An Exposure: “Human Rights” as A Tool of US Intervention in Sri Lanka

 Natasha Gooneratne, an item entitled “Under the Guise of Protecting Human Rights and Establishing Democracy: US Intervention in Sri Lanka,” …. presented in 2015 or 2016 (?)


The discourse regarding Sri Lanka within international media has intensified since 2009, when the then government of president Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that it had defeated terrorism in the form of the armed non-state group known as the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) [recognized as an international terrorist organisation by the US in 1997], that Sri Lanka had been in armed conflict with since the early 80s. Sri Lanka’s announcement prompted widespread reports of humanitarian law violations, and human rights abuses by both sides. A week after the announcement, on May 26th, the UN Human Rights Council held a special two-day session on the situation in Sri Lanka, concluding in the adoption of a resolution commending the state for the policies it had adopted. The resolution passed with 29 votes in favor, 12 against, and 6 abstentions.

The United States was not a member of the UNHRC at the time, but would begin its term in June that same year. During its statement as an observer, the US permanent Mission’s Charge d’Affaires, Mark C. Storella noted that ‘This is an important moment in the life of the Sri Lankan nation, and we should all recognize that the Sri Lankan people are emerging from terrible conflict against the LTTE, an implacable foe[1].’ In retrospect, the statement was if anything supportive of the Sri Lankan state and even went as far to draw attention to the joint statement concluded by the government of Sri Lanka and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, that international human rights advocacy groups had criticized for being too complacent toward the state. But in a space of 5 years US-Sri Lankan relations would alter dramatically, with the US bringing in a country-specific HRC resolution against Sri Lanka in 2012 which was adopted by vote. By the time the UNP, the Sri Lankan liberal political party, led government replaces the former Rajapaksa government in 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry publicly refers to the Sri Lankan conflict as the ‘…30 years of war with the Tamils…’[2] and not the LTTE. In the space after the conflict ended, numerous international media would portray Sri Lanka as an authoritarian led melting pot of human rights abuses and the country would receive far more publicized attention than it had received during the entire 30 years of its conflict. This paper begins by asking the question, why?

Limitations and Area of focus

The content covered in this paper does not aim to establish if or if not human rights and humanitarian law violations occurred in the last phase of the Sri Lankan conflict. It is written from the standpoint that there is no conflict on earth that has waged even for a matter of days and has been free of such realities. Furthermore, the resources surrounding that area is extensive, ranging from Sri Lankan Government reports, UN reports, pro-LTTE sources, local and foreign media publications, diaspora blogs, and NGO reports. There is however somewhat of a deficiency in resources pertaining to a complete analysis of why US intervention in Sri Lanka post-2009 was so strong. And this paper hopes to contribute toward filling that gap. It hopes to draw attention to facts that indicate that US intervention in Sri Lanka fits into the discourse of globalization, because it is concerned with furthering neoliberal political agendas and geopolitical interests, rather than stemming from an altruistic international obligation to protect human rights. Thus it is dependent upon principles of power politics, where smaller states from the global South, as is the case with Sri Lanka, are unable to compete and withstand the tools and political weapons of its larger more powerful counterparts of the North, in this case the US.

US-Sri Lanka relations and the military

Contact between Sri Lanka and the US can be traced to ‘1787, when New England sailors first anchored in Sri Lanka’s harbors to engage in trade’[3]. Since its independence in 1948, Sri Lanka maintained friendly relations with the US, including throughout the Cold War period when the country played a significant role in the Non-Aligned Movement; but this role did not prevent Sri Lanka from ‘supporting U.S. military operations during the first Gulf War’[4]. Likewise the US has in the past been supportive of Sri Lanka, its democratic institutions and socio-economic development[5] [6]. Areas of cooperation included trade, diversity immigration programmes and more interestingly, military cooperation. In fact military to military cooperation spanned throughout the internal conflict with joint combined exchange training (JCET), and education programmes[7], and in 2007 the countries signed an Acquisition and Cross-Services Agreement which increased their military collaborative efforts[8]. In terms of US relations, the Sri Lankan military has been viewed as a disciplined and effective institution, combatting terror tactics, including suicide bombings and use of human shields, perfected and utilized by the LTTE. Although under civilian control, the nature and intensity of the conflict had provided the military forces with a level of autonomy that was necessary in order to carry out its operations effectively. Abuses or violations that occurred within the ranks of the Sri Lankan military throughout the 30-year conflict are in light of isolated individual cases and are not seen as a larger occurrence of overall policy. Such an understanding is crucial in evaluating the reports that occurred after the end of the war and the situation may appear even somewhat contradictory; for years the Sri Lankan military is seen as a professional model but post-2009 the critique of the military operation goes beyond reports of humanitarian and HR violations to include insinuations of crimes against humanity and a genocide of the Tamil people. For this paper at least, it remains difficult or impractical to suppose that an institution that had gained respect over a period of 30 years for its overall military conduct, could suddenly transform into something quite the opposite. Secretary Kerry’s statement in 2015 that the three decade conflict was in fact against the Tamil peoples and not the LTTE, may serve to understand that the change in the portrayal of the Sri Lankan military, was if anything a necessity to pursue larger political interests.

Part I: The Geographical

Geo-significance and accommodationist policies

Historically, Sri Lanka’s geo-significance in the Indian Ocean was capitalized on by the Dutch, Portuguese and finally, British colonizers. And during World War II the country served as the South Asian headquarters of the Supreme Allied Commander[9]. Furthermore a US Senate report notes that Sri Lanka is ‘strategically located at the nexus of maritime trading routes connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia. It is directly in the middle of the “Old World,’ where an estimated half of the world’s container ships transit the Indian Ocean’[10]. This geo-significance possibly became weightier to the US when China’s influence in the region became more apparent. This is evident by a change in US Naval and Marine core vision strategies during 2007 and 2008, which asserted that the two oceans of relevance for the US would no longer be the Atlantic and Pacific, but the Indian Ocean and the Pacific[11]. For the most part, these geopolitical concerns remained unperturbed, given that the armed conflict disqualified Sri Lanka from being used as a strategic international naval stronghold. Given the history of relations between the US and Sri Lanka, it is possible that the US also expected that if and when the war did come to a close, that establishing its influence within the island state would be simple, apart from India’s influence.

As such, Sri Lanka-US relations need to be viewed in terms of power politics. The monetary toll that the conflict had on Sri Lanka was immense. Whether dependent on the World Bank or IMF, that are principally under the control of the US, whether it’s the island’s export garment trade with US clients that include Nike and Victoria’s Secret, whether it was the ambiguous private entities coveting Sri Lanka’s phosphate mines, or whether it was military intelligence or technical support, Sri Lanka required to go out of its way to maintain friendly relations with the US. This included, the acceptance of conditonalities that the US may require of it; as articulated by Jeffrey Lunstead, the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 2003 to 2006, the US believed ‘that economic incentives could help motivate the domestic players to make the political choices needed to move the peace process forward’[12][emphasis added]. Sri Lanka’s policy toward the US was therefore one of accommodation, yielding to those conditionalities, including in the area of its national military strategies with regard to the conflict with the LTTE. National military analysts deemed that the peace processes that the Government was often pressured into by international actors, operated as a reformation mechanism for the LTTE. In 2001 this accomodationist policy intensified with the Prime Ministerial tenure of Ranil Wickremasighe, the leader of Sri Lanka’s liberal political party, the UNP. As explained by former Ambassador Lunstead,

‘U.S. enthusiasm was bolstered by the policies of the Ranil Wickremesinghe government… In addition to its willingness to engage in a risky peace process; that government was generally friendly to the U.S., in favor of market-oriented economic reform, and pro-free trade and globalization. …the U.S. clearly supported the Wickremesinghe government’[13]. [Emphasis added]

Threat to US interests

But from 2005, that policy of accommodation would dwindle rapidly under the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Hailing from the SLFP, the socialist political party, president Rajapaksa’s Strategic national plan known as the ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’ aimed to end the armed conflict with the LTTE, improve the Sri Lankan economy and further focused on subtle protectionist policies in the agricultural sector[14] quite in contrast to the liberal model described by Ambassador Lunstead. During his tenure as president, numerous rumors surfaced that promulgated that varying requests and conditions that emulated from Washington, had been either refused or ignored. In retrospect such rumors may have been well founded. It is however likely that the policies of president Rajapaksa had been expected by the US, given his ideological background. As the youngest member of Sri Lanka’s parliament in the 70’s, he became one of the first South Asian political figures to express solidarity with the Palestinian peoples and was a ‘key figure in opening the PLO embassy in the capital city of Colombo in July 1975’[15]. After meeting Yasir Arafat during a visit to Sri Lanka in 1997, Rajapaksa had stated,

‘I am happy to say that he was one of the greatest leaders in the world,” and “every political leader should emulate [his] rare qualities.’[16]

These political affiliations were coupled with unchecked rhetoric and jests against the US when pressure was exerted on Sri Lanka during his presidency. This was in contrast to the diplomatic nuance that the country had practiced towards the West previously. For example, in 2009, when military forces were occupied in battle, the US had requested that forces be pulled out and a seize fire be established. President Rajapaksa is reported to have reflected that,

‘They are trying to preach to us about civilians. I tell them to go and see what they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.’[17]

Thereafter, when the 3rd follow-up of the US led HRC resolution was adopted in March 2014, which included clear language on requesting UN bodies to set up investigative mechanisms within Sri Lanka, he likened the move by the U.S. to Cassius Clay using a schoolboy as a punching bag; a euphemism he used during an international press briefing.[18]

The larger concern however was undoubtedly his affiliation toward the Chinese, with their loans free of conditionalities, and their willingness to invest in infrastructure and development projects that had been part of his vision since his early political career. China’s influence in Sri Lanka meant the country’s gradual distancing from US dependency. A US Congress report in 2009 asserts that ‘China is seeking to gain influence with the Sri Lankan government as part of a “string of pearls” naval strategy to develop port access in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean[19].’ Within a year of the war coming to a close, the Chinese had completed one port harbor and had begun construction on the second in the capital, as well as assisted in numerous highway projects. In return Sri Lanka had provided various concessions including an exclusive investment zone a short distance from the port in the capital[20]. A US Senate report draws attention to such developments by asserting that,

‘According to the Congressional Research Service, “Chinese activity in the region appears to be seeking friends like Sri Lanka to secure its sea lines of communication from the Straits of Hormuz and the western reaches of the Indian Ocean region to the Strait of Malacca to facilitate trade and secure China’s energy imports’.’[21]

Part II: The political

International Civil Society as de facto arms of the state

International Civil Society played an equally large role in applying international pressure on Sri Lanka post 2009. For instance the Human Rights Watch report which assessed Sri Lanka’s rehabilitation camps as soon as they were set up, made concrete recommendations to the United Nations and the International community, calling upon ‘influential governments and the United Nations and its relevant agencies to publicly and privately raise concerns about the legal status and treatment of security detainees’[22], and went even further to warn that ‘while the Sri Lankan government has requested financial support from the international community to build rehabilitation centers for LTTE cadres, no such support should be provided unless and until the basic rights of those detained are respected’. The language expressed is strong and advocates that the international community should step up. However, in dealing with similar subject matter that same year, with regard to the US’s use of detention centres, including Guantanamo Bay, the organisation’s report carries no language, whatsoever, directed at the United Nations or the international community, as means of coercing change as illustrated in the Sri Lankan example. Far from it, it provides a checklist of ‘recommendations’ addressed to ‘President Obama’[23].

Given that the Human Rights Watch reports deal with similar issues for both countries, that of illegal detainment of suspected terrorists, it is logical to warrant a similar and balanced approach in both reports. It may even be argued that in the case of Sri Lanka leeway may have been provided given that the state claimed that the ‘detainees’ were to be rehabilitated and released, a guarantee it lived up to by 2013. It’s acutely obvious however that instead the language is far stronger and prescriptive in the Sri Lankan report. It is the assumption of this paper that the imbalance of language thus illustrated by organisations such as Human Rights Watch, is used as an impetus to complement efforts of the US Government in their political strategies; defacto state arms to carry out foreign policy. For such an assumption to be legitimately considered, an analysis of Human Rights Watch as an institution is required; for instance the current Director of its Global Affairs being Eileen Donahue[24], the former Ambassador of the United States who organised drafting sessions, advocated support, and presented to the Human Rights Council, the country-specific resolution adopted on Sri Lanka in 2012. Likewise the Asia Foundation that does extensive Civil Society work in Sri Lanka is a US Congress funded institution.

This use of civil society as a defacto arm is neither sensationalist nor new; researchers on non-state activism and scholars of third world approaches to international law (TWAIL) have been drawing focus to the issue for some time now. Indeed, as explained by Reimman, the United States is not simply the home-State to one of the largest bodies of civil society entities in the world, but ‘is also one of the world leaders in state-support of the nonprofit sector’[25]. In the case of US state-led or funded civil society institutions in Sri Lanka, the capacity and media reach of such organizations is so immense, that they have a tendency of making invisible local endeavours prevalent on the ground, or more commonly, by simply assimilating local endeavours within the limitations, restrictions and frameworks of US state-led movements such as USAID. The dominant voice within the discourse then, invariably becomes that which has more capacity to yield its influence, whether or not its concerns are genuine or altruistic. As explained by Mutua,

‘In the human rights story, the savior is the human rights corpus itself, with the United Nations, Western governments, INGOs, and Western charities as the actual rescuers, redeemers of a benighted world. In reality, however, these institutions are merely fronts. The savior is ultimately a set of culturally based norms and practices that inhere in liberal thought and philosophy’.[26] [emphasis added]

The robust danger in the use of INGOs as defacto state arms lies in the fact that the main outcome pursued by such entities then becomes ideological and political in nature, rather than a constructive and genuine endeavor to address, and meaningfully resolve, issues on the ground. An imbalanced measure may then be used, depending on the outcome pursued; a case in point may be the contrasting reports by Human Rights Watch as explained above.

Human Rights Protection vs Regime Change

Reports of corruption under president Rajapksa’s leadership and discontent regarding him placing his family in ministerial positions began to surface heavily by 2011, and culminated to a crescendo by his defeat to former minister of Health, Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential elections of January 2015. And while political families are a regular phenomenon in Sri Lankan politics, including in the case of the current president Sirisena[27], international actors such as the US were heavily critical of president Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an ex- Lieutenant Colonel of the Sri Lankan Army, who served as secretary of defence, and was equally vocal in the refusal to yield to pressure from the West. However, such reports often leave out the fact that Rajapaksa’s following in the country is still massive, and that his supporters generally equate reports of corruption as political revenge, that has regularly been used as a tool during a change in regime in the country, such as during the end of president Bandaranayake’s tenure[28]. The omission of this fact in media reports, does not however mean that the US is unaware of the existence of such support. And it is likely an awareness exists which promulgates that as long as there remains the possibility of Rajapaksa returning to power, US neoliberal and geopolitical interests will not be secure. Indeed, in an article published by a US State Department advisor[29] it is noted that,

‘It is in the new government’s interest to move decisively to protect its democratic victory by eliminating the threat of Mr. [Gotabaya] Rajapaksa’s return to power. That is a distinct possibility if his brother, Mahinda, succeeds in a bid to maintain control over the powerful opposition party.’ [emphasis added]

The article goes on to indicate that since Gotabaya Rajapaksa possesses US citizenship that,

‘The United States could help by signaling its own interest in opening a criminal case against Mr. Rajapaksa in the event that Sri Lanka doesn’t. That would give the new government both an opportunity and a justification to clean its house. Because of Mr. Rajapaksa’s citizenship, the United States would also be less vulnerable to accusations that it was meddling in the affairs of another nation’.

A return to accomodationism and neoliberal policy

With the (UNP) Liberal Party led government in place since January, it appears as though Sri Lanka-US relations have already noticeably transformed. In February, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, that had since the US led resolution in 2012, been actively engaged in presenting its report to the Human Rights Council, informed that it would delay its consideration for a period of six months in a never before seen ‘one time only’ deferral within the HRC[30]. Among the reasons flagged by the High Commissioner, one was with regard to ‘the changing context in Sri Lanka, and the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report.” The recommendation was supported by the US.

During his visit to Sri Lanka in May this year, US Secretary Kerry affirmed that the US would provide ‘ “technical assistance” to the newly elected government as it makes constitutional and democratic reforms’ and that ‘the Commerce and Treasury departments will send advisers to help develop a plan for more investment and economic growth[31]. [emphasis added].

Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister noted that Secretary Kerry’s visit signified ‘the return of our little island nation to the center stage of international affairs…’[32]

But to others, it marks Sri Lanka’s return to a future devoid of its own making, and its own model. The exacerbation of relations between the two countries since 2009, or more aptly since 2005, simply places Sri Lanka as another example of US geopolitical conquests, under the guise of Human Rights protection and the establishment of democracy. It is expected that all developments taking place within Sri Lanka will now move toward the consolidation of US interests there, regardless of whether those developments are the model that best suits the country itself (this includes areas of free trade and foreign investment that may be pushed through the US agenda that this paper does not extensively deal with). As with all US exploits historically, the full extent of its control and policy measures exerted over Sri Lanka may only be known long after its effects cannot be reversed. And while to some, this paper may appear biased or deficient, if it opens up a larger discussion on at least a few of the points it raises, it would have served its purpose.


[1] Mark C. Storella, statement presented by the US Delegation during the Special Session on Sri Lanka, Human Rights Council, on 26 May 2009

[2] ‘Remarks With Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka Mangala Samaraweera Before Their Meeting’ US Department of State (12 February 2015) accessed 21 May 2015

[3] ‘Sri Lanka: Recharting U.S. Strategy After The War’ Committee On Foreign Relations – United States Senate (7 December 2009) accessed 22 May 2015

[4] ibid

[5] ‘Changing Sino-US Relations and the Sri Lankan Perspective’ Shanghai Institute for International Studies (14 September 2013) accessed 22 May 2015

[6] Ronak Desal, ‘Tensions Rise Between the United States and Sri Lanka Over Human Rights’ Huffington Post (26 February 2014) <> accessed 23 May 2015

[7] ‘Statement on U.S. Military Cooperation with Sri Lanka’ Pacific Command, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii (15 August 1996) <-> accessed 23 May 2015

[8] ‘Sri Lanka: Recharting U.S. Strategy After The War’ Committee On Foreign Relations – United States Senate (7 December 2009) accessed 22 May 2015

[9] ‘Commonwealth war cemeteries in Sri Lanka’ Serendib Magazine (1998) accessed 24 May 2015

[10] ‘Sri Lanka: Recharting U.S. Strategy After The War’ Committee On Foreign Relations – United States Senate (7 December 2009) accessed 22 May 2015

[11] Robert Kaplan, ‘Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power’ (presentation on youtube, September 2012) < > accessed 22 May 2015

[12] Jeffrey Lunstead, ‘The United States’ Role In Sri Lanka’s Peace Process 2002 – 2006’ The Asia Foundation (2007) < > accessed 24 May 2015

[13] ibid

[14] Rajabdeen, Nawaz, ‘FCCISL positive on SME policies of Mahinda Chinthana’ Daily News (25 October 2005) accessed 24 May 2015

[15] Shlomi Yass, ‘The Palestinian Cause in the International Arena: The Case of Sri Lanka’ Institute for National Security Studies (15 January 2015) accessed 24 May 2015

[16] ibid

[17]Vaughn ‘Sri Lanka: Background and U.S. relations’ Congressional Research Service (2011) accessed 22 May 2015

[18] ‘Rajapaksa says Lanka must not face UN rights resolution’ Press Times of India (2014) accessed 22 May 2015

[19] ibid 17

[20] ‘Sri Lanka: Recharting U.S. Strategy After The War’ Committee On Foreign Relations – United States Senate (7 December 2009) accessed 22 May 2015

[21] ibid 17

[22] ‘Legal Limbo: The Uncertain Fate of Detained LTTE Suspects in Sri Lanka’ Human Rights Watch (2010) < > accessed 22 May 2015 pp 5

[23] ‘Fighting terrorism fairly and effectively: recommendations for president-elect Barack Obama’ Human Rights Watch (2010) < > accessed 22 May 2015

[24] ‘Director of Global Affairs’ HRW accessed 22 May 2015

[25] Kim D. Reimann, ‘A View from the Top: International Politics, Norms and the Worldwide Growth of NGOs’ ISA (2006) < > circulated during Globalization course (2014), University for Peace. Accessed 27 June 2015

[26] Makau Mutua, ‘Savages, Victims, and Saviors: The Metaphor of Human Rights’ 42 Harv. Int’l L. J. 201 (2001) circulated during Globalization course (2014), University for Peace. Accessed 27 June 2015

[27] Taylor Dibbert, ‘Sri Lanka: Can Sirisena Deliver on Reforms?’ The Diplomat (14 April 2015) <> accessed 24 May 2015

[28]‘Waters Edge transaction Chandrika’s presidential robbery’ Sunday Times (12 October 2008) <> accessed 24 May 2015

[29]Ryan Goodman, ‘Helping Sri Lanka’s new democracy’ Just Security (19 January 2015) <> accessed 22 May 2015

[30] ‘Zeid requests “one time only” deferral of key report on Sri Lanka conflict’ OHCHR (February 2015) <> accessed 24 May 2015

[31] Carol Morello, ‘Kerry: U.S. will deepen ties with Sri Lanka’ (2 May 2015) accessed 24 May 2015

[32] ibid

Bio-author: Jamili Natasha Gooneratne completed a Masters in International Law and Human Rights (expected November 2015) at the UN mandated University for Peace, Costa Rica, where she was Valedictorian for the class of 2015; She is currently a Masters candidate in Political Science with a major in Global Governance at Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines; and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. She was awarded a place in the 8th Cohort of the Asian Peacebuilders’ Scholarship granted by the Japan Nippon Foundation in 2014. Her experience is multi-sectorial, spanning from the advertising industry, to the non-governmental sector and diplomatic corps, being appointed as second secretary to Sri Lanka’s permanent Mission to the UN, Geneva, from 2011 to 2013. Her area of interest focuses on North-South relations, geopolitics, and the use of non-conventional approaches toward reconciliation and peacebuilding.

Leave a comment

Filed under accountability, american imperialism, authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, demography, economic processes, foreign policy, governance, historical interpretation, human rights, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, military strategy, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, security, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, the imaginary and the real, truth as casualty of war, UN reports, unusual people, world events & processes

Leave a Reply