Sri Lanka Urges Lower U.S. Human Rights Focus as China Gains

Sri Lanka is urging the U.S. to avoid letting human rights concerns dominate the relationship between the countries five years after the end of a civil war that killed as many as 40,000 civilians.

Reconciliation in Sri Lanka is occurring at a “rapid pace” and the government is focused on strengthening its economy, Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, a lawmaker and coordinating secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, said in an interview in Washington. Human rights issues shouldn’t hinder closer economic ties with the U.S., he said.

“That should not be the yardstick by which you base your relationship, especially bilaterally in a geopolitical situation as what we face globally today,” de Vass Gunawardena said on July 15. “That’s where, fundamentally, the U.S. is falling behind and where China is gaining.”

The U.S. has sponsored three United Nations resolutions in as many years calling on Sri Lanka to address alleged violations of international law committed during a three-decade civil war. Deepening economic ties with China offer Rajapaksa a cushion from measures aimed at forcing cooperation with the probe.

“We welcome the U.S. as we welcome China, but China perhaps appreciates and recognized our potential,” Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview in Washington. “They are quick to work on that.”

The UN last month announced the formation of a team to investigate allegations of war crimes in the island nation in the army’s battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lanka has denied the charges and said it won’t cooperate with the probe.

‘Common Myth’

“A common myth that exists is that we haven’t addressed accountability,” de Vass Gunawardena said, adding that Sri Lanka is studying South Africa’s reconciliation effort. “We have gone on a process that is good for the people of Sri Lanka that is good for the country. It may not be with the agenda of the LTTE diaspora, with the expats living outside of Sri Lanka, but it is good for the people of Sri Lanka.”

After the war, the government prioritized rehabilitating the northern province and resettling more than 300,000 displaced people instead of bringing criminals to justice, de Vass Gunawardena said. Rajapaksa has appointed a three-member panel to advise a commission appointed in August on investigating complaints of missing persons, his office said in an e-mailed statement today.

The U.S. isn’t considering sanctions “at this point,” State Department official Nisha Desai Biswal said in February. In the past few months, American officials criticized Sri Lanka for ordering civil society groups to stop speaking with the media and called on it to protect minorities after an outbreak of religious violence.

China Trade

China last year overtook the U.S. as Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner after India. While the U.S. remains the largest holder of the island nation’s sovereign bonds, Chinese government lending increased 50-fold over the past decade to $490 million in 2012. That compares with $211 million combined from Western countries and lending agencies.

China has an “all-weather partnership” with Sri Lanka and opposes “some countries’ interference in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs under the pretext of the human rights issue,” China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a Feb. 12 statement. China and Russia opposed the U.S.-backed resolution this year, while India abstained from voting.

Sri Lanka’s military and the LTTE fought a 26-year war that ended in 2009. The conflict closed with a bloody offensive by the army that ended the rebels’ fight for a separate homeland in the north and east of the island, 30 miles off India’s south coast.

Civilian Deaths

The UN Country Team -- in a document that wasn’t publicly released -- estimated 7,721 civilians were killed and 18,479 injured between August 2008 to May 13, 2009, “after which it became too difficult to count,” according to a 2011 report from a panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.

It said as many as 40,000 civilians could have been killed in the conflict, citing “a number of credible” unnamed sources. The government doesn’t have an official death toll for the war, according to D.C.A. Gunawardena, director-general of the Department of Census and Statistics.

Five years after the war ended, the government has “failed to act on its promises to investigate and bring to justice wartime atrocities,” Brad Adams, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said on May 20. An international investigation “represents the best hope yet for victims awaiting justice,” the organization said.

Sri Lanka’s $59 billion economy -- roughly the size of the U.S. state of Delaware -- is among Asia’s fastest-growing since the end of the ethnic strife. It is forecast to grow 7.8 percent this year, compared with expansion of 7.3 percent in 2013.

De Vass Gunawardena, who is on a one-week visit to the U.S., said Sri Lanka is “open for business” and wants a broader relationship with America.

“Since after the war ended we’ve been really one sided on human rights,” he said. “We are at the crawling stage so far, so let us walk and then run perhaps.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Nina Glinski in Washington at nglinski@bloomberg.net; Anusha Ondaatjie in Colombo at anushao@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net Jeanette Rodrigues

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.