By Daya Gamage

Foreign Service National Political Specialist (ret) U.S. Department of State

In November 2019, President Donald Trump granted clemency to three controversial US military figures charged with war crimes, arguing that such moves would give American troops “the confidence to fight” without worrying about potential legal repercussions. Two army officers were granted full pardons for the murder of Afghans. Trump also restored the rank of a special warfare operator who had been tried for a string of alleged war crimes. It was claimed that the criminal charges were an overreaction to actions taken in the chaos and confusion of battle. Such actions validate the widely-held view that the US does not hold itself to the same standards it tries to impose on them.

If Sri Lanka has an iota of dignity – I am not suggesting a free-for-all with Washington – it should make ‘some’ diplomatic moves on the basis of the following:

The American Service-Members Protection Act (ASPA) was an amendment to the 2002 Supplemental Appropriations Act (House Resolution 4775) passed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the launch of the so-called Global War on Terror. The ASPA aims to “protect U.S. military personnel and other elected and appointed officials of the Government against prosecution by an international criminal court to which the U.S. is not a party.” Among other defencive provisions the Act prohibits federal, state and local governments and agencies (including courts and law enforcement agencies) from assisting the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. It even prohibits U.S. military aid to countries that are parties to the Court. In 2002, during the administration of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka signed with the U.S. an “Article 98 Agreement,” agreeing not to hand over U.S. nationals to the Court. This was done under pressure during the 2002-2004 ‘Peace Talks’ in which Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powel and his Deputy Richard Armitage were directly involved in lifting the terrorist/separatist LTTE on par with the legitimate government of Sri Lanka.

This shows the hypocrisy and double standards of Washington policymakers who, with no substantial data and evidence, relied on information furnished by an NGO to blacklist former Navy Commander, Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda.

In September 2009, four months after the conclusion of the Eelam War IV, the US Senate Appropriations Committee had mandated that the State Department prepare a report on possible war crimes committed during the final phase of the conflict during 2008-2009 in Sri Lanka. (It should be mentioned that when the ICC decided to send officials during the Trump administration to Washington to interview USG personnel on US atrocities in Afghanistan, USG suspended their visas and declared that the US was a sovereign nation for such interference). The report was completed in October despite acknowledged evidentiary limitations, but the allegations it uncovered of abuses by government officials defined thereafter the policy of the US and some EU countries toward the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). The report’s findings, based largely on hearsay, also created an atmosphere of credibility about human rights violations that was exploited for anti-Colombo propaganda by activist sections of the Tamil Diaspora. The US Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues articulated a double standard that was common in the US foreign policy establishment at that time. He acknowledged “that honestly in a conflict like that against the LTTE it was necessary to use very strong force to defeat a group that was committing horrendous crimes against the civilian population. But on the other hand, that action had to comply with the laws of war.” A democratic government, in other words, was held responsible to rules of warfare that autocratic insurgents were not, even though that would mean that the democratic government could be handicapped in defending its sovereignty, system of government, and domestic rule of law. Such accountability, of course, did not apply to the US.

These disgraceful double standards of Washington policymakers and lawmakers in dealing with Sri Lanka’s ‘national issues’ since the advent of the separatist war in the north in the 1980s are now very broadly dealt with by two personnel who worked within the U.S. Department of State for thirty years in the area of foreign affairs: One is this writer who is a retired Foreign Service National Political Specialist once accredited to the Political Section of the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, and the other, Dr. Robert K. Boggs, a retired Senior Foreign Service (FS) and Intelligence Officer who served as Political Counselor at the Colombo Diplomatic Mission and in many senior positions in the State Department in Washington. Their investigative work is still in progress. Their manuscript ‘Defending Democracy: Lessons in Strategic Diplomacy from U.S.-Sri Lankan Relations” is nearing completion with alarming disclosures, provocative analyses and interpretations based on their up-close and personal knowledge and understanding of Washington’s foreign policy trajectory in Sri Lanka – then and now – and how it used ‘double standards’ in handling its foreign relations with Sri Lanka reducing Sri Lanka to some level of a client state. Sri Lanka’s own infantile behaviour, ignorance of its own strengths and inarticulate manner in which it was handling foreign relations since the 1980s contributed too to become a subservient state allowing ‘national issues’ to become ‘global’ ones.

‘Moral Arbiter’

How can the US be a moral arbiter in the war against terrorism if it has never tried or prosecuted most of the Americans responsible for kidnappings, secret detentions and torture of suspects abroad after 9/11? Why has it so uncritically accepted the civilian casualty figures of international NGOs, however righteously motivated, regarding hostilities in Sri Lanka but consistently rejected them regarding its own collateral killings? And does the U.S. really believe that, because it tries sincerely to minimise harm to civilians, it is morally justified in pursuing tactics that inevitably will cause casualties among non-combatants? If so, do the compulsions of military tactics not similarly exonerate other governments fighting other groups recognised by the international community as terrorists? Are no allowances granted to military forces that do not have the U.S.’ access to precise overhead targeting intelligence and so-called precision weapons? If the U.S. can excuse itself from culpability for civilian deaths it causes in counterinsurgency operations in poor countries far from North America, are foreign governments not also excused for using their full offensive capabilities to defeat domestic terrorists posing immediate threats to their national integrity and democracy? Abuses by the United States do not excuse abuses by Sri Lanka, but U.S. abuses tarnish the U.S.’ moral authority, weaken U.S. claims to international leadership, provoke deep resentment of the U.S., and provoke even more anti-U.S. terrorism.

Contradictory position

Compounding its hypocrisy in Sri Lanka is the long US record of self-righteously shielding its own military from investigation by international human rights tribunals. Since 1986 the USG has adopted the contradictory position of supporting the rule of law in the international system by participating in litigation before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), but at the same time refusing to submit itself to the authority of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the grounds that this would violate U.S. sovereignty. While Sri Lankan forces were fighting the LTTE, the US was unleashing massive amounts of firepower in Iraq that killed thousands of civilians. In Afghanistan the U.S. allied itself with, and thus strengthened, war lords and provincial officials with strong records as counterinsurgency fighters, but has ignored credible reports of these allies’ corruption and human rights abuses. At the same time, the U.S. has become increasingly reliant in its international campaign against extremism on air power, including armed drones that routinely injures and kills civilians. Yet in September 2018 the US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, threatened sanctions against the “illegitimate” ICC if it investigated credible allegations of war crimes by U.S. military and intelligence personnel in Afghanistan. In earlier diatribes against the ICC, Bolton reportedly acknowledged that the U.S. needed immunity because its use of torture, harsh imprisonment and some counterterrorist tactics constituted crimes under international law, which he dismissed.

At the time that the United States was pressuring Colombo to accept “national, international, and hybrid mechanisms to clarify the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared,” the USG had not itself ratified the UN convention of 2006 requiring state party to criminalise enforced disappearances and take steps to hold those responsible to account. Sri Lanka need not have ‘confronted’ the US, but it had no guts to question it. The US jointly with Sri Lanka during the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena regime presented the 30/1 Resolution in UNHRC in October 2015 for ‘hybrid’ commission.

Despite a resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on November 19, 2020 calling on the USG to ratify the international convention, this still has not happened. The U.S.’ long history of rejecting accountability is strongly rooted in legislation.

Washington has used different standards for the legitimate administration in Sri Lanka which was combating a separatist-terrorist movement, and its overseas advocates, fundraisers and advisors. It needs to be stressed here that Washington ignored the atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers. A democratic government was made to abide by the rules of warfare, but the terrorists were not required to do so. Such accountability, of course, did not apply to the US.

This point of view may have been based on a legal interpretation common in the past that if a state actor in an internal conflict is a party to international covenants of humanitarian law, the state actor needs to abide by the provisions ratified by the United Nations and is responsible for any violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). In contrast, if the opponent of the legally constituted government is an armed non-state actor (ANSA) and therefore not a signatory to international covenants, the general opinion was that it has no obligation to uphold the provisions. However, due to the growing number of internal armed conflicts that emerged over the years, the international community was forced to realize that new interpretations or legal instruments were needed to regulate non-international conflicts with non-state participants.

Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, later Protocol II, several other treaties and customary law all deal with non- international armed conflicts. Neither the U.S. nor the GSL is a signatory of Protocol II, but both are parties to Article 3. The latter requires that each Party to a conflict in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties is proscribed from a range of inhumane behaviours, including cruel treatment and torture, the taking of hostages, and extra-legal executions. Construed broadly, many of the provisions of the Article are applicable not only to the LTTE fighting cadre but also to non-combatants supporting them by fundraising, propaganda, legal counselling, and the like. If the USG were serious about accountability, it would call for surviving Tiger leaders and their international accessories to be tried in international courts. Any questions about the legality of such action in U.S. courts were resolved in June 2010, when the US Supreme Court upheld a federal law that makes it a crime to provide material support to foreign terrorist organisations, even if that help is itself not violent. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said the law’s prohibition on some types of intangible assistance to groups the State Department determines engage in terrorism does not violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Despite this growing body of support for legal action against non-state terrorists, the USG continues to target only the GSL for human rights violations.

In February 2020, for example, the USG announced sanctions against Sri Lankan military chief Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva, who served as a division commander leading the final assault against the Tigers. At the end of April 2023, Admiral of the Fleet Wasantha Karannagoda was declared persona-non-grata in the United States by Washington. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the U.S. would impose individual sanctions against Gen. Silva, denying him and his family admittance to the U.S., “due to gross violations of human rights.” The State Department declared the same, imposing individual sanctions against Karannagoda. Nothing similar has been said or done with regard to the expatriate Tamils, now domiciled in Western countries, who served as advisors and agents to LTTE leader Prabhakaran and his top lieutenants.

In June 2010 the US Supreme Court upheld the federal law criminalizing material support to foreign terrorist organisations in a case brought by the LTTE and the Kurdish PKK, contesting their designations as FTOs. In its written opinion the Court stated, inter alia, that:

“The PKK and the LTTE are deadly groups. It is not difficult to conclude, as Congress did, that the taint of their violent activities is so great that working in coordination with them or at their command legitimises and furthers their terrorist means. Moreover, material support meant to promote peaceable, lawful conduct can be diverted to advance terrorism in multiple ways. The record shows that designated foreign terrorist organisations do not maintain organisational firewalls between social, political, and terrorist operations, or financial firewalls between funds raised for humanitarian activities and those used to carry out terrorist attacks. Providing material support in any form would also undermine cooperative international efforts to prevent terrorism and strain the United States’ relationships with its allies, including those that are defending themselves against violent insurgencies waged by foreign terrorist groups.”

It is clear from the foregoing that the USG has the legal tools to pursue its own residents and citizens who helped to defend and empower the LTTE. Unfortunately, despite more than a decade of efforts to pressure the GSL to accept accountability for war crimes committed by its forces, the USG has not taken commensurate steps to pursue accountability for LTTE supporters at home. There are believed to be thousands of former LTTE activists living safely in the US, Canada, and Europe who have never had to face justice for their roles in enabling more than two decades of vicious crimes and human rights abuses. Many continue to use their foreign domiciles as platforms from which to militate for a separate Tamil homeland and to demonise the Colombo government. Had the USG, coordinating with its law enforcement partners internationally, worked to disable the LTTE’s support network during the war, it could have contributed to a negotiated settlement or at least saved countless lives.

A high-profile example of an expatriate activist in the U.S. is Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, who, according to his own website, served during the war as “international legal advisor to Prabhakaran and in-charge of [the LTTE’s] international and diplomatic affairs.”

This writer and his co-author have gone deep into this issue of Washington’s faulty foreign relations and the blatant double standards when dealing with Sri Lanka. Similarly, we have unearthed how Sri Lanka, since the 1980s, has failed not only to defend herself but her inability to make Washington policymakers and lawmakers conversant with the ground situation. In these series of articles, this writer expects professionals and erudite parliamentarians to bring these matters for public debate even now.

(The writer Daya Gamage is a retired Foreign Service National Political Specialist of the U.S. Department of State once accredited to the Political Section of the U.S. Embassy in Colombo