Transcript of Deputy Assistant Secretary Keshap’s Interview with Dharisha Bastians of the Colombo Telegraph

U.S. Mission to Sri Lanka & the Maldives

Journalist:  Let’s go over why you are here and what issues you are raising.

DAS Keshap:  Sure. As part of my job I’m responsible for U.S. foreign relations with South Asia, including Sri Lanka, so I was here in January with Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal.  And, it’s been a few months, so we felt it would be a useful moment to come back and talk to government officials, civil society activists, people who are in the know about where things are going right now.  We talked to some religious leaders as well.  And just get a sense of the situation in Sri Lanka and what impact that has on U.S. foreign policy and on decisions we make going forward.

I had a very good set of meetings; I met with Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris.  I met with Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.  I met TNA leader Sampanthan.  I met with Basil Rajapaksa, Lalith Weeratunga, Sajin Vaas and I’m trying to think who else.  Who am I forgetting?

Embassy official:  The business community meeting.

DAS Keshap:  We had a good meeting with business executives.  So just a very good sort of sampling of what’s going on, various opinions.

But, I think the main purpose of my visit was to see, you know, how much progress Sri Lanka is making as a society, a government people society, path towards national reconciliation, and putting a definitive end to the conflict and forging a society that is reconciled, peaceful, democratic, prosperous, inclusive, and firmly dedicated to human rights for all, irrespective of religious identity, ethnic identity, region, or anything else.

I think the U.S., and I shared this in my meetings, the U.S. has a very bright and ambitious vision of the future of Sri Lanka, of a Sri Lanka connected to Southeast Asia, to South Asia, to the Middle East.  A Sri Lanka that serves as an economic bridge between all those various regions.  A Sri Lanka where all people live equally and freely without fear of any intimidation or violence.  A Sri Lanka with robust democratic institutions.  A Sri Lanka where investment is flowing in and connectivity, economic connectivity is generating robust GDP growth.  A Sri Lanka above all things that is at peace, that is reconciled, that has had a reconciliation process that addresses the war and the time after the war and that really consolidates a lasting peace going forward that is basically built on the foundation of robust democratic principles and respect for human rights.

Journalist:  So some of the issues like human rights reconciliation, given the backdrop of the resolution, the UN investigation, these are difficult issues.  So are the meetings cordial? What kind of response do you get when you raise issues like human rights?

DAS Keshap:  Of course the meetings are cordial.  I had excellent meetings all around town.  But there are some issues that are quite troubling and I did address them in my meetings.  There were the riots the other day between Buddhists and Muslims down south in which a few people were killed.  There was the Buddhist monk that was found very badly beaten up just the day I arrived.  There had been the ongoing incidents against houses of worship, particularly Christian and Muslim houses of worship.  There has been, as you well know, the continuing concern of the United States about the amount of space available to civil society and to journalists and for free association and freedom of speech.  There have been concerns about the ongoing process of reconciliation and devolution in the north including conditions in the north that have been highlighted by jurists such as Yasmin Sooka who has studied the pattern of sexual harassment and violence against men and women in the north. 

So, these things came up because they are I think impediments to the achievement of that very robust vision that the United States has for Sri Lanka.  I raised them as a friend.  I say as a friend and on behalf of a country sincerely desirous of seeing Sri Lanka achieve that vision, you know, and I wanted to get a sense of what government is doing to address that.

Of course the government has said that it’s taking steps to ensure that the perpetrators of this violence that took place the other day will be tracked down, but I think it’s important for government to do those things and to ensure that there is accountability and that people cannot act with impunity, especially when using violence, such extreme violence.

So, follow up is of course essential in all of these areas.  The tone the government sets is of vital importance.  And the follow through of government institutions in ensuring impartial justice for all, rule of law, accountability for any agents of the security forces that may have engaged in any  human rights abuses.

I stress that these are very very  important for bolstering the confidence in people, particularly those that are minorities, whether religious or ethnic minorities .

Journalist:  With regard to the riots, the U.S. has repeatedly has raised the issues of religious freedom and attacks against minorities, and I think on almost every occasion the government has been sort of underplayed.  Do you sense that in your discussions after the riots, do you think the attitude has changed?

DAS Keshap:  We condemned the riots both in a statement here and in a statement in Washington.  And I would note that the UN Human Rights Council Resolution that passed in March also had a mention about the deteriorating climate of religious freedom in Sri Lanka.

Our view in America is that our diversity gives us our strength.  And that the very dazzling diversity of the American people is something to be cherished and appreciated.  And that while we have the demographics that indicate there is a majority of people that are adherents to Christianity, it doesn’t mean that one religion or one set of beliefs should be above all the others.  Diversity is our strength and equality is our strength and it makes our country more coherent, it makes it more strong, it makes it more stable, and I believe it makes it more prosperous.

So when it comes to treatment of religious minorities, there have been indications for several months of an increase in intimidation and violence against particularly mosques and churches, and it was noted in the Human Rights Council report.  And I believe that one of — I mean Americans always believe that one of our bedrock freedoms is freedom of religion, right?  It was one of the things that resulted in the founding of the United States.  So ensuring freedom of religion is something we care very deeply about.  So I militate for it in all of my meetings.

Journalist:  Do you think, what is the reaction?  Is the reaction of the government something positive or –

DAS Keshap:  I would say, I don’t want to put words in the mouth of the government. That’s their job to characterize their positions.  But I would say that I definitely raised our concerns and I urged that the government take immediate steps to ensure that the perpetrators of this kind of violence, including those who engage in hate speech that is inciting toward active threat of bodily harm against people, be held to account and be punished or put in the court system and made to be held accountable for what they’re doing.  This kind of thing is very dangerous.

Journalist:  With regard to the UN probe, it must come up in the discussions.  Where do you see it in terms of cooperation from the government?

DAS Keshap:  Look.  You know how the United States voted.  There were 23 countries in total that voted in favor of the resolution.  Countries that believe passionately in a democratic, peaceful, reconciled Sri Lanka.  A Sri Lanka that can really build a strong basis of future prosperity and democracy and respect for human rights.

We did talk about the resolution and I noted with dismay the vote in the parliament about the parliamentarians urging the government not to extend cooperation to the UN investigation.

My view is that the Office of the High Commissioner is not only going to through their investigation in order to enhance Sri Lankans’ own understanding and insight into what happened, and it will be complementary to the investigations and insight that Sri Lanka has already undertaken.  But that the UN, especially the Office of the High Commissioner, can also offer considerable technical expertise and assistance to the government of Sri Lanka.  The OHCHR has long experience in dealing with post-conflict scenarios, in working on very tricky issues of reconciliation, of ensuring minority rights within a larger democratic whole.  And I believe if Sri Lanka engages in a constructive manner with the OHCHR that it can actually be of great benefit to Sri Lanka.

Right now the countries that sort of categorically refused to cooperate with similar such investigations are countries like North Korea and Iran and Syria, and so I would just say does Sri Lanka want to be seen in that company?  Is that consistent with Sri Lanka’s vision of where it sees itself in world affairs?  Is it consistent with the vision that Sri Lanka’s people have of themselves in world affairs to be seen in that kind of company?

Better in my opinion, respectfully, for Sri Lanka to engage collaboratively and cooperatively and use the report and the process as the basis for a good way forward, a positive way forward, that can meaningfully advance the cause of national reconciliation and accountability.

Journalist:  Non-cooperation, do you think it would have consequences for the government next year?

DAS Keshap:  We’ll have to look at that next year.  I can’t say today what exactly the consequences would be.  But I can say that it is disturbing to me that a country with a long democratic tradition is currently in a very select company with North Korea and Syria and Iran and other notorious human rights violators in just categorically refusing to work with the OHCHR investigation.

So I would appeal to the people of Sri Lanka that they should look again at this and look at this as an effort by the international community through the UN and the auspices of the UN to work in a collaborative and friendly way with the government and people of Sri Lanka to get a sense of what happened and put that into a basis of understanding that can meaningfully advance the cause, again, of national reconciliation and accountability that then in turn creates the basis for a very bright future for all Sri Lankans.

Journalist:  How do you address that with the Sri Lankan government if it has repeatedly or — What does the U.S. government do if the Sri Lankan government repeatedly denies that it has engaged in these violations and it will not…?

DAS Keshap:  We have a difference of opinion.  

Journalist:  What does that mean internationally?

DAS Keshap:  Well, it means that there will be continued attention by countries that sincerely wish only the best for Sri Lanka and for the people of Sri Lanka to continue as friends, to engage with this government, to point out that there are issues that we feel need to be addressed.

In order for this country to secure the blessings of peace and secure the blessings of this post-conflict phase, there needs to be a meaningful process of national reconciliation to include a meaningful discussion about events that happened during the war on both sides, by both parties to the conflict.  And some process of accountability that can create the conditions not only for reconciliation which is truly important after such a terrible conflict, but also create the necessary conditions for the political understandings that will heal the wounds and really put the country irrevocably on the path towards peace, prosperity, greater democracy and greatly reduces if not eliminates the chances of a return to war.

Journalist:  Do you think that for three years this accountability narrative has been, the U.S. has pushed for accountability in Sri Lanka?  Do you think that this emphasis on the war crimes issues and human rights issues that it makes diplomatic engagement problematic and also tends to polarize opinion here?  I mean positions held about America. 

DAS Keshap:  To be very candid, I think there’s a tremendous amount of spin out there that says that the United States is only focused on accountability and if you look at the resolution text it says that we care about accountability of course, but we care about national reconciliation, we care about human rights, we care about respect for religious minorities, we care about meaningful devolution of powers to ensure that a true federal compact can be forged to really cement the peace and put the country on a good track.

So there are some who say all we care about is accountability.  I would say we have a much broader and much more positive and ambitious vision of Sri Lanka.

I feel that we have sometimes, in some cases, more faith in what Sri Lanka can achieve that some people here in Colombo might articulate.  There is such a broader and more complete picture of what we’ve been advocating for through the OHCHR, the Hunan Rights Council Resolution, and also in our bilateral engagement.  So accountability is one element of a broader political process that heals the wounds of the war and sets this country on a path towards greater stability, greater prosperity, and greater democracy.

Journalist:  We see that in the broader issues there has been a lot of emphasis on democracy and even I think State Department report mentioned corruption, nepotism, things like that.  And the Sri Lankan state construes this kind of talk as intrusive.  Why is the U.S. concerned about democracy and corruption and nepotism?  It’s not as if the U.S. doesn’t engage with undemocratic regimes.

DAS Keshap:  No, we engage all over the world. We’re a global power.  We talk to everybody including some countries we’re not terribly pleased with.  But the point of being a global power is you engage all over the world.  We have talks with the Iranians going on on a regular basis these days.

Look, America’s foreign policy is based and rooted in American values, and we have a conceit, whether you think rightly or wrongly, that our values are good values.  They’re positive values and they have contributed to the prosperity and freedom of the American people.  And we believe that’s what’s frankly worked for us is also very likely going to work for a lot of other countries around the world. 

If you look at countries that we feel have taken to heart values of freedom, liberty, equal opportunity, the fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly and religion and so on and so forth, these countries have done very well.

Look at the large multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies that cherish their diversity, cherish their freedoms, and build a bright future for their countries.  I count the United States as first among them.  But there are so many others.  There’s India right next door that is realizing the strength in its very dazzling diversity, right?  And it’s the civilizational value of being true to these values, democratic values.

So when we talk about corruption, nepotism, things like that, our point is that by establishing clean and transparent systems of government, by ensuring the supervision and oversight of the people over government, by ensuring robust democratic processes, that those are the best vehicles for ensuring the prosperity and the happiness of all the people of the country.  That it doesn’t serve just a few, it serves the entire population.

So we take license to talk about these things because they form a fundamental element of our values and we do talk about it with other countries.  We’re an open society.  We certainly invite criticism of ourselves.  And if you read the editorial pages here there’s plenty of criticism of the United States.  And we take it.  Okay, people have a right.  We don’t worry about it.  We don’t obsess about it.  In fact I think we’re pretty good about taking constructive criticism.

Journalist:  Five years down the line after the end of the war, does the U.S. still believe that Sri Lanka is on human rights interested in true reconciliation?

DAS Keshap:  That’s a question for the Sri Lankan people to answer.  That’s a question for the Sri Lankan government to answer.  That’s a question for Sri Lanka’s political leadership to answer.  All I can say is the U.S. believes in a very bright future for this country and it believes that Sri Lanka has the potential in terms of human capital, in terms of resources, in terms of geographic location, in terms of having secured peace after a very brutal civil war.  It has all of the ingredients to create a bright future of a country with a GDP three, four, five times what it is today in just the next 30 or 40 years.  A country connected to the entire world.  A country that is not the subject of UN Human Rights Council Resolutions because it has perfected its democracy and perfected its respect for human rights.  A country that has created a meaningful formula for devolution of power and federalism, to ensure coherence among the various regions.  A country that is reconciled, peaceful, and prosperous.  So again, I can’t answer that question because it’s really not for the U.S. to say.  It’s for Sri Lankans to say.  Do they have that vision?  Do they share the vision that the United States has for Sri Lanka?

Journalist:  But do the increasingly harsher UN Resolutions indicate that there’s a loss of patience?

DAS Keshap:  It’s been five years since the war ended and I haven’t seen any meaningful  discussion or movement along the lines of a meaningful negotiation of the very tricky political issues related to federalism.  Right?  Five years after the war ended there hasn’t been any meaningful movement toward any kind of accountability.  Five years after the war ended I’m sorry to say that there seems to have been deterioration in the respect for human rights in this country in the north, in the south, all around.  These things do give pause.

Journalist:  It’s nice to meet you.

DAS Keshap:  Very nice to meet you.  Thank you so much for your time.

- Source: U.S. Mission to Sri Lanka & the Maldives

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