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Transcript of Press Conference


Press Conference
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
The American Center
Colombo, Sri Lanka
July 21, 2010

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ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s terrific to be back here in Sri Lanka and to see a lot of old friends in the crowd. I have had a very productive series of meetings today with President Rajapaksa, with Foreign Minister Peiris, with members of the business community, with members of civil society and members of the opposition as well.

The U.S. has long been a friend of Sri Lanka and we want to try to build on that friendship. The U.S. welcomed the defeat of the LTTE last year. And now, with President Rajapaksa’s impressive victory in the recent presidential elections and his party’s equally strong showing in the parliamentary elections, Sri Lanka has a unique opportunity to forge a lasting peace and prosperity after decades of war.

Achieving reconciliation will be a key element in peace. One part of achieving reconciliation will be to finish resettling all internally displaced persons as soon as possible. The United States continues to be a leading donor in providing humanitarian aid for all of the Internally Displaced Persons. We are also supporting de-mining; we are initiating programs to provide jobs for returning IDPs; and we are catalyzing new private sector investments in the North to provide new economic opportunities for those IDPs that are returning. We have provided a total of $140 million in assistance over the last two years.

Another key part of reconciliation will be to assure accountability to redress past wrongs. Secretary Clinton told Minister Peiris in May that Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission holds promise, and we hope and expect that it will fulfill that promise.

A last pillar of reconciliation will be to advance democracy and human rights. Minister Peiris affirmed during his visit to Washington that Sri Lanka wants to revive and to strengthen its institutions of democracy. Progress in implementing greater power sharing with the provinces, implementing the 17th Amendment to empower independent commissions such as the human rights, police and bribery commissions, and efforts to safeguard media freedom, will all be important steps in ensuring a future of hope, peace, and prosperity for all Sri Lankans. The United States will continue to be Sri Lanka’s partner in all of these endeavors.

Thank you. With that I would be happy to take any questions you may have.


QUESTION: What is the stance of the U.S. with regards to political affairs that unfolded with the appointment of the UN panel by the UN Secretary General?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well let me say first of all that I was pleased to see that the UN Resident Representative Neil Buhne has returned to Sri Lanka and I think that bodes well for both sides to try to reduce the tensions that resulted from the crisis that you mentioned. I think that it’s in everybody’s interests now to try to work together. The United States believes that the UN panel that was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon can play an important advisory role with Sri Lanka’s commission that has been set up. I think that it’s important to note that the panel that the UN Secretary General has appointed is only an advisory panel for the UN Secretary General. It does not have an investigatory or judicial role of any kind. So, again, we think that the UN has great experience in many parts of the world with such commissions and that that experience can benefit Sri Lanka’s own commission.

QUESTION: You said that the government said it would strengthen democracy and human rights. Is there an admission that we are lacking in democracy and human rights? Or that there is an abuse of human rights?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think that we’ve talked a lot about human rights and democracy. I think that a particularly important priority right now is on the media side, to improve media freedom. But there are many other issues that we have talked about many times in the past and I refer you to the Human Rights Report that we put out every year which has quite a complete accounting of some of the concerns that we have.

QUESTION: This is actually in relation to the first question. What will the United States’ reaction be if Ban Ki-Moon was to appoint an advisory panel to the Israeli commission on the Gaza aid flotilla raid?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: You know, I don’t like to make comparisons because they are always different and I also certainly don’t like to respond to hypothetical questions.

QUESTION: Is the United States satisfied with the state of resettlement at the moment and would you think that international community should do more for those people now they’re having a lot of problems and have to start their lives from beginning and they have a lot of pressure on the Sri Lankan government to resettle them? But it’s the responsibility of the international community also to help them to step up their lives. What is your comment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thank you for that question. In my talks today, I was told that approximately 37,000 internally displaced people remain in the camps, so the government has made very good progress in reducing that number from the 280,000 or so that started. As you say, I think that it’s very important now to help provide assistance and particularly assistance to establish livelihoods for all of those who have returned to their homes. And I must say that the United States has been a leader in that regard; first, by providing humanitarian assistance – food and other kinds of assistance – to help those who are still in the camps and also to those who are returning now. But we’re also doing what we can to try to catalyze private sector investments because we believe that that in the long run is going to be the area where most of the new jobs will come from. And I had a very good meeting today with members of the Sri Lankan business community, many of whom told me about a lot of private sector activities that are now starting up in the north in particular. They see a great many opportunities too, in areas such as agriculture and fishing and service areas such as banking and tourism. So, we will look to see what we can do to encourage investment in those areas to provide livelihoods for all of those returning internally displaced people.

QUESTION: China’s building us all kinds of ports and performing arts centers and stuff. How come you don’t build us anything? More seriously, how do you think you’re competing for the ‘hearts and minds’ here without such high profile stuff?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, you know, we’re not really in competition with any particular country. We do what we think serves our national interest. As I’ve said, we’ve provided quite a lot of assistance here that we’re proud of over the last two years and almost $2 billion in assistance since Sri Lanka became independent. So we certainly don’t need to apologize for that.

QUESTION: China’s provided almost a billion in the last two years.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, we’re not trying to compete with any particular country, and we’re doing what we can to provide not only our own assistance but to encourage private sector investments here which I think will make a great deal of difference.

QUESTION: Ever since the appointment of the panel by Ban Ki-Moon, the U.S. has been supportive of the appointment and just now you made a comment saying that it’s only an advisory role, but doesn’t have any judicial jurisdictions.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Correct

QUESTION: So was that the reason that the United States was basically supportive of Ban appointing this panel because Sri Lanka has firmly said that will not permit the investigative panel to come into Sri Lanka? Assuming perhaps that some of the committee members made some drastic comments saying that by looking at their optional background that they might rule more than usual, but now the U.S. says that it’s only an advisory role. Was that the reason, the only reason that the U.S. was basically telling Sri Lanka to basically…?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, first of all, the United States does not tell Sri Lanka to do anything. Let me say that I think that there was some misunderstanding here about what the role of the UN panel was. As I said earlier, the Secretary General appointed the UN panel to advise him, to advise the Secretary General about what might be done to help the commission that has been formed by Sri Lanka. And the experts that have been appointed to the Secretary General’s panel have a great deal of experience that I think would benefit Sri Lanka’s own commission here. And, again, I think that both sides, both the UN and Sri Lanka, are now trying to narrow their differences and get things back to normal. And that’s certainly something that we welcome.

QUESTION: Do think that there was a total misinterpretation of their role? Because the people in this country thought that it was supposed to be a different role. But now the U.S. is saying that it is only going to be an advisory role.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I’ll leave it to the UN to describe the specifics of what its own panel is, what the purpose of it is. I think I’ve said enough on that.

QUESTION: You referred to the 17th amendment. Did the government assure you that it would implement it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think the government has initiated talks with Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the opposition, on several different matters and one of the issues that they are now looking at is to implement the 17th Amendment and to establish some of these independent commissions that I think would make a great deal of difference.

QUESTION: When the government funded the APRC, the US welcomed that. The war has ended 14 months ago, but the government hasn’t come out with the proposals, but two of the opposition party members have come out with the APRC proposals. Did you discuss with the President regarding the political solution for the Tamil people?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We didn’t discuss the APRC report per se, but we did discuss the process of greater power sharing. And I think that the President understands the need for that and so I think he wants to move forward with that. As you know, he’s already talked about implementing the 13th Amendment, he’s talked about creating a second chamber and I think both of those would be welcomed. I encouraged the President and Foreign Minister Peiris to work closely with the representatives of the Tamil people in particular because it’s important that there be a good dialogue in that respect and that there be a meeting of the minds about what would constitute effective devolution of power.

QUESTION: How concerned are you about the Government’s close relationship with Iran, Libya and Myanmar. The second question: your next visit is to the Maldives, how concerned are you about their political situation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think our concerns about Iran and Myanmar are well known and I don’t need to go into those. I think the government here is well aware of our concerns of the importance of observing the quite comprehensive sanctions that the UN Security Council has enacted against Iran. With respect to the Maldives, as you say, I’ll be traveling there tomorrow. The United States has very strong relations with the Government of the Maldives and we have been sorry to see the absence of dialogue between both the government and the opposition parties. And so I would like to encourage both of them to try to work together to eliminate their differences so that they can begin to work together to address the urgent needs of the people of the Maldives.

QUESTION: You have been leading discussions with the Tamil diaspora. What is your feeling? Is there a progress towards the diaspora working to uplift the Tamil people here or is there still tension or unhappiness with what is happening in Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think that there are still divisions within the Tamil diaspora, so it’s difficult to characterize their positions. But I think that overall there has been an evolution in the thinking of the Tamil diaspora. And more and more of them are of the view that it is important now to engage and to try to work to help the people of the North and to invest. And so more and more I see the members of the Tamil diaspora from the United States coming back to Sri Lanka to see how they might be able to help. And that’s certainly a process that I personally and that our government has encouraged.

QUESTION: Regarding GSP, does this mean the US is also thinking about placing conditions on Sri Lanka like the EU has done?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, I think it’s important to make a distinction between the US GSP process and that which has been undertaken by the EU. Ours is a much narrower process. In the United States, anybody can bring a petition to ask that we review any country’s status under the GSP. In this case, the AFL-CIO brought a complaint against Sri Lanka and asked that we look at labor rights here. So we have initiated a process to do so. I must be clear that while that process is underway, the GSP will remain in effect for Sri Lanka and I must also emphasize that this will be a collaborative process. We will be working very closely with the Government of Sri Lanka, listening carefully to what they have to say about whatever questions that have been raised. We will also make sure that our decision makers have the opportunity to visit a wide range of businesses here in Sri Lanka so that they have a chance to see first hand how labor rights are reviewed here in Sri Lanka.

QUESTION: How do your view the Government’s decision not to comply with the appointment of this three member panel. Did you raise this issue with the President during your discussions today?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, I didn’t raise it.

QUESTION: What is the position of the United States of the Government’s decision not to comply with the decision taken by the UN?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think I’ve already answered that question, so I don’t have anything more to say about that.

QUESTION: This is not actually related to Sri Lanka, but the U.S.in the Gulf of Mexico you’re currently facing a large disaster of great proportion. Recently on CNN, they uncovered a contract that BP was trying to buy out expert witnesses. It was on their website yesterday in relation to a lawsuit the U.S. Government is filing against BP. What action is the Government going to take against BP?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I’ve been travelling the past ten days in Central Asia and that’s not really my area of responsibility, so I ‘m not going to answer that question. I just don’t know the latest on that. So I am not up to speed on what the latest information may be on that.

QUESTION: Does the US have any concern about increasing Chinese influence in Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, I don’t think we’re concerned about increasing Chinese presence. The Chinese are a sovereign government and they’ll make any decisions that they feel are in their interest. The United States has been consulting with the Chinese about their relations in all of South Asia. I myself had consultations in Beijing with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so I think we have a fairly good understanding about what our goals are and what their goals are. I think I’ll just leave it there.

QUESTION: What’s the overall view of the post war relations between the US and Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, our view is that we’d like to build on the very strong relations that we’ve always had for many many years with this country. We feel that Sri Lanka now has a unique opportunity to really forge a lasting peace and lasting reconciliation and that Sri Lanka can again become the moderate, market-oriented, ethnically diverse democracy that it was always known for before the war with the LTTE started. That’s certainly the goal we have and I think that’s the goal the Government of Sri Lanka has as well.

QUESTION: Is there any particular reason that you decided to take a one-day visit to Sri Lanka?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The reason is that I was in Kyrgyzstan, which is not so far away, and certainly a lot closer than the United States. I wanted to come back here to follow up on the very successful visit that Foreign Minister Peiris had to Washington in May.

QUESTION: The US said last week that they wanted the Maldives to take some international help with the political situation. Is the United States offering to mediate between both parties?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: No, the purpose of my visit really is to go---it will be my first visit to the Maldives since becoming Assistant Secretary of State. It’s the one country I haven’t visited--the Foreign Minister has frequently reminded me of my failure. It’s really more just to go and conduct a dialogue with a full range of government ministers and also with members of civil society. If I can be helpful in trying to narrow some of the differences between the members of the government and the opposition, I’d be happy to do so, but I don’t have a specific intention of mediating the dispute.

QUESTION: After your meetings with the President, the business community and civil society, what is your message about Sri Lanka going to be to the US Government?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think it’s what I already said. I think that there still needs to be steps to encourage greater reconciliation, greater democracy. Again, if those steps are taken, Sri Lanka really has a unique opportunity to reestablish hope and opportunity for all of the people of Sri Lanka. The United States very much wants to work with our friends in the Sri Lankan government and with all Sri Lankans to help achieve that objective.

QUESTION: You talked of private sector in the North, do you mean direct investment by Americans, or are you thinking of encouraging local businessman to invest there by some means?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Both. The United States, as you know, we were a leader in encouraging and catalyzing private sector investment in the East several years ago. We had several public-private partnerships with companies like Brandix and Hayleys that I think were very effective in helping to encourage Sri Lankan companies to do more to invest in the East. Those helped pave the way and were confidence-building investments for other companies to come in. And from what I understand the situation in Batticaloa and the rest of the East has improved quite significantly. We’d like to see that same process take place in the North.

QUESTION: Will you lend them money?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, USAID will be helping, I think, with various types of public-private partnerships, and we’re also looking to encourage private sector investment as well. I’ve had quite an extensive dialogue with the American Tamil diapsora and I’ve encouraged them to invest in the North, to invest in schools, to invest in hospitals, to invest in new businesses, all of which could help all of the IDPs who are now returning to their homes to provide opportunities and again to help to achieve the lasting peace that I talked about earlier.

I’ll take one more question.

QUESTION: You said that the government told you that only 37,000 IDPs remain, but most of the international community again and again is asking for access to meet the ex-LTTE cadres in the government-controlled camps. Did you raise any concerns regarding the right to access to LTTE cadres?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We ourselves aren’t asking for access to the LTTE cadres, but we think that it is important for the ICRC or for other international institutions to have access so that there can be full transparency. I think many of the families of the people in the North and many of the families of the IDPs are naturally concerned about people who are in custody--they want to know where they are being held and they want to know what there status is. The more the government can be open about that, the more I think that will help to relieve some of their concerns. So yes, we did have a discussion about that in some of my meetings.

I think we’ll end it there because I have to run off to some other meetings. Again thank you all so much for coming and it’s nice to see all of you again.




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