Neville de Silva
As in the last few years, the recent anti-Sri Lanka resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, has also been bisected and trisected yielding a multiplicity of opinions on who did what to whom and why. While triumphant cries might emanate from Washington, the prime mover of this resolution, and even shriller noises from London at what is seen as success in Geneva, more perceptive observers of US foreign policy are likely to take a far more tempered view of US influence in the world today, especially in some regions of the vast Asian continent over which Washington once held sway.
Writing in London’s “Guardian” newspaper over two years ago, respected academic, philosopher and bête noir of many American administrations, Noam Chomsky drew attention to America’s waning global power in a two-part series titled “Losing the world: American decline in perspective.” The Chomsky contribution is mentioned here because he devotes much of the early part of the article to Washington’s declining power and influence in Asia, especially South East Asia, since America’s ignominious retreat from Vietnam after years of trampling on numerous international laws for which nobody at the top of the totem pole of power has been held accountable and punished.
What has prompted this article was America’s failure to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy’s decision to launch what Chomsky called the “most destructive and murderous act of aggression of the post-Second World War period, namely, the invasion of South Vietnam.” As Chomsky stressed, that invasion later engulfed all of Indochina “leaving millions dead and four countries devastated with casualties still mounting from the long-term effects of drenching South Vietnam with some of the most lethal carcinogens known, undertaken to destroy ground cover and food crops.” This rape, particularly after Henry Kissinger’s orders to eliminate “anything that flies or anything that moves”, is still to see any in the higher echelons of political power pay, though accountability and retribution is vociferously demanded of others.
It therefore comes as scant surprise that the US wields little moral or political authority in Asia, particularly so in South/ Southeast Asia and East Asia, when it tries to hold smaller and weaker countries accountable for offences that Washington has committed manifold times and is still committing, in other parts of the world. This waning US influence and the refusal of many nations of Southeast Asia and its environs to bend to American pressure is best demonstrated, from a Sri Lankan perspective particularly, in the attempts of Washington along with some of its handmaidens, to castigate Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva at three different votes since 2012. Washington’s perceived moral high ground might have been less of a slippery slope had its own record of adherence to international law and norms and its abjuring of unilateral military action, had been far less strewn with the debris of international and humanitarian laws and undeclared wars.
The iconic image that defined American atrocities in Vietnam: This photograph – taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut – shows nine-year-old Kim Phuc (center) who had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing an American napalm attack. The other children (from left) are her brothers Phan Thanh Tam, who lost an eye, and Phan Thanh Phouc, and her cousins Ho Van Bon and Ho Thi Ting.
One aspect of the US-sponsored resolutions in the last three years that has not received sufficient attention, if at all, is their co-sponsorship. Generally around 40 countries have supported the resolutions as co-sponsors. This is less than 20% of a UN -membership of 192 countries though the resolutions were open to co-sponsorship for those who wanted to do so. But more importantly who are the co-sponsors and those who voted for the three resolutions at the Human Rights Council in 2012, 2013 and 2014? They consist of traditional western allies who supported the US during the Cold War, members of the US-led NATO and those who sought NATO cover after the implosion of the Soviet Union and have been keen to join the European Union.
Among them were also countries that were complicit in the CIA-operated “rendition” flights that took terrorist suspects to places of detention in Europe or which used European airports or airspace to fly them elsewhere out of the jurisdiction of US courts, in blatant violation of International law. There is enough evidence collated and reported on by Senator Dick Marty of the Council of Europe and Rapporteur Claudio Fava from 2005 until quite recently, to make these accusations stick. So the main supporters of the US-led resolutions have been from Caucasian Europe, many of whom believe in the Holy Book but somehow seem to forget the admonition of Christ: “he who is without sin let him cast the first stone.”
Just a quick comment on the voting itself over the three-year period. In 2012, the resolution had 24 votes in favour, in 2013 support was 25 votes and in 2014 it dropped to 23. All in all, the support base has been a fraction above half of the 47-member Council or a fraction below it. During a three year period during which three resolutions were introduced, the support hovered around only half of the total vote.
Now that does not speak much for US clout in the world today, depending so much as it does on support from continental Europe. This is surely the point that Chomsky makes about declining US power which is particularly true if one looks at the voting in the same period by Southeast Asian/East Asian nations over which Washington wielded such immense influence during the Cold War years. Though there are 13-Asian member-states in the Council I am looking at the regions mentioned above as it is there that Washington’s power and influence were most pronounced, before and during America’s disastrous Vietnam war which also resulted in the illegal war against Cambodia. Not a single Council-member from that region has voted in favour of the US resolutions in the three years, save South Korea which has consistently done so for reasons that are too well known to need explanation here. When countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand — four of the five founder members of ASEAN – served on the council during this period, none of them voted in favour of the Washington sponsored resolutions.
When I worked at the Sri Lanka Embassy in Bangkok before and during the 2012 resolution we constantly heard of the enormous pressure that the Thai Government and its foreign ministry came under from Washington and its diplomats to support it against Sri Lanka. Our briefings to the Thai foreign ministry produced very positive results because both in 2012 and 2013 Thailand not only withstood that pressure but even voted in Sri Lanka’s favour. In fact in 2012, the Thai Foreign Minister’s statement to the UNHRC contained a couple of phrases we had used in our briefings, as a Thai diplomat informed us. This year too, though Thailand is not a member of the council, its representative spoke in support of Sri Lanka.
While China’s strong support for and vote against the resolution came as no surprise, the other major economic power in that part of the world, Japan, once again had no truck with the US effort to chastise and has said so quite candidly before. The most the US was able to do this year, if it was indeed Washington’s doing, was to obtain abstentions from Indonesia and the Philippines. On the other hand India that voted with the US in the two previous years, abstained this time round, striking a bitter blow to Washington’s expectations.
There are several reasons for this political/diplomatic change of heart, as it were, in a region over which Washington once exercised a hegemonic presence. One reason is clearly the rise of China as a major political and economic power that is fast becoming a serious challenge to the US. Though Beijing has territorial disputes with some of its neighbours, it has proved to be a stabilising power in the region as opposed to the aggressive, aggrandising communist giant it was portrayed to be by Washington during the Cold War era to frighten smaller and weaker regional nations.
Moreover, ASEAN, which was originally promoted by the US as a bulwark against the contagion of communism and falling dominoes, has emerged as a strong collective voice on the international stage, able to stand on its own without western props, and embrace regional nations of different political faiths and ideologies as it grew bigger. Most of ASEAN’s original members have acquired self-confidence and are fast emerging as economic powers that cannot be ignored. Their once-authoritarian regimes, governments that were propped up by US military and political power, are long gone. They have by and large embraced democracy and worked out their national imperatives. Many have viewed the successive US resolutions as a dangerous precedent where countries combating terrorism or violent insurgencies will be asked to account for their actions like Sri Lanka has been.
The truth, however, is that many countries, including nearby Bangladesh, have only in this decade, held or are holding, investigations into the events of 40-50 years ago. Most major powers that have taken to the political pulpit to preach to Sri Lanka have not even done so. They are afraid to look into the mirror. Chomsky was so correct when he said that accountability was only demanded of the small and weak or of the defeated.
– Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist and Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner to Great Britain