US Secretary of State John Kerry leaves Sri Lanka today after an overnighter. It is the first official -dedicated – visit by so senior a US diplomat since William P. Rodgers came, back in 1974. Colin Powell visited along with two ex-US Presidents in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, mostly to inspect the damage. [...]


Kerry visit marks revival of US-SL ties


US Secretary of State John Kerry leaves Sri Lanka today after an overnighter. It is the first official -dedicated – visit by so senior a US diplomat since William P. Rodgers came, back in 1974. Colin Powell visited along with two ex-US Presidents in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, mostly to inspect the damage. The significance of the Kerry visit, however, is a diplomatic and political signal that US-SL relations are back on track after the previous administration sank ties to an all-time low.

The Mahinda Rajapaksa Government sacrificed national interest, putting political and diplomatic misfits in our mission in Washington due to their ‘relative merits’. It needlessly antagonised that country with its frenzied anti-West rhetoric matched only by its heavy allegiance to Russia and even more so, China. The mission in Washington was such a dead loss that it had to hire public relations firms to even write the ambassador’s routine New Year message.

Having won kudos domestically for resisting outside pressures to call off the military campaign against the LTTE terrorists in early 2009, the then President, egged on by foreign policy ignoramuses and a misguided sense of patriotism, was not able to read the writing on the wall; that the snubbed West would gang up to haul the country over the rack on grounds of ‘war crimes’. The ensuing result was the burning of the US President’s effigy and the US national flag by prominent Sri Lankan Government leaders sending relations to a point of no-return. As an ex-US ambassador to Sri Lanka and well-known analyst Teresita Schaffer says, it became a one issue relationship; war crimes.

Even during the anti-Communist Richard Nixon and Socialist Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike era, meetings were held in the Oval Office between the two leaders who shared common strategic interests. When the Northern insurgency raged in Sri Lanka, the US was somewhat aloof, providing limited military assistance, allowing neighbouring India to play around with Sri Lanka. Still, there was a healthy exchange of views between the two countries. During the previous Government, though, even Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister studiously kept away from Washington. The dialogue completely broke down. It had to take an election in Sri Lanka to turn the tide — and Secretary Kerry’s visit is, largely, to pay tribute to the voters of Sri Lanka who helped oust the Rajapaksa regime, and put back on track US-SL relations.

The visit by the Sri Lanka Navy to the nuclear-powered US warship USS Carl Vinson a fortnight ago (Please see Page 1 news item) sends out a message of the return to military assistance to Sri Lanka and the West’s focus on Sri Lanka’s geographic location vis-a-vis the Indian Ocean, which the Rajapaksa Government was offering on a platter to China via various port projects.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe can be credited with this re-alignment of US policy starting with his meeting with senior US State Department officials in Washington in May last year, sealed by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s visit in January. The sore sticking point, however, remains the US taking a direct interest in sponsoring the UNHRC (UN Human Rights Council) resolution against Sri Lanka in Geneva calling for an investigation into allegations of human rights violations during the last days of the military campaign against the LTTE – which the US had declared as a terrorist organisation and once, as the world’s most dangerous. This move by the US never sat well with the Sri Lankan people who were happy, to say the least, that the country’s Armed Forces put an end to terrorism in the country in general, and the fascist LTTE in particular.

A nation such as the US, fighting wars around the world as it has been ever since the end of World War II (which ended horrifically with the atom bombing of Japanese cities), using extra-judicial methods to target opponents and launching drone attacks that kill innocent civilians as the US hounds its enemies, can little afford to preach how to fight clean wars. One of the US long-time international affairs gurus says; “Is American foreign policy a story with a beginning and an end, in which final victories are possible?….. By framing the issue of America’s world role as a test of moral perfection, it castigated itself. Sometimes to profound effect – the peaceful, democratic; rules-based world…….With every American President insisting that America had universal principles while other countries merely had national interests, the United States has rushed to extremes of over-extension and disillusioned withdrawals”. (Dr. Henry Kissinger; World Order; pages 278-279).

Yesterday, Secretary Kerry himself was large enough to concede that America was not without faults. He kept out of referring to the conduct of its wars around the world, but admitted to deficiencies in the United State’s justice system and flaws in the human rights record.

“Restoring your country’s judiciary is a long-term undertaking that requires high standards for judicial independence, fairness and due process under the law. Those reforms are difficult to achieve anywhere in the world. We (the US) are still working on somethings in our systems to achieve them. You can see some of them on television. It is not easy. But it is absolutely essential to be open and honest about trying to do it,” the secretary said.

Offering his country’s assistance to Sri Lanka in improving the human rights record, the Secretary of State said: “No nation, including the US has a perfect record of human rights. We all have to do our best to improve….”

How much US foreign policy towards Sri Lanka has been based on its search for its moral worth and how much was due to the antagonistic attitude of the Rajapaksa regime overlaid with the lobbying of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in the US is a matter of conjecture. But Secretary Kerry’s visit is aimed at marking a new beginning with a clean new slate.

The visit to the historic Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara is a considered message that the US recognises that Sri Lanka also has a majority; and a recognition that such a majority had an abiding liking for that country; and that US interests on minority rights was purely its moral obligation that is part of its genuine foreign policy. Neither the US, nor Sri Lanka can ever ignore a historical fact that the 19th century anti-imperial Buddhist revivalist movement was begun by Col. H.S. Olcott, an American. In re-setting the US-Sri Lanka relations, both countries will need to assuage suspicions and reassure the people of Sri Lanka in particular, that this exercise in rekindling good relations stems from a genuine desire for mutually beneficial bilateral relations based on common democratic values, good governance, human rights, commerce and the security of both nations.

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