By Namini Wijedasa -
A top US official passed through Sri Lanka last week with a fresh dose of pressure on everything from the business environment and elections to accountability and demilitarisation.
Significantly, this is US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake’s last visit to Sri Lanka before the US presidential election. An observer of US-Sri Lanka relations commented that it was interesting to note how, even three-and-a-half years after the war ended, the US remains engaged on Sri Lanka.
“I am surprised at how, even with so many other problems around the world, a consistent level of US engagement on Sri Lanka continues,” he said, requesting anonymity. He also pointed out that there is likely to be a change in officials at Washington, regardless of whether or not President Barack Obama wins.
“Blake has been leading interactions on Sri Lanka, maintaining continuity from the time he was ambassador and throughout his tenure as assistant secretary of state,” he pointed out. “That’s a good six years. It would be interesting to see whether US interest in Sri Lanka will continue in the same form and manner regardless of the outcome of the US election.”
It is learnt that Richard Armitage, former US deputy secretary of state, was also in Sri Lanka earlier this month on a low profile visit. His business website ‘Armitage International’ states that he was here as ‘Convener of the Non-Official Group of Friends of Sri Lanka’. He led a seven-member delegation to meet with civil society organisations and political parties. Details of discussions were not available.
The key issues
Readingout a statement at a press conference in Colombo, Blake said he had discussed in all his meetings the need for accelerated progress to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the National Action Plan.
Interestingly, the government calls it the National Plan of Action to Implement the Recommendations of the LLRC. But Blake referred to the recommendations of the LLRC and the National Action Plan as separate entities. This could be interpreted in some quarters as tacit acceptance of a certain civil society position that the action plan was a minimalist document—both in letter and spirit.
Some civil society sources confessed that, while “some action plan was better than no action plan”, many key recommendations were not there. They also said it was “highly” technical” and “many things that were immediately doable were glossed over while many recommendations were passed off as having to be tackled by a Parliamentary Select Committee”.
However, Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga has stressed that it is an “evolving document”. He is, even now, holding meetings with a range of groups—including civil society—to get input on how the National Action Plan could be improved and strengthened.
Blake also said he had “emphasized the importance of progress in reducing the role and profile of the military in the North, and full respect for human rights”. The government has repeatedly said it has downsized military presence in the North.
In its country report presented recently to the UN Human Rights Council, Sri Lanka says the present strength in the Jaffna peninsula is approximately 15,000. It does not reveal how many are posted throughout the Vanni and other districts but adds that, “Further rationalization of this presence would be considered in line with national security interests.”
The government also claims that the role of the military in the North is “confined solely to security related matters”. Importantly, Blake calls for a reduction, not only in the role, but in the profile of the military there.
Referring to accountability, Blake said, “…it is our hope that three years after the end of the conflict, there can be a credible and transparent accounting, investigation and prosecution of some of the outstanding and serious allegations of human rights violations, as well as progress on the missing.”
His flagging of the issue is seen as an unambiguous indication that the US finds the National Action Plan wanting in this regard, analysts said. Indeed, neither the LLRC report nor the National Action Plan adequately addressed this issue.
The relevant LLRC recommendation calls on the government to “ascertain more fully the circumstances under which specific instances of death or injury to civilians could have occurred, and if such investigations disclose wrongful conduct, prosecute and punish the wrongdoers”.
In response, the National Action Plan rules out any new investigations into the specific instances that the LLRC report contains. There will also be no inquiry external of the military. The commission itself referred to less than five such cases. Instead, the National Action Plan pledges to complete “ongoing disciplinary process being conducted in terms of Armed Forces statutes”. In the end there will be “follow up action to prosecute, where relevant”.
Meanwhile, Blake also called for the Northern Provincial Council elections to be held as soon as possible. And he encouraged an early resumption of talks between the TNA and the government “to agree on powers to be devolved to the provinces”.
He did not mention the Parliamentary Select Committee set up by the government to “achieve multi-party consensus in respect of constitutional changes”. In fact, bilateral discussions with the TNA have been stalled for many months. The government has asked the party to participate in the PSC, an invitation the TNA has so far rejected.
Taking questions from journalists, Blake said he was disappointed there hadn’t been more talks between the TNA and government. He dismissed speculation that his visit toSri Lankawas timed to coincide with the arrival of two officials from UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay’s office. “It’s a coincidence,” he said. “I have my own programme and they have theirs.”
Asked about human rights and the missing, Blake said human rights were an important part of the reconciliation process. “We discussed this in some detail with various interlocutors,” he elaborated. “I made the point that it’s important for progress to be made in some of the issues like the missing but also to continue to make progress in important matters like the freedom of the media.”
“We will continue to make it a priority in our dialogue,” he stressed. “I know the issue will also be a very important feature in the upcoming University Periodic Review for Sri Lanka.” TheUSwas the primary sponsor of the resolution passed in the UN Human Rights Council in March, calling for implementation of the LLRC recommendations and accountability for war crimes.
Blake made strong remarks at the AmCham (American Chamber of Commerce) luncheon on Friday. He stressed again that a key part of achieving a better future for all Sri Lankans will be the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. Having openly endorsed the LLRC process at the highest levels, the US clearly wants a guarantee that something concrete will emerge from it.
Blake said the US saw opportunities in Sri Lanka for their companies. “But in the three years since the end of the conflict, to be frank, we have not seen very many new US companies come to invest in Sri Lanka,” he observed. It’s not for lack of trying, but our investors, and investors from many other countries as well, face an uphill battle in Sri Lanka’s marketplace.”
The barriers include “confusing and opaque rules on bidding for contracts, unpredictable government regulations such as the recent so-called Under-utilized Assets bill, and corruption”.
“Sri Lanka moved up the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings from 98 to 89 in 2012,” Blake said, “but actually lost ground in several key categories, including the ease of starting a business, dealing with construction permits, and registering property.”
While the government has made progress in developing ports, aviation, and other infrastructure, he said, these were not enough to realise the true potential of the Sri Lankan economy. The government, on the contrary, is chiefly promoting its infrastructure development programme as a key incentive to investing in Sri Lanka.
“You have the human resources, and you are building the infrastructure,” Blake said. “With more aggressive reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers, and liberalization of the rules for foreign direct investment, I am confident that the economy, and our bilateral trade and investment, can grow even more quickly.”
Perhaps these were his parting shots. Perhaps he was in character. After all, Blake has been criticised in the past over strong comments made on Sri Lankan affairs. Whatever it is, he drew attention once again to some of the issues the Sri Lankagovernment would rather leave behind.
Resolution off the cards for now
A resolution on Sri Lanka tabled in the US House of Representatives by seven congressmen seems to be in cold storage for now.
The resolution, sponsored chiefly by Congressmen Michael Grimm and Rush Holt and tabled on September 7, was slated to be taken up this week. However, it is now being held back. Authoritative Washington-based sources said the reason for this delay might be that “there was a lot of politicking resulting in the language becoming ‘too soft’.”
The text of the resolution that was tabled on September 7 expresses support for internal rebuilding, resettlement and reconciliation within Sri Lanka. It calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to “build on its establishment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and that Commission’s constructive recommendations on issues of paramount importance to Sri Lankain a credible, transparent, and expeditious manner”.
The resolution “recognizes that the LLRC report failed to adequately address issues of accountability for both the government and the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, for credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
It urges the Government of Sri Lanka, the international community and the United Nations “to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka and to make recommendations regarding accountability”.
It “encourages the Government of Sri Lanka to allow for greater media freedoms and humanitarian organizations, journalists, and international human rights groups greater access to the war-affected, including rehabilitated ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cadres, and those detained”.
It acknowledges the end of the war and calls on the Government of Sri Lanka “to go through a process of demilitarization throughout the country”.Finally, it acknowledges the importance for parties to reach a political settlement on the meaningful devolution of power.
A Sri Lankan newspaper yesterday said that Colombo was lobbying for the support of “friendly US congressmen” to defeat this resolution. Among some of the congressmen who are particularly close to the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration are Heath Shuler, Ben Chandler and Jack Kingston.
In October 2011, they conducted an official tour of Sri Lanka. In September that year, another congressman, Steve Chabot, also visited Sri Lanka in an official capacity. He is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.
Courtesy Lakbima News