New US Ambassador Patricia Butenis tried her utmost for a 'new beginning' to the plunging bi-lateral relations between the two countries. In her first message to Sri Lankans in an article to this newspaper, she said, "Our relationship, with its long history, has a great potential to grow and expand. I look forward to working with the people and the Government of Sri Lanka during my tenure to make this a reality".
These hopes were shattered by her own boss, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she read out a poorly-drafted and dangerously-crafted statement at no less a forum as the UN Security Council naming - and shaming - Sri Lanka as a country that used "rape as a tactic of war". Even before Ambassador Butenis could host her introductory reception, she was summoned by Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister, a baptism by fire. Ms. Clinton not only put her foot in her own mouth but in her envoy's too. Both were forced into damage control mode as Sri Lanka vehemently protested against this unfair and untrue allegation.
Ms. Clinton's statement has been put down to paltry drafting and poor briefing. But that is no excuse for someone who is no stranger to Sri Lanka, having been here as First Lady. As the US First Diplomat she must now take the flak. The unsubstantiated statement does not limit itself to accusing Sri Lanka's Armed Forces of mass rape - it reflects on a people. It is not confined to the country's Armed Forces. In some countries, especially in Africa, people of one race use 'rape as a tactic of war' against those of another race.
The manner in which the US State Department subsequently tried to clarify the position left much to be desired. First, the US Embassy in Colombo tried to explain matters by interviewing Ambassador Butenis. Then, US Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer, referred to the Clinton remarks not being "specific to the recent phase of the war", and also to some cases in past years. So, was the US trying to say rape was once used as a tactic of war in Sri Lanka some other time? The clarification fell well short of the apology Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister sought from Ambassador Butenis, and it was quite surprising that President Mahinda Rajapaksa should jump up and accept the lukewarm clarification saying he was very happy with it.
Later, the US Assistant Secretary of State (again not Ms. Clinton) P.J. Crowley stuck to the same clarification saying there were reports of rape in 2002-2003 (during the time of the ceasefire) but not in the "recent phase", i.e. the 2006-2009 years. He seemed to be referring to an Amnesty report of January, 2002 about, but even that report did not refer to rape as a tactic of war. The Clinton remark followed three different explanations by Butenis-Verveer-Cowley. But they all fell short of an apology to the people of Sri Lanka. And as long as his years as President were excluded from the allegation, President Rajapaksa seems content.
For years the US State Department, over which Ms. Clinton now presides, has had two schools of thought on their Sri Lanka policy. One was that the LTTE had to be considered a terrorist organisation; the other that US interests were better served if it permitted the LTTE to operate, on the basis that it (US) would then have greater leverage over the rebels. With the advent of President Barack Obama, the latter school has gained the upper hand at the State Department.
This division of opinion has also extended to the State Department (Foreign Ministry) and the Pentagon (Defence Ministry). While the Pentagon always supported the military effort, the State Department kept dragging its feet.
Sri Lanka's Navy Commander's current visit to the US is a classic example. The Pentagon invited him and the State Department tried to block the visit (please see Café SPECTATOR column on page 2).
Last month at the UN General Assembly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez referred to an 'Obama 1' and an 'Obama 2', the former, the US President who wants to pursue a new world order (which has just controversially won him the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize); the latter, the President who is in the grip of the US 'Establishment' run by the 'warmongering' Pentagon. President Obama faces this dilemma over Afghanistan right now - should he induct still more troops or withdraw? Paradoxically, while Sri Lanka would support 'Obama 1' in world affairs, it was 'Obama 2' that helped win the war against the LTTE.
This week, Ambassador Butenis informed Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa that come what may, the US State Department would present a report against Sri Lanka on 'war crimes' charges. This report is expected to ask for an independent inquiry. That 'collateral damage' to civilians is inevitable in a battle to the finish, such as the Army's final offensive against the LTTE, is something the Pentagon understands. It is not that the State Department doesn't either, but that is only when US forces are involved - like in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then the State Department strenuously defends its brief. This is the contradiction that Sri Lankans find hard to countenance.
Under trying conditions, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces conducted warfare with considerable restraint and discipline, notwithstanding the ferocity of the 25,000-strong enemy. The civilians hardly came in the 'Line of Fire' anyway, until the final battles at Puttukkudiyiruppu and Pokkanai when the LTTE held them as human shields. Arguably, international pressure contributed to this restraint, but restraint there was. Crimes have, no doubt, been committed, and journalists and civil rights activists are no strangers to the often gross abuses of Emergency Regulations in a time of war. But to categorise them as 'war crimes' would be grossly unjust - could the US Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan then be in the same basket?
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has failed to take diplomatic measures to offset such US double-speak. The State Department's prosecution of 'war crimes' charges in Sri Lanka is nothing new. Ten years ago, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a briefing on human rights developments in Sri Lanka and asked the then Sri Lankan Ambassador to Washington to explain the country's position.
Former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who succeeded in winning over the fraction-ridden US State Department to ban the LTTE with his quiet but firm diplomacy promptly wrote to Karl Inderfurth, the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia. We quote, "My Dear Rick, I find it extremely objectionable that a friendly sovereign country like Sri Lanka should be called to the Bar of a Legislature of another country to account for its conduct and I find it particularly objectionable that this event should be taking place because a terrorist organization so declared by the US has succeeded in lobbying some members of your Legislature.
I would be grateful if you would let me know by 1 March, 1999 whether, and if so why, Ambassador Rasaputra should appear at this event; whether in your opinion the organisers of such an event is acceptable conduct by an organ of your Government".
This letter was never made public, but such stern missives were followed with flowers for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's birthday. That is quite diplomacy that bears fruit. Nothing came of the Congressional hearing.
'Megaphone diplomacy' may win the Southern Province elections, but not the support of the world outside to which our country's economic umbilical cord is firmly attached.