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Biden’s Foreign Policy, Human Rights and Sri Lanka



by Rajan Philips

Human Rights are among what has been called the “seven pillars” of President Biden’s foreign policy. The new President, who is really a very old hand “in the sausage-making process of foreign policy” through his long involvement in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered his first major policy statement on February 4, at the State Department. “America is back,” Biden declared, in clear repudiation of Trump’s ‘America First’ unilateralism. The choice of venue also signaled the return to institutional governance after four years of egotistical aberrations. Every American institution suffered under Trump, but none more than the State Department, traditionally the highest ranked in the Executive Branch.

Trumps’ foreign policy agents, from the Secretary of State George Mike Pompeo to UN Ambassador Nicky Hayley, had little background or even literacy in international affairs. Hayley’s “cesspool” comment about the UNHRC was typical of Trump staffers making speeches not to persuade the audiences they were addressing but to please the boss watching them on Fox News at the White House. Now, as part of the Biden Administration’s emphasis on Human Rights, America is back at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, even though the US is not among the current 47 country Members of its Council.

America’s exit from UNHRC under Trump and its return to the agency under Biden have been having political echo-effects in Sri Lanka. America’s position at UNHRC looms very much larger in Sri Lankan politics than Sri Lanka would ever figure in American foreign policy calculations. That is part of the natural order of things in a world of grossly unequal power relationships. As well, speculating about the motives of the US or other ‘core countries’ is not going to help Sri Lanka in its dealings with the UNHRC. Regardless of what the US says or does, Sri Lanka is stuck with the UNHRC for the foreseeable time unless and until the Sri Lankan government enlightens itself to find an internal solution to its external problem, which in itself is the externalization of a much older internal problem.

The reason why Sri Lanka is stuck in Geneva is not only because of its postwar hangovers but also because – as the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reminded Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Mohan Pieris: “it is important to recognize that in today’s world there is a growing concern and interest including international institutes from the human rights and legal dimensions on post conflict situations, mainly reconciliation and accountability.” The reminder was a rejoinder to Mr. Pieris’ needless intervention during a special session of the General Assembly for the presentation of the Secretary General’s Annual Report on January 28.

His pique was that his government was not being “made to feel that we are in it together” with the rest of the world because “the global temperature for Sri Lanka, particularly in the Human Rights Council has been maintained at an all time high.” The Secretary General assured the Ambassador that outside involvement will disappear when the Sri Lankan government starts responding substantially to questions of reconciliation and justice in Sri Lanka. It is now 12 years since the war ended and the first UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka was passed. More than anyone else in the world, the people of Sri Lanka deserve a substantial response from their government.

The fault of the previous government was in co-sponsoring the 2015 UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka while utterly failing to do anything substantially within the country either to win support for it among the Sinhalese, or to do anything significant to address the postwar difficulties in the northern and eastern provinces. The present government, for all the expectations that were invested on it, appears to be totally at sixes and sevens not only in Geneva but in every department of governance in Colombo. I am not imagining anything ridiculous to lampoon the government. The government’s key supporters, its protective commentators and even government ministers are getting frustrated with the ways the government is misfiring on all fronts and on all cylinders. And they are venting their frustrations, albeit for different reasons and for different purposes.


The global context

Specific to Geneva and the UNHRC, it is difficult to imagine that the government has anything smart up its sleeve or can find a way to extricate itself from the quasi-legal tangles that it has gotten itself into. More seriously, and tragically, it is difficult to expect this government to find an internal solution to our national problem, or its external manifestation at the UNHRC forum. In a way, Sri Lanka has lurched from the inept globalism of the previous government to the autarkic incompetence of the present. But there is no running away from the global context which insofar as Sri Lanka is concerned is heavily loaded with human rights considerations given the country’s postwar hangovers.

There is no question that the global context of human rights is not a level playing field. And President Biden is already showing that America will not engage with all countries equally. Saudi Arabia is more equal than others. Biden acted swiftly to end support to military operations in Yemen which has been devastated for seven years by the Saudi led war. The US will now shift to humanitarian operations. He informed the Saudis that he will only be dealing with King Salman and not the notorious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). He made public the American intelligence report, that Trump had suppressed, implicating MBS in the killing of Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Washington Post journalist was killed and dismembered like in medieval times but with modern electrical knives in the Saudi Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, in October 2018. But President Biden will not move to sanction the culpable prince. Saudi Arabia is too important an ally in the Middle East power game. So, thus far and no further, insofar as ‘recalibrating’ the US relationship with Saudi Arabia goes. Many of Biden’s supporters including White House staffers are not happy. Welcome to old school realpolitik.

But in a sign of the times, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has filed a compliant of over 300 pages with the German office of the Federal Prosecutor accusing the Saudi Prince and his associates of crimes against humanity. Such litigations were made possible by Germany’s Code of Crimes Against International Law (VStGB), which became law in 2002, allowing prosecution of crimes outside Germany and not involving Germans. Last month, a German court convicted a former Syrian secret service member of crimes against humanity. These indications are baby steps in transnational justice and universal jurisdiction.

The appropriate venue for trying the Saudi Prince is the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. But as a “treaty-based court” created by the 1998 Rome Conference, it cannot try a Saudi as Saudi Arabia is not a signatory or ratifier of the ICC, unless the case is referred to it by the Security Council. That is hardly possible because three permanent members of the Security Council, with veto powers, have not ratified the ICC. Of the 12 investigation initiated by the ICC only three are outside Africa (Myanmar, Georgia and Libya). All the others are African countries, many of them on self-referral in what is known as “out-sourcing” justice by African countries to resolve internal disputes.


Colonial Continuity

In her January 2021 report on Sri Lanka, High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet outlines the options available to Member states for taking action against Sri Lanka, including referral (by another state) to the International Criminal Court, taking actions in their own national courts under universal jurisdiction, and applying targeted sanctions against state officials. But only targeted sanctions are included in the recommendations. Neither ICC referral nor action under universal jurisdiction is carried into the recommendations. The choices are indicative of the need for consensus even among the core countries. And universal jurisdiction is easier suggested than achieved. Already courts in the UK (2010), Australia (2011) and the US (2012) have rejected lawsuits and arrest requests against then President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The problem for the government in the Commissioner’s 2021 report stems from its own actions and inactions during the last 15 months. These actions are seen by the Commissioner as “Emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability, and human rights.” The government protests too much that the Commissioner has no business in the country’s ongoing domestic matters, but it cannot pretend that the ongoing militarization, constitutional aberrations, setting up presidential commissions, and the alienation of religious minorities are all meant for the well-being of the people and the protection of their rights and interests.

The government considers the draft resolution based on the Commissioner’s report to be too much or too strong. On the other hand, the more ardent Tamil groups consider it to be too weak or too little, and a dilution of the Commissioner’s report. We do not know what the final resolution might turn out to be, but we can be sure that this is not going to be the end of it all.

In a way, what is being contested in Geneva can be seen as a continuation of the contest that began at least over 70 years ago in the twilight years of colonial rule. That was when the island’s political leaders communally jostled for post-independence power and position by submitting petitions and making special pleadings before the departing rulers. Perhaps the most dramatic forum where these contests played out before independence was the Soulbury Commission. And the most dramatic persona who stole everyone’s thunder, but actually accomplished little with his fifty-fifty cry was GG Ponnambalam.

Ponnambalam’s appearance before the Commission was all drama and eloquence and has for long been the stuff of Tamil political lore. As EFC Ludowyk, then Professor of English, would later critically record it for history, Ponnambalam “was responsible for several hours of impassioned oratory that enthused his supporters, but failed to persuade the tribunal which he exhorted.” The Soulbury Commission was quietly persuaded by the Board of Ministers to accept the constitutional proposals that Sir Ivor Jennings had prepared for them. Ponnambalam would eventually become a powerful minister in the first Senanayake government after independence. Then everything fell apart. Seventy years later, there is little drama in Geneva and the roles are somewhat reversed. The same contest continues, however, but with different actors and in the new language of human rights .

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Foreign policy dilemmas increase for the big and small



‘No responsible American President can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ This pronouncement by US President Joe Biden should be interpreted as meaning that the supporting of human rights everywhere will be a fundamental focus of US foreign policy. Accordingly, not only the cause of the Armenians of old but the situation of the Muslim Uyghurs of China will be principal concerns for the Biden administration.

However, the challenge before the US would be take this policy stance to its logical conclusion. For example, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most heinous crimes to be committed by a state in recent times but what does the Biden administration intend to do by way of ensuring that the criminals and collaborators of the crime are brought to justice? In other words, how tough will the US get with the Saudi rulers?

Likewise, what course of action would the US take to alleviate the alleged repression being meted out to the Uyghurs of China? How does it intend to take the Chinese state to task? Equally importantly, what will the US do to make light the lot of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? These are among the most urgent posers facing the US in the global human rights context.

Worse dilemmas await the US in Africa. Reports indicate that that the IS and the Taliban have begun to infiltrate West Africa in a major way, since they have been compelled to vacate the Middle East, specially Syria and Iraq. West African countries, such as, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania are already facing the IS/Taliban blight. The latter or their proxies are in the process heaping horrendous suffering on the civilian populations concerned. How is the US intending to alleviate the cruelties being visited on these population groups. Their rights are of the first importance. If the US intends to project itself as a defender of rights everywhere, what policy program does it have in store for Africa in this connection?

It does not follow from the foregoing that issues of a kindred kind would not be confronting the US in other continents. For example, not all is well in Asia in the rights context. With the possible exception of India, very serious problems relating to democratic development bedevil most Asian states, including, of course, Sri Lanka. The task before any country laying claims to democratic credentials is to further the rights of its citizens while ensuring that they are recipients of equitable growth. As a foremost champion of fundamental rights globally, it would be up to the US to help foster democratic development in the countries concerned. And it would need to do so with an even hand. It cannot be selective in this undertaking of the first importance.

The US would also from now on need to think long and deep before involving itself militarily in a conflict-ridden Southern country. Right now it is up against a policy dilemma in Afghanistan. It is in the process of pulling out of the country after 20 years but it is leaving behind a country with veritably no future. It is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban once again and the commentator is right in saying that the US did not achieve much by way of bringing relief to the Afghan people.

However, the Biden administration has done somewhat well in other areas of state concern by launching a $1.9 trillion national economic and social resuscitation program, which, if effectively implemented could help the US people in a major way. The administration is also living up to the people’s hopes by getting under way an anti-Covid-19 vaccination program for senior US citizens. These ventures smack of social democracy to a degree.

The smaller countries of South Asia in particular ought to be facing their fair share of foreign policy quandaries in the wake of some of these developments. India, the number one power of the region, is in the throes of a major health crisis deriving from the pandemic but it is expected to rebound economically in an exceptional way and dominate the regional economic landscape sooner rather than later.

For example, the ADB predicts India will recover from an 8% contraction in fiscal 2020 and grow by 11% and 7% this year and next year. South Asia is expected to experience a 9.5% overall economic expansion this year but it is India that will be the chief contributor to this growth. A major factor in India’s economic fortunes will be the US’ stimulus package that will make available to India a major export market.

For the smaller states of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, the above situation poses major foreign policy implications. While conducting cordial and fruitful relations with China is of major importance for them, they would need to ensure that their relations with India remain unruffled. This is on account of their dependence on India in a number of areas of national importance. Since India is the predominant economic power in the region, these smaller states would do well to ensure that their economic links with India continue without interruption. In fact, they may need to upgrade their economic ties with India, considering the huge economic presence of the latter. A pragmatic foreign policy is called for since our biggest neighbour’s presence just cannot be ignored.

The Sri Lankan state has reiterated its commitment to an ‘independent foreign policy’ and this is the way to go but Sri Lanka would be committing a major policy mistake by tying itself to China too closely in the military field. This would send ‘the wrong signal’ to India which is likely to be highly sensitive to the goings-on in its neighbourhood which, for it, have major security implications. A pragmatic course is best.

In terms of pragmatism, the Maldives are forging ahead, may be, in a more exceptional manner than her neighbours. Recently, she forged closer security cooperation with the US and for the Maldives this was the right way to go because the move served her national interest. And for any state, the national interest ought to be of supreme importance.

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A Sri Lankan centre for infective disease control and prevention



The need of the hour:

BY Dr B. J. C. Perera

MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)

Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

On 01st July 1946, the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) of the United States of America opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta, Georgia. Its primary mission was simple, yet highly challenging. It was to prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. Armed with a budget of only 10 million US dollars, and fewer than 400 employees, the agency’s early tasks included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war on mosquitoes.

It later advanced, slightly changed its name, and transformed itself into the much-acclaimed and reputed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It became a unique agency with an exceptional mission. They work 24/7 to protect the safety, health and security of America from threats there and around the world. Highest standards of science are maintained in this institution. CDC is the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health. For more than 70 years, they have put science into action to help children stay healthy so they can grow and learn, to help families, businesses, and communities fight disease and stay strong and to protect the health of the general public. Their are a bold promise to the nation, and even the world. With this strategic framework, CDC commits to save American lives by securing global health and America’s preparedness, eliminating disease, and ending epidemics. In a landmark move, the CDC even established a Central Asia regional office at the U.S. Consulate in Kazakhstan in 1995 and have been involved in public health initiatives in that region.

More recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), was established. It is an agency of the European Union, aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases. The core functions cover a wide spectrum of activities such as surveillance, epidemic intelligence, response, scientific advice, microbiology, preparedness, public health training, international relations, health communication, and the scientific journal Eurosurveillance.

Still later on, the African CDC (ACDC) was born. It strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, as well as partnerships, to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

All these organisations are autonomous, independent, and are confidently dedicated to hold science to be sacred. They play a major role in advocacy and work in a committed advisory capacity. With the cataclysmic effects of the current coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the contributions made by these institutions are priceless. What is quite important is that they are able to provide specific recommendations based on the latest scientific information available for countries and nations in their regions, even taking into account the many considerations that are explicit and even unique to their regions. All these organisations have been provided with optimal facilities and human resources. The real value of their contribution is related to just one phenomenon: AUTONOMY.

Well…, isn’t it the time for us to start a Sri Lankan Centre for Infective Disease Control and Prevention (SLCIDC)? It should be formulated as an agency constantly striving, day in and day out, to safeguard the health of the public. Science and unbending commitment to evaluation of research on a given topic should be their operating mantra. It would work as a completely apolitical organisation and what we can recommend is that it would be directly under the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, unswervingly reporting to and accountable to the President. It would consist of medical doctors, scientists and researchers but no politicians of any sort, no non-medical or non-scientist persons, no hangers on and no business persons. All appointments to the SLCIDC will be made by the President of the country, perhaps in consultation with medical professional organisations.

The prime duty of the SLCIDC would be to assess the on-going situation of any infective issue that has any effect on the health of the public. The organisation will undertake in-depth examination and assessment of a given situation caused by an infective organism. They need to have all relevant data from within the country as well as from outside the country. There will not be any vacillation of the opinions expressed by them and their considered views should not be coloured by any consideration apart from science and research done locally and worldwide. Their considered opinion would be conveyed directly to the President of the country. They are free to issue statements to keep the public informed about the results of their deliberations.

We believe that it would be a step in the right direction; perhaps even a giant step for our nation, not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but also on any major problems of an infective nature that might occur in the future.


This writer wishes to acknowledge a colleague, a Consultant Physician, who first mooted this idea during a friendly conversation.

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Kudurai Madiri Pona



The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally, and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all waited for so long to see. As the years roll by, none would talk of delays regarding the delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a blackboard, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and, perhaps rewrite all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.

Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps, Luke would, too, and this story is about him. Luke of yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way, writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.

Luke was from Johor Baru, in Malaysia. His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula. Luke was named after one of the four Gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym, I use just to give him some anonymity. Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumple stiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.

We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College, and yours truly, as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747. The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul,he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.

His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane, all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like an Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job.

The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.

That’s when I decided to change the tide.

‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.

‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.

“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.”

That was it. We flew, over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the overcrowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.

On the way back, we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground. I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem, Captain.”

I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in at the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hopalong Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying, this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.

That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training, the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.

The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger, too, with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said, ‘Amen’.

I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me. Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said,

“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.

I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380 one day. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.

Kudurai Madiri Pona

– ride it like a horse. Some flying lesson.

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