The recent US decision to slap a travel ban on Sri Lanka’s Army chief and his family is either a warning salvo across the bow – for the Government to fall in line, or an utterly ill-conceived move that pits ordinary Sri Lankans against the US. In announcing its decision, Washington said it had “credible” [...]


Pilgrimage to Geneva


The recent US decision to slap a travel ban on Sri Lanka’s Army chief and his family is either a warning salvo across the bow – for the Government to fall in line, or an utterly ill-conceived move that pits ordinary Sri Lankans against the US.

In announcing its decision, Washington said it had “credible” information of war crimes committed by the Army commander. It also famously said it had “credible” information that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez once described an Obama1 and an Obama2 running US policy. One danced to the dictates of the Defence Department knocking the daylights out of people around the world in various wars, while Two preached human rights to the world through the State Department.  When the US is seeking to find ‘entrée’ here through proposed military and economic pacts like SOFA and the MCC which remain on the table, how blacklisting the Army commander helps Washington is difficult to fathom. This is probably why the Sri Lankan Foreign Relations Minister told the US ambassador last Sunday that already icy and dicey US-SL relations have now got “complicated”.

Then we have Resolution 30/1 and 40/1 at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) against Sri Lanka. The Cabinet decision this week has been more moderate than the hype leading to it that Sri Lanka will be pulling out of these Resolutions. The official account states that Sri Lanka will “announce” its decision to withdraw from the co-sponsorship, and “work towards the closure of the resolution in cooperation with the members of the UN”.

How ready the Government is to adopt a confrontational course on the world stage is questionable. While Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the Resolutions against itself sounded absurd ex-facie, and an affront to national pride, it nevertheless acted as a buffer against any immediate sanctions on Sri Lankan political and military leaders — and the country. The former Government was able to buy time through a moratorium until it got its act together and warded off any international scrutiny and intrusion of an adverse nature.

It is noteworthy, that despite a fifth column like the Tamil National Alliance dancing to the drum of the Diaspora by calling for an international war crimes tribunal to investigate and adjudicate on the conduct of the country’s Armed Forces for defeating the LTTE, the latest UNHRC Country Report on Sri Lanka has only a veiled mention on the subject. It merely refers to the need for an even more independent judiciary and more robust action on missing persons etc. For the Resolutions to be thrown away requires 27 votes in the UNHRC — an uphill task. The UK and puppet states like Macedonia stepped in to support the Resolutions when the US pulled out of the UNHRC – they are, therefore, not going to stand by and eat humble pie. This is too big an UNHRC test model for them to let small countries get off so easily.

The Government has, fortunately, acted soberly. It has offered to explore a way-out for both sides by suggesting only a symbolic co-sponsorship withdrawal. They will have to get “undeliverables” like foreign judges discarded, but agree to implement what is “doable” such as following the recommendations of the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) and implementing the OMP (Office of Missing Persons), taking credit for both, and pay compensation etc. One foreign policy expert described it best; “The Yahapalana Government blundered by signing on to a Western wish list without negotiating a deliverable outcome. This Government should not blunder as well by signing off unilaterally without negotiating. Neither the West, nor Sri Lanka can afford to rub their mutual noses”.

Do big powers have immunity  from war crimes?

Next week’s UNHRC sessions will debate “war crimes” in the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the carpet bombing of the German city of Dresden during World War II.

At the tail-end of that war, US and British planes decimated a defenceless city, which had no military significance. More than 25,000 civilians, mainly women and children fleeing from the advancing Red Army of the Soviet Union, were killed and thousands wounded in firestorms resulting from the bombings. The 75th anniversary raised long suppressed issues on what constitutes war crimes.

It is the victors in war who write history. But Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s six volume tome on the Second World War has no mention of Dresden, and for obvious reason. Labelled the ‘man of the century’ for winning the war, Churchill was an accomplice to the premeditated murder of those civilians. His aim — to demoralise the German population, and get them to rise up against the Nazi Party making it easier for the Allied troops and the Red Army to enter Berlin. US President Harry Truman did much the same thing and in greater magnitude to Japan with the atom bombs. Neither Churchill nor Truman was accused of war crimes. They were considered war heroes who defeated a tyrannical fascist enemy.

Few record what happened in Dresden. Even German researchers have only now come out of the woodwork to write on the subject. Unlike the triumphalism shown over Dunkirk, Normandy and elsewhere, even modern day Germany is reluctant to make a fuss over the 75th anniversary of the Dresden bombings. Let bygones be bygones seems to be their thinking.

A more recent publication, Dresden; The Fire and the Darkness by Sinclair McKay succinctly portrays the misery German civilians faced at the hands of the Axis Powers. The moot point of war crimes is brought out in the book. However painful the details of the book are, and even though Churchill wanted to pay back in kind for the German bombing of Coventry, Birmingham, Belfast and London, the author still doesn’t consider Dresden a war crime. He argues that; “War crime above all implies intentionality and rational decision making … Just as it cannot be assumed that individuals always act with perfect rationality, so the same must be said for entire organizations acting with one will … Any conflict of such duration and scale will … create repercussions that start to chip away at the foundations of sanity itself, and in so doing reveal the inherent delicacy of civilization”.

And so, he absolves Churchill and the US/UK Forces from war crimes. Probably only those who have to fight a war – and win it, will understand that realistic logic. A review of the book in the British magazine The Spectator, however says that given the dreadful facts recounted by McKay, “it is impossible to put aside the question of criminality” — something Churchill escaped.

Other German cities were bombed by air in “purposeful cruelty” – Essen, Pforzheim, Leipzig, Dessau, Wuppertal as the Allies closed in on Berlin 75 years ago. Today, US drones in the air take out Iranian Generals and its Stealth bombers slam projectiles into civilian targets in West Asia. War is ugly.

Just this week, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya, said the UN-backed arms embargo in Libya had become “a joke” and called for accountability on the part of the many countries involved in the conflict, which include the US and UK. So too is the war in Yemen. The irony of Western powers pontificating on war crimes nowadays cannot be missed.


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