Thank you so much, all of you, for being here. Thank you, Dharisha. And let me say the – there is a mutual admiration society that we can create, because, as all of you know, Dharisha is a very distinguished journalist. And what’s most impressive about her work is the risks that she takes to report the stories that many others have shied away from – like her coverage on corruption, the erosion of judicial independence, and last year’s communal riots in Aluthgama. So thank you, Dharisha, for moderating today’s town hall and, more importantly, for the essential service that you are providing for your fellow Sri Lankans. [Applause.]
I can’t tell you all how great it is to be back in Sri Lanka. I have squeezed a lot into the three days I get to spend in your amazing country meeting with political leaders and military officials, civil society groups, human rights defenders, brave journalists like Dharisha. And, of course, some of you may have seen, playing Elle for the very first time with some schoolgirls at Osmania College in Jaffna. Now, what you may not know, and what was omitted in my otherwise extensive bio, was that long before I wanted to be a journalist or a diplomat, I dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. [Laughter.] And after my first at-bat yesterday at Elle, I think my fortune could have turned out differently had I chosen it. [Laughter.] It was so wonderful to be with those girls, and I think the greatest part about the photographs that somehow made it into the Sri Lankan press, it appears, was the faces of those girls, as they they threw the ball exactly at me to get me out.
A lot has changed since I was last in your country, which was in 2010. Twice this year the majority of people from Sri Lanka have made clear their desire to have a more democratic, inclusive, and accountable government. Twice, you all have chosen the path of reconciliation over that of division. That process of reconciliation, while not complete, is underway. And today I want to talk to you about three things that you, the young people of Sri Lanka, can do to help shape that process, both in healing the wounds of the past and building the fundamental freedoms and the inclusiveness that are critical to this country’s future – to all of our countries.
First, I want to encourage you to continue to exercise your right to shape your country’s future. It was the Sri Lankan people, including many young Sri Lankans like you, who chose a government that ran on a platform of greater, stronger, democracy; a platform of inclusivity, a platform of respect for human rights. You collectively chose the path of reconciliation over division, hope over fear. But engagement by Sri Lankans cannot end at the ballot box. You must continue to make your voices heard and to hold your government now to the commitments that they have made. Because, ultimately, you are the ones who have the most at stake in Sri Lanka’s future.
And here I will quote my great President, President Barack Obama, who himself quotes a very famous American Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, when he says, “The most important office in any democracy is the office of citizen.” And that’s what I think you’re going to find in this country, and most do that already.
Consider, as part of this, the participation of young women. I’d guess at least half of you here today are women, and it’s inspiring to see so many in the audience. While in many parts of the world girls still lag behind boys in secondary education, in Sri Lanka girls actually outnumber boys. In universities, girls make up 60 percent of undergraduates. And yet, can you all guess, or do you know, what proportion of members of Sri Lanka’s parliament are women? Any guesses?
Ah, the guy – the guy in the front row knows that. Five percent. When Sri Lanka’s first parliament was elected in 1947, three percent of the members were women. That was 1947. It’s 2015. It’s gone from three percent to five percent, that’s not much of an improvement.
To be fair, most of the world is not where it needs to be either. In the United States, to give you one example, only 20 percent of our Members of Congress are women. And at the United Nations, where I serve as the United States’ Permanent Representative, only 37 countries of 193 are represented by women, which, interestingly, is roughly the same percentage of women in the U.S. Congress – around 20 percent.
Your country, though, has such a proud tradition of women’s leadership, which ought to be translated into women’s representation. In 1960, as you know well, yours was the first nation in the world to elect a woman head of state – something, I would note, that the United States has not yet done, although watch this space. [Laughter.] Decades earlier, Sri Lanka was the first country in Asia in which women earned the right to vote. In 1928, when the struggle for women’s suffrage here was being hotly contested – one of its leaders, a woman name Agnes De Silva, was asked during an official hearing whether Tamil women laborers on estates should also be included if women were given the right to vote. De Silva’s answer, which she later wrote about, was just right: “I replied that certainly Tamil women laborers are women, too. We want all women to have the vote.”
Having women in leadership positions is not only intrinsically valuable, it is critically important to the future of your country. Study after study has demonstrated that countries where women are more educated, healthy, and able to fully participate in society, those countries are more stable, more peaceful, and more prosperous. Knowing this, and looking out at all of the women in this room, it is baffling to think that only around 550 women competed for seats in the August parliamentary elections, compared to approximately 5,600 men. That is more than 10 male candidates for every woman.
So, to the women in the room I say this: surely your communities and your nation would be better served if there were more of you in public office. So I hope a handful of you will consider making a run at office one day soon.
Of course, there are many ways to help shape your society, for young women and for young men. I’ve learned this in my own path, starting, as Dharisha said, as a journalist, then becoming an academic and an activist, before making my way – somewhat cozily, initially – into politics, and finally now, in my current dream job as a diplomat representing the United States. Of course, there is still another stage in my career. It is, I think, still possible for me to become a professional Elle player. [Laughter.]
Yesterday, in Jaffna, I had the privilege of meeting with women in some of the most heartrending situations imaginable; women who, against all odds, continue to lead their families and their communities; women whose husbands or children were killed or disappeared, but who will not give up the search for them; women whose families were displaced, but who continue to struggle to get their land back, all the while caring for small children; women who have been the victims of sexual violence, but who actually have been brave enough to demand justice, in spite of threats from the perpetrators and stigma from their communities.
There are an estimated 60,000 households headed by women like these in the Northern Province alone – 60,000. And many more women in the other parts of the country facing difficult circumstances. An entire generation depends on these women continuing to carry a tremendous burden, often by themselves. And they deserve more support. These women are a prime example of my second recommendation, which is not to allow fear to guide your actions.
One of the UN’s great diplomats, a man named Sergio Vieira de Mello, who dedicated his career to helping societies like yours emerge from devastating civil wars, and whose life was ultimately cut short, in 2003, by a suicide bomber in Iraq – Sergio used to have a saying about this idea. He used to say, “Fear is a bad advisor.” Fear is a bad advisor.
As you all know so well, this is such an incredibly promising time for your country and for your generation, in particular. For the vast majority of young people in this room, your country was at war for most of your lives. And yet in recent years you have seen – and in many cases, been a part of – the process of transitioning from a country at war to a country at peace. And especially in the time since the January elections, you have seen that process accelerate.
From the reforms proposed last week to roll back the powers of the executive, to the restoration of fundamental freedoms that had previously been restricted, to the additional returns of appropriated lands, change is unmistakably underway. But, as you know far better than I do, there are some voices, sometimes even voices maybe even in your own heads, that appeal to your fears: the fear that if you dig too deep into a painful past, you won’t be able to pursue a bright future; the fear that the restoring of certain liberties will come at the expense of your security, which was so long in coming; the fear that if you make real concessions in the pursuit of compromise, your good faith will be turned against you.
After nearly three decades of conflict, this is perfectly understandable – it’s even reasonable. And such fears are not easily unlearned. They linger and they stay in the bloodstream, even in the DNA. But we cannot allow ourselves to be governed by fear. And we cannot allow the fear that we have to prevent us from breaking out of a cycle of mistrust and strife.
I want to stress it is not only Sri Lanka that is susceptible to such fears. Look at my country. Look at the ways in which, in recent days, extremely destructive invocation of fear has begun to dominate in our political discourse.
In the wake of the Paris attacks, many officials – public servants – have appealed to our people’s fears of refugees, saying that we should turn away people who have suffered bombings, people who suffered disappearances, people who suffered religious persecution, we should turn them away. Now, these are all experiences that Sri Lankans can relate to. Some people in America have even suggested that we apply a religious test to those seeking refuge in our country, or that we place entire populations under surveillance simply based on their religion. This is outrageous. It is offensive, and it smears the legacy that the United States has, the proud and long-held tradition of taking in people who have endured profound suffering.
But leaders, communities, individuals can choose not to be governed by such fears. And this is my third and final point. We have got to be brave enough to get to know the people we fear. Because when we do, we find out they’re not so different from us. As some of you may have seen, President Obama was in Malaysia this week for the ASEAN summit. On Friday, he visited a foundation that helps refugee children. He met with a group of kids who will soon be granted asylum by the United States. One was a 16-year-old Rohingya girl who told the President how she had fled her home in Burma at the age of 8, and then been subjected to human trafficking. Having been rescued herself, she now wants to help other kids in situations like hers. Sitting next to her, President Obama said: “Anybody who has a chance to see these kids, hopefully you understand the degree to which they’re just like our kids, and they deserve love and protection and stability and an education.” And then the President gave this girl a hug. And I now call that the hug heard around the world. It was a beautiful hug.
When people speak about the future of Sri Lanka, they often speak about the importance of sending a message of inclusiveness from the top down, and making sure that all communities feel as though their voices are being heard. It is true that governments have a crucial role to play in making our societies more inclusive. But the truth is that real inclusiveness, in fact, has to be built from the bottom up, by people like you. And it is built, as the President’s hug demonstrated, through acts of empathy, through seeing that other people are just like us, that their kids are just like our kids.
Let me give just one example. In 2012, the renowned Sri Lankan writer Shyam Selvadurai and an NGO called the National Peace Council launched a project to bring together aspiring young Sri Lankan novelists and poets to write about some of the most difficult times related to the country’s conflict. The participants were drawn from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, and the idea, in the words of Selvadurai, was that “good writing creates empathy and an opportunity to build bridges between various communities.” It was called Write to Reconcile. Write – W-r-i-t-e – to Reconcile, as many of you know.
One of the 23 participants was a young woman from Jaffna named Saambhavi Sivaji. During the hardest parts of the war, her school was not even allowed to bring in textbooks, forcing her teacher to travel all the way to Colombo to photocopy one, which the 40 kids in her class then shared. Military roadblocks on the road she took to and from school every day made an otherwise short bus ride into a harrowing two-hour journey.
But for Saambhavi, the most impactful part of the program was not the stories she learned to tell, but the ones that she heard, stories of young people from other backgrounds whose experiences she otherwise would never have known, but who had endured hardships and suffering of their own, young people who had been forced from their homes or lost parents or been victims of abuse. It was a broadening of perspective that Saambhavi said permanently changed the way she looked at her country. Now she is a second-year student at Colombo University, and she’s here with us today. Where are you, Saambhavi? Why don’t you stand up, please, just for a second, and we will give you – [Applause.].
Now I would like to ask all participants from Write to Reconcile who are here with us also to stand up, and let’s have all of you get a nice round of applause. So the Write to Reconcile group that is here – don’t we have others? Is everybody being shy? Yes, they’re being shy; that’s what I thought. [Applause.]
The scale of the Write to Reconcile project may seem relatively small, but the impact has been big. In part, that is because the stories that Saambhavi and her peers wrote were eventually compiled into a book, which has since been shared with schools across Sri Lanka. And the lesson of the project is a crucial one: When we make efforts to know and listen to one another, we will be less likely to succumb to those fears. We will know that those other people are not different from us, or at least not that different. We will treat them, as we ourselves would hope to be treated, with dignity.
You find the Golden Rule in every religion, including all of the religions practiced here in this great country. In Buddhism the Golden Rule goes, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” In Hinduism: “Do naught onto others which you would not have them do unto you.” In Islam, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.” And the basic empathy that these religions and others preach is something that you all can help build in your classrooms and work places, in your neighborhoods and places of worship, with your parents and your children. It is the thread that will tie your communities together, and hold those communities together when others try – as some surely will – to break them up, when others try to appeal to your fear or your mistrust.
Let me conclude so we can have a discussion and open up to questions. As you all know, a few weeks ago, Sri Lanka lost one of its great leaders, Sobitha Thero. He was a moral compass for the nation on so many issues: the need to curb executive power; the sacredness of protecting freedom of expression. But he was most eloquent and passionate on the need to reconcile Sri Lanka’s communities. “Sri Lanka is a small island in which live the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Malays and Burghers,” he said. “We all must think how to live together and not how to live divided. Each time we were divided, the result was defeat. In the 30-year war, no one was victorious; we were all losers,” he said.
Watching the news lately, it looks as though there are more and more places being torn apart around the world by the divisiveness that Sobitha Thero described. Just consider the last few weeks alone: Ankara, Sinai, Beirut, Paris, Bamako. It can start to feel bleak. And that is why what you are doing here in Sri Lanka is so important. For your own people, of course, but also for people far away from this island. People around the world are watching Sri Lanka. We are talking about the process that you all are engaged in here. We are completely behind your efforts.
And this is true especially in the United States: President Obama is asking every day, “How is it going in Sri Lanka, how are they doing? What’s going on with that prevention of terrorism act? What’s going on with that land reclamation? What’s going on on reconciliation?” People are asking these questions. They want to know what’s going on. How are the young people doing? How’s the job situation? What’s happening in Sri Lanka? People want to know, and we want to be by your side as you undertake what I know feels some days like monumental challenges.
And I know that, at times, it can feel as though the change is not coming fast enough. And to real reformers, it always seems like change is too slow. But you must not let that impatience shake your commitment to making your voices heard, or let it prevent you from listening to the voices of others. When you are feeling the most impatient, that’s actually the moment to get more involved, and not less. It is what will help you demand, and ultimately succeed, in attaining the change that you and your country so need.
So, stay engaged. Don’t let fear be your bad advisor. And let empathy help you see the dignity of others. Follow that, and there is no limit to what you and your country can achieve.
Thank you very much. [Applause.] Question time.
MODERATOR: Now I think we can take a few questions?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Yes, absolutely.
QUESTION: Welcome back, Ambassador Power. I just want to take us back to the UN assumption that the U.S. government and the Sri Lankan government –
AMBASSADOR POWER: Do we have a microphone? Yeah.
QUESTION: A question on the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council which was co-sponsored by the government of Sri Lanka and the U.S. government. [Inaudible.] Just your thoughts on the next phase of change and reform – what is the next phase that you see Sri Lanka [Inaudible.] not just what is the solution but also what is the resolution [Inaudible.] Sri Lanka, in terms of us achieving what’s in there and also in terms of [Inaudible.]?
AMBASSADOR POWER: First, let me say that it was an amazing experience, I think, for so many who had worked so long in this country to try to promote the idea of justice and accountability, to see Sri Lanka not only support the resolution at the Human Rights Council in September, but co-sponsor it. And this was after the previous government had opposed, I think, three previous resolutions, and lobbied furiously against those resolutions, which were really quite modest, in fact, just urging there be even domestic processes to hold accountable the perpetrators of grave crimes.
So, I think, in terms of the next steps, which are the ones that you and others here have helped ensure, got written into the resolution in the first place, the consultative process is extremely important. And having been in the north yesterday, and I know no matter where you go in the country you would have some different account of how the war had affected different families, and so everyone in this country should have a voice and somehow find a way to express how they think these processes should take hold.
So that consultation is extremely important. A lot of the communities that were the most affected by war and the most affected by terrorism have felt voiceless and have not felt as if their dignity was respected, whether throughout the war or in the years since, as they go around and with a photo of a missing family member and can’t get anybody to return their phone calls, and – so this consultative process, to make it as broad and as deep, but also there is a desire to move forward. And so one wants to get these institutions in place relatively quickly. But that consultation seems very, very important.
It’s critical that there be buy-in from the communities most affected by the conflict. And that will also, of course – that will be, in part, because of consultation and because of buy-in, hopefully, on the front end, but also the quality of the institutions that are created. And I will say, just in my couple days here, that I’m impressed by the extent to which civil society is itself part of the – what still is kind of a brainstorming process about what these accountability mechanisms should look like, the degree to which the government is consulting well outside its own – its traditional circles.
And I just want to stress, again, we’re all so eager for a process to happen that can give families a sense of justice, a sense of dignity, and that will be seen as legitimate and credible by the communities affected and by the entire international community, because everybody is very eager to put this chapter behind the country. But I think it’s very important to go through a process that really allows people to know their truth and that ends a culture of impunity that, unfortunately, had taken a hold here over a period of time.
Others? Nobody be shy. You can ask about anything.
QUESTION: In what ways you think the Sri Lankan youth could contribute to the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka?
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you. I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on all the very specific ways that young people can plug in, but I would just say it’s all about you. In a way – if your generation, which – again, most of you have very vivid memories of what it was like to be afraid of terrorism or the deprivation that went along with war. Or you have family members who were displaced, or maybe yourselves, maybe some of your families were personally affected by loss or by disappearances.
So, if the young people who have gone through that can move past that and build bridges to other communities, and view their identities in the broadest possible terms, as Sri Lankan citizens, with pride in the incredible diversity of this country – so where diversity is a sense of, “Hey, I’m Sri Lankan, that means all these things,” as distinct from diversity being something that can be polarizing, and has been polarizing in the past, that would be amazing.
And so, I think if students – students in this country, as I understand it, have a great tradition of being politically active in decades past, and viewing the country’s future as theirs to shape. And I think if young people now were involved in those ways, I also – I think young people getting into politics and to public service – for me, it was very hard. I had lived a life of freedom, of being a journalist and an activist, of always getting to say what was on my mind, to complaining about the government. That was my – how I spent a lot of time before I went into government. [Laughter.] And it’s a big transition, when you’ve been on the outside, to go into a big institution.
And we’re not quite as bureaucratic as Sri Lanka, in terms of red tape and the number of ministries and the – but, man, we’re very bureaucratic. [Laughter.] We’re giving you a good run for your money. And it’s hard. And young people who could go off and be engineers or architects or technical professionals or entrepreneurs – I mean there are so many things all of you can do. You have so much promise. You could be teachers. But if some of you would just take on going into the government, going into the civil service, running on one of those lists to be part of the parliament – I mean the parliament is going to shape the answer to a lot of these questions. And to the degree that you look on the TV and you want to change the channel when you see politicians debating with each other, well, that’s a sign that you’ve got to go be a politician. If you want to change the channel, you’ve got to go and try. Get in there. See what it’s like. Make it different, if you don’t like the politics.
And again, I think that the new government really is welcoming of fresh ideas and of the spirit of young people. And certainly they say that everything they’re doing is for your generation, and I think we – that’s one reason that the United States is so eager to support them. But getting in the mix, even if it seems a little daunting, I think that would be great.
QUESTION: Ambassador, Ishan Jalill, representing Action Against Apathy. My question to you is – it’s a statement and a question. So, before the 8th of January this year, if we talk about human rights as you very well know, any person who talks about human rights will be portrayed as a traitor and a person who basically does some kind of a – some – basically is a conspirator with the West. Whereas, after the 8th, thankfully, the situation has changed.
So, you, as a person who has – before being a diplomat, who has worked extensively in the field of human rights, what is your advice to Sri Lankan youth to protect, promote, and ensure human rights, and to make this a human rights-friendly country? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you. Well, first, let me address your comment, because I think it’s extremely important. And what happened in Sri Lanka happens in countries all around the world, just sometimes politicians of whatever party – this is a nonpartisan point – want to distract from what’s going on, and they can find ways to blame the foreigners and – or blame the West, or blame colonialism or – and there’s plenty of blame to go around, in terms of history. And sometimes even in the present, there’s plenty of criticism that is legitimate.
But I think what is important about the change is the outside world had nothing to do with it. It was the people of Sri Lanka, it was the journalists who saw their colleagues sometimes killed and disappeared, who kept going out there, notwithstanding the fear, and writing what they saw. They kept writing editorials about what they believed the principles should be. It was the young people who went out and voted, some for the first time.
So, this is a wholly Sri Lankan story, what has happened in your country. And even the activities that went on in Geneva that were, again, caricatured as somehow something from the outside, it was Sri Lankan civil society that was looking just for help and for reinforcement. And so they – any tools in the toolbox – if there had been domestic accountability, if there were truths that were going to be offered to families who are still literally – I mean I met families yesterday who still – every day they watch TV all the time, and they read all the newspapers, so that they might catch a glimpse of a photograph with a family member. If there had been mechanisms in this country over the last decade to give those families some respite, if there had been mechanisms that were going to fuel reconciliation instead of division to strengthen democracy, there never would have been anything at the United Nations. Civil society here would have operated within those channels.
So, I think the reason I give you that response to your comment before I answer your question is the answer is just more of the same. Sri Lanka made the moment, right? Sri Lankans made the moment. Sri Lankans brought about two consecutive elections that reinforced the importance of democratic accountability. And again, I describe my own journey from being outside the government to being in it. It’s not that much fun when you’re in government, getting criticized. It’s not my favorite thing, is to read how I’m selling out my principles and – I have other things I like more than that. But that’s the job of people outside, is to tell us where we’re not measuring up.
This government has made a series of incredibly important commitments. And seeing human rights advanced in this country means holding government accountable to those commitments. And human rights don’t come about in the abstract. People have to defend those rights, they have to go to court to make sure that those rights are realized. They have to take risks, gathering and using their freedom of association, using the power of the pen, and calling it like they see it, just like they did through all of those difficult years, notwithstanding the risks.
So, my main answer is just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s really captured the imagination of the world.
QUESTION: (Via translator) I am [Inaudible.], I am from – I am representing [Inaudible.] My apologies for not talking in English. As a representative of the northern east, the people from northern east are suffering from these problems for more than 60 years. We accept that this country is ours, Sri Lanka is our country. So what kind of solution will be – get sponsored by U.S.?
We are not calling for separatism. There are so many single brothers singling other brothers in this hall. So I’m requesting everyone to come and visit, see the camps and see the suffering of our people. So, we would like to know what kind of solution that U.S. is going to support to Sri Lanka. As a TNA representative, I would like to know that.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you so much, sir. And I’m sorry for speaking in English. Even though I could become a professional Elle player, I probably could not do very well in your language. [Laughter.]
So, let me also just even amplify what I said before. I mean part of human rights enjoyment also means ensuring that there are tangible improvements in the social and economic conditions of individuals across this country. And one of the things you had said, I think, is extremely important, which is, as it happens, you invited your brothers and sisters to come to the north and east and see the conditions. I think that’s kind of what I was getting at in my remarks, which is can we put ourselves in the shoes of others? Can we imagine what it’s like to have had a home, to have lived in that home for generations, and now to have been displaced and every day to go and try to get that home back – that land back – and just be – not treated with respect, or not treated as if you were entitled to that home?
So, can people who don’t live in those circumstances imagine what those circumstances are like? And that’s where the more dialogue there is – because it’s not just one-sided, other people, again, are living the legacy of what happened over these many decades, and the divisions that have torn at this country.
So, to the extent that there can be more dialogue and more compromise – and I will say the United States is looking at the areas that have been most affected, where there are vulnerable people, where there are people that are suffering either extreme poverty or tremendous loss, again, on all sides, and we are looking to invest more and more money, and to get other countries to do the same, to try to invest in development, in jobs, and that’s going to be extremely important.
But if the communities in this country grow and develop apart, and don’t get to know each other, and don’t get past what the people who – in whose interest it is to sow division – there are people who have a vested interest in trying to keep communities from getting to know one another better. There are extremists, just as there are in all countries, on all sides. And it’s the job of the very significant majority of the people who live in this country who just want a better life for their kids, who – if they’re in your generation – want to have job opportunities, want to be able to travel around the country and not feel fear, want to be able to say what’s on their mind if their leader is corrupt, want to be able to get rid of the leader and hopefully see him held accountable.
These are very basic, universal aspirations. And they’re shared by all communities. But sometimes one only sees another community from the standpoint of historical grievance. And if one can see all that one has in common, I think there is a lot of progress that can be made. And it is encouraging – I met before I came here with both the president of your country and with the opposition leader. And they are trying very hard to work together, as you know. And there has been land that has been given back by the military to the people who had lost their homes, again, years ago, but not enough.
And in Sri Lanka today some people see the glass as half-full, and some people see it as half-empty. I’m not encouraging you to see it one way or the other. When you see it as half-empty it can make you impatient and want to push for more change. When you see it as half-full, it can make you optimistic, and feel like there’s momentum driving. So you can get to be an agent for change no matter how you see the current situation. But if you opt out, and if you think someone else is going to be the one to travel and step into someone else’s shoes, and someone else is going to be the one to actually see what a displaced person camp looks like, or what a survivor of terrorism – how that person still lives, and the trauma that those families still live with, and the loss; if you leave that to other people, then it’s going to be harder to be part of the change that this country needs. So, everyone can do – can take steps to get to know the other.
MODERATOR: And last, if you could just take a question, take it right from the audience, and quickly take a Facebook question, because we have quite a few of those.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Of course.
MODERATOR: So [Inaudible.] asks an interesting one. She says, “Dear honorable lady, it will be more appreciated if you can reveal the true purpose of your visit to Sri Lanka.” [Laughter.]
AMBASSADOR POWER: The true purpose? Oh, man. So I’ve already kind of confessed my sports ambitions.[Laughter.] I am here, truly, because I find reading the newspaper every day a little bit depressing, because there are a lot of innocent people who are recently, of course, having been killed in terrorist attacks, because leaders – particularly in sub-Saharan Africa – are trying to keep power when their constitution says explicitly that they shouldn’t, that they have had two terms and that time is up. But there are a number of leaders trying to change their constitutions, trying to change the judges on the courts so they get a favorable constitutional court ruling. Basically, people putting their own power over the interests of their people or, in the case of terrorism, putting a savage ideology over the welfare of common humanity.
And against that dark backdrop there is Sri Lanka. And I came to Sri Lanka as much for me as I came for – to try to support you. Because it is inspiring, what is happening here. And I say that fully aware of all that has not yet been done, in terms of reforms and in terms of accountability, in terms of justice for the victims of violence. I get it – there’s so much. But I can’t think of another country in the entire world where you have seen such change in such a short period of time. I can’t. And I’m at the UN, so I should know. [Laughter.] I think I would have – if there was some other story like this one.
Burma is pretty exciting, right? We’re all very happy about the fact that the military and the Burmese regime recognize the results of these elections. But in Burma the Rohingya were completely disenfranchised in advance of that election. And so, there is a lot that needs to be done, particularly for the Muslim population in Burma that has really – have seen their rights abridged a lot of late.
And here, again, any one of you could give me your list of all the things that – all the promises that haven’t yet been fulfilled. But, like I said, I cannot think of a country in the world today where there has been this much change in this short a period of time. And I wanted to come and experience it so I would be skipping to work, happier next week than I would otherwise have been, knowing that this was happening, and also so I could go back and talk to President Obama and share with him ideas about what more the United States can do to try to help you on your journey.
So that’s the dark conspiracy behind my visit. [Laughter.] That’s the deep and true meaning.
MODERATOR: Thank you for sharing that. So we have time for one more question.
QUESTION: Hi. Good afternoon, Ambassador Power. It’s a real pleasure to have this interaction with you. And I know you are an inspiration to a lot of women. My wife is secretly quite envious that I got to come, and not her. [Laughter.]
But my question is – I’m sure you got a lot of questions on Sri Lanka, so my question is about your personal journey. You’ve –
AMBASSADOR POWER: About what?
QUESTION: Your personal journey and inspiration –
AMBASSADOR POWER: Oh, okay.
QUESTION: – for leadership. You’ve had a lot of different eras in your career, as a journalist, as an academic, and now in the UN as a diplomat. And those things call for different things and they motivate you in different ways. And now you can’t do some of the things or say some of the things that you would have as an activist or as a journalist, but you get an opportunity to serve in a different way. But it’s also frustrating.
There are a lot of young people in the room here who are in those different phases. You also called for more young people to get into government. How do you – personally, how do you manage sometimes that conflict, the frustration when you see countries – maybe even your own – not being able to do everything that might be right, or individuals who shouldn’t be doing what they can be doing? Just how – just your personal journey and inspiration we can draw for leadership and for engagement in public service.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you so much. That’s a very nuanced question, and you accurately reflect, I think, the trade-off that one experiences when one moves into government.
I mean, interestingly, I think I have more appreciation as a government official about the importance of the checks and balances outside than I did when I was one of the checks and balances. So I don’t know – and I mean, just to give you an example, on Sri Lanka we – the Obama Administration had barely taken office, as you know, when the war here was reaching a climactic and very difficult conclusion. And I was the President’s advisor for human rights and for multilateral affairs. And, of course, you had international organizations that were here; we were hearing from Bob Blake, our ambassador, about harrowing things that were happening. Of course, everybody welcomed the possibility of defeating the LTTE and so forth.
But very early on, when I was in office, somebody from an NGO came to see me. I think I’d been in my job – I barely knew where the Situation Room was. And he laid out a map in front of me, showing, basically, this last phase of the war, and graphically depicting some of what was happening here. And it was a real moment for me to say, “Oh, this is” – I was reading every day my cables from my ambassador, and reading the newspaper, of course, and the intelligence, and – but it took someone coming in and humanizing it, and it kicked all of us, I think, into the work of this particular non-governmental organization into a wholly different gear. And again, this was only a few days after we had just – we were still looking around, saying, “We’re at the White House!” because we’d come from this unlikely political campaign. But then it very quickly – because of the pressure and the facts provided by non-governmental groups, it was, “We’re at the White House. Now what can we do in order to help people who are very vulnerable in this phase?”
And so, that’s one thing I would say is I don’t in any way mean to suggest that the path that I’ve taken is some kind of Darwinian natural selection toward how any particular individual needs to spend their time, because, boy, do you appreciate the bravery of civil society, of independent media, the importance of those checks. Because you get – when you’re in the government – and this is something to bear in mind here, as well – you do – you’re so busy all the time, as you are in life, as one is in life, as well, but there is a risk that you get in a bubble.
And so, it’s one thing when you’re campaigning, you’re out, you’re meeting people, and you’re hearing their stories, and you’re very motivated. But you can get a little removed. And so, finding ways to always make sure that you’re hearing from these outside voices, that you’re not writing off the criticism just because you don’t like them – so that’s just to validate the checks and balances, the life in any one of those. They are each, as I said earlier, quoting Louis Brandeis and President Obama, the office of citizen, the office of civil society leader. As this country shows, again, probably better than any on earth right now, civil society just never gave up, that it wasn’t going to have – it insisted it was going to have democratic and accountable government, and now it has a real chance at strengthening that.
In terms of – beyond that, I would say in my government life I’m not that different. I mean insofar as I have very – a huge amount of trouble being diplomatic. It’s not my strong suit. But also – and I have – my team is with me here, a group of people many of whom come from organizations like Human Rights Watch, or who have been journalists in the past, and come into government to try to create a mix of people who aren’t just from one set of experience. I think that diversity, just like inter-ethnic diversity and inter-faith diversity, that diversity also makes for more creativity and more problem-solving, in terms of thinking how to help people.
But the motivation for me in all of my careers has been the same – and it’s wherever I am, I’m just trying to think what could I do to help. So when I was a journalist, I was thinking how do I tell that person’s story so that someone in government might read that and be moved by that and do something about it. Now I’m the person who has to figure out what to do about it. But I really try, and I encourage anyone who does end up in government, or even in the private sector, to do as this gentleman was suggesting, just to get beyond the abstraction of the problems of our time to actually meet people who are experiencing them. Because I think that problem-solving is really hard. And to have the motivation to cut through the frustration, and when you feel voiceless, or like you’re not having an impact – the only thing that gets you through, where you just keep stubbornly pressing on, is because you’ve met the people who are affected, and you feel like there is something sacred in that, and there’s a responsibility.
Because I’m the lucky one, for all of my work working with human rights, I think our nations are trying to advance the cause of atrocity prevention and protection of civilians with no human rights. I have it easy. I was a war correspondent, but I could leave, because it wasn’t my home that was being bombed, it wasn’t my family that was being attacked. So I feel very blessed and I feel that that creates a responsibility to try to use whatever job I have to give back as best I can.
MODERATOR: So thank you, Ambassador Power. We are very happy to have you here today.
AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you so much. [Applause.]
*Remarks by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, at a Town Hall with Sri Lankan Youth, Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 23, 2015