ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Good afternoon. My name is Robert Blake. I’m the Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. Thank you all so much for coming today to the American Center here in Malé. I’m delighted to be back here in Malé. As many of you know, I was the Ambassador accredited here for many years.
I’ve had a very productive visit here today to Maldives. During my stay I appreciated very much the opportunity to meet with His Excellency President Nasheed, Foreign Minister Naseem, other government leaders, members of the opposition, and civil society members. I told President Nasheed and other members of the government that the United States values very much our relations with the Maldives. I thanked the President for his recent letter to President Obama extending his condolences to the families of those Americans who lost their lives in the recent terrible tornadoes in the United States. The President congratulated me and congratulated the United States for the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. I told the President this is considered by the United States and by our President as probably the most significant accomplishment by the United States against al-Qaida, the most significant terrorist threat to the United States, and the outfit that was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and many other attacks against the United States.
I arrived here in Malé this morning following two nights of demonstrations here, and I’d like to say that we in the United States understand the many challenges that the people of Maldives and their elected representatives are tackling as this young democracy continues to gain strength. As in many new democracies the transition to a functioning system of checks and balances between the branches of government presents challenges, but I was very pleased that President Nasheed reaffirmed in our meeting his very strong commitment to freedom of assembly in particular.
I also encouraged the government and the opposition to work together to try to tackle some of the problems that Maldives is now facing. Even in older, more established democracies such as our own, politicians can find it difficult to work together across party lines in the spirit of fairness and bipartisanship for the sake of governing well. When they do, however, everyone benefits.
The United States congratulated Maldives on the recent local council elections which were vigorously but peacefully and fairly contested. We hope that all parties will continue to collaborate in such a spirit for the betterment of the lives of all Maldivians. Despite some of the political growing pains here in Maldives, Maldives’ international influence far exceeds its size, particularly in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and its Human Rights Council. I thanked President Nasheed for his country’s leadership on recent votes and actions in the UN Human Rights Council concerning Syria and Libya and Iran.
President Nasheed also has become one of the world’s leading climate change advocates with a flair for drawing attention for the critical impact that climate change is already having on island nations.
Maldives currently holds the Chair of SAARC, and Secretary General Saeed has made some interesting proposals to strengthen that institution and deepen its cooperation with the United States. We were very pleased to welcome her to the United States not too long ago.
In conclusion, I’d just like to say that we have a terrific and growing partnership with Maldives. Our government officials cooperate well and remain in regular contact. Our elected representatives are sharing best practices on governance. American Muslims have come here to speak with ordinary citizens and religious leaders. Maldivian students have recently traveled to the United States on exchange programs to learn about topics ranging from soccer to recycling. And our militaries collaborate on security issues and training to keep Maldives and its waters safe and secure.
The United States is committed that these activities will become more frequent and that our two people who live on opposite sides of the globe will meet more often in the spirit of friendship and goodwill. And most of all, we’re committed to deepening our cooperation and our friendship with Maldives.
With that I’d be pleased to take a few questions. Thank you very much.
QUESTION: If my information is not wrong, the Human Rights Council has formed a post for Special Rapporteur on Iran, [inaudible]. If the information I have received is not wrong, Our government has proposed ex-Foreign Minister Shaheed. So do you think you will support that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think there are still discussions about that. We appreciated very much the support of the government of Maldives for their support in creating the position . As I say, I think there are still internal discussions underway about that, so I don’t really want to comment on that. I’ll let the government of Maldives comment on that if they wish to.
QUESTION: I noticed this morning the State Department issued a travel advisory for American citizens overseas.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.
QUESTION: What do you make of some of the potential roll-on effects or impacts, particularly within the Islamic world following the death of bin Laden?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think it’s difficult to predict that. The reason that we put out that worldwide caution is that it’s reasonable to assume that al-Qaida may try to retaliate for the loss of its leader. So we just wanted to make sure that people around the world were aware of this development, and that particularly in areas where there may already be anti-American sentiment, that people just exercise appropriate caution.
QUESTION: What were the key sort of areas of discussion with the Maldives President and the opposition? Did you discuss the riots? What was the sort of --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think we discussed in broad terms some of the challenges that the country is facing and the President described some of the steps that he has taken, particularly on the economic side , to again stabilize the economy and to begin to bring down prices, to reduce the budget deficit. We talked a little bit about the importance, again, of working with the opposition and coming to a bipartisan agreement on the way forward. And I must say, I urged the same to the opposition as well. I said it’s very important for them to come together and not simply criticize what the government is doing, but to also come up with their own alternative, if they have an alternative, and then to negotiate in good faith to try to get an agreed plan. I think the most important thing, again, is to continue the momentum to reduce the budget deficit and put the economy on a firmer financial footing while at the same time continuing the process of strengthening democracy here in Maldives.
QUESTION: Lastly on the subject of Sri Lanka, I know there’s a UN report that is now regarding the human rights abuses perhaps in the final area of the war, and the U.S. Embassy, I believe there was a leaked cable from Ambassador Patricia Butenis which pretty much clarified all the things that had been going in the UN report.
If the Maldives is placed in a position whereby its status on the Human Rights Council comes to a vote whether or not this investigation into Sri Lankan war crimes should go ahead, what would be sort of your advice for a country that obviously depends on Sri Lanka for its national interests at the same time?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: That’s an awful lot of if’s, if’s, and if’s. [Laughter]. I don’t want to speculate on things like that.
Let me just say that the United States has congratulated the UN for making public the Panel of Experts Report and I look forward to discussing this and a wide range of other issues with the government of Sri Lanka. I’m going to be going there later today. I’ll have some meetings up in northern Sri Lanka tomorrow, mostly to visit aid projects that the United States is supporting up in Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu. Then I’ll have meetings with government officials on Wednesday.
QUESTION: Sir, I think I can remember that in a question conference like this you mentioned that you will try to give more scholarships to our country.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.
QUESTION: How is it going, how is the progress on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think we’re making good progress, actually. I wouldn’t say only on the scholarship front. We’re doing a lot of different things. We’re doing teacher training for educators around the Maldives. We’ve got an ACCESS program where we’re providing English language training for 25 students here in Malé and 25 students down in the south. As I say, we’ve got all kinds of exchange programs going on. For example, we had some Oregon legislators who came here last year to talk about legislative procedures. So there’s a whole range of exchanges that we do, and we’re very much committed to trying to expand those as much as possible.
I also had some quite productive discussions today about your university and how we might be able to try to arrange, for example, more visiting faculty and so forth. So we’re very much committed to expanding educational cooperation here. I think that is a very important aspect of our cooperation.
QUESTION: Next week we have an education fair with the U.S. in Maldives. Let’s see how we can work together.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: All right. Unless there are any more questions, let me just again thank you for coming today and again, it’s been a very productive visit and I look forward to seeing you again on my next visit. Thank you.
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