NEW DELHI: The recently released emails of US presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, reveal that Sri Lanka’s strong reaction to the then secretary of State, Hillary Clinton’s 2009 remarks over use of rape as an instrument of war unleashed an intense internal debate, which ultimately led to a partial retraction.
On Sep 30, 2009, Clinton said at the UNSC that rape had been “used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma and Sri Lanka and elsewhere”. This had led to a big outcry in Lanka, with an official protest being lodged.
The retraction came in the context of the victory that the Sri Lankan army achieved in its decade-long civil war against the Tigers with general international consensus that Colombo should be given space for its national reconciliation process.
The Sri Lanka government had lodged its protest on October 2. From the released emails of Clinton, it is clear there was an intense internal debate on how the response should be released and who it should be released by.
On Oct 3, 2009, Lissa Muscatine, a senior aide to Clinton, while sending a mail listing human rights violations including rape atrocities committed in Sri Lanka, acknowledged there had been a lack of due diligence prior to clearing Clinton’s statement. “The problem is that it was not sent to SCA or East Asia and should have been. But the rest of the building signed off on it,” she wrote, referring to the South and Central Asia desk which covers Sri Lanka.
The then State department spokesperson Philip Crowley sent a draft of a statement to Clinton, as a possible response to the Sri Lankan government’s protest note. But, five minutes later, he wrote of Clinton being open to the idea of the response coming from someone else.
“She feels that this has generated a great deal of media commentary in various quarters, including prominent outlets in this country (LAT) and in Asia that we have no choice but to respond in a public way. Government supporters are saying that she is listening to the Tamil Diaspora,” Crowley wrote in an email to various Clinton aides. It hints at active lobbying in Washington on behalf of the Sri Lankan government to put pressure for a retraction.
Crowley said that a conference call with Clinton led to a consensus that US response to Sri Lanka should not be from Clinton to allow for some flexibility. “What this does is reinforces her statement, but gives the government a little something on recent experience and then goes the pivot to reconciliation and what they need to do now, reinforcing our current policy,” Crowley said.
A little later, Philippe I Reines, Clinton’s senior advisor, wrote that if the letter was sent by Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, it will be “far more confirming of HRC’s statement”, rather than from the spokesman “which will invariably read like a correction/retraction”. “I fear how the 3,000 outlets who have not even noticed the issue will react to this statement,” he added.
Verveer agreed. “We do not want to make this a bigger story, so if it makes sense for me to respond, I have no objection to course.”
Within 15 minutes, Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl D Mills said she had spoken to “HRC”. “We should do this from Melanne. She still wants to see a draft”.
Clinton herself wrote an email to Crowley, saying she was “happy” to have Melanne Verveer release the letter to the Sri Lankan ambassador, but emphasized that she wanted to see it.
An hour later, a text in language largely based on the original draft statement by the US spokesperson was sent to Hillary to review.
However, even after Verveer’s conciliatory letter was made public, Colombo was not placated. Few days later, the then Sri Lankan PM told a radio station that Clinton had forgotten the Monica Lewinsky episode and should focus on her own backyard, instead of making allegations of women being abused in other countries.