Press Conference at the American Center in Colombo

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Colombo, Sri Lanka
September 14, 2011

Question: There was a U.S. proposal to have a direct dialogue. Was this taken up with the President? And if so, what was the response?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I talked with all of the senior government officials about the need for the government of Sri Lanka to engage positively with the UN Human Rights Council. I know there’s already a delegation that is there right now led by Mahinda Samarasinghe. I hope that delegation can have the opportunity to brief members of the council, not only on the plans with regard to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, but also on the wider range of steps that the government is taking with respect to important matters such as its dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance and many of the other important issues of concern to Tamils here on the island.

Question: I have two questions. Do you think, does the United States of America recognize the LLRC? And in the [inaudible] report, will you recognize that as an adequate tool?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I can’t really make a judgment on that. Obviously we’re going to wait and see what is in the report and then we will make a judgment about that. But as I said, we hope this will be a credible report and that it will take a look at many of the issues that have surfaced including those in the Panel of Experts report.

Question: The UN Human Rights Council has expressed concern over the killing of Osama. What is the worst that [inaudible] all information in connection with that incident? [Inaudible] concerns of human rights violation in this country [inaudible]. Will you respond to the Human Rights Commission? And do you think [inaudible] investigate the incident?

Assistant Secretary Blake: First of all I think we’ve been very transparent about the entire operation that resulted in the capture of Osama bin Laden. I think we’re certainly prepared to have further dialogue. I haven’t seen those particular comments that you reported so I can’t really comment on that.

Question: Actually I raised this issue in May this year, you said the same. So what do you say, that Osama at the time he was shot by U.S. personnel, he was unarmed. When High Commissioner for Human Rights demanded an investigation.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I’m not directly involved in that particular aspect of it so I’m a little bit reluctant to get too much into the details of this. But I’d just say as a general matter that the United States holds its own armed forces to the highest standards of transparency and accountability. I think you’ve seen that in Iraq, you’ve seen that in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In instances where there have been allegations of improper behavior by American troops, we have taken swift action and people have been brought to justice. You saw that in the Abu Ghraib incidents in Iraq. There have been a number of other incidents where American military personnel were accused of killing innocent civilians, and again, the American military justice system I think acted swiftly and in an accountable manner. We always want to hold ourselves to those same high standards that we ask our friends to abide by.

Question: According to your statement, according to what we’ve seen, many things in Sri Lanka are going in a positive way. So do you think that, is it justified that some members of the international community are putting pressure eon Sri Lanka in a revenge type manner? Do you justify the situation? We know there is tremendous international pressure on Sri Lanka in certain issues. But those issues, the IDB issue and the [inaudible] issue, they are, still we have [inaudible]. So do you think, is it a correct thing that a country rising from the ashes of war?

Assistant Secretary Blake: That’s a very general question about countries that I’m not even sure who you’re referring to, but I can only speak to the United States. I think I’ve already said in my opening statement that we are looking to the LLRC to issue a credible and full report that will we hope include recommendations on accountability but that will also address many of the important issues that were raised in the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts report. But we also attach importance to the wide range of other matters that are important to the achievement of peace and reconciliation and justice here in Sri Lanka. I’ve talked about those. Things like the dialogue with the TNA. A fair land claims resolution process. Gradual demilitarization of the north and the replacement by Tamil police. All of those kinds of things I think will help a great deal in bringing reconciliation and bringing a more lasting peace to this island. That’s our ultimate objective.

Question: I spoke to one of your former ambassadorial [inaudible] who said essentially the [Human] Rights Council pressure is about producing a political solution here. And I wondered if the government were to give some headway on those issues you just mentioned is it possible that it would get less attention than it’s getting right now from the West?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Bryce, I would say it’s both. I think we’re, of course we want to see progress on these important accountability issues, but I think we also want to see progress on those other. The solution to achieving a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka is not just about accountability. It’s a much wider series of things that have to be addressed and I think the government is addressing those. So it’s important now to see progress on those things and that was really the purpose of my visit this time was to continue to hear from the government about what they’re doing and to urge them to continue to make progress.

Question: This question is on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. Did the new introduction of legislation about excessive detention and the proposal for 48 hours without charge, did that come up in conversation with the President? And how is the U.S. looking at how [inaudible] coming in to fill that gap?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I did talk with senior government officials about the emergency laws. As you know, the United States welcomed the lifting of the emergency laws, but at the same time many experts inside Sri Lanka say that that had little practical effect, and that because of the continuation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Public Security Ordinance, many of the authorities are still present for a lot of the exceptional security actions that are still permitted.

So I think over time it’s important for Sri Lanka to reduce the scope of those measures as they make a judgment about the reduction in the threats to Sri Lanka. I think in a general way the government is committed to that. But certainly further work needs to be done.

Question: What do you believe is the extent of paramilitary activities still going on in Sri Lanka, judging from your discussions? And the second thing is on the question of political dialogue and political reform that Bryson mentioned. The TNA is accusing the government of really not being serious about this at all. And says things like the Parliamentary Select Committee is just a kind of diversion and a continuation of meetings that have gone on for years and even decades in this country [inaudible] distraction. The government says that it is acting in good faith. What’s your take on that?

Assistant Secretary Blake: With respect to the paramilitaries, as you know for many years now we’ve been calling for the disarming of the paramilitaries, and I think the government has taken steps to do that. I asked people on the ground in Jaffna how that is going. They told me that in fact members of the EPDP and other armed paramilitary groups in the north are no longer allowed to carry arms in public. It may be that they still have arms in caches somewhere, and certainly the EPDP continues to be a very intimidating presence in the north as we ourselves experienced when we tried to have a meeting with some Jaffna University students and they were temporarily able to prevent that from happening.

So I think this process needs to continue. A very important part of achieving, again, a lasting peace in the north is going to be to diminish and hopefully ultimately eliminate the role and the influence and the intimidation by paramilitaries.

With regard to your second question I think I heard a much more optimistic assessment than what you just said. I was able to meet with both the TNA and with the government, and I think both of them are committed to this dialogue that will resume later this week. I think they would like to reach a resolution on the three lists and exactly what powers would be devolved to the provinces.

So I did detect an element of sincerity there and I hope they will follow through, and both sides will engage to produce that outcome.

Question: Recently I believe the U.S. gave [inaudible] said something to the effect that if the Sri Lankan government does not address human rights concerns, then the U.S. will get together with the international community to do something. Is that some sort of warning that the U.S. is giving to the Sri Lankan government? Are you setting a deadline, and if the Sri Lankan government fails to meet that deadline what is U.S. actually planning on doing?

Assistant Secretary Blake: We’re not in the business of making threats to our friends. We’re in the business of trying to achieve progress. And so as I said earlier, we are very hopeful that the LLRC will be a credible process and a credible report, so we, like many others, look forward to the release of that report and hopefully the publication of that report in public. And as I said earlier, we think there needs to be a full, credible and independent accounting and accountability for those individuals who may have violated international humanitarian law. So we’ll await the results of that study and we hope that will be a credible process. But as our own spokesman said, there will be pressure, if it’s not a credible process there will be pressure for some sort of alternative mechanism. But we hope that doesn’t have to happen.

Question: Do you think that the 13th amendment is a starting point for lasting peace or do you think it’s redundant?

Assistant Secretary Blake: No, no. I think the 13th amendment is quite important and very much a starting point and I think, again, I think the TNA and the government are looking sincerely at what additional powers can be devolved to the provinces and I think that’s a very healthy process. We hope that that will culminate in an agreement.

Question: [Inaudible], have you made this [inaudible] to the government? You said you had a meeting with the defense secretary.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think the government has always said they want to deploy more Tamil police in the North. So it’s a question of doing that and recruiting the right people and then getting them out on streets. Again, the military itself does not want to have to undertake a lot of these police functions. I think they themselves would be very pleased to have police take over those functions. Having Tamil police would I think make a particular difference up there because it would very much help to improve community relations as it has in our country.

I’ve made the analogy with what we’ve done in cities like New York City where community policing has made a great deal of difference in helping to reduce crime because it’s raised a level of trust between the police and the communities that they’re there to support. It has worked. So I think a similar kind of process would have a similar positive effect in Sri Lanka.

Question: About the grease devils. It’s like miniature [inaudible] stories, a grand conspiracy theory and [inaudible]. I wonder what the American assessment of it is in terms of which respect of the conspiracy -- [Laughter].

Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t think we have much of an assessment. It’s very difficult to know who’s responsible. But I look at it as a security matter that whoever is behind it, it should be stopped. And that it is leading to new levels of insecurity and women and children and others are afraid to walk out at night. That’s obviously a bad thing. It’s the responsibility of the security forces to stop it and prevent it. That was our message to the government.

Question: [Inaudible] the United States [inaudible] about Sri Lanka, about [inaudible] especially out of the Sri Lanka [inaudible]. Could you elaborate on that?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I’m not sure what statement you’re referring to about that, but perhaps somebody’s made a statement about the LTTE. I would just respond to that in a general way by saying there are a number of experts who have looked at the history of insurgencies around the world. And they have found that in cases where governments did not take sufficient action on reconciliation and accountability, about 60 percent of those insurgencies restarted within a period of ten years or so. I think that’s why we have put a particular emphasis on those two issues of reconciliation and accountability. Because let’s not forget the reason the LTTE came about in the first place was a great deal of frustration about what Tamils saw as an erosion of their rights over time. And they saw the only real option was to pursue some sort of terrorist struggle which of course we opposed.

The United States was always at the forefront of calling the LTTE a terrorist organization and helping the government in every way we could to try to deal with the LTTE and taking very strong steps on our part to ban their activities and ban the activities of associated groups in the United States. All of those restrictions remain in effect. But again, it’s incumbent upon the government here as it is with any government that deals with insurgencies to deal with the underlying grievances that gave rise to these things in the first place. That’s why we’ve put such an emphasis now on this dialogue with the TNA who are the elected representatives of the Tamil people in the north and all the other important matters that are of concern to people in the north -- improving livelihoods, assuring that they can return to their lands and to their villages, ensuring there is a proper land claims resolution process. Many different people have had title to the land at one point or another. Ensuring that fishermen can go back and assume their livelihoods. All the other huge range of issues that need to happen.

So it needs to be a very comprehensive solution to this, and what we all want, again, is a just and lasting solution so that all Sri Lankans can live in peace and in harmony and have a democratic future.

Question: Would the U.S. like the LLRC final report to be before the Human Rights Council for consideration in March?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think it’s premature to make any judgment about that. First let’s see the LLRC report and then we’ll see what the next steps are. Of course a lot of that will depend on what the government itself wants to do and how it’s going to handle the LLRC report. Again, it’s premature to try to predict what they might do.

Question: What do you think about economic [inaudible] and do you accept [inaudible] situation?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Do I accept your country’s situation?

Question: Satisfied.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Oh. I would just say the United States is trying to do more in terms of promoting trade and investment here in Sri Lanka. I think there’s been some progress, but I think we’d like to do more. It’s the same way. I think it’s up to the Sri Lankan government as it is to any government to make sure that its own system is as open as possible, as transparent as possible, and that international investors are aware of opportunities and that they can compete fairly for those opportunities . So we’ll continue to support our business community. Again, I hope we can see more American trade and investment here.

Once again, I want to thank all of you for coming. It’s nice to see a lot of old friends here. I’m sure I’ll be back on the island fairly soon. Thanks again.

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