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Going beyond the back-handed slap from Washington

Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State slipped. Badly. So badly that US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis got tongue-tied trying to do damage-control. Melanne Verveer, US Ambassador-at-Large on Women’s Issues, later said Clinton’s claim of Sri Lanka using ‘rape as a weapon of war’ did not refer to the last phase of the struggle to liberate the country from terrorism. Interesting. I went through a clip of Clinton’s speech to the UN Security Council and nowhere did she mention ‘dates’. An oversight, Verveer wants us to believe. Ok, Clinton slipped, Washington said ‘oops!’ and we can now move on. Right? Wrong.

‘Wrong,’ because P.J. Crowley, US Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs speaking with reporters and the Foreign Press Centre had reiterated Verveer’s clarification and speaks if ‘significant levels of rape documented (he thinks, he says) through 2002 or 2003 in various reports, including State Department reports as well as Amnesty International reports’.

Looks like it’s not only Hillary Clinton who has an aversion to doing homework! Crowley’s reference is to the first two years of the controversial ‘Ceasefire Agreement’ between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Velupillai Prabhakaran. There was no ‘war’ at the time, i.e. the guns had fallen silent (the LTTE did, however, engage in troop movement, recruitment, forcibly conscript children, assassinate political opponents and intelligence operatives of the Army, procure weapons and so on). As such rape being used as weapon of war is an empty charge.

The message that Washington is sending the world regarding Sri Lanka is disconcerting: ‘No, there was no wrong-doing in the last phase of the war, but ‘there was wrong-doing somewhere down the line’. Quite apart from the United States not having a leg to stand on when charging anyone of war crimes, common decency requires officials such as Crowley and Verveer to substantiate claim.

In this case, the onus is on these people to prove that Sri Lanka’s defence establishment ‘willfully and intentionally, on a premeditated design used and/or permitted its forces to rape women on a pre-arranged scale to achieve military objectives’ (as Gomin Dayasri points out), at any point over the past 30 years. ‘Evidence’ moreover has to be something more than hysterical statements issued by proxies of the LTTE who, the world knows, contributed lavishly to the election campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Frankly, I am getting tired of these ill-tempered missives from Washington, a thieves’ den if ever there was one and headquarters of the world’s most dangerous syndicate of brigands. I doubt that there is enough moral fibre in the White House to engage in any serious self-examination.

Rape is a serious charge and there have been instances where Security Forces in Sri Lanka have been charged with rape.

Sure, it is a bit sick to say that ‘rape was used as an instrument of war’ with respect to the Sri Lankan Security Forces, but it is not possible to claim that rape has never occurred. It is also possible that rape and other unpardonable acts have been covered up or glossed over ‘to maintain troop morale’. ‘Professionalism’ in the security forces has been marked by ups and downs, and perhaps this was one of the reasons it took so long to vanquish the LTTE.

US troops have been found guilty of all kinds of atrocities. The USA has tried to cover up but when this was not possible, has not hesitated to take action against the guilty. I am dead certain that the USA does not pursue all those who are accused of war crimes, again from fear of compromising troop morale (Obama wanted, for example, to hide photographic evidence of such crimes being committed), but that country does succeed in shelving objection by show-casing action taken.

I believe Sri Lanka can and should do better. Not for show, but for the overall betterment of society, the streamlining of process and in the interest of upping discipline among troops.

Thrishantha Nanay-akkara in an email has argued that a distinction should be made between the true patriotic soldier/policeman and one who abuses the power of his gun to victimize civilians, especially women. He believes that ‘we have not been bold enough to make that distinction clear, fearing that punishing a soldier will lower the morale of others’. He is right; we have opened ourselves to criticism from the most dubious sources and, more seriously, our friends, and we frustrate our own fellow citizens, especially those in the conflict zone.

The war is over, but we still hear of excesses committed by men with guns, especially the police. In the more recent cases, concrete steps have been taken to bring to book the perpetrators. Still, it can happen again.

And again. The end of the war gives us an opportunity to re-think, as Thrishantha says. Abuse of power, in whatever form, is wrong and we suffer from a marked lack of protective institutional safeguards. ‘Rape’ moreover is something that happens everyday, everywhere. The Security Forces have been exemplary, comparatively speaking, but we still live in a society where women are never 100 percent safe.

Every act of transgression has to be investigated and the perpetrators brought before the law. We can’t afford to be complacent just because there is no systemic torture or rape in our country. There are sick people who abuse position and power. The signs are good. There is less looking-the-other-way happening now, compared with the past. Let’s hope that this leads to a more systematic approach to ridding our country of this menace. We can ask Hillary Clinton to stuff it, and I suppose we more or less have, because she was wrong. We cannot tell that to our sisters, daughters, wives, mothers and friends, all of whom are at risk, in their homes, on the street, at their workplace. [email protected]


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