U.S. tells Gotabaya Rajapaksa to uphold human rights commitments

The U.S. has called upon Sri Lanka’s new President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to uphold Sri Lanka’s commitments to human rights and non-recurrence of violence, saying it stands ready to work with him.

“The United States congratulates the people of Sri Lanka on their democratic election and stands ready to work with Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the new President of Sri Lanka,” a statement from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo on Monday, released to The Hindu, said. The statement did not congratulate Mr. Gotabaya himself directly, although it “applauded” the Election Commission, civil society and “the candidates themselves” for promoting peaceful elections.

“We call on President Rajapaksa to uphold Sri Lanka’s commitments to security sector reform, accountability, respect for human rights, and non-recurrence of violence. Sri Lanka continued to show the strength and resiliency of its democracy with a free, fair, and transparent presidential election befitting Asia’s oldest democracy,” the statement said.

Mr. Gotabaya has a reputation for ruthlessness — he is accused of war crimes for his role during the civil war in Sri Lanka. Admired by many in the Buddhist Sinhalese community, Mr. Gotabaya runs a trust deficit with Tamil and Muslim communities whose vote largely went to his electoral opponent, Sajith Premadasa. The new President has cases against him in the U.S., including for torture.

Mr. Gotabaya’s own human rights record is not the only cause for Washington’s wariness of the new government in Colombo.

China’s influence

The U.S.- Sri Lanka relationship has been challenging, with China making inroads into the country during the 2005-2015 term of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mr. Gotabaya’s brother, when Sri Lanka drifted towards Beijing rather than New Delhi or Washington.

Specifically, the U.S. has been concerned about some countries in the Indo-Pacific region accumulating unsustainable debt and getting into ‘debt traps’ with China’s infrastructure and development projects as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing has pumped billions of dollars into infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka — most notably the Hambantota Port, which a Chinese state owned enterprise took a majority stake in, in 2017, in a debt-equity swap. The Chinese also got operating rights for the port under a 99-year lease.

“Sri Lanka is a valued partner, and we want to work with the government and people of Sri Lanka to advance cooperation on bilateral and regional issues, including fostering a free and open Indo-Pacific region where all countries can prosper, deepening good governance, and promoting justice, reconciliation, and human rights,” Mr. Pompeo’s statement said.

The return of the Rajapaksa clan could pose a challenge for the U.S.’s “free and open” Indo-Pacific policy.

A case in point is the proposed rollout of development projects funded by a $480 loan from U.S. aid body the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The MCC funding has been protested, turning it into an election issue. The Wickremesinghe government had said a final decision would be taken after consultations following the elections. Buddhist monks, who have strongly supported the Rajapaksa brothers, are among those who have been in opposition to the MCC.

With Mr. Gotabaya now in the President’s seat, the rollout of the MCC project may be all the more challenging.

“The U.S. will worry about two issues: human rights and governance and ties with China. The Rajapaksas have claimed they have learned from the past about over reliance on China but their track record is uninspiring. There is little reason to expect any positive movement on human rights or reconciliation,” Paul Staniland, a South Asia specialist and academic at the University of Chicago, told The Hindu.

“But American interests in competing with China may limit Washington’s interest in pushing too hard on human rights, especially in a Trump administration,” Mr. Staniland said.

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 8:57:28 AM |

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