In recent days, Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. has really stirred things up in Sri Lanka. She seems to have met virtually all of the key political players and the optics of her visit to the Northern Province were especially good. From the looks of it, Power left the island looking like a bit of a rock star.
While it’s easy to appreciate the fact that her agenda was wide-ranging, it’s important to keep in mind that, in President Barack Obama’s White House, very few people actually have control over foreign policy. This means that, for the duration of Obama’s time in office, the trajectory of U.S.-Sri Lanka ties will probably be determined by a small group of people. In essence, optics matter, yet let’s not conflate optics with policy.
So where do we go from here?
Power’s visit is indeed a welcome gesture. Nonetheless, now’s the time to see whether Washington’s continued engagement with Colombo is predicated upon a mix of pragmatism and ideals. Now is not the time for the U.S. to deprioritize the issues which could help heal a war-torn nation. Transitional justice, including accountability (for wartime abuses), simply cannot wait.
Put more directly, Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated state has never treated Tamils well. There’s now a chance (however small) that that may be changing, although virtually all of the work remains to be done. Without question, some skepticism is warranted.
The administration of President Maithripala Sirisena could start by finally moving on core issues that matter to the Tamil community, including Tamil political prisoners, demilitarization and land. It could follow that up with a comprehensive explanation of how consultative transitional justice processes will work in practice. Speaking clearly about a lasting political solution would be helpful as well.
Sri Lanka watchers should hope that Washington remembers the importance of promoting human rights, truth and justice beyond its borders — however flawed such an endeavor may be. At this juncture, it’s hard to ignore Power’s larger contribution to debates about how the international community could and should prevent mass atrocities.
The bitter truth is this: as a country Sri Lanka has never properly functioned for its numerical minorities. If the Sirisena administration proves unwilling or unable to make tangible progress, then the need to pursue other avenues for justice and lasting peace only becomes more urgent.
Tamils in particular deserve so much more than the status quo. (Huffington Post)