Interview With BBC Sinhala Service

Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
San Francisco, CA
March 22, 2013

Question: First of all, this is the second resolution, and having agreed the international community that Sri Lanka has so far failed to implement their pledges, their obligations. What would the U.S. do if they do not implement, if they do not abide by this resolution?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I don’t want to speculate about future actions, but I think the resolution underlines the importance of Sri Lanka now taking meaningful action on reconciliation and accountability in order to move forward to achieve peace and prosperity on the island.

Question: Do you believe that Sri Lankan government will abide by this resolution?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Well, again, I can’t speak for the Sri Lankan government but I think it’s very important now that again, forward progress be made on important issues like holding elections for the Northern Provincial Council that have been promised for September of this year. I think it’s important that they move forward on the dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance to achieve an agreement on devolution. And I think it’s important to address a lot of the serious human rights concerns that many people on the island have identified.

Question: But the Tamil National Alliance has been complaining that the Sri Lankan government has so far failed to implement any of the pledges it has given so far to the Tamil National Alliance.

Assistant Secretary Blake: With respect to the dialogue, you’re talking about?

Question: Exactly, yes.

Assistant Secretary Blake: We and others are encouraging a resumption of that dialogue. As you know, the government has moved the dialogue into a Parliamentary Select Committee so they appear to be in a bit of a cul de sac now on that issue. So folks are working behind the scenes to try to support a mechanism to achieve a way forward.

Question: There are reports that South Africa is trying to mediate or being a facilitator between the Tamil National Alliance and the Sri Lankan government. Would the U.S. support such a move?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Yes. I think we would support any move that would help to again revive this dialogue and achieve a conclusion to that dialogue that is agreed to by all sides.

Question: And with regard to the resolution passed yesterday, Indian media reports say that U.S. vetoed a last minute attempt by the Indian government to bring in some resolutions, some amendments, especially calling for some international involvement in monitoring LLR’s implementation. Is that true?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Well let me just say with respect to India that we worked very closely with India throughout the process and we indeed welcomed some of the changes that India made. So we were quite satisfied with the cooperation that we had with India, and I think going forward it will be very important for all of the international community to continue to work with India to encourage progress, since India has quite a lot of influence on the island.

Question: Did India propose any amendments at the last moment?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Like I said, we consulted closely throughout the entire process.

Question: Right.

The original draft proposed by the United States was in the opinion of observers was pretty much toned down at the last moment. Is that because of Indian influence?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I reject that premise. I don’t think that it was toned down in any way. I think it remains a very fair and balanced text that again reaffirms that Sri Lanka had to take meaningful action on reconciliation and accountability.

Question: There are two major points that the human right activists have been pointing out. One thing, the resolution has failed to call for an international investigation. The other thing is with regard to the special procedures, in the original draft it was said, in the original draft it says unfettered access, but the final draft just says access for the [inaudible] having failed to do so for more than three years. Do you still believe that Sri Lanka would conduct an independent credible investigation?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I must say the stakes were raised when the government and the military specifically put out a report that has not actually yet been released, but they referred publicly to the fact that an internal military investigation has absolved the military of all responsibility for civilian casualties.

So we are obviously disappointed with such a conclusion and again have sought a full copy of the report but it has not yet been released. Again, I think that statement by the Sri Lankan military raises the skepticism of many that the government is prepared to do its own investigation.

Again, I think it’s really important now for the government to address that skepticism head-on and come out with their own independent and credible investigation.

Question: And you said access for the special procedures means unfettered access?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Certainly.

Question: The Sri Lankan government has accused the U.S. of pursuing an agenda other than human rights. What is your agenda?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Our agenda is to achieve peace and reconciliation and accountability on the island, and we also want to continue to build our relations with the Sri Lankan people. We have no other agenda than that.

Question: Isn’t it the strategic interest in the region?

Assistant Secretary Blake: We do have strategic interests in the region. I think that’s an important strategic interest that I’ve already talked about. But we also have very important interests in seeing continued good cooperation on counterterrorism, on maritime security and important issues like that as well.

Question: Speaking in Colombo, a government Minister today accused the international community of trying to divide Sri Lanka, having failed to divide Sri Lanka through Tamil Tigers, now trying to divide Sri Lanka through United Nations. What would you say?

Assistant Secretary Blake: I would say the opposite. I would say that the United States and the international community are trying to reunite the country and that the way to do so, again, is to achieve reconciliation, to address the serious human rights abuses that continue to take place, and to move forward expeditiously on accountability. That will help to unify the island, to achieve justice, and achieve peace and prosperity that we all want.

Question: Some independent observers or analysts are of the opinion that while it is correct to impress upon the implementation of the LLRC, it may be too early to pressurize Sri Lanka on alleged war crimes. They are pointing out that it took for the United States also to investigate allegations of human rights violations in Vietnam, for example, for more than 30 years.

Assistant Secretary Blake: These are, again, these can be very long-term processes, but what we’re seeking now is just proof and indications from the government that they’re prepared to undertake a serious investigation of their own, and thus far we have not seen any indications of that.

Question: At the same time, according to WikiLeaks cables you personally and the United States also knew about civilian casualties while the war was going on.

Assistant Secretary Blake: We were very concerned about civilian casualties, and if you look back over the record, we made many public statements about our concerns for civilian casualties.

And I must say, something that many observers forget to note, we were always very balanced in our statements. We always were very careful to note that the LTTE bore a great responsibility as well, because they cynically placed heavy weapons in civilian encampments and fired those weapons in order to draw return fire from the Sri Lankan military. Secondly, the LTTE refused to allow freedom of movement by the internally displaced persons. Many of them wanted to cross the lines and move to southern Sri Lanka away from the fighting and the LTTE refused to allow that and indeed shot many that tried to escape. So the LTTE was also guilty of many serious violations.

Question: But don’t you think you have, the international community have failed to protect civilians, having known the casualty figures, having known the state of the casualties as the situation there, correct situation there?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I wouldn’t say we knew the state of what’s going on. None of us had good information and we still don’t have good information about what happened at the end of the war. As you know, the government asked all of the NGOs, the non-governmental organizations to leave. It refused to allow access by journalists. So there were no independent observers in the north to record and understand what was going on during that last phase of the war. So information remains very scarce about what happened.

Question: The United Nations independent panel has also admitted that UN itself failed to protect the civilians at the height of the war. Will the U.S. and the international community call for an investigation against the United Nations?

Assistant Secretary Blake: No. I don’t think so. I think having personally worked with the United Nations during that last phase of the conflict, that the UN worked side by side with me and with several other diplomats almost on a daily basis to raise our concerns about civilian casualties in the north and to urge the government to exercise restraint and to only target LTTE fighters. But again, as the war went on their record deteriorated in that regard.

Question: Mr. Blake, two more questions.

Number one, with regard to the resolution once again, in the initial draft it was said it was called for an interactive dialogue, comprehensive report and interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka, but now it suggests to follow by a discussion. Isn’t this another example of toning down the original resolution?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Frankly, I’m not exactly sure. I think there was an interactive dialogue that took place two days ago on Sri Lanka.

Question: No, I’m talking about in its 24th session I think in September.

Assistant Secretary Blake: I think there’s been plenty of dialogue in the UN. I think what’s needed now is to move forward on these visits by the Special Procedures Mandate Holders as well as a visit by High Commissioner Pillay, so we very much support that. She will then present an oral report later this year on her findings.

Question: As you know, Sri Lanka has refused many requests by Special Procedures already.

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, in my experience, while I was in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka actually welcomed the visits of many of those mandate holders. Again, we would strongly recommend that they do so because the failure to do so suggests that they have something to hide and again, would reinforce calls for some sort of international mechanism.

Question: Finally, what is your message to Sri Lanka? To the Sri Lankan government and its people with regard to reconciliation and with regard to this resolution?

Assistant Secretary Blake: My message is what Secretary Kerry said in his statement yesterday which is that while some important progress has been made, much work still needs to be done. We look go the government of Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC recommendations and reverse some of the negative trends that have occurred with respect to rule of law and human rights in Sri Lanka. And the United States stands ready to assist.

We have had a very long and positive relationship with the government and the people of Sri Lanka. And we want to continue our engagement and to strengthen our friendship with the people of Sri Lanka.

Question: Give me one more minute. What if they fail? Will the U.S. consider economic embargo or bringing in Sri Lanka into Security Council, for example?

Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, I don’t want to speculate on future actions. We’ll just have to see. I think I’ll stick with what I’ve already said.

Question: Mr. Blake, thank you very much.