» News » Hillary to visit Chennai, but mum's the word on Sri Lanka

Hillary to visit Chennai, but mum's the word on Sri Lanka

By Aziz Haniffa
July 13, 2011 11:47 IST
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United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will make her first-ever visit to Chennai after co-chairing the second US-India Strategic Dialogue in New Delhi on July 19 with her counterpart External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, will not discuss any foreign policy issues while in the Tamil Nadu state, specifically Sri Lanka, senior diplomatic sources have said.

The island-nation, incidentally, is under tremendous US pressure to allow for a United Nations-led investigation into alleged war crimes during the final months of the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

These sources, briefing on the agenda and priorities of the Strategic Dialogue as well as Clinton's maiden trip to Chennai -- the first by a US secretary of state -- said the visit would be "strictly non-governmental" where Clinton would meet with leaders of civil society and policy wonks on development issues, mainly from nongovernmental organisations, and also meet representatives of leading American companies that are situated in this manufacturing hub, like Caterpillar and Ford, and business groups.

For years Ford has maintained a automobile manufacturing plant in Chennai and the Figo built there now serves not only the domestic market but also the export market.

"All of the discussions on foreign policy will be in Delhi where we will discuss the neighbourhood as a whole when the foreign minister meets with her," the sources noted.

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has minced no words in slamming the Sri Lankan government for not moving ahead with its commitment to investigate the alleged war crimes. Only last month, the state department, when asked for the US view regarding accountability in Sri Lanka, had said, "As we have stated before, the US supports a full, credible and independent investigation of alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law and accountability for such violations."

It said, "While domestic authorities have primary responsibility to ensure that those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law are held accountable, international accountability mechanisms can become appropriate in circumstances in which a State is unable or unwilling to meet its obligations."

Thus, the state department noted that Washington continues "to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to quickly demonstrate that it is able and willing to meet these obligations as it seeks reconciliation."

"We hope the Sri Lankans will themselves do this, but if they do not, there will be growing pressure from the international community to examine other options," it warned.

The senior diplomatic sources, while conceding that there have been regular discussions of the Sri Lanka situation between Delhi and Washington, and that both countries were on the same page in terms of its policy regarding the repatriation of Tamil refugees and that the rights of the Tamil minority needs to be respected, reiterated that this issue would not figure in the discussion Clinton has while in Chennai.

They said the itinerary that included Chennai was more a logistical step since Tamil Nadu "looks out to Southeast Asia where she is going," after her two-day visit which first takes her to Bali, Indonesia, as much as it was also a decision to visit a city which America's key diplomat had not visited before.

State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland had said, "During her trip to India, Clinton will also visit Chennai, marking the first visit by a serving US secretary of state to the city, which has emerged as a hub for the trade, investment, and people-to-people engagement that is driving the US-India relationship."

Nuland said that Clinton, who arrives in Delhi after two days in Greece, would be travelling with a high-powered US delegation, including senior officials from the various departments and agencies, including -- besides commerce, energy, homeland security and education -- the Pentagon and the Directorate of the National Intelligence.

"The depth of the US-India strategic dialogue demonstrates America's strong support for India as an important actor on the world stage and is representative of the broad and multifaceted US-India relationship," she said, and added, "Together, the US and India are working to face the most important and pressing challenges of our time."

The diplomatic sources, in a press luncheon Tuesday, said that "this dialogue is an occasion to review the progress we have made since the historic visit of President Obama and also chart out a course for the future of Indo-US strategic dialogue."

They pointed out that since Obama's visit, there had been "substantive tangibles," like the US removing the Defence Research and Development Organisation and the Indian Space Research Organisation from the commerce department's Entity List "and a re-alignment of US export controls as they pertain to India in several sectors."

"Also, agreement by the US to support India's membership in four multilateral export control regimes."

The sources also said there had been much progress "in establishing a monsoon desk in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is working with the Meteorological Survey of India and ISRO to achieve weather predictions for India, particularly monsoon predictions. So greater granularity and complex simulations and modeling in underway."

"The Joint Clean Energy Center with $25 million each, is also up and running, and it will be a virtual centre," they added, noting that both countries would tap the private sector in India and the US to chip in $100 million each.

According to the sources, the project proposals called for had an August deadline and "by October the projects will be taken up."

"So in terms of degree and scope of the consultations, they have both broadened and intensified, and there are new initiatives civil aviation and in cyber-security and investment," the sources said.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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