By Colombo Telegraph –
Transcript of Press Event by US Deputy Assistant Secretary James R. Moore, Deputy Assistant Secretary Vikram Singh and Deputy Assistant Secretary Jane Zimmerman as published by the US Embassy Colombo.
DAS Moore: Thank you, Chris. Thank you all for coming. It’s really great to be back in Sri Lanka. It’s also a privilege to travel with two Washington colleagues who follow Sri Lanka quite closely — Jane Zimmerman, our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; as well as Vikram Singh, our Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia.
We’d also like to thank Ambassador Sison and our Sri Lankan friends for hosting us here.
The United States, as you know, has a long friendship with Sri Lanka dating back to your independence. We deeply value this multi-faceted relationship and our visit this week is undertaken in that spirit.
We arrived in Colombo on Saturday, January 26th and we’ve had constructive and candid meetings with the Sri Lankan government, the military, political parties and civil society both here in Colombo and in Jaffna. Really, our goal has been to hear from many different voices throughout Sri Lanka.
We met with Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa and military commanders, and we look forward to meeting with the Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, the Minister of External Affairs GL Periris, Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga, and other officials.
The United States’ relationship with Sri Lanka is broad and deep. From our work on clearing land mines, our humanitarian assistance, and education programs to our cooperation on maritime security and support for civil society and democratic institutions, in all of these we partner with Sri Lanka across a wide range of issues.
In meetings this week we’re discussing Sri Lanka’s efforts to implement its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommendations and as well, the National Action Plan. We’re also, of course, discussing the importance of accelerated progress to achieve lasting reconciliation and enduring peace.
Key to all of this will be transparent governance as well as following through with a process of accountability for events at the end of the war including civilian casualties and credible allegations of human rights violations.
We’ve also discussed the importance of a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary, a free and independent media, and full respect for human rights.
We welcome the government’s intent to hold Northern Provincial Council elections in September and we encourage a resumption of talks between the TNA and the government.
I’d just close these brief opening remarks by emphasizing that our hope as a longstanding friend of Sri Lanka is that Sri Lankans of all communities will soon be able to enjoy equal rights and dignity and share in a future that is secure and prosperous.
We’d be happy to take a few questions.
Media: Are you satisfied with the progress made in implementation of the LLRC proposals. Are you satisfied with the progress that has been made thus far? In the implementation of the LLRC proposals.
DAS Zimmerman: We’ve certainly seen progress in many areas including demining, infrastructure, redevelopment, the rehabilitation and release of former combatants, but that said, there’s still a lot more work to do. There has been a lot that has taken place in terms of process, but we would like to see more in terms of implementation.
Media: What are the specific areas you think there should be vast improvement?
DAS Zimmerman: Well, there are still quite a number of families wondering what has become of their loved ones. Whether or not they are being held somewhere. Whether or not there’s any answer to disappearances. There’s a desire for accountability when it comes to extrajudicial killings. In other words, the LLRC is the democratically elected government’s commitment to its own people to heal the wounds of the conflict and to move forward. We certainly support that overall goal. It’s exactly the right goal. LLRC has excellent elements, but we would like to see accelerated implementation.
Media: Did you discuss the matter of impeachment with the government? And also the appointment of the new Chief Justice who is already the political advisor/the legal advisor to the government/cabinet?
DAS Moore: We did. And we noted that we continue to be concerned about the impeachment of the Chief Justice Bandaranayake. The impeachment proceedings were conducted in defiance of a Supreme Court order, and we believe that the impeachment raises questions about the separation of powers, as well as the rule of law, in Sri Lanka.
Of course as part of our ongoing dialogue with the government we continue, along with our international partners, to urge the government of Sri Lanka to uphold the rule of law and to respect the principles of democratic government.
Media: Does the U.S. hope to bring another resolution against Sri Lanka at the upcoming United Nation’s Human Rights Council? Or strengthen the one that it brought earlier?
DAS Moore: You’re referring of course to Geneva in March, is that correct?
DAS Moore: The United States has decided to sponsor a procedural resolution at the March 2013 session of the UN Human Rights Council along with international partners. The resolution will be straightforward, it will be a procedural resolution, and it will build on the 2012 resolution which called on Sri Lanka to do more to promote reconciliation and accountability. The resolution will ask the government of Sri Lanka to follow through on its own commitments to its people, including the implementation of the LLRC recommendations.
Media: You had a resolution before. You had all kinds of commitments, and you are saying that still more needs to be done. What’s the pain threshold before you will do something concrete?
DAS Zimmerman: Again, to reemphasize our point, the LLRC is this democratically elected government’s commitments to its people, to heal the wounds from the past conflict. We fully support that goal. The elements of the LLRC are excellent. They can do a lot to get towards that goal. We realize there are certain things that are going to be harder to implement than others. In any post-conflict situation accountability is always one of the toughest issues. Reconciliation is so critical to ensure that the wounds of the past heal cleanly.
But you can’t really have reconciliation without accountability. What we’d like to see, is focus on those elements of the LLRC, the actual implementation of them. We know there are cases that have been moved from the Ministry of Defense to the Attorney General, for example. We’d like to see some progress on bringing those cases forward.
Again, these are the government’s own commitments. We know there has been work on many elements of the LLRC. We applaud that. But we want to see more in the way of implementation in fulfillment of these commitments in LLRC. We do this in a constructive way because we really value our relationship with Sri Lanka.
The three of us are here because we care, the United States cares, very much about Sri Lanka, about our relationship, our bilateral relationship, about the ways that we can work together in the future in the region. This is a longstanding friendship, a longstanding relationship.
I know right now a lot of attention is focused on March in Geneva, but we’re still going to be here in April. We’re still going to be working with this government, this democratically elected government, and working on these issues and doing all we can to support Sri Lanka and its people as we build on the relationship and try to move forward in this post-conflict phase.
I should also say another important partner is civil society. That includes those of you right here at this table. Media, journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders. But we can’t help but be worried about the future when we perceive threats to the independence of the judiciary such as the impeachment of the Chief Justice; when we are hearing very credible reports from our contacts in civil society, lawyers, human rights defenders, and journalists such as yourselves about harassment and intimidation and even physical attacks and violence.
Again, we’re in this relationship for the long term. We’re going to work through some difficult issues together. That’s a lot of what diplomacy is about. It’s what friendship is about.
Media: Did you discuss about the political solution to the North & East with the government?
DAS Moore: Yes, we did. We were pleased to hear directly from the government the intent to hold, as I mentioned earlier, Northern Provincial Council elections in September. We welcome that.
DAS Singh: With everyone we met, we talked not just about devolution and all those issues , but also the broader aspects of long-term reconciliation. After 30 years of conflict we understand that Sri Lanka is on a journey of building a durable peace and that it will take time and it’s complicated. We’re really interested in how we can be a constructive partner in that process.
We went to Jaffna. We saw a lot of progress. We see the dividends of peace – increased investment, development, the building of roads, freedom of movement, the ability to travel all around the country. So you can see the baseline growing for what will be a sustainable peace.
Real reconciliation that gets at some of the root causes of the conflict in the first place is tough. It involves addressing really fundamental issues of every Sri Lankan having a sense of justice and belonging in a Sri Lanka that is unified and is really moving forward into a bright future. I think that is going to involve a lot of issues being hashed out over time. We really look forward to partnering comprehensively in all areas with the Sri Lankan government, people, and civil society as they try to build that really true lasting peace.
Media: You met the TNA and all the other political parties in the country and what were their response to all these matters?
DAS Moore: We had very good discussions not only with the government, where we covered a lot of ground, but we also met in the last few days with the TNA and the UNP. We covered a similar range of issues with them – where the country’s been, where the country’s going, and how in their view the United States could most productively partner with the government and the people of the country.
DAS Zimmerman: Again, we wanted to hear from as many voices here as possible and engage with as broad a spectrum of Sri Lankan civil society and political parties as possible. We welcome all their views. We’re really like to see the government and the TNA get back to talking together again. That would be a helpful step.
Again, I think each of us have said it one way or another: we recognize that this work is really hard. We recognize that everybody in this country suffered during the conflict. Everyone has a lot of hard work to do following the conflict.
The message that we send here is we stand by the people of Sri Lanka, in terms of doing that hard work.
Media: It seems that you are talking about engagement with the government and sort of gently nudging them towards various things. But we heard from the Defense Secretary last week that the U.S. has been misinformed. That you need to change your stance. And if you want to have better cooperation then you better start changing. What’s your response to that?
DAS Singh: We had a long meeting with the Defense Secretary. The message we were bringing was that we want to have forward-looking engagement across all aspects, including in our military ties. I’m not sure what specifically the references were to. I think the question isn’t really about what does Sri Lanka want, what do we want sort of from each other. The question is what do we want to do together as partners?
In that realm, there’s an awful lot that we do together as partners and there are some areas where we have disagreements or concerns which, as countries with such long relations, we are able to discuss very frankly when we sit down together. So that’s what we did.
We talked about areas where cooperation is strong, from the clearing of land mines, which is virtually complete across the country and for which the U.S. has been the largest donor and the most significant partner, to ways that we could move towards even greater military cooperation as we see progress on the human rights and accountability as outlined in the government’s own views of what it should do under the LLRC and the National Action Plan.
These have been a very constructive set of meetings and I think we really do have a way to have a forward-looking relationship across all of the areas that our government and your government work on together.
DAS Zimmerman: Again, it’s very much a joint civilian/military effort. For instance, we have an assistance program to develop livelihoods in conflict-affected areas so that people can have jobs and a stake in the future, the peaceful future. We stand by ready to help to build the capacity of civil society so that the military will have a strong civil society to which it can pass off responsibilities that it has naturally had to undertake in the post-conflict environment.
Media: There is this allegation by the Defense Secretary which some newspapers quoted that military assistance in the form of training for Sri Lankan military personnel was not being provided at your end. Is there any truth in that?
DAS Singh: We have a very robust engagement with the Sri Lankan military, including very substantial training. I think what was being referred to there were some cases of human rights vetting that had resulted in denial of a couple of spots. It’s important to know that there are hundreds of Sri Lankans who participate in our training and education programs each year. Less than half of one percent ever have any issues. But we do have a human rights vetting process. It’s known as the Leahy vetting process that we use around the world for all of our engagements with any security forces, law enforcement, police, whatever it may be. That’s a very important part of how we engage with the world. Jane’s actually responsible for overseeing that for this region. I think that was what had come up in some discussions. We try to keep those discussions government to government and to be very straightforward about what concerns might be arising. It tends to be when any credible information about human rights violations may have arisen about an individual or a unit in the military. And then we try to work on and discuss that.
But our overall training and education program in Sri Lanka is still very good.
DAS Zimmerman: It’s a law; it’s basically one page, and it’s on our web site: HumanRights.gov. It’s a pretty simple, straightforward law. Basically it precludes U.S. security assistance going to either individuals or units where there is credible information of human rights violations. What it requires is accountability mechanisms.
It doesn’t by any means stop or prohibit or preclude cooperation between our military or law enforcement working together. In fact, as a human rights person, I always like to say I want to promote and encourage security assistance and training between any government and the United States within the bounds of that law, because in all of our training, there is a human rights component. All of our training includes human rights and reinforces professionalization and military ethos, values, and proper rules of engagement. Believe me, there’s no greater supporter of military training through our security assistance programs than the human rights community.
Media: A clarification on the resolution in Geneva. It will be the second one within a year. What’s the sort of reason for that? Are you not satisfied with the progress? Or you think that you need to push them a little more? Why a second one within a year?
DAS Moore: Because while there has been some progress on implementation, there is still a great more to do, as contained in the recommendations for LLRC implementation.
Media: So implementation has been slow, satisfactory, unsatisfactory or how would you characterize it?
DAS Moore: I wouldn’t characterize it in one or two words. I would say there has been some progress, but there’s much more progress to be made.
Embassy Official: I apologize, we have to get them off to the next meeting, but we’ll make sure we get a copy of the statement to everyone, and we’ll have a transcript available.
DAS Zimmerman: Can we give the female journalist just one more? [Laughter].
Embassy Official: It’s your question.
Media: Can I just ask for two clarifications. Basically you are saying that cooperation is not forthcoming from the U.S. because there are human rights concerns within the Sri Lankan military.
DAS Zimmerman: No. We need to make a clarification there. I’m glad you asked.
DAS Singh: When we do security cooperation with any country, any government, and security cooperation is forthcoming from the United States, we do lots of activities together. We have exercises; we have training. But whenever we do it there is this human rights vetting process that Jane alluded to. There are a handful of units or individuals where some information has arisen. That can then be dealt with by us talking about the information, or it can be dealt with by working with others. There are a lot of ways. But it doesn’t mean that assistance is not forthcoming in any way. And it’s not a judgment on Sri Lanka. It’s not a judgment on these entities. It’s a mechanism for us to ensure that we’re made aware of accountability steps that are taken, and that there’s a process.
We understand that among security forces there are sometimes problems. We seek for our own security forces and for those of our partners to be very good about accountability whenever we face a problem. There’s no security force that doesn’t sometimes find itself with some kind of problems or violations, ourselves included. We hold ourselves to those standards and therefore we hold our partners to those standards as well, and it helps us build a partnership that’s really comprehensive.
Media: With regard to the talks between the government and TNA, the government has repeatedly said that it is the TNA that is stalling the talks. So when you spoke to the TNA what was their side of the story? And did you discuss this resolution with them?
DAS Moore: It’s incumbent on both parties, the government and the TNA, to talk, to sit and talk and meet constructively. We encourage that.
As to whether or not the resolution came up in our discussion, I honestly don’t recall. But I would say that we have discussed the probability of the resolution with your government. And the reason there would be another resolution this coming March is because we and the other 23 members of the Human Rights Council who voted for the resolution in 2012 believe that the government of Sri Lanka needs to fulfill the commitment that it’s already made through the LLRC to its people.
So this new resolution would reflect our support for those commitments, our continued support. And for the people of Sri Lanka as they continue to face these important issues.
DAS Singh: I think it’s safe to say that the impeachment of the Chief Justice which was mentioned before as a concern has also contributed to a desire to ensure that the record stays fresh in Geneva. Thank you so much for coming.