Press Availability in Colombo, Sri Lanka

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Taj Samudra Hotel
Colombo, Sri Lanka
May 2, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Good evening, everybody. Thank you for being patient; I appreciate it. So let me begin by thanking our very gracious host today. I’m very grateful to the president, the foreign minister, the prime minister for their generous welcome. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and Foreign Minister Samaraweera – each of them were very optimistic and hopeful about the possibilities of our cooperation going forward. And I was really delighted to be surrounded by their energy and their focus on delivering on the promises they’ve made and the hopes of people that were expressed in the historic election that took place. I’m also very pleased to be here because the – this is an island nation of extraordinary beauty, remarkable culture, extraordinary people. And I wish especially after my brief visit to the temple that I would’ve had more time to enjoy all of that diversity, particularly at this moment of the holiday which is taking place and being celebrated tomorrow.

It’s also the Vesak Poya holiday – I gather the lanterns are all lit and held, and it’s a sight to behold. But maybe tonight we’ll be able to sneak out and catch a few people getting ready for tomorrow.

This is my first visit here and it’s a privilege to be able to come at this critical moment of transition, and it’s the first visit by an American Secretary of State since Colin Powell was here during the tsunami very briefly, and the first official visit in which all of the ministers and everybody have been part of meetings, and not been able to spend time since a Secretary of State 43 years ago. So it’s an especially opportune moment to strengthen the ties between our countries.

Now, before I begin, I want to just say a quick word, if I may, about the situation in Nepal. The devastation caused by the April 25th earthquake remains very much on our minds. I called our ambassador yesterday and had a good conversation with him about the efforts of all of our embassy personnel and local employees, many of whom literally had to shift to the embassy building, which is earthquake resistant, and live there for several days and eat there and work out of there. They’ve been doing a very capable and courageous job of working with the influx of rescuers and others, and we are working now very hard to help get additional assistance there. Obviously, the death toll has kept rising, and everybody has seen on television the horrendous images of children and families torn about, homes absolutely destroyed, the entire community ripped apart. And I think that we all know that rebuilding is going to take quite some period of time and an extraordinary amount of effort.

It is heart-rendering, however – it is really encouraging to see the way in which Sri Lanka and many other countries in the region – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and others – are all coming together to support Nepal during this crisis. And the United States is intending on doing its part to try to be helpful. I think to date we put in some $22.5 million. USAID has also deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team. An additional urban Search and Rescue Team and accompanying disaster experts are assisting with the assessments of the situation. And we stand ready to provide additional assistance and work with all of the countries in the region.

Tragedies of this magnitude underscore in many ways that in the 21st century, next door is everywhere. And we all have a stake in everybody else’s success. And I want to congratulate the people of Sri Lanka for their steps to that end. Let me come back to Sri Lanka for a moment. The elections that took place on January 8th were really extraordinary. And the election commissioner, the civil servants, the police and security officials all deserve an enormous amount of credit for ensuring a free and fair election. But most of all, I want to congratulate on behalf of the American people the citizens, the people of Sri Lanka who turned out in record numbers from all corners of the country in order to reclaim Sri Lanka’s traditions of critical debate, free press, and an independent civil society.

I’m told there is a Sri Lankan proverb that says “wisdom can be found when traveling.” And it was the quest for knowledge and information that brought me here and a discussion with senior leaders today. And I think I heard some wisdom. The president, the prime minister, the foreign minister and I covered a lot of ground over the course of the day – economic assistance, economic development, the attraction of foreign investment, the reform process, the reconciliation process, regional issues, the situation in the Maldives – many different issues. But we had a particular focus on the government’s reform and reconciliation agenda.

As I outlined in my speech this afternoon, reconciliation is a difficult task with many components. And I urged the foreign minister to work with the ICRC – International Red Cross – and the UN in order to investigate missing person cases and to search for answers wherever they may lead, and however painful in some cases the truth may be. They talked to me about a truth commission and other efforts, developing the process, working the UN. And I know they are really deeply committed to working this through. The foreign minister and I agreed that the voices of civil society are essential to secure a lasting peace. And that also includes particularly the voices of women.

The foreign minister and I also discussed the government’s effort to strengthen Sri Lanka’s judiciary. Now, this is a long-term undertaking that requires high standards for judicial independence, fairness, and due process under the law. And these reforms are also difficult, but they’re also essential. The prime minister summed up the challenge when he said: “The best way to avoid a relapse into conflict and arbitrary rule is to ensure that Sri Lanka’s leaders are held accountable through representative institutions.” And we could not agree more.

That’s why the United States is ready to help asset recovery and the enforcement of anti-corruption rules. It’s why we continue to urge the government to release remaining political prisoners. And it’s why we’re prepared to furnish whatever legal and technical assistance Sri Lanka may need as it moves down this path in the days ahead.

Finally, we also reviewed important regional issues, as I mentioned a moment ago, such as maritime security, the economic integration of the region, clean energy, climate change, and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, which will connect South to Southeast Asia and spur sustainable development in both regions.

So Sri Lanka is at a pivotal point. Peace has come, but true reconciliation will take time. Institutions of governance are gaining strength, but further progress needs to be made. No part of this transition will be easy. But with a clear vision and firm commitment, I am absolutely confident that Sri Lanka will keep moving forward and the United States looks forward to being at its side as it does.

I’d be delighted to take a couple questions.

MS HARF: Is this on? Okay, there we go. The first question is from Ms. Manjula of the Sunday Observer. There’s your mike.

QUESTION: I’m Manjula. I’m with the Sunday Observer. (Inaudible) see your visit as interference --

SECRETARY KERRY: Can you hold it a little closer so it will be clear? Thank you.

QUESTION: Gladly. Question: Anyone see your visit as interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs?

SECRETARY KERRY: I’m delighted to answer that question for the simple reason that I came at the invitation of the prime minister, the president, and the foreign minister, who visited me specifically in Washington to lay out many of these challenges and to ask me if I would pay a visit and help – if our government would help Sri Lanka on this journey. The second reason why it is not is that everything that we are talking about, we are offering, not demanding. Everything that we have suggested is exactly that – a suggestion. And I think if you heard my speech today, I spoke with great respect and great sensitivity to the path that Sri Lankans have chosen. This is up to Sri Lankans, not us. And I also, thirdly, reiterated to every minister I met with and the president that the United States is not here to ask Sri Lanka to align with anyone, to refuse to have any other relationship or to involve itself somehow in other kinds of politics.

We welcome the strong relationship of Sri Lanka with any country in the world that Sri Lanka wants to have a relationship with. What we do care about is the democracy, that the people of Sri Lanka have asked for. And we came here to affirm the commonality of our values that tie us together, the commonality of our hopes and aspirations. And I think you would have to ask the foreign minister, the prime minister, and the president whether they viewed anything that was suggested today as interference, and I think they’d tell you no, it was welcome, and they look forward to the next visit; in fact, offered an invitation to President Obama to come as soon as he might be able to.

MS HARF: And the last question is from Rosiland Jordan with Al Jazeera English. The mike is right behind you.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I have one question. Is Yemen on the verge of becoming a failed state? And if not, what reassurances do you and others in the Administration have that it can survive the current crisis?

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we don’t have an assurance yet. But I would not yet say that the verdict is in on what Yemen is going to be, because we are trying very hard, working with the UN, working with our friends in the region, particularly with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – we are working hard to secure a negotiated process through the UN which will bring the parties together, Yemenis, to negotiate the future of Yemen. And if that can happen, then it obviously has the opportunity to hold itself together, to resolve a way in which all of the interests within the country can be represented.

Many other countries have stated that it is their desire to see this political solution take place. Iran has publicly made suggestions that they’d like to see a negotiation, that they think it could be resolved through that, but would like to see it resolved that way. European countries – France, Germany, Britain, others – have all weighed in. The EU has suggested it needs to be resolved that way. So as long as that is yet untested and un-failed, I think all of us have hopes that Yemen can find a path forward.

Now, it’s not going to be easy; many things have to happen. We believe that one of those things is – and the Saudis have suggested that they would be prepared to (inaudible) humanitarian assistance in and want to do so. So hopefully the modality can be found to be able to get humanitarian assistance according to the Saudi thoughts on that in in a way that can alleviate the shortage of food, the shortage of fuel, the shortage of medicine, and then, using that time period to begin to open up the possibilities of a political resolution. That’s our hope. But we’re having discussions over the course of every day right now in order to push towards this. And our hope is that the UN process may be able to actually take hold before too long and we will continue to work on that as hard as we can.

MS HARF: Great. Thank you all very much.

SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you all very much.