explained his endeavors in international relations [...]


Power effect with quiet hope


The recent visit of Ambassador Samantha Power to our shores reminded me of an American President who occupied the White House exactly a century and two years ago.

Samantha Power enjoying a game of Elle with Jaffna schoolgirls

President Woodrow Wilson elected in 1913 was instrumental in creating the ‘League of Nations’, the forerunner of the United Nations. He explained his endeavors in international relations as the pursuit of “common purpose of enlightened mankind.”

The catalytic and causative phrase ‘common purpose of mankind’ voiced a century ago resonated in my mind when I had the good fortune and privilege of interacting with the remarkable person, Ambassador Samantha Power.

What is remarkable about her is her ability to reconcile her undoubtedly passionate idealism as a human rights defender with the pragmatism required of her as the ambassador of the United States to the United Nations.

She retains the integrity of her convictions and bears the burden of her office with breathtaking brilliance and an élan that fascinated me. Hence these thoughts:

Her aversion to tyranny even in historical appraisal is intense and personal. Writing an introduction to a reprint of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, she says, Arendt pinned her “awakening” to the day Reichstag burned down, when Hitler used the fire “as a pretext to suspend civil liberties and crush dissent,” eliminating all political opposition to consolidate his power.

When Power says “Arendt took responsibility for observing, for critiquing, and for summoning her generation to judgment and action,” she in fact holds our generation too accountable to history during our own life-time.

While in Sri Lanka, she met with a wide range of people, politicians and senior government officials. It was a rewarding and singularly striking opportunity to interact with Ambassador Power on three occasions: First, at a one-on-one meeting and later at the two dinners, one hosted by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and the other by the Prime Minister.

The privilege of engagement and consultation with this distinguished academic and human rights advocate was an opportunity that allowed me to discover her detailed knowledge on various socio-economic issues of contemporary urgency.

The insights she shared on issues of South Asia and Sri Lanka were highly incisive. She was acutely aware of the challenges before the Government. Her concerns about future performance in this regard showed her abiding concerns for our island nation.

She feels a strong sense of responsibility towards the beleaguered people of all communities in Sri Lanka. Her gentle yet assertive observations, her strong commitment on what she believes as fair and unfair, bravery and cowardice, uprightness and hypocrisy and her disarming views on controversial issues are rooted in an enormous reservoir of moral courage and intellectual independence.

Her visit to Sri Lanka was mainly to reiterate United States’ commitment to strengthening the bilateral partnership in support of our Government’s efforts toward reconciliation, accountability and a meaningful durable peace — the goals that remained elusive in the years following the end of the war.

Her visit to the North had particularly struck a chord in her mind. She was quite emotional about her Elle match played with the girls at Osmania College.

She inaugurated a new wing of the College and later visited the offices of the Uthayan newspaper and Jaffna Library. Showing me the photographs of the girls who played Elle, she said “Look at their facial expressions.

Look at their involvement”. To her, it was a deeply personal experience. She had forwarded the photographs to her husband — the Harvard don Cass Sunstein who had messaged her back telling her that one of his students coincidentally a Northern Province Muslim student had been deeply moved by her presence in the North.

Her interest in the long-suffering Muslim community in the North was evident in her consistent stand that the expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE constituted a “war crime”.

She shared her strong feelings on Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingyas that the new Myanmar leader Aung San Su Kyi had not condemned with the emphasis it deserved. She saw it as failure that diminished the stature of the acclaimed human rights activist and national leader.

While many were sympathetic of her need to adjust her stand due to political compulsions and the need to keep her support base secured against the threat from the entrenched power of the military , one expected her to take a firm stand on the ethnic cleansing by some extremist groups in Myanmar.

She remarked with a sigh, how President Obama was hugged by a Rohingya refugee child and described how many have been cleared to be relocated in the US.

She is often blamed for her strong opinions that at times make her critical of the UN and at times even the policies of her own government. She has brought a new human rights ethos to the Obama administration.

On Iran, she says “going to war was not even an option” to be considered to begin with. Her impressions of wars in Bosnia, Palestine and Israel are strong. She bravely counters critics who accuse her of policy double speak.

It was unfortunate that President Mahinda Rajapaksa brusquely brushed aside her overtures to initiate a meaningful dialogue. Her reasoned pleadings had gone unheard when she first approached him on the impending post-war Geneva resolutions.

Her subsequent meetings with Gotabaya Rajapaksa proved a disaster. Her meeting with Basil Rajapaksa was even worse. They had been brazenly unpleasant in their encounters with her.

The power-obsessed brothers had only provoked the idealistic human rights champion to pursue her goals with greater passion and steelier resolve.

Knowing the seasoned Politician Mahinda Rajapaksa, it is my opinion that left to himself he would have not only reached an understanding with her but would have developed a healthy relationship that could have avoided much heart burn to our nation.

In her speeches, she acknowledged that Sri Lanka faced difficult times. Still she was convinced that Sri Lanka was an example to the world as a country that defeated terrorism, now courageously dealing with “the very difficult legacies of a long and very arduous civil conflict” in her words.

She believed that we ought not to move away from difficult issues of the past. Instead, we should strive towards a “stronger and more prosperous democracy.”

She left behind a feeling of quiet hope. As I said earlier, a “common purpose for enlightened mankind”.

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