By Satheesan Kumaaran
His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Executive President of Sri Lanka, with a 40-member delegation, went to Britain on November 29, 2010, to deliver a speech at the Oxford Union, but the trip was a total flop after the Tamil Diaspora came out to Britain’s streets demanding that the British government arrest them for war crimes. The disappointed President returned home with his team in fear of arrest by Britain. Yet, he did not learn a lesson. He made a surprise so-called “private” visit to the US, this time with a 20-member delegation on January 19, 2011, and the Tamil Diasporas did not allow the war criminal to enjoy the trip. Even if humans tolerate war criminals like Mahinda Rajapaksa, no doubt the ghosts would not release them go free around the world to justify their actions.
Tamil Americans were exerting pressure upon the Obama administration to deport him with conditions saying that the Rajapaksa government should either allow an international investigation team to investigate the mass murders and other human rights abuses instigated upon tens of thousands of Tamils on the last phase of Eelam War IV, or arrest him and investigate him in the US.
Enough Tamil blood has stained the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa to qualify him as a perpetrator of ethnic cleansing. Well over 30,000 innocent Tamils were massacred in the final stages of the war that ended in May 2009. LTTE political leaders like P. Nadesan were asked to surrender with a white-flag and then were shot and killed upon surrender. Wives of the LTTE leaders who had given testimonies to the partial investigation team appointed by the Sri Lankan State Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) said that they had witnessed that their family members and friends taken away or shot and killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces.
The killing of five Trincomalee students in January 2006, the killing of 17 Action contre la faim (ACF) workers in August 2006, and the killing of 61 Tamil School Children at Sencholai Orphanage in August 2006 are just a few mass murders carried out by the Sri Lankan armed forces. Hospitals were repeatedly bombed and food was prevented from reaching trapped Tamil civilians.
According to the United Nations, many Tamils died due to starvation. The International Red Cross (ICRC) was prevented from treating injured civilians, resulting in numerous people having bled to death. When Tamil civilians fled, they were kept in concentration camps. Several were taken from these camps and executed. Women were raped. Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his capacity as head of State and in his role as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, bears primary responsibility for the perpetration of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against Tamil civilians. He and others responsible for these monstrous crimes should be brought to book.
What caused Rajapaksa to make such surprise visit?
Rajapaksa left with his team for the US on January 19th around 2 a.m. on a 10-day trip and had a chartered flight to Dubai and from there directly to the US on a commercial carrier. He had also made a sudden trip to the US last year in January, just after winning the presidential election. Since then, he refrained from visiting the US for various reasons. He knew very well that he was facing enormous pressure from the Obama administration to cooperate with the international community, especially the UN, to allow the UN investigators to investigate into the war crime abuses, but Rajapaksa kept opposing the US demands for allowing the UN investigation team inside Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa, just to hoodwink the international community, formed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), headed by former Attorney General C. R.de Silva, to hear the complaints of the witnesses of the war which came to an end in May 2009. This commission is nothing but a white-wash commission, a tool to counter the rising demands from the international community to allow an international investigation team inside Sri Lanka. After severe criticisms, Rajapaksa allowed the UN-appointed panel of experts with the condition not to interfere in the Sri Lankan sovereignty, and allowed them to appear before the LLRC to find out more details about the abuses. LLRC has kept on postponing its sittings. This is just another ploy of Sri Lankan government to delay the investigation.
In this context, the US and other countries are now softening their demands with Sri Lanka with the hope that the LLRC will be a potential reconciliation commission which will help the warring communities to live in peace. Since the Sri Lankan government, with sinister motives, has allowed the UN panel of experts to enter Sri Lanka, western countries also feel that Sri Lanka can cooperate with the UN. So, the visit to the US by Rajapaksa and his team is another strategic approach of the Rajapaksa administration to resume their relationship with the US.
Just a day before departing to the US, Rajapaksa met the former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage at Temple Trees. Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign affairs Romesh Jayasinghe were also present. Details of the meeting were not disclosed, but sources revealed that they discussed the visit of the Sri Lanka team to the US. Mr. Armitage was the US State Department’s number two person in the Bush administration who played a leading role when the peace talks were held between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.
There were many rumors among political circles in Colombo saying that this sudden take off by Rajapaksa was for astrological reasons. Temple Trees sources revealed that the Sri Lankan President’s astrologers had advised him that since he is passing through a period that is not good for him, travelling to a country like US to bide this bad time would be beneficial.
Upon landing in Texas, he headed to his brother, Dudley Rajapaksa, who resides in Houston. Dudley Rajapaksa has no connection with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government or his politics. His two other brothers, Basil and Gothabaya, were residing in the US before they had gone to Sri Lanka to support Rajapaksa when he contested the presidential elections. Later, Basil and Gothabaya were given high posts with Basil holding high-ranking ministerial posts. They are both directly responsible for the human rights abuses. Sources also revealed that Rajapaksa, during his stay in Houston, received medical treatment.
There was another reason being cited as why Rajapaksa had to hurry to the US. Supposedly, he was disappointed once hearing the story that the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) has invited the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) delegation to visit Southern Sudan in the immediate aftermath of the vote for an independent state. Rajapaksa realized that the opening of a TGTE office in Southern Sudan would give much more of a diplomatic headache to the Sri Lankan State. The Rajapaksa government also feared that the TGTE would participate in the celebrations and discuss possibilities of assisting Southern Sudan in their development efforts through Tamil Diaspora expertise in selected fields.
TGTE sources said that their delegation would be received by the SPLM officials and would stay as guests of SPLM. They would also meet other foreign government leaders. This was a great insult to the Sri Lankan State. So Mahinda had the view that if he could influence the US while he stayed in the country, then that wouldn’t allow the TGTE officials to take part in the Southern Sudan independent celebrations.
Another source had said that Rajapaksa visited Houston to receive medical treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center which is affiliated to the University of Texas. It was also said that Rajapaksa received treatment in Sri Lanka for two months but he had no choice but to leave for Houston in order to get further treatment.
Various reasons were also being attributed to Rajapaksa’s US visit. On January 22nd in a press briefing, State Department Assistant Secretary Mr. Crawley said that the US was aware of Rajapaksa’s private visit and that the US hoped Sri Lanka would continue the [LLRC] effort and take advantage of the expertise that exists. He further said that he very well understood the human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, and the Obama administration is taking every effort to investigate the matter. Hence, the US would have to cooperate with the Sri Lankan government. It is a pity to note that the US State Department issued a visa to the war criminal despite knowing his role in the so-called war on terrorism.
Is the US failing its diplomacy in action?
Perhaps when it comes to Sri Lanka, the question arises as to whether the US is failing in its diplomacy in action. The US Secretary of State said in 2007 that “You can’t lump all terrorists together”. To the question of: “Do you think that the terrorists hate us for our freedoms, or do you think they have specific geopolitical objectives?” Hillary Clinton replied: “Well, I believe that terrorism is a tool that has been utilized throughout history to achieve certain objectives. Some have been ideological, others territorial. There are personality-driven terroristic objectives. The bottom line is, you can’t lump all terrorists together. And I think we’ve got to do a much better job of clarifying what are the motivations, the raisons d’être of terrorists. I mean, what the Tamil Tigers are fighting for in Sri Lanka, or the Basque separatists in Spain, or the insurgents in al-Anbar province may only be connected by tactics. They may not share all that much in terms of what is the philosophical or ideological underpinning. And I think one of our mistakes has been painting with such a broad brush, which has not been particularly helpful in understanding what it is we were up against when it comes to those who pursue terrorism for whichever ends they’re seeking.”
The same Ms. Clinton’s department had granted a visa to the war criminal who claimed responsibility for eliminating the LTTE, saying that he wiped out the most fearsome terrorist group of the world with the aid of the international community. If this is the case, what was the policy of the US when dealing with the Tamil Tigers?
Apart from UN Special Rapporteur’s authentication of video footages of summary executions, the US Ambassador in Colombo, Ambassador Butenis, has acknowledged that Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers are allegedly responsible for war crimes. In December, Wikileaks exposed a secret United States Embassy cable sent by Ambassador Patricia Butenis from Colombo in which she noted the difficulty of bringing perpetrators of alleged crimes to justice when “responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers ….” This is evidence that the US government is well aware of the facts regarding the perpetrators of the serious war crimes in Sri Lanka.
On January 18, 2011, a United States Congressman reiterated his call for international investigations into Sri Lanka war crimes. “I joined 57 of my fellow Members of Congress in urging Secretary Clinton to press for UN investigations,” said Democratic Congressman Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts during a floor speech at the House of Representatives. The Congressman told the House that he was renewing his call, saying that to achieve lasting peace in Sri Lanka, there should be an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes.
He also read out of the Boston Globe an editorial published on December 29, 2010, titled “Probe both sides in Sri Lanka.” The last paragraph of the editorial said: “Videos and survivor accounts strongly suggest that hundreds, if not thousands, of Tamils were stripped naked, had their hands bound behind their backs, and were murdered during the final weeks of the government’s war against the Tigers. Yet for reasons of state, neighbouring powers India and China show no interest in documenting and punishing such crimes. All the more reason for America to heed the awful truth in Butenis’s cable and push for a legitimate UN investigation of war crimes in Sri Lanka.”
Amnesty International (AI), in a media release on January 19, 2011, said: “The United States should investigate Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapksa, who arrives on a surprise visit to the United States today, for his alleged role in perpetrating torture and war crimes…The United States has an obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute people who perpetrated war crimes and grave human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances.”
Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director, said: “Rajapaksa is commander in chief of Sri Lanka’s armed forces, which face numerous allegations of engaging in war crimes, enforced disappearances, and torture. Under international law, military commanders may face criminal responsibility if they knew, or should have known, of such crimes being committed by their subordinates.”
Despite the pressure from the Congressmen and human rights organizations, the US maintains that Rajapaksa and his team are on a private visit and say that the US officials would not meet them while they are in the US. The question arises as to why then Rajapaksa had brought in 20 members along with him. So, the Sri Lanka team must have met the US officially in an unofficial capacity just to ease the anger among the human rights organizations and Tamil Diasporas. Thus, the question is whether the US is playing double game when dealing with Sri Lanka.
Unlike in the UK, US private citizens cannot apply for an arrest warrant. In Britain, any private individual can bring what is called a ‘private prosecution’ by applying to a magistrate. Normally, the application would be for a summons to the defendant to attend court, but there is the alternative of issuing an arrest warrant if the offence is serious, or if the suspect might not answer to a summons.
Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA) in the US permits foreign nationals to seek relief in Federal court for actions that violate the “law of nations” or a U.S. treaty. US courts have interpreted violations of the “law of nations” under the ATCA to include crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, torture, rape, and summary execution. Tamils Against Genocide (TAG), a US-based activist group advocating criminal legal action worldwide against Sri Lanka’s alleged war-criminals, said in a press release that TAG’s attorney is filing civil action against visiting Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa for damages under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA/TVPA) on behalf of three plaintiffs for the killings of 40,000 civilians in Mullaiththeevu in 2009, killing of 5 Trincomalee students in January 2006, and for the killing of 17 Action contre la faim (ACF) workers in August 2006. As calls to apprehend, investigate, and prosecute Mahinda Rajapaksa by rights organizations, US Congresspersons, and Diaspora Tamils have escalated, European Tamil Diaspora youth were mobilizing protests in front of US embassies against Rajapaksa’s visit to the U.S. But, Rajapaksa left to Sri Lanka after staying around nine days in the US.
The events taking place in regard to Rajapaksa and his team who are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Tamils show that the perpetrators of genocidal war cannot escape and live freely. Even if humans take the Christian philosophy to forgive and forget, the ghosts which are wandering without fulfillment of their dreams will never likely forget and forgive the war criminals like the President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The reality is that Rajapaksa always gets the chance of escaping without getting caught by any foreign security officials. The question is how long Rajapaksa can do this type of secret escape?
(The author can be reached at e-mail: email@example.com)