Obama’s Human Rights (Geneva) Envoy on US Strategy that Tamed Sri Lanka
President Mahinda Rajapaksa was a hard-line Sinhalese nationalist who wanted no investigation against atrocities committed by armed forces against the Tamil Tigers. No accountability means no reconciliation with minority Tamil community, declared Keith Harper, who was Obama’s ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
With Donald Trump’s inauguration as president on January 20, he was summarily dismissed. Now the Trump administration is contemplating withdrawing from UNHRC.
Former ambassador Harper, in an interview with an internationally-acclaimed journalist Babara Crossette to the widely-read internet media outlet PassBlue on 15 March in fact boasted America’s hand at UNHRC in taming Sri Lanka when he remarked “an example of American work may have been unblocking a stalemate in Sri Lanka over responsibilities for extreme violations of rights and horrific abuses (committed by both sides) in a long civil war, which ended in 2009”.
He did not tell Babara Crossette whether the US simultaneously took measures to (at least) highlight the atrocities, crimes and genocide committed by the Tamil Tigers.
Nevertheless, Kieth Harper who worked very closely on Sri Lanka issues with Obama’s UN ambassador Samantha Power, who visited twice after Sirisena’s new government was installed to bring pressure on the issue ‘accountability’, and her deputy Michael Sison, who as US envoy to Sri Lanka initiated the much sought Tamil Diaspora call for accountability to bring elements of Sri Lanka armed forces to ‘war tribunals’.
Naming the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as a “hard-line Sinhalese nationalist’ and was never bent on a reconciliation process with the Tamil minority, Harper told Babara Crossette in this interview how the United States was instrumental in getting the new Sri Lanka administration of Sirisena to “change the political calculus with the help of the Council’s actions”.
It is in this context that the former Obama administration’s Geneva envoy Harper told Barbara Crossette that it was disturbing to understand that the Trump administration was contemplating to withdraw US from UNHRC.
Keith Harper on Sri Lanka:
Opposing the US withdrawal from the UNHRC Harper highlighted an example of American work may have been unblocking a stalemate in Sri Lanka over responsibilities for extreme violations of rights and horrific abuses (committed by both sides) in a long civil war, which ended in 2009.
“Sri Lanka is an example, possibly the best example, of where US leadership, working with key allies, has been able to transform the political reality and human rights situation on the ground,” he said. In Sri Lanka, a hard-line Sinhalese nationalist president, Mahendra Rajapaksa, wanted no investigation into the atrocities committed by his forces at the end of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. “He would have no accountability and of course that meant no reconciliation with the minority Tamil community,” Harper said.
In the Council, the US-led effort to pass a series of resolutions resulted in setting up an investigation in 2014. A new president of Sri Lanka, elected in 2015, Maithripala Sirisena, changed the political calculus with the help of the Council’s actions, Harper said. With a new government came a commitment by the Sirisena administration to accept an accountability process — yet to happen. “It’s two steps forward, one step back, but the change in the trajectory is undeniable,” Harper said.
He said “I think we have been able to show the world the power the Council can be, and the last thing we would want to see it revert back to a place where it turns human rights on its head.”
Barbara Crossette wrote in PassBlue:
As the Trump administration threatens to turn its back on international organizations unwilling to rubber-stamp Washington’s policies and meet its demands, an early inevitable target is expected to be the United Nations Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva. In both the White House and Congress, opposition to the Council hangs on two basic complaints: that countries that violate human rights are allowed to take seats (to which they have been elected) in the 47-member body and that the membership is inherently and irredeemably biased against Israel.
Keith Harper was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to the Council and other human-rights institutions in Geneva from 2014 to 2017, when Trump, as president-elect, ordered all ambassadors to leave their posts immediately on Jan. 1, without normal transitions. In Harper’s view, a United States exit from the Human Rights Council would turn American interests upside down, especially regarding Israel and the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
The Obama engagement with the Council, Harper said in an interview with PassBlue on March 15, has significantly improved the place of Israel in Council deliberations, and those gains would surely be lost.
“My own view is that would be essentially diplomatic malpractice to disengage, in light of all the benefits that the US leadership has brought to bear as far as the outcome from the Council,” added Harper, an international-rights lawyer who has returned to practice at Kirkpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Washington, D.C. As a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, he has worked extensively on indigenous rights in the US and overseas.
- Asian Tribune -