By Robert O. Blake, Jr., US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Asia Society Event, New York, NY, March 14, 2011
Good evening, Ambassador Kohona, Asia Society members and guests, and thank you, Jamie, for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be back with the Asia Society, an organization whose work has been unmatched in promoting mutual understanding among, and within the many Asian nations. The last time I participated in an Asia Society program was actually in New Delhi a year ago where I spoke of the importance and strength of the U.S. – India relationship, so it is great to be able to travel just a few hours and not cross any time zones to be with you today. Thank you for the invitation to participate in today’s conversation on Sri Lanka, a country which is important to the United States and significant to me personally after spending three great years there as Ambassador.
Jamie wondered whether prosperity will bring lasting peace and healing in Sri Lanka. I think it’s an essential question to ask. After so many years of conflict, economic growth and improving livelihoods are certainly important for rebuilding the country. But I also believe that reconciliation has important political and social dimensions as well. Thus, I would like to look at economic development in the broader context of the country’s post-conflict healing process of which it is a key factor. Let me start by saying that in the nearly two years since the end of the conflict, Sri Lanka has made steady progress in normalizing life for its citizens and reconciling the differences that devastated parts of the island for so many years, but there is much that remains to be done. Let me focus first on the progress that has been made.
At a steady pace, an estimated 265,000 civilians who were displaced during the final stages of the conflict have been able to leave camps to return to their districts of origin in the north and the east. While approximately 18,800 internally displaced persons remain in camps, and an additional 2,600 are stranded in transit camps, the concerted resettlement effort represents a critical step in helping those who suffered immeasurably during the conflict begin to reclaim their lives and live with dignity. In addition, an increasing number of Sri Lankans displaced prior to 2008, including those who went as refugees to India, are also returning to their homes.
The resettlement process requires that the hundreds of thousands of land mines laid during the conflict are removed. The Government, together with demining NGOs and with the support of the U.S., has made considerable progress in this area, clearing over 5 million square meters of mine-infested land throughout the northern provinces of Sri Lanka, and destroying over 25,000 landmines and unexploded ordinance.
The Government of Sri Lanka is also proceeding with creating places for people to go home by reducing the area considered to be “High Security Zones, ” which had restricted freedom of movement and access. The government’s Interagency Advisory Committee (IAAC), set up to implement the interim
recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), has said that the high security zones have been reduced by 25 square kilometers, making some 2,800 homes accessible. In collaboration with international partners, the Government also has plans to construct an additional 100,000 homes in the north giving priority to families who suffered during the conflict.
Ensuring peace and security for all Sri Lankans is essential. To this end the government has said it plans to strengthen firearms laws and to help law enforcement officials learn to speak the language of those they are charged with protecting. The government has hired 335 Tamil police officers and plans to recruit an additional 475 Tamil-speakers for inspector and constable positions. The trilingual national language policy also will be important in bringing Sri Lankans together.
While the government has made progress, after a quarter century of conflict, I think everyone agrees more needs to be done to heal the wounds of more than 25 years of conflict. The Government of Sri Lanka must lead this process.
The United States welcomed as an important step in this reconciliation process President Rajapaksa’s appointment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, or LLRC, and the establishment of the Interagency Advisory Committee to implement the LLRCs interim recommendations. The LLRC has heard the testimony of hundreds throughout the country and has made public many of the transcripts on its website; we look forward to the final report to President Rajapaksa shortly after its work concludes in May. We hope that the report will be made public and will include strong recommendations for national reconciliation.
The U.S. continues to encourage the Commission and the Government of Sri Lanka to engage with and draw upon the expertise of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s Panel of Experts, which I believe can be a valuable resource. It is also important that the LLRC and the Advisory Committee, in consultation with Sri Lankan Tamils and other minority communities, find a way to resolve the often conflicting and tangled claims to land in former conflict zones so families may rebuild their lives.
The end of the conflict has presented an incredible opportunity to build a peaceful, just, democratic, united Sri Lanka. The U.S. is concerned, however, that some developments are shrinking the democratic space and respect for human rights in the country. The 18th Amendment passed last year weakens checks and balances and abolishes term limits, giving unprecedented power to the executive presidency. Nearly two years after the conclusion of the fighting, substantial parts of the emergency regulations remain in place, the north continues to be heavily militarized, and the role of the armed forces appears to have increased with the Ministry of Defense assuming responsibility in non-traditional areas such as urban development. Media freedom remains constrained with continuing incidents against journalists and independent media such as the recent arson attack on Lanka-e-news. An unfettered media environment in which journalists can work without intimidation or interference, and incidents against journalists are credibly investigated and prosecuted, is essential for the reconciliation process.
Perhaps most critical is a full accounting of the individual lives that are still in question from the end of the war, which means providing information to families about relatives that are either missing or in detention so they know the status of their loved ones. The Sri Lankan government told the diplomatic community that it has compiled a database that will assist in the efforts to locate missing persons. We hope that families of those missing or detained will have access to this database. Reconciliation also entails charging or releasing those that are in custody. We understand that the Attorney General’s office has formed a panel to examine the cases of those detained and to expedite their processing, and that the panel has already examined several hundred detainees. We hope that all those detained without charges will soon benefit from this panel’s work.
And finally reconciliation means addressing allegations of injustices and abuses during the conflict, no matter which side committed them, and investigating and holding accountable those individuals who were responsible. Although it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many lost their lives in the final months of the war, the U.N. estimates it was thousands. These deaths must be investigated and those who committed wrong-doing must be brought to justice.
Accountability is an essential part of any reconciliation process. Without it an enduring peace will remain elusive as unhealed wounds fester. Primary responsibility for implementing a credible and independent process through which individuals who may have violated human rights and international humanitarian law are held accountable for their actions lies with Sri Lanka itself. Our strong preference is that the Sri Lankan government establish its own transparent process that meets international standards. However, in the absence of such a mechanism, there will be mounting pressure for an international mechanism.
Lasting peace requires a durable political solution. The United States is encouraged that the government has conducted two rounds of talks on a political settlement with the Tamil National Alliance. We hope that a third round of talks will soon build upon the constructive first two rounds of talks that have already taken place.
The Government of Sri Lanka is taking many important steps, and it is already a very different place than it was in May 2009 when I left the country as Ambassador. But there is much more that can and must be done. Jamie asked us to think about whether the international community has a role in helping Sri Lanka recover from decades of conflict. I believe that it does. In the spirit of friendship and partnership, the United States has not wavered in our support for the people of Sri Lanka, providing humanitarian and livelihood assistance as the country rebuilds itself.
To highlight just a few of the many programs that our Embassy in Colombo is implementing in cooperation with Sri Lankan counterparts: we’ve provided nearly $62 million in food aid over the last two and a half years, the bulk of the nourishment for the persons displaced at the end of the conflict, and $11 million for support, training, and equipment for the demining efforts of the government and its NGO partners. Earlier this year we opened a new American Corner in Jaffna, a place where Sri Lankans can meet and share their ideas, and help connect Jaffna with the rest of Sri Lanka and the world. We’ve facilitated in-country exchanges in which youth from different geographic and ethnic backgrounds can experience each other’s lives. In recent weeks, we have provided more than $4 million in immediate assistance for victims of the terrible flooding affecting parts of the country.
We are also committed to helping create opportunities for Sri Lankans: USAID is helping to create 20,000 full time jobs in the North and East through a series of innovative partnerships with private companies. Through our eight Access centers spread throughout Sri Lanka, the U.S. is providing two years of intensive English language instruction to hundreds of youth in rural areas, which will open up educational and professional opportunities. We have provided numerous small grants to youth organizations to help them establish IT centers and promote science and technology. And it is important to remember that the U.S. is the largest single importer of Sri Lankan goods worldwide, purchasing 22 percent of its exports; we welcome the approximately 3,000 students from the island who study in the U.S. each year; and U.S. entrepreneurs are the largest investors in Sri Lankan bonds and other financial instruments.
Potential and Promise
The U.S. is ready to continue helping the Sri Lankans to restore their country, and there is still a great deal to be done. It is clear to me that Sri Lanka has the potential to be one of South Asia’s bright spots. It can indeed become the “Wonder of Asia,” as President Rajapaksa says. With 8 percent GDP growth last year, a renewed tide of visiting tourists to take in the country’s beautiful scenery and impressive history, and strong investor confidence, the country’s economy is on an upward trajectory. Sri Lanka has some of the best health and social indicators in Asia with one of the lowest infant mortality rates and highest literacy rates, 90 percent, in the region, for example. The country has a well-educated young population for whom it is promoting regional cooperation as a means to create opportunities through free trade agreements with India and Pakistan. As I said, Sri Lanka shows great promise as a country emerging from decades of conflict to become a friendly partner in the region and the world. Of course, national reconciliation is a critical part of this process.
As evidence of the dynamism in Sri Lanka currently, I would like to highlight a few events and developments that we probably would not have seen even two years ago: Sri Lanka is currently co-hosting the cricket world cup, opening its doors to players and fans from all over the world; last year, Colombo hosted the International Indian Film Awards – the Bollywood Oscars – last year; Sri Lanka welcomed the Fulbright program’s South and Central Asia workshop in which Fulbright Commission directors and U.S. Embassy officials from the region gathered to share their experiences and work in promoting educational exchange; scholars from Duke and Johns Hopkins Universities are collaborating with Sri Lankan counterparts in the field of health sciences; later this month representatives from a number of U.S. firms are traveling to Sri Lanka to explore business and investment opportunities.
At the same time, the U.S. encourages the Government of Sri Lanka, the private sector and civil society to draw on the resources and expertise of the many Sri Lankans living in the U.S. and around the world. I also encourage Sri Lankans living overseas to respond to overtures from the Government of Sri Lanka and opportunities to promote development and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The end of the conflict presents an opening for everyone that is a friend and partner of the country to help realize the dream of opportunity for all Sri Lankans.
In closing, economic prosperity and development are necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for lasting peace and healing in Sri Lanka. Economic growth will indeed help Sri Lankans to realize their dreams for themselves and their children. But the solution for lasting peace needs to include not just economic opportunity, but a political climate in which every Sri Lankan feels he or she has an equal stake in the country’s future and the ability to realize his or her potential in an open and just society. As President Obama said speaking to the world in Cairo in 2009: “all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.” I believe this is as true of Sri Lankans as any people anywhere in the world and the United States stands with Sri Lanka as a friend and partner in this pursuit. Thank you.