Interview with AFP

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
via DVC with Washington, DC
Colombo, Sri Lanka
February 28, 2011

QUESTION: Basically what I was seeing if we can discuss with you is essentially after the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka how you kind of place U.S.-Sri Lankan relations now, particularly in the post-war, but not necessarily post-conflict? But how do you sort of see the situation since you left Colombo?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As you know, we’ve been focusing on three primary issues since the end of the war. First, the return of all of the internally displaced persons from the camps and all of the issues surrounding that. Secondly, the whole question of reconciliation and accountability. Then third, the whole question of human rights.

In each of these areas there’s been some progress, but in each of these areas there’s also more work that needs to be done. So we are in good, close dialogue with Foreign Minister Peiris, other members of the government about all of these areas. I’d be glad to discuss each of these in more detail, if that would be helpful.

QUESTION: Ambassador, you talked about reconciliation and accountability. I think I was just seeing some of your recent interviews where you talked about these two things, reconciliation and accountability, and you were saying that without introducing these two, Sri Lanka will not be able to put the past behind and sort of get on with nation-building and sort of have a unified nation.

So how far do you think they have moved in this direction, and how satisfied are you with the efforts that have happened, that have taken place so far?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me answer that in several ways. First, I think it’s important to point out that Sri Lanka’s one of the countries in South Asia that really has great promise. Your country has the best social indicators in South Asia in terms of the progress that has been made on things like health and literacy and education. You have a growing economy. You have abundant natural resources. You are located to the south of India. You have a free trade agreement with India and with Pakistan. So there are a lot of very positive things that your country has going for it. But we believe that to truly realize the promise that Sri Lanka has, that it’s going to be very important to achieve national reconciliation so that all of the citizens of Sri Lanka feel there’s a just and durable peace after the end of the war in May of 2009.

So as you say, we’ve been encouraging the government of Sri Lanka to really take steps to ensure such a just and durable peace. We welcome the fact that the Sri Lankan government has entered into a dialogue now with the Tamil National Alliance, and that two rounds of dialogue have been held. I understand those have been quite constructive. I understand a third round was to have been held but has been postponed, so I hope that can be rescheduled as soon as possible.

We’ve also I think been encouraged that the government has acted on some of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. For example they’ve appointed I think 350 Tamil-speaking police to serve in Jaffna. They’ve released many of the detainees, although I still think that a full accounting is necessary of who remains in custody and who has been released.

But I’d say that the really major issue now for us and for many members of the international community is the question of accountability. As you know, the UN has estimated that many thousands of civilians were killed at the end of, in the final few months of the war. Those need to be investigated, preferably by the government of Sri Lanka and its own institutions.

I want to make a point here, which is that the United States is not holding Sri Lanka to any special standards here. You will note that, for example, over the weekend the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution against Libya on Saturday night. One of the provisions of that resolution was to refer Moammar Qadhafi to the International Criminal Court so that they could investigate alleged war crimes and abuses against his people. So this is a very common thing.

The United States has welcomed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and we’ve urged that the Commission apply best international practices so that there could be a credible investigation, and we look forward to the Commission submitting its report to President Rajapaksa in May. Obviously we hope those recommendations will be public.

We also welcome the fact that the government has established an interagency committee to implement some of the interim recommendations of the LLRC and that some steps have been taken.

We’ve also urged that the government enter into a dialogue with the Panel of Experts that the United Nations has appointed, that was appointed really to advise the UN Secretary General. We believe they have a lot of expertise on these matters and could really be of great benefit to the Sri Lankans as they move forward on this.

So I think there are still a number of important steps to be taken, and our preference is that the Sri Lankans themselves take these. It’s always best for a host nation to take responsibility for these sensitive issues. But I think also it’s important to say that if Sri Lanka is not willing to meet international standards regarding these matters that there will be pressure to appoint some sort of international commission to look into these things.

QUESTION: Ambassador, when you talked about Libya and the sort of possibility of Libyan leaders being brought before the International Court of Justice, is that a kind of situation where you think it will apply to Sri Lanka? How far are we down the road to Sri Lankan leaders being brought to that kind of situation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I didn’t mean to make a direct comparison between the situation in Libya and the situation in Sri Lanka. They’re very different, obviously. But I wanted to just make the general point that around the world there is an interest in assuring accountability for crimes that have been committed, and I think you saw in my recent interview that I gave to the National Public Radio, I was very careful to make a point that the LTTE was probably responsible for a lot of violations of international humanitarian law in the final stages of the conflict, primarily by not allowing freedom of movement for all the IDPs to move south. That itself would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives had they been willing to do that. It would have saved not hundreds of thousands of lives, but it would have provided for the safety of hundreds of thousands of people. But they also put heavy weapons in the midst of civilian encampments and things like that. So they also were guilty of things.

The point is, all these allegations need to be investigated so that this difficult period in Sri Lanka’s history can be brought to a closure.

QUESTION: Ambassador, actually I was listening to that interview where you were very critical of the LTTE, but at the same time you also say that the government also must be held accountable for what happened, especially in the final stages. But is this question of war crimes and the possibility of the Sri Lankan government’s fear that the U.S. is leading an international campaign to bring Sri Lankan leaders before some sort of War Crimes Tribunal, is that affecting your relations with Colombo? Is that sort of the defining factor now in your bilateral relations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I wouldn’t say it’s a defining factor, but I would say it’s an important factor. Again, this is not something that is confined only to Sri Lanka. We have made similar representations with regard to the situation in Gaza after there was an Israeli attack there. Again, most recently in Libya. So we’re applying consistent standards in all of our relations with many countries. Again, I think this is an important issue for Sri Lanka to address, and we hope that it can do so. It’s taken many positive steps.

QUESTION: Ambassador, if you look at the EU, for example, the EU took off the GSP Plus facility concession to Sri Lanka as kind of part of this dialogue about accountability. But do you see that kind of measure in any way helping? Or do you think the international community has any sort of levers to put pressure and get these standards, the standard that you’re talking about, to make sure that they are met?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all, with respect to the EU, I’m not really close enough to know whether the lifting of GSP Plus privileges has had any effect or not. It’s better for you to talk to the EU itself about that.

On the question of leverage, I don’t think it’s terribly useful to talk about leverage. The point I would make is that it’s important for any country to want to achieve justice and to want to achieve accountability, and they should do so because they feel it’s in their own interests to do so, not because the international community is somehow obliging them to do so. So I would hope the Sri Lankan government would see that it’s in its own interest to, again, take the measures that are necessary to assure a just and durable peace.

QUESTION: Ambassador, the question of the Sri Lankan government sort of shifting towards Iran, China, and to some extent India, and sort of drifting away from the ties, the bilateral ties with the West. How concerned are you? What’s your view on that front?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, those are sovereign decisions that will be made by the government of Sri Lanka. We would like to have good relations with Sri Lanka. Again, it’s a country that has tremendous promise so we hope that Sri Lanka can take some of the steps that I outlined earlier. I think those will really help to completely normalize relations with the United States, and more importantly, they will help to really allow Sri Lanka to achieve the promise that it has always held.

QUESTION: When you say the normalized relations, there is a suggestion that it could improve. What would you say are the sort of--apart from the war crimes issue which the Sri Lankan government thinks you are sort of pursuing.--apart from that, do you feel that if you get that out of the way perhaps there is more scope for trade ties or political ties? How do you see it evolving if you address it and put this issue behind you?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’re already pursuing trade ties and we have a lot of U.S. assistance that’s going to various programs, but I think the other area in addition to the whole reconciliation piece is the area of human rights where we have expressed our concerns in the past about the passage of the 18th Amendment which we felt weakened the system of checks and balances inside Sri Lanka. And we hope that the government can take steps to improve human rights, to enhance democracy, enhance transparency, and that these again will be an important part of the national reconciliation effort.

I’d like to say when we talk about human rights, the area that we’ve been I think particularly concerned about has been the area of media freedom where there continue to be attacks on independent journalists. Most recently the question of Lanka e-News I think was one of those. It’s important for those kinds of attacks on the free media and independent media institutions to stop and for those to be investigated, and for there to be a completely open climate and a free media. That, again, I think is a very important part of the whole effort of achieving national reconciliation.

QUESTION: But Ambassador, when you talk about media freedom, these issues have been raised for the last so many years. If you think of Lasantha’s assassination, I think the U.S. has taken a very strong position on that. Also Tissainayagam’s case, I think President Obama singled out Tissainayagam as an example of a persecuted journalist. But have you really been able to make any progress? Do you see any sign of making any headway with authorities in Colombo in addressing this particular issue of media freedom?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s not up to us to make progress, it’s for the government to make progress.

QUESTION: No, my question is, were you able to make headway with them?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The point I would make is now here we are almost two years after the end of the war and still these kinds of challenges to, particularly to press freedoms and media freedoms continue. It’s a bit unusual and a bit counter-intuitive. Again, the LTTE is no longer a force to be reckoned with. Peace has now emerged there. There is a lot of progress being [made]. Most of Sri Lanka’s friends in the international community sort of scratch their heads and wonder why there’s still this kind of intimidation that is occurring.

QUESTION: One other thing I wanted to check with you, the Sri Lankan President was in the U.S. on an unannounced visit. There were some reports that you yourself were somewhere in Texas at the time so there was lots of talk about whether did you actually meet, or if you did, what did you discuss. Maybe you could fill us in on that.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure. We didn’t meet. That was purely coincidental that I happened to be in Houston at the time. I think the President was there on a private visit, and I was there to meet and speak to the Baker Institute of Public Affairs which is part of Rice University, and you can see the speech that I gave on our web site. Then I also spoke to the students and met with some of the Indian Diaspora that live in Houston. But I didn’t have a meeting with the President.

QUESTION: Did you know he was going to be there? Or would you think there would have been some sort of contact if you --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I heard about it at the last minute, but even had I wanted to try to arrange something I don’t think there would have been time.

QUESTION: On the example of Libya, not comparing it, but it looks like the international community is sort of moving fairly swiftly in terms of sanctions against Qadhafi’s family and freezing his assets and things like that. So if you compare that with Sri Lanka, you probably had similar concerns in May of 2009. It’s two years after the conflict, and some of these issues have not been addressed yet, the question of accountability. So why has the international community in a sense been slower to respond here and probably faster in Libya?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t think it’s terribly useful to try to compare the two because they’re completely different. In the case of Libya there has been a complete erosion of the faith of the Libyan people in their government and in their leadership. We’re almost to the point of a near civil war now where opposition forces control most of the country except the area around Tripoli itself. And we have pulled out our staff because the situation is so dangerous there. So again I don’t think the situation is really comparable at all between that and the situation in Sri Lanka, but we do, again I just want to say, we do look to the government of Sri Lanka as we do to any government to address the needs of its people, to ensure that the aspirations of all of its people are met, and if there are any shortcomings, that there should be a dialogue with the opposition, with other democratic forces to try to resolve those and to, again, create independent institutions of governance, to respond to some of the concerns of some of the people.

QUESTION: Ambassador, on the question of accountability, is there any other way to get past that? Or do you see the international community actually insisting on accountability? Is that a possibility to sort of sweep it under the carpet and say okay look, start on a clean slate. Is there a possibility of that?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think you can sweep it under the carpet. If you look at longstanding cases like what happened in Serbia and cases like that, eventually people were brought to justice for crimes that were committed. Again, it’s important for the government to deal with these matters, and again, we hope that the government will do so itself and do so in a credible manner, in a manner that is consistent with international standards. So we’ve always received assurances from the government that they would do so. We hope that’s the case.

I can take one more question.

QUESTION: No, I think that’s about all. It was a very useful interaction. Thanks again.