Sri Lankan soldiers (Ishara S.Kodikara/AFP)

Sri Lankan soldiers (Ishara S.Kodikara/AFP)

Nineteenth-century moral timidity and sovereign accommodationalism was spotlighted on Tamil human rights in Sri Lanka on Thursday, November 17 by Robert O. Blake, former Ambassador to Sri Lanka and current Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Blake spoke to University of Virginia students and faculty in Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda at the same podium occupied three days earlier by a more outspoken and morally forceful former president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, a major executive player during the war that ended finally after 26 years in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers and the deaths of as many as 40,000 non-combatant Tamil citizens in May, 2009. The question tacitly raised between the two appearances was: whose ideal and efforts best represent the worldwide public interest in human rights?

Represented by Blake was an Obama administration bound in a pattern set virtually as in concrete through an anti-terrorist alliance with the Sri Lankan government. The allied relationship with the leaders of the island nation has made the United States shy about showing visible moral leadership on inclusive human rights principles and building humanitarian bridges with the Tamil minority, as if they are viewed by the United States as unreconstructable handmaidens of terrorism.

The collective punishment and assumed collective guilt of the Tamil people has continued as if the Tiger leadership had not been defeated and killed, and the Tamils had voted for the Tigers enthusiastically instead of being oppressed by them. The Tamil people were dependent on the Tiger leaders for protection much as the people of Iran have become dependent on—and under the dominance of—the Revolutionary Guard, whether or not they would prefer something else if they had the power to establish it.

The role of the Tigers in the Tamil areas of northern Sri Lanka has been compared to other violent oppressions ranging from the Mafia in Sicily, the Irish Republican Army in northern Ireland (with which a relationship existed partly because of common Catholic connections), the Haqqani network in Waziristan, the Al Qaeda element in Yemen, and Al Shebab in Somalia. Often Sri Lankan officials have found these comparisons convenient to their purposes and U.S. officials have bought into them, despite clear differences. Some have argued the Tigers would have helped themselves if they had not made methodological mistakes against their own interests. Instead of helping to build bridges of support with others, their tactics served to isolate them further. For example, even Tigers realized the death of Rajiv Ghandi served no useful Tiger purpose and alienated potential supporters.

U.S. policymakers have lumped many diverse groups together on their list of terrorist organizations, and only rarely do any redeem themselves with a careful understanding and discussion of all the underlying issues. If they were to do that, they could assemble the knowledge needed to repair the troubles in less costly ways than have been used. Through denial of the need to improve U.S. policy and the understandings supporting it, repair is retarded and the likelihood of increased trouble in the future is increased. Throughout the post-World War II era fear of Communism and misunderstanding of more important issues resulted in costly failures in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and now terrorism is viewed as a similarly alien ideology, not as a tactic, and that has led to ineffective policy, dysfunctional and counter-productive methods, and lost opportunities.

Because U.S. leaders have been unsympathetic to most insurgencies, they fail to correctly understand the motives undergirding them and the best way to resolve them. As decades of policy have shown in many places, they have preferred working with autocrats as a way of containing or preventing insurgency, and the uncertainties of left-wing democracies have been similarly viewed as a threat. Libya was an exception, but Obama has also been a bit different from his predecessors in some places. He has taken heat for it, and that has made him shy, at least during the political campaign season for the 2012 election. For good or ill, the U.S. has mostly defended established power much as King George III did in 1776. This has caused those with a hope for justice, sustainable opportunity, and rights of self-determination to view the United States as a road block, not as a potential benefactor.

Sometimes failure to act at all has discredited U.S. motives and sense of responsibility for international justice and human rights as the last remaining superpower. This oblivious U.S. image has been prominently seen in U.S. relations with Sri Lanka, but more, it represents a lost opportunity to place the needs of people ahead of economic and political convenience, emphasis on ideology, and short-term interests. The result is increased cynicism in many places, less respect for U.S. democracy, and greater danger from a variety of conflicts in the future. Instead of setting a valuable example about how to resolve conflict and providing leadership for others to follow, a pass has been taken.

Against this background, the U.S. attitude toward the post-war Tamil need, as made clear by Blake even 30 months later, diverged from the view of the philosophically reflective former Sri Lankan president. Despite her inability to deliver peace when in office, Kumaratunga cast herself as a Sri Lankan Jimmy Carter providing better post-presidential moral leadership than was manifested previously. Speaking out for pluralism, reconciliation, diversity, and inclusion of the minorities, Kumaratunga delivered captivating and artful idealism in response to the real limitations and political handicaps revealed when the nation’s military was at her disposal and her policies were more pugnacious.

Ambassador Blake was also a key player during the conflict, but he is still in a policy role. Because of this role, he lacked a similarly progressive preachment liberal Democrats might think he should have offered, given the change they thought they had voted for. Instead of gratifying human rights advocates at the University of Virginia, he sat like a constrained bug in an enveloping spider web of controlling regional relationships and anti-terrorist commitments he could not seem to escape. Domestic politics seemed to be a factor.

In response to questions after his wide-ranging talk, mostly about relations with other nations in the south and east Asian region and the then just announced Obama Asian Pacific initiative, Blake revealed an Obama-Biden-Clinton administration waiting for the Sri Lankan government to change on its own a negligently unconstructive and punitive policy leaving the Tamil people living in a virtual police state imprisoned under one soldier for every ten citizens. The policy could only be logical if a Phoenix-like reemergence of the Tigers was considered a realistic, rationally dangerous, and an imminent threat. Otherwise, it would appear to be excessively punitive and retributive and collectively punitive and retributive.

Unaddressed under this preoccupation are more than a half-century of unresolved human rights abuses needing attention and reconciliation before a unified nation can be built. Also missing is the failure to take responsibility for the civilian deaths resulting during and immediately after the final fighting in early 2009. The conflict began after national independence in 1948 in abusive inter-ethnic hostility that grew mutually worse, and the current policies of the Sri Lankan government seem dedicated to continue that tradition as if it cannot be ended anymore than a patient might accept an organ transplant from an incompatible alien donor. In tacit acceptance of the Sri Lankan government agenda, U.S. policy is unconstructive for both the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka and for the world’s interest in the human rights principle of sustaining better ways to resolve conflict.

Blake and others in the State Department previously called for the Sri Lankan government to produce a “credible report” in its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) document presented to President Mahinda Rajapaksa on November 20, but they did not get it. Accordingly, the U.S. request has been viewed as toothless and ignored. The document is viewed by human rights NGOs active in Sri Lanka as a government whitewash, failing to deliver a Truth and Reconciliation process following the South African model. Neither the appointed Commission members nor the charge given to them lent the project credibility in their collective view, and thus, the United States is seen as a patsy.

A majority of the members of the commission are close associates of the nation’s president, and that alone immediately undermined credibility. From the start of the documented process, the commission revealed a mission inconsistent with the ideal of “reconciliation,” one even the State Department had faulted, but U.S. officials still failed to maintain continuous pressure to repair the observed shortcomings. Instead, they waited patiently hoping a flawed commission could produce a satisfactory report. U.S. officials handled the process as if they were relating to the government of Israel under all the conditions of domestic political pressure long dominating that relationship—without regard for the national and international interest in producing tangible progress.

The release of the LLRC document now calls upon the State Department to respond to Blake’s prior statement expecting “pressure for some sort of alternative mechanism” if the report was not credible; but in the face of this need, the accommodationalist U.S. policy has conveyed internal weakness, and it has weakened the broad international human rights interest by delaying action. The hope for a final LLRC report taking the United States and others, including the U.N., off the moral hook was not realized, and it was never likely to be.

Further, failure of the U.N. and the international community to demand and successfully obtain an independent war crimes investigation following the end of the war has showed human rights concerns as a fair-weather policy interest, more likely to be deployed when it is easy than when big power interests and anti-terrorist ideology divert policy unconstructively. With human rights marginalized, as if they were a Pollyanna project and not democratic and humanitarian necessity, affirmative reconciliation with victimized people has been prevented by objectives of repression, not by desire to restore justice.

Sri Lanka’s President Rajapaksa has stood against western human rights demands in the past, viewing them as an imperialist vestige, and this has proved popular among the nation’s Sinhalese majority, but it works against minority integration and establishment of a pluralist nation appreciating and honoring its own diversity. The popularity of the Rajapaksa administration and its parliamentary majority with its core Sinhala constituency has been taken as a mandate to ignore Tamil rights including those abuses magnified during the fighting in 2009, but also illuminated before that. As their way to address the need to integrate Tamil and Muslim minorities, Sri Lankan officials have sought to erase competing ethnic identity, and U.S. policy suggests a similar melting-pot preference.