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Biden-Harris Transition team and the Sri Lanka connection

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have announced a ‘transition team’, as it prepares to assume power at the White House in January 20201, which includes the former US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and former United States Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Cathy Russell.

The team, announced on the "Build Back Better" website, includes a "diverse advisory board, and respected leaders and staff from across sectors”.

For some members of the team, issues around Sri Lanka and the Tamil people will be familiar. 

Susan Rice served as ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013 and as the US national security advisor from 2013 to 2017. During her tenure at the UN, Sri Lanka launched a military offensive in the Vanni that killed tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. At the time, Rice said the situation was “grave”, “dire” and that the United States was “deeply concerned”. She had called on Sri Lanka and the LTTE to cease shelling, and the government in particular to provide access to the camps where tens of thousands of Tamils were being detained. The Sri Lankan government, which was led by the Rajapaksas who have since returned to power, did not do either.

A leaked US embassy cable highlights notes of a UN Security Council meeting at the time where Sri Lanka was discussed. Whilst Russia and China reported defended Sri Lanka, "Ambassador Rice disagreed, and said the meetings had not yet made a difference; displaced persons were not receiving help, and the shelling continued despite government assurances to the contrary”.

Read more: 11 years today - A massacre in Mullivaikkal

During 2009, American Tamils appealed directly to Rice to “ halt the genocide against the Tamils”.

She has also spoken out in ending impunity and for ensuring accountability for mass atrocities. “It’s incumbent upon the international community to end impunity—by helping governments create, maintain, and operate credible and effective national courts where possible, or by supporting international and other mechanisms where necessary,” she told the Security Council in 2010. “The International Criminal Court can also be useful in the fight against genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.”

However, Rice has faced criticism for not taking any tangible action on Sri Lanka during her tenure. "Rice speaks often about her commitment to human rights, a cause that allies say is central to her worldview. Yet, one of the world’s leading human rights advocates has been a frequent critic. “She tends to be strongest when the human rights violations involved are committed by U.S. adversaries,” Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy in 2012. “But she [Rice] is less strong when violations are committed by U.S. friends, like Rwanda or Israel, or by governments more in the middle, like Sri Lanka,” Washington Post said quoting Roth.

Rice was also ambassador during significant other global events, including the independence of South Sudan - which she told a crowd “is a prize you have won” -  and the lack of UN action in relation to the Syrian conflict - which she called “a stain” on the organisation.

Also on the Biden-Harris team is Cathy Russell, who visited Jaffna in 2015. Russell met with the Bishop of Jaffna, Justin Gnanapragasam, then-Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister CV Wigneswaran and Tamil women from civil society in the North-East, where she discussed the plight of Tamil women and widows.

Russell in Jaffna in 2015.

Former Democratic Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg, Cindy McCain and Former Surgeon General of the United States Dr. Vivek Murthy are other members of the team who have been announced so far.

See the full list and more on the Build Back Better website here.

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