Biden To Pick Up Sticks That Trump Dropped
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Joseph “Joe” R. Biden (Jr) who took his Oath of Office as the 46th President of the United States (POTUS) on 20 January 2021 was administered by Justice John Roberts. Biden succeeded a powerful and rich Republican U.S. President Donald Trump who set his own rules and implemented them during his four-year tenure unlike traditional U.S. politicians did.
Despite the backlash, Trump was admired by 69 million-odd U.S. voters and angered the Democrats and the Chinese, mainly. The ‘likings’ for Trump were seen openly and the last seen action was when his supporters took ‘control’ of the Capitol, recently.
Trump lives a spectacular life, and a proud owner of a Boeing 727, a massive yacht, a ‘Darth Vader’ helicopter and the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that has 124-room mansion etc., yet he was politically incorrect many a times. However, he will be remembered in U.S. history for walking out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), cutting funding for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, saying the U.S. did not gain from funding these organisations – a typical businessman’s approach. He called the UNHRC a ‘cesspit’.
There is no record in the world where a Presidential oath-taking ceremony was held surrounded by 25,000 troops. It happened to Biden. It was also said that train services from North Carolina and South Carolina were cancelled on the day Biden took oaths as President. This is the legacy Trump left for others to remember.
Not your average President
Trump who knew what U.S. politicians are like, set a new trend in politics - to regain what U.S. had lost – the monetary power. The road he trod was aggressive and tough but he did not have the political backing as he was a bU.S.inessman.
He believed that the usual image of the U.S. as the world super power meant nothing unless the American people were rich. He believed that when the U.S. was wealthy, tackling China would be easy. Nevertheless, while the world considered him ruthless, there are number of things that made Americans feel proud, something that no U.S. President did in the past.
He challenged not only China but improved U.S.’ ties with North Korea, Israel and attempted to normalise relations between Israel and Kuwait. He stood by the people of Hong Kong, he cracked down on illegal immigration which made Americans happy. He ordered the operation that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
He improved the lives of a majority of Americans (tax waived too). He shut down travel from China, held Beijing responsible for the coronavirus pandemic and cracked down on China’s intellectual-property theft. He took out Iran’s Terrorist Quds Force Leader Qasem Soleimani.
Already, Biden is receiving his share of hatred from the American people. The latest attack came from House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who accused Biden of putting undocumented immigrants before Americans and covering up China’s role in letting COVID-19 spread by rejoining WHO.
And after marching in lockstep with the Trump White House as it exploded the federal budget deficit, Florida’s Sen. Rick Scott was on his feet to complain about Democratic spending just 24 hours after Biden was sworn in.
But how is Sri Lanka reacting to Biden’s Presidency? Sri Lankans are already murmuring that Biden, who was Vice President to then President Barack Obama, will set the human rights record straight. He knows lot more about Sri Lanka than Trump, some say.
When Trump withdrew from the UNHRC, it brought some solace to Sri Lanka. Out of Trump’s actions, withdrawal from the UNHRC was the best for the island nation, as Sri Lanka over the years, had lamented that the UNHRC had been biased and worked against Sri Lanka.
The alleged human rights violations and war crimes claims are still intact and despite the U.S.’ withdrawal from the UNHRC, the policies towards Sri Lanka does not change. Up until now, the U.S. Ambassador in Colombo, Alaina Teplitzis voices for human rights in the county.
Also, Biden’s Government is hoping to sit at the 2022 UNHRC sessions. Biden is also to be in the Paris Climate Agreement and will get the U.S. back into WHO and fund it – all those that Trump walked out from.
The Biden administration has a significant proportion of those with Indian origins including Tamils: his Vice President Kamala Harris is half Tamil, half Black. There is some anticipation that she would voice for the Tamils of Sri Lanka, but Americans don’t work that way. She is more Black than Tamil. Such top posts have been held by those of Sri Lankan origin, even in the UK Government, but they are not in the habit of engaging in Sri Lanka or otherwise using their ethnicity.
U.S. can be bitter if Sri Lanka continues its tilt towards China
There was a time when the U.S. had no interest in Sri Lanka other than mutual bilateral ties. However, with the advent of China in Sri Lanka, the entire landscape has changed.
Despite UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka were ‘considered’ as recommendations only that ‘need’ not to be worried in terms of implementing it, the current geopolitical climate, there are so many trump cards the U.S. and its allies like India, Japan, UK and Australia, have to table when Sri Lanka does ‘wrongs’.
Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu noted that Biden’s Government will fully focus. on human rights and good governance related issues again and indicated that there are intentions to deal with the matter in Geneva in March 2021.
“Nothing would go ignored and they will reengage and what exactly would be is still not known,” he added. He said certainly the accountability issue will be focused on.
Human Rights activists, Ruki Fernando says that U.S. foreign policy must reflect its domestic policy and practice in terms of minority rights, human rights and democracy. U.S.’ anti-democratic and anti-human rights policies and practices in the U.S. and other countries have led to its engagement on human rights in Sri Lanka to be discredited.
Some U.S. interventions in Sri Lanka in recent years have been problematic, such as promoting and legitimising militarisation in the North, including presence of the then U.S. ambassador with the Sri Lankan Navy in a village occupied by the Navy, while local people were struggling to reclaim it, he stressed.
He also charged that last year, the U.S. Embassy in Colombo had handed over administration of a small grants programme to an organisation whose principles and approaches to reconciliation and human rights have been questioned by local human rights defenders. It is important for the U.S. to adopt a more principled approach and maintain rights-oriented public diplomacy and messaging.
In Sri Lanka, there are signs that survivors, families of victims and communities struggling for justice may face reprisals and hostility in the coming years, along with opposition politicians, journalists, lawyers, environmentalists and human rights defenders. In the past, the U.S. had supported some during difficult times and such support would be very important for Sri Lankans in coming years.
This must be by the U.S. Embassy as well as in Washington DC, and must include flexible and easy-to-access funding, long term visas, public solidarity through visible presence, privately raising cases with Sri Lankan authorities and updating those concerned. To avoid potential negative effects of U.S. interventions, consultation with those affected is crucial.
He went on to say that the U.S. must prioritise multilateralism in its foreign policy.
Though not a member of the UNHRC, as a Member State of the UN, it could become more involved in the UNHRC’s work from now on. This must include Sri Lanka, particularly in the upcoming session of the UNHRC, considering the role it has played in the past in relation UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka.
He also urged that the U.S. must also be more proactive about broadening UN’s engagement on rights and accountability in Sri Lanka beyond the UNHRC. This is particularly important now, as there is lot of fear and uncertainty amongst survivors, families of victims and human rights defenders about continuity of the UN engagement on Sri Lanka on rights and accountability. In this regard, it is important for the U.S. to work together with other States, especially ones that have played a proactive role in the last few years at the UNHRC, building on what has been done by them. This collaboration must go beyond western countries and include States from Asia, Africa and Latin-America.
Many trump cards on Sri Lanka
One of the trump cards dropped on Sri Lanka was to implement the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to accept the USD 480 million grant which the Rajapaksa Government dismissed over the counter.
The MCC approval had gone through serious process and was almost to be implemented. The office for the MCC operation was established and Jenner Edelman arrived in Sri Lanka as the MCC country director. But they quit as there was uproar. Before informing the Government, they released a statement officially to the Media and on social media.
Edleman also said nothing comes as free lunch and the U.S. has its own interest having a huge trade deficit with Sri Lanka and as the biggest trading partner. She also mentioned that they have to ‘protect their supply chain’.
The U.S. is specific on Indo-Pacific openness. The U.S. State Department recently published a declassified version of the U.S. Strategic framework for the Indo-Pacific, which reinforces the importance the U.S. places on a shared commitment with its sovereign partners on the principles of freedom of international waters, democratic values, inclusive prosperity and good governance resilient to malign influence. They also stressed that the U.S. understands these principles to be enduring ones that countries and citizens across the Indo-Pacific aspire to secure alongside the U.S.
India is also keen on Indo-Pacific to be open and the two mighty Governments will take Sri Lanka to task every time their prioritised agendas are unsettled or ignored.
China has its presence in seas from the Korean Peninsula through the Western Pacific and up to the eastern coast of Africa, with bases in Djibouti in East Africa and Gwadar in Pakistan. It sees itself moving into positions in the Middle East, partly as a replacement for the U.S. and partly in contestation with Russia. China sees itself as a rival to the U.S. in the Western Pacific as well. Asia is changing, and China is a principle cause, notes author Vikram Sood in his book ‘The Ultimate Goal’ and Sino-Lanka ties are growing increasingly that India and U.S. will make sure that it does not harm them.
Already India has expressed sternly about the implementation of the 13 Amendment that would suit Tamil aspirations and in no terms this is expected to be put in to action before the upcoming Provincial Council election.
Also, in Sri Lanka, in the recent past many upsetting matters including the cremation of Muslims who had succumbed to COVID-19, the independence of the commissions appointed, the UNHRC recommendations, the unattended enforced disappearances, the undertaking of the Office of the Missing Persons etc. will show their ugly heads. Presumably reports are already being filed with concerned parties, Tamil and Muslim political bodies, to be taken up in Geneva.
Leader of Tamil Progressive Alliance MP Mano Ganesan tells that U.S. regime would not be a pro-Tamil regime but all indications starting with Democratic Party tendencies and having Kamala Harris, it will not blindly support the current Government. “Besides that, China influence has also caused tremors. What is important is watching how India moves with Biden because Biden’s Government will decide anything on Sri Lanka after consulting India,” he added.
Ceylon Today’s attempts to speak with Foreign Secretary Admiral Colambage and State Minister of Regional Cooperation Tharaka Balasuriya on what they would expect from the new U.S. administration was futile, unfortunately.
Biden, unlike those before him, is very progressive and has understood the new world order and the new norms set by countries across the globe hence he will be compelled to change his style of running the Oval Office.
Biden has been hitherto the oldest President in America’s political history and Kamala Harris has been the first coloured woman of mixed ethnicity to figure prominently in the nation’s political decision-making process.
Biden has lost no time and signed as many as 17 Executive Orders already. It goes without saying that the road ahead will be no easy one, nonetheless, Biden has decades of experience, not to mention having a few political heavyweights like his mentor Obama, Samatha Power, his close friend John Kerry to guide him through turbulence when they do emerge and will leave no brick unturned.
It’s a mixture of interest U.S. has on Sri Lanka, but primarily their concerns are on the Indo-Pacific region and they are cautious about it because Biden, and as U.S. policy dictates, will never give into China’s growing economic and military power, its rising political influence, distinctive diplomatic voice and increasing involvement in regional multinational institutions.
Biden nominee as the Secretary to the State Antony Blinken already endorsed that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China which underlines that not just Sri Lanka, but China also has to manage these challenges together.