Under Secretary Otero: Thank you. Good afternoon. I’m pleased to be here in Colombo for the first time.
I’ve had serious and productive meetings with the government of Sri Lanka as well as with civil society, political leaders, and journalists. President Rajapaksa was kind enough to meet with me and to explain this government’s vision to advance reconciliation among Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities since the end of the conflict. I also had fruitful meetings with the Minister of External Affairs and the Secretary of Defense among others.
The United States has a long friendship with Sri Lanka, and we were one of the first countries to recognize the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. Since 1956 USAID has provided over $2 billion in assistance to Sri Lanka. This work benefits all Sri Lankans with initiatives in economic growth, agricultural development, environment, and natural resources, health, education and training democracy and governance and community conciliation and humanitarian assistance.
Current assistance is shifting from relief to sustainable development and it’s focused on two key areas — economic growth for conflict-affected regions, and [inaudible] cooperation between the state and an engaged, active civil society.
Our bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka is multi-faceted. I am the most senior U.S. government official to visit Sri Lanka since Secretary of State Colin Powell was here in 2005. I know that you have hosted visitors from several U.S. government agencies in recent months. This shows our robust and diverse relationship and the strong people-to-people and growing economic ties.
During my trip I’ve had a chance to meet with officials and groups who focus on trafficking in persons, child labor, and human rights.
The government of Sri Lanka has demonstrated improved performance, most notably in a successful prosecution and conviction of traffickers under the anti-trafficking legislation and has rejuvenated its interagency task force on this issue. We welcome the opportunity to continue to work with the government to strengthen investigation and prosecution efforts and eradication of the scourge of trafficking in persons.
Child labor is another area where the Sri Lankan government and NGOs are making a great deal of progress. Today less than two percent of children are engaged in the worst forms of child labor against Sri Lanka. This is a significant achievement, particularly in this region, and we are even more encouraged by the government’s plan to entirely eliminate the worst forms of child labor from this country by the year 2016.
We also appreciate the work of the Sri Lanka Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). While it has shortcomings on accountability, the commission addressed a number of crucial areas of concern to Sri Lankans and made substantive recommendations on reconciliation, devolution of authority, demilitarization, rule of law, media freedom, disappearances and human rights violations and abuses that if implemented could contribute to genuine reconciliation and strengthening democratic institutions and practices.
I discussed the recommendations with the President and he assured me that they were looking to implement an LLRC report in a comprehensive manner. I urged the Sri Lankan government to share the details of their plan and begin fulfilling the recommendations called for in the report and to credibly address outstanding issues of accountability.
I confirmed that the United States will support a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council in March that provides an opportunity for the government of Sri Lanka to describe what it intends to do to implement the LLRC’s recommendations and advance reconciliation as well as address accountability, human rights, and democracy concerns.
Ultimately the government should address the needs of all communities in Sri Lanka by creating independent mechanisms that support reconciliation, democracy and accountability for serious human rights abuses. It is critical to ensure the rule of law to foster lasting reconciliation. We strongly encourage the government of Sri Lanka to work with international bodies including the United Nations to address these matters.
An agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on a lasting political settlement is also critical. We urge both sides to approach negotiations in a spirit of trust, empathy and good faith to reach a political solution that is in the best interest of all Sri Lankan citizens.
It is our sincere hope that the government and people of Sri Lanka will seize this opportunity to build a democratic, tolerant society that will lead to lasting peace and prosperity, that leads to a future of hope and dignity for all.
We hope that all Sri Lankans see diversity as a strength, not a weakness. Sri Lanka has immense potential. The United States looks forward to continuing to work with you to build on your momentum towards a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Sri Lanka.
Press: I’m Sean [inaudible] from Colombo. My first question is for the [inaudible]. You said [inaudible] shortcoming in the [inaudible] report, and also [inaudible] [Human Rights Council]. Will you [inaudible] as [inaudible] shortcomings? And the reason behind the U.S. supporting the [inaudible] human rights.
Assistant Secretary Blake: We’ve explained in some detail our views on the LLRC report, both on its merits and also on its shortcomings. As you know, there have been a number of other reports such as the UN Panel of Experts Report that describe in some detail some of their concerns about human rights violations and potential war crimes that occurred, particularly at the end of the conflict from January to May of 2009. You all are familiar with those, I don’t need to address those.
In our view the LLRC report did not cover in sufficient detail some of those allegations. So again, we think it’s very important as part of finally achieving a just and durable settlement and reconciliation process that those be fully addressed, so we talked in some detail about that with our friends in the government today.
Under Secretary Otero: If I can just add to that. In that context it is also important to point out that we believe that report makes some important and positive recommendations in the areas of reconciliation, and that it concentrates in that area, in many of those areas. Moving forward in those areas we also see as a very positive way towards addressing the situation that remains.
Press: My second question is about [inaudible] human rights [inaudible] meetings, [inaudible] human rights [inaudible]. And [inaudible]?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The United States will support a very straight-forward resolution that declares that the government of Sri Lanka has not yet done enough to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, and will comprehensively address the issue of accountability. We hope to work very cooperatively with the government of Sri Lanka, both in the UNHRC but also both before and after that. I think we had some good discussions today about that.
Press: [Inaudible]. In your remarks you said that [inaudible] resolution [inaudible]. Now does this [inaudible] is wrong? And will you also [inaudible]?
Assistant Secretary Blake: The United States supports the successful conclusion of the current dialogue between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil National Alliance. From talking to both sides we understand that they’re really not that far apart so we hope that that dialogue can resume and again, can reach a successful conclusion, and that then whatever is agreed can be discussed in the context of the Parliamentary Select Committee.
Press: I’m [inaudible]. How confident [inaudible] Secretary Blake, how confident are you that [inaudible] considering that [inaudible] India’s back yard?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I’m not sure of the connection to India’s back yard. But again, we’re engaged in consultations now with a number of countries about that. Obviously we hope to have that support, but we’ll have to see. Again, this is a quite important time, and again, we hope that Sri Lanka will do as much as possible between now and then to explain more its plan and how it’s going to implement the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission recommendations.
Press: I’m [inaudible]. European [inaudible] to inquire about [inaudible]. What’s your take on [inaudible] United States at this time?
Assistant Secretary Blake: We do believe there should be an investigation into war crimes. As you know our Ambassador who handles this matter, Ambassador Stephen Rapp, was recently in Sri Lanka. I think he had a good visit and was able to talk with a wide range of officials and also people in all parts of Sri Lanka which we very much welcome. But again, we think that a very important part of this whole process of reconciliation will be accountability and investigating what happened throughout the course of the war, but particularly at the end of the war.
Press: My name is [inaudible]. My question is about the [inaudible] report and the [inaudible] that was used in this report. Now in the [inaudible] Sri Lanka and [inaudible]. Will the U.S. government [inaudible] Secretary General to declassify these documents? Question number one. And my second question –
Assistant Secretary Blake: Let me answer that first.
I’m not sure what you’re referring to.
Press: The [inaudible] classified and the material [inaudible]. If there is to be a credible, transparent [inaudible] into these alleged war crimes, would you urge the Secretary General to declassify this material? In order to facilitate a credible, transparent probe into these alleged war crimes.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, that’s a matter for the Secretary General to decide for himself. But I have just answered the question about the importance of an investigation and accountability for what happened at the end of the war.
Press: My second question to Ms. Otero, it’s about the [inaudible] women and minorities [inaudible] issue. [Inaudible] on this [inaudible]. How concerned are you about the safety and security to women [inaudible]?
Under Secretary Otero: I think in any situation where there has been a conflict the concern about the safety of women remains. Clearly this is one of the areas that we are concerned about and we have expressed that concern and discussed it with several of the officials that we have met with to ensure that proper protection is provided, and to ensure that women, in many cases women who are now heads of households, are able to both operate within the society and be able to make sure that they are properly protected.
Press: [Inaudible] News Agency. The government of Sri Lanka said [inaudible]. What is your [inaudible]? And the other thing is, do you want the timeframe for [inaudible]? [Inaudible].
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, it’s up to the government of Sri Lanka to determine what it wants to say and when. It’s not for us to set a timeframe of any kind. But as a general matter I’d say that the sooner the government can explain first to the Sri Lankan public but then also to its friends in the international community what the details of its plans are and how it intends to proceed, I think that will be very helpful to all of us.
Press: And [inaudible] at the [inaudible]?
Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, you’ll have to ask them that.
Assistant Secretary Blake: No. You ask them that.
Press: Hi, I’m [inaudible]. Is the U.S. going to push for international [inaudible] in Sri Lanka, or are you satisfied with [inaudible]?
Assistant Secretary Blake: For now we’re focused on this UN Human Rights Council Resolution, but as I said earlier, we remain very hopeful that a domestic mechanism will proceed and that there will be a credible investigation inside Sri Lanka. That’s always going to be the preferable solution for a domestic accountability mechanism of some sort. But our position has always been that if there are shortcomings in such a domestic mechanism there will certainly be international pressure to establish some sort of international mechanism. Again, we encourage our friends in the Sri Lankan government to ensure as credible and transparent investigation as possible of their own.
Under Secretary Otero: The only thing I would add to that is that we have been supportive of this process from the outset. And we believe that a report that is done here in the country, if it was then implemented and its recommendations were then taken seriously, addressed in a timely manner, that that would be one way to address the reconciliation and accountability issues.
Press: [Inaudible]. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on [inaudible], crude oil. So as you know a lot of us here really depend on [inaudible]. The fuel crisis [inaudible] crisis in the country. [Inaudible] strike. And [inaudible] government officials expressing [inaudible], requesting an exemption for Sri Lanka from the sanctions. Was it at all discussed over the last few days? And if the government does request for such an exemption will the U.S. be interested?
Assistant Secretary Blake: I think it’s premature to talk about any kind of an exemption. What we’re encouraging all of our friends around the world is to do everything they can now to avoid possible sanctions by first of all winding down all transactions that they have with the Central Bank of Iran as quickly as possible. And then to significantly reduce their imports of oil from Iran.
The purpose of these sanctions is to put pressure on Iran to come back and engage seriously at the negotiating table and to provide assurances to the international community that it’s prepared to work with the IAEA, provide the IAEA access to enable the IAEA to ensure that Iran is pursuing a peaceful civilian nuclear program and not pursuing a nuclear weapons program.
Press: Ambassador, [inaudible]. What is [inaudible]? [Inaudible] investigation into the [inaudible]? And does [inaudible]?
Assistant Secretary Blake: We’ve also supported an independent Maldivian mechanism to investigate the circumstances of the transfer of power in Maldives. I was very pleased to hear that President Waheed has agreed that that should proceed, so that’s very welcome.
In terms of the ongoing process of government formation, as you know, President Waheed has formed part of his cabinet and all of the other parties except the MDP party have now been brought into the government. President Waheed has left some posts open in the hopes that the MDP will still join, and I understand that conversations are underway with the MDP about what kind of incentives might be able to be possible to bring them into the government.
Again, it’s up to the parties themselves to describe the discussions that are ongoing now, but again, we would certainly welcome as broad a coalition as possible right now to help the country prepare for these very important elections that will occur.
Assistant Secretary Blake: Thank you all.
Under Secretary Otero: Thank you.