• US Congressional Hearing on accountability in Sri Lanka soon
• Channel 4 to release more evidence on White flag case
• Congress does not believe SL Embassy
• Republicans and Democrats concur on Sri Lanka
• India and US on same page regarding alleged war crimes investigations says Blake
* No US support for LTTE agenda
The United States is preparing to hold a congressional hearing on accountability issues in Sri Lanka, Capitol Hill sources told Lanka Independent yesterday.
The decision comes after the congressional authorization committee on Foreign Affairs banned aid to the nation except for humanitarian aid, de-mining and activities to promote democracy and governance.
Steve Chabot Republican representative from Ohio and chairman of the foreign affairs sub committee with jurisdiction over Middle East and South Asia is spear heading the effort to hold the hearing. A date for the hearing has not yet been set but Committee sources told the Lanka Independent it would be sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile demonstrating bipartisan concurrence Congressional sources from both the republican and democratic side said they were unanimous in their condemnation of Sri Lanka’s continuing intransigence over accountability and humanitarian issues.
Unanimous voice vote
Last week (Thursday July 21) the House Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously passed an amendment to cut aid to Sri Lanka. The amendment came even as there was growing concern in Washington over the reluctance of the Rajapakse government to address accountability and impunity issues. The Channel 4 Documentary – Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields which was screened on Capitol Hill on July 15, also had an impact and was certainly part of the reason for the unanimous adoption of the bill. Channel 4 was set to come out with more evidence on the White Flag issue naming names of those allegedly involved in commanding rebels who were surrendering to be shot.
When asked by Lanka Independent what the motivation for the amendment was congressional sources said it was the unsympathetic response by the Rajapakse Government to a series of video evidence. They also said they were motivated by the failure of the Sri Lanka Embassy in the US to explain and engage at public forums which were set up or convened for that purpose, but rather to shut out any discussion by either labeling the evidence fake or by denying the existence of any civilian casualties including calling the war a humanitarian mission.
“Certainly the Channel 4 video screening added fuel to the fire,” Hill sources said.
Not to return to war
The sources also said that the US is concerned with what is being done post insurgency on the principles of clear, hold and build. “It is the hold and build part we are worried about. There has to be real reconciliation to make sure not to return to a war. But the Government does not seem to be handling this well nor creating an environment that ensures an insurgency will not recur.”
US wants lasting peace
They also pointed out that the Rajapakse government while forgetting reconciliation was focusing only on economic
development but for US relations to grow accountability issues must be addressed as well.
Meanwhile policy experts in DC said these were precisely the concerns that propelled cuts in development aid for Sri Lanka while maintaining democracy and governance aid for the nation.
Congressional sources also told Lanka Independent that accountability was flexible in terms of what they meant to ensure reconciliation and the US felt that it was up to the people of the country to decide what was needed to ensure a lasting peace.
Certainly the US message is clear. Would this mean soldiers alleged of war crimes to stand trial? Would it mean a genuine apology so that victims could move on? Could it mean a Truth commission styled engagement rather than the rigid Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that has become a vehicle to push the agenda and opinion of the government and has been denounced by many as a sham? Whatever it means, whatever it takes to achieve true reconciliation, it was up to Sri Lankans to decide.
State department blessings
Be that as it may Lanka Independent learns the amendment on Sri Lanka had the blessings of the State department as well.
Certainly even though last week’s authorization bill dealing with Sri Lanka was a small part of a larger effort to cut foreign spending by the republicans who now control the House, Lanka Independent learns the Sri Lanka issue was not merely part of that general effort to cut Washington spending but a thoughtful and conscious effort to send a message to Sri Lanka.
“There is a growing frustration in Congress with the Rajapakse government, its refusal to address the humanitarian
situation, the limitations in press freedom and the shrinking democratic environment, the growing culture of impunity and consolidation of power by one family,” a congressional source said.
The amendment states the US would only allow aid once the administration certifies progress by Sri Lanka on key concerns including “accountability for those involved in violations of human rights and war crimes at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war,” including members of the defeated rebel Tamil Tigers, an improved climate for freedom of the press, an end to emergency regulations and information from the government on the fate of people unaccounted for at the end of the civil war.
Unlikely to become law
Meanwhile even though the House Foreign Affairs Committee spent two full days and nights marking up the State Department and foreign operations authorization bill, the committee’s ranking member Rep Howard Berman, a democrat for California told media the bill would not be passed and has no chance of becoming law.
General spending cuts
Although the original draft of the bill, included sweeping restrictions on foreign aid to countries around the world, over 100 amendments were introduced by Republican congressmen which Berman said would send an even more harmful signal to the world – namely, that the United States wanted to disengage from international forums and punish countries that don’t always agree with the U.S. government.
While the general spirit of the Bill is in line with House Foreign Affairs Committee Republican Chairperson Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s (Florida) led efforts to slash the US foreign aid budget, especially to countries such as Pakistan working against US interests, the section on Sri Lanka congressional sources repeatedly emphasized to this website was motivated by humanitarian concerns and growing alarm over Sri Lanka’s refusal to address genuine reconciliation efforts.
According to top Congressional sources the US is increasingly worried that a lack of genuine reconciliation by the Rajapakse government will fuel ethnic violence once again and leave room for civil unrest in the future.
In this backdrop it is significant that while Berman as President Obama’s top ranking member is himself opposed to the spending cuts in general it is he who introduced the amendment on Sri Lanka, which was then unanimously passed at 10.30 am on Thursday (21) with the Bill as amended passing at 2.pm. Republican Committee member Steve Chabot also made a statement of support for the amendment it is learnt.
Larger policy issue
Democratic sources pointed out that the very fact that Berman sponsored the amendment on Sri Lanka speaks to the fact that it was not part of a larger policy issue on spending cuts but a genuine and specific effort that had the support of all members of the Committee.
Congressional sources also told Lanka Independent the US felt they had very limited leverage in Sri Lanka and limiting aid was more symbolic rather than substantive at this point.
Indeed the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had requested close to $13 million for Sri Lanka in the 2010 fiscal year. Even if last week’s Bill became law the impact in dollar terms is not astronomical given that the amendment maintains the key areas of support for de-mining, humanitarian assistance and democracy/governance.
The latter in money appropriated to the National Endowment for Democracy ( NED) which funds the National Democratic Institute ( NDI), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).
The bill will reach the floor of the House in September and though the Bill which seeks to slash foreign spending is unlikely to pass, congressional sources said what could happen is that the section on Sri Lanka would be extracted and made a part of a smaller bill as end of year spending vehicles become fraught with politics.
“There is a dilemma in the big picture. We are concerned with governance in Colombo,” Hill sources said.
Reluctance to push to brink
According to sources the United States has been is reluctant to push Sri Lanka to the brink as the US have interests in the country and the region. Apart from a long history of US – Sri Lanka relations and bonds of friendship which the US does not want to fracture, it is concerned by Sri Lanka’s growing ties with China and Iran which Congressional sources say are also of concern to Delhi.
Prior to this months’ visit to India’s South by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Affairs, Robert O Blake, Jr in a media interview said both US and India were on the same page with regard to the investigation of the alleged war crimes. Blake also said both India and the US feel Sri Lanka needs to do more in terms of reconciliation, devolution of power, the election of a new provincial council in the north, and accountability issues.
“So yes, I think we are on the same page. We talk about these things frequently. And I don’t see any significant daylight between the United States and India on this” Blake is quoted as saying.
Indeed congressional sources told Lanka Independent yesterday the wording of the Berman amendment included constructive advise given to the committee by the State department. The United States has been reluctant however to write off Sri Lanka altogether and in the process cede influence over the nation to countries more hostile to their interests.
No US support for LTTE agenda
Meanwhile also of concern are the various interests of lobby groups. Lanka Independent learns that the Tamil Diaspora in the US have been consistently seeking resolutions, letters of support, and legislation on war crimes from Congress. However some of these lobbyists and Tamil activists still seem to speak the language of the LTTE and try to push the agenda of the transnational government and the recognition of a sovereign Tamil State – an issue which foreign policy experts say would never receive the support of the United States or indeed the international community in whatever shape or form. A view confirmed to Lanka Independent by Congressional sources.
Meanwhile human rights activists have also expressed concern that the genuine issues of impunity, accountability , press freedom and alleged war crimes are pushed under as both the Rajapakse government and LTTE remnants engage in a bogus conversation.
The Rajapakse regime is accused of conjuring up imaginary outside threats in order to gain legitimacy and power at home, while some Tamil-Americans are accused of holding on to the pipe dream of a separate state that can never be, South Sudan notwithstanding.
The country’s envoy in Washington Ambassador Jaliya Wickremasuriya who is a cousin of President Rajapakse has been in Sri Lanka while Capitol Hill has been burning over Sri Lanka issues these past two weeks. Reliable sources complain Wickremasuriya’s lobbyist Vinoda Basnayake of the Patton Boggs public policy and lobbying firm on M street to which the Rajapakse government pays a massive retainer, is busy driving his new Porsche and running the bar he own in the US capital.
Congress does not believe embassy
Lanka Independent also reliably learns that while Congress grants access to anyone across the board there has been a growing reluctance among its members to engage with Sri Lanka or present themselves at embassy functions as constant disingenuous posturing has led the members not to believe what the embassy says.
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