Last Sunday (2) morning, American television audiences were treated to a 30 minute long form commercial about Sri Lanka, a place many of them would ever only hear of in passing during their lifetimes.
The infomercial depicts an island paradise, torn apart by ferocious conflict, hurtling forwards economically and socially after the defeat of one of the world’s most brutal terrorist groups. The footage features President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who promises a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the future. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivaard Cabraal and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge also make appearances, brimming with confidence about Sri Lanka’s capacity to inquire into allegations about the final phase of the war, hopes for reconciliation and unparalleled economic growth. The commercial aired soon after Meet the Press, a popular Sunday morning talk show about current affairs that claims significant viewership in the US.
The infomercial was narrated by former CNN correspondent turned Public Relations consultant and corporate advocate, Gene Randall, whose campaigns for corporate players like Chevron following an oil contamination scandal in the Amazon rain forest in Ecuador, have been criticised for “blurring the line between public relations and journalism.”
TAG paid programming
‘Sri Lanka: Reconciling and Rebuilding’, a 28 minute video was paid programming on the US network NBC by the Thompson Advisory Group (TAG), a Washington-based advocacy and strategy group hired by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka last year at a whopping cost of US$ 66,600 (Rs. 8,337,600) per month. TAG is one of at least two US based Lobby firms hired by the Sri Lankan Government at a monumental cost of tens of millions of rupees per year, to build the regime’s credibility with Washington politicians and influential policy makers. Part of TAG’s mandate is to offer alternative perspectives about post-war Sri Lanka and the conduct of its political leadership, in order to stave off international pressure that is building about the lack of progress on its human rights record.
The flashy documentary filmed in Sri Lanka occupied a prime time commercial air slot that is likely to have come at an extravagant cost. But despite the best efforts of TAG, the public relations stunt is unlikely to have had any real impact on opinions that matter in terms of softening positions in Washington about Sri Lanka’s lack of progress on accountability and reconciliation. US cable news shows, aired primarily to target American audiences are well known for their insularity in dealing with global issues. The Sri Lanka problem, though big news in South Asia and certain specific quarters of Washington, is not an issue on the radar of ordinary Americans. Those engaging on the Sri Lanka problem are far too well briefed about the situation on the ground to be taken in by striking presentations and video footage that seeks to change the prevailing international narrative.
Meetings on the Hill
This is exactly what a Government delegation led by Sri Lanka’s top civil servant, Lalith Weeratunga learnt during a late January visit to Washington DC for a series of meetings with US politicians and senior officials. The Rajapaksa Government believed that Weeratunga, with his calm, composed manner and knowledge of the inner workings of the administration was the best man for a difficult job. As head of the taskforce to implement a national action plan of recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, Weeratunga would be able to detail the progress made towards achieving expectations laid out in two resolutions sponsored by the US and adopted by the UNHRC in Geneva in 2012 and 2013.
Contracted by the Central Bank, the Thompson Advisory Group arranged a series of meetings for the Weeratunga delegation that also included the Bank’s Governor Cabraal in the US capital. TAG had organised for the Government delegation to make a presentation on Capitol Hill on 28 January. Members of Congress engaging on the Sri Lanka issue and other officials were invited by TAG to a 90 minute lunch at the Members’ Dining Room at the US Capitol building. The invitation handed out to members by TAG said a former Congressman from Oklahoma would be helping the Sri Lankan Government to make the presentation, according to Inner City Press reports filed from New York. Most invitees to the event were adequately aware of Sri Lanka’s human rights challenges and were able to counter some of the claims being made by the Government delegation with other reports emerging from numerous quarters. Many congressmen and officials remained unconvinced despite the impressive presentations and documentation prepared by TAG and the Sri Lankan delegation.
That would set the tenor of the remainder of the meetings set up by TAG for the visiting Sri Lankan officials, who also met with State Department officials and other groups while in Washington. With none of the meetings proving to be particularly promising in terms of Sri Lanka’s fortunes at the UNHRC in March, the senior officials on the delegation made judgment call regarding the visit of a key US State Department official to Colombo later that week. The members of that Government delegation to Geneva and Washington had included some of President Rajapaksa’s top advisors. Based on the reactions experienced from State Department and other officials during their visit, Weeratunga and Co. advised the President that it would be in his best interest to avoid a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal during her three day visit to the island.
No MR-Biswal meet
Government officials contend that President Rajapaksa was not compelled to grant Biswal a visit, based on protocol considerations. As an Assistant Secretary of the State Department, Biswal’s ranking was too low to automatically guarantee her a meeting with the President. But President Rajapaksa has met before with officials of the same rank, including Biswal’s predecessor, Robert O. Blake. With bilateral relations at such a crucial point, it would not have been unusual for a President to take a meeting with a visiting high official of the State Department despite the protocol, diplomatic sources say.
The meeting with President Rajapaksa was not in Biswal’s schedule, but the official would have been happy to take it had the Presidential Secretariat granted an appointment. However, the President’s office cited scheduling conflicts to avoid the meeting with the US envoy, after advice from the Weeratunga delegation in Washington indicated it would be unwise.
A bad start
It was in this backdrop that Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal, a second generation immigrant from India, landed in Sri Lanka just before dawn last Friday (31). A two day schedule in Colombo and Jaffna meant Biswal had to hit the ground running after the gruelling flight from North America to the Indian subcontinent. The US official’s first meeting was scheduled a few hours after her arrival with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The meeting took the usual turn that it does when visiting foreign dignitaries stop by for talks with the senior Defence official. Far from pleasant, diplomats based in Colombo have grown accustomed to the hostility that is part and parcel of meetings with this particular Government official. For Biswal, on her first visit to Sri Lanka since assuming office late last year, it proved to be a wholly new experience. The US official was to comment privately that it was the first time her career that she had sat in on such a meeting. Headlines in an English daily newspaper the following Monday, had the same official calling Biswal ‘ignorant’ in an apparent indication that the first impressions had been mutually unsatisfactory.
The first of Biswal’s meetings with Rajapaksa Administration officials, as unpleasant as it was, proved to be only the beginning of a series of fairly unproductive meetings with Sri Lankan Ministers holding their ground and accusing Washington of prejudgment and preconceived agendas. In her meeting with External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, he accused the US Government of reacting ‘disproportionately’ to the situation in Sri Lanka. Referring to a major sticking point during the last visit by a US official, Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen J Rapp, Minister Peiris charged that the US Embassy Tweet that claimed hundreds of people had been killed by army shelling at the St. Anthany’s Ground in Mullaitivu reinforced perceptions in the country that the US was unfairly targeting Sri Lanka.
At Biswal’s meeting with Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the equally sticky issue of aid channelling made for uncomfortable discussions. Sri Lanka faces a potential freeze of development assistance to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars from donors across Europe and the United States, because the Government is insisting the money flows through the Treasury and the relevant Government Line Ministries and Agencies. Aid donors have grown increasingly wary of disbursing monies to the Treasury however, because it is difficult to demand accountability later. Donor agencies prefer to disburse funds through accredited non-Government NGOs and grassroots organisations to assist development projects. The Economic Development Minister is a major stumbling block in the ongoing negotiations, according to highly placed diplomatic sources. The Government has a deep mistrust of the NGO sector and prefers to handle the development agenda in a state-centric way. However, with corruption scandals mounting and the Rajapaksa Administration being less and less inclined towards transparent accounting, donor agencies are no longer willing to simply dole out the cash and look the other way. Intractable on the issue, the Government is likely to refuse the donor aid unless it flows through state channels.
“These are not loans, this is basically free money. But the Government does not want it if it does not flow through the Treasury,” said one official with knowledge of the negotiations. Instead, the ruling regime prefers to borrow commercially, even at high lending rates because it can then fully control the purse strings, the official explained.
Nisha Biswal who had landed in Colombo with a relatively open mind, had urged the Tamil National Alliance and other Tamil and minority groups to try and find ways to engage and work with the Government to iron out the issues. But over the course of two days, the US official endured a series of meetings in which Government officials adopted positions of total denial about mounting allegations of human rights, demanded proof when confronted with incidents of intimidation against those who held discussion with visiting foreign officials and flatly refused to move on the issues. During her brief visit to the North, Biswal heard the other side of the story. Disappearances, resettlement issues, land annexation by the state and the oppressive presence of massive numbers of military personnel still in the Province five years after the war remained high priorities for political and civil representatives in the North. The disconnect between these and Government positions back in Colombo, would later prompt the US official to point to the deteriorating human rights climate, falling standards of democratic governance, corruption and impunity in her concluding press conference last weekend.
Referring to meetings with Government officials, Biswal pointed to ‘Frank Discussions’, diplomatic language to illustrate how difficult those talks had been. The US Assistant Secretary was particularly perturbed by the alleged intimidation of persons who had spoken with her in the North, an issue that had been raised previously by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay during her visit to Sri Lanka last August. She included a note on the unacceptability of those incidents in her opening statement to the press last Saturday (1). The issue of alleged intimidation of persons who meet and talk with visiting foreign officials was also taken up directly with senior Government officials who denied the charge vehemently, and demanded proof in order to investigate the allegations. In its retort to Biswal’s comments to the press, the External Affairs Ministry said the alleged threats could be the work of interested parties to bring disrepute to the Government. However, with no Witness Protection laws in place to safeguard those willing to testify, no foreign officials or diplomatic missions are willing to share that information with the Government yet. Witness Protection legislation has been the clarion call by high officials such as Navi Pillay, who insist it is essential to any real truth seeking process Sri Lanka strives to undertake.
The Russell visa tangle
By the end of Biswal’s visit, which would be the highest level visit by any US official in the run up to the March sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva, the strain on relations between Colombo and Washington had become palpable. The US Assistant Secretary’s arrival in Colombo coincided with the Sri Lankan Government decision to deny a visa to the next high level diplomat to arrive in Colombo from Washington, Ambassador at Large for Women’s Affairs, Catherine Russell.
Ambassador Russell whose visa was applied for on 27 January, had her application refused on 31 January. The Ministry of External Affairs denied the visa had been refused, despite the claim by the US Embassy, and insisted it was merely a scheduling difficulty for Minister Peiris. It was however the first time Sri Lanka had turned down a visit by such a senior US diplomat and suggested that a certain frost had set in between the two capitals in the aftermath of the Rapp visit and the Weeratunga Delegation visit to the US. Irked by this rejection, Biswal raised the Russell visa issue at every one of her meetings with Government officials, to little avail. Ambassador Russell’s visit to Sri Lanka, which would have included a meeting with the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in Colombo and a visit to Jaffna, was cancelled by the Embassy. However, the refusal of her visa has piqued the interest of the diplomat who focuses on Gender issues. The Embassy is likely to arrange a video conference between Russell and the Women’s Caucus during the Ambassador’s tour of the region next week or once she returns to Washington.
Pre-Geneva diplomatic flurry
Assistant Secretary Biswal meanwhile, headed to London for meetings with British Minister of State at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Hugo Swire, most of which centred on the Sri Lanka issue. In Geneva soon afterwards, Biswal focused almost entirely on the US position on Sri Lanka during the UNHRC March session with the US delegation there and permanent representatives from other ‘like-minded’ nations. These discussions become crucial in the lead up to March, as Washington prepares to gather co-sponsors for the Sri Lanka resolution as it has twice before already.
With just over a month left until sessions commence in Geneva where it is likely to face its toughest international challenges yet, the Rajapaksa Administration appears to have decided that it will choose belligerence over real engagement on the issues. The Government believes it may as well write off any real cooperation from Washington and its time ahead of the UNHRC session is better spent courting the support of voting member states to combat a tough resolution from the US. The decision that the Sri Lankan Government no longer wants to be lectured to by Washington, appears to have prompted the rejection of Ambassador Russell’s visa to Colombo, authoritative sources said. Minister Peiris has complained publicly that Sri Lanka was being forced to defend itself against allegation of human rights and war crimes every six months because of the pursuits of groups with vested interests. Geneva 2014, as far as the Government is concerned, is just a hurdle it needs to cross as an annual practice.
But unbeknownst to Colombo perhaps, the storm clouds gathering are blacker than they appear. While the Government cries foul and blames its problems on an unjust world, all the while continuing to flout the values and norms of democratic and civilised governance and permitting the erosion of the rights of minority communities, it has also crossed a seemingly invisible line over this past year. Beginning in 2014, the diplomatic battle of wills in Geneva – which Sri Lanka has lost twice over already – will not be the only major international challenge. For the first time in five years that the Sri Lanka issue has been raised at the UNHRC March session in Geneva, the Government’s problem will not end there.
Hemmed in on every side, Sri Lanka will be elated if it manages to avoid a call for an international inquiry into war crimes in the March resolution. Such a call remains exceedingly uncertain, despite mounting pressure for just such an international mechanism across the world. A tough resolution in Geneva would prevent broad consensus from member states at the Council, something the US Government has made central to each of its resolutions on Sri Lanka in years past. International inquiries cost vast sums of money that member states will be loathe to fork out in an indefensible hurry. Other member states will be equally hesitant to set precedents about being overzealous regarding human rights and international inquiries. The resolution’s investigation clause therefore is in no way a foregone conclusion.
Irrespective of the Geneva outcome therefore, internationally a series of steps are in the offing to attempt to press Sri Lanka to abide by its international obligations. These steps will not necessarily unfold in a multi-lateral forum. Some of Sri Lanka’s closest and most crucial allies are increasingly frustrated by both the Government’s lack of progress and its increasing hostility towards international players who demand it lives up to its commitments on peace-building and accountability.
As concerned as the Government is about avoiding an overly harsh resolution at the UNHRC in March therefore, that may be the least of its worries going forward.
The trouble with the Rajapaksa administration is that it believes the show is everything; that foreign policy-making in an era of major international challenges can be reduced to glitzy slide-shows and public relations stunts. That ship, by all indications, may have sailed.
(Courtesy Daily FT)