Great to be back in Sri Lanka. I have had a wide-ranging and productive series of meetings with political leaders, business community leaders and members of civil society. Before I go further, let me take the opportunity to welcome the arrival of our new Ambassador Michele Sison. She only arrived last week, but comes ready to serve the United States as one of our most experienced career diplomats and experts in South Asian affairs. I know Sri Lankans will extend her the same warm welcome and hospitality you extended me throughout my stay in Sri Lanka.
The United States has had a long and productive partnership with Sri Lanka. We have provided over $2 billion in assistance and have an important economic relationship – the United States is the largest single export destination for Sri Lankan goods. And we have a strong partnership in counterterrorism and maritime security. We have also worked closely together on issues such as demining and support for the IDPs.
I had positive meetings with the Minister of External Affairs Peiris, Minister de Silva, Minister Samarasinghe, Secretary to the President Weeratunga, Defense Secretary Rajapaksa, leaders of the TNA, and civil society.
I discussed in all our meetings the need for accelerated progress to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and the National Action Plan. I emphasized the importance of progress in reducing the role and profile of the military in the North, and full respect for human rights.
On issues of accountability, 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. I also urged that the Northern Provincial Council elections be held as soon as possible and encouraged an early resumption of talks between the TNA and the government to agree on powers to be devolved to the provinces.
On the economic front, I am pleased that the American Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a trade fair to celebrate its 20th anniversary. I met with members of the AmCham at a lunch earlier today to discuss both the opportunities in sectors such as tourism and information technology, and the challenges that need to be overcome for Sri Lanka to attract greater investment.
On a related note of partnership, I wanted to pay special recognition to the fact that the U.S.-Sri Lankan Fulbright Commission is celebrating its 60th Anniversary. Thanks to this program, nearly 650 Sri Lankan students have gone to the United States, while Sri Lanka has hosted over 380 Americans as researchers, teachers, and students.
This powerful legacy has touched generations in both of our countries and made both of our societies stronger as a result. We are so pleased to be continuing this important bilateral cooperation and I also wanted to thank and commend Fulbright executive director Tissa Jayatilaka for his leadership of the Fulbright Commission for more than two decades.
In conclusion, our hope remains that all Sri Lankans will be able to enjoy the same rights and dignity, and share a democratic, secure, and prosperous future.
Q: The last time you were here you did announce that the talks between the TNA and the Government will commence in a week’s time, what happened?
A: You’ll have to ask the government that, as I said we were disappointed that there hasn’t been more progress in those talks. As I said in my statement, I urged the early resumption of those discussions so that there can be progress on this very, very important question of devolution of powers to the provinces.
Q: You are here at the time that the UN human rights commission people are also here, is it a coincidence?
A: It is a coincidence, there was no coordination what so ever between us on that, they have their own program and I have my own program.
Q: Mr. Blake, part of the LLRC is the appointment of a commissioner to look into the cases of missing people and there was a report of increasing number of people going missing or being abducted in the past many months. Have you taken up this issue with the people whom you met and what was their response?
A: Let me just say as a general matter, that progress of human rights is a very important part of the whole process of reconciliation. We discussed this in some detail with various interlocutors and I made the point that it is important not just to make progress on some of the issues like the missing but also to continue to make progress on important matters such as freedom of the media, because it is a very important part of this reconciliation process. We will continue to make this a priority in our dialogue and I know that this will also be a very important feature of the upcoming Universal Periodic Review for Sri Lanka which will take place in early November.
Q: Once a good friend of mine who is also a political analyst said that sometimes you get criticized here and that you are misunderstood although you are a very good friend of Sri Lanka. He also said that if not for you, Washington would have acted very differently towards Sri Lanka, what do you have to say about that?
A: I will only say it’s true that I am a very good friend of Sri Lanka.
Q: What is the likely impact of the death of the U.S. Ambassador in Libya and the film on the Prophet in South Asia?
A: Well I think it is a very sad time for all of us at the Foreign Service after the loss of not only Ambassador Stevens who is a dear friend for many of us but also 3 of our colleagues who were also killed. The Secretary and the President quite appropriately have ordered strengthening of security for all of our embassies around the world at this very difficult time and we will certainly do that in all of our posts in South Asia. I don’t see any particular risk to our facilities in Sri Lanka but nonetheless we must be vigilant at this particular time. And again our hearts and prayers go out to the family and friends of all those colleagues we have lost.
Q: A/S Blake. On the topic of UPR, assuming that U.S. will continue to exert pressure because U.S. moved the resolution in Geneva, come October for the UPR, assuming U.S. will exert pressure on Sri Lanka and given what has happened in Libya and we have seen in the past when the US resolution was moved there were lot of anti US protests in Sri Lanka as well. Given these facts, assuming U.S. will continue to exert pressure on Sri Lanka will you take measures to beef up security in your mission in Sri Lanka?
A: That’s a lot of assumptions for one question. I don’t think I want to answer that, there are a lot of things you are supposing that are not true necessarily. I just would like to say what I said earlier, we are continuing to urge all our friends in the government to move forward and make progress on all the various issues discussed and certainly there will be great interest not just on the part of the U.S. but many others in the presentation that Sri Lanka makes in the UPR, so we look forward to hearing that.
Q: Ambassador, probably at a meeting with the President’s secretary Lalith Weeratunga, you took a look at the action plan. What is your opinion on the LLRC action plan?
A: I think there is a fairly detailed action plan now that exists and that has timelines which is good but again I urge progress as quickly as possible on all of the issues that are laid out in the action plan as well as progress on all of the matters that I laid out earlier. So I think that it is very important as we and many other countries look to the UPR and to the next session of the UN Human Rights Council sessions next March.
Q: In your opening statement you said you discussed the need for accelerated progress in implementation of the LLRC action plan. How quickly do you want it implemented and are you comfortable with a 5 year time period to implement some of the key elements in the action plan?
A: Again it’s not what we want, we have always supported the LLRC process because this is a domestic process so what’s important is for the government to take ownership of the process and for them to move forward as quickly as possible to implement these recommendations and to implement the action plan and to move ahead in some of these important issues that I raised.
Q: Supplement me on this, what exactly do you mean by accelerated?
A: Well there are a lot of questions about how quickly Sri Lanka is really committed to moving ahead on these things. I think it is incumbent upon the government to show it is committed by doing everything it can to move ahead as quickly as possible on the full range of actions that were mentioned in the LLRC report.
Q: Presenting the action plan Lalith Weeratunga told the media that the government has already made progress in many areas and again there were questions raised about the time frame. There are positive areas, what’s your view regarding this?
A: Again it’s a huge plan with many recommendations so I don’t want to get into such level of detail. I will just stick to what I have already said, it is very, very important for the government to move ahead as quickly as possible on the full range of those recommendations.
Q: President Rajapaksa has already promised that the Northern Provincial Council elections will be held in September next year. Have you requested to move it to an earlier date?
A: A very important part of the reconciliation process here is the political rights for the people of the North. I was here when the Eastern Province was liberated from the LTTE and the government moved very expeditiously to hold elections within a year in the Eastern Provincial Council. It is now more than 3 years since the end of the war so again I think it is important to move ahead as quickly as possible to hold those elections. We were told that September 2013 is the latest date the elections may be held and it may be held sooner. So we are hoping that the elections can be held as soon as possible so that the people of the North can enjoy the same full political rights as all other Sri Lankans.
Q: What is your opinion on the ongoing anti U.S. protests in the world?
A: If you are referring to the questions regarding the film, first of all Secretary Clinton has spoken at length about that film. We take exception to anybody, American or otherwise who seek to denigrate any religion, Muslim religion or any other religion and we certainly have the fullest respect for Islam and we certainly deplore any violence against our diplomatic facilities or against anybody else. To the extent that there are grievances they should take it up with us in a peaceful manner and we are always open to dialogue with anybody on these matters. But I want to stress that this was a private endeavor and the US government had nothing to do with this particular film. We distanced ourselves from that and we deplore any effort to denigrate a religion such as Islam.
Q: Talking about the Northern elections, now we have had an election in the East specially the TNA and the SLMC Muslim people have got the franchise after a long time. How do you assess the situation in the East based on the elections, is it a positive move?
A: Well I think it is important to have elections, so we welcome the fact that it occurred there. I haven’t yet seen the written reports from the observers CAFFE and PAFFREL so I am not in a position to comment on the conduct of those elections. I have heard from sources such as the civil society and political parties that there may have been irregularities. I think we are not going to comment without seeing these reports as we did not have our own observers. So it is inappropriate for us to comment as this point in time.
Q: You mentioned that there were challenges in US investment coming to Sri Lanka. Can you explain that?
A: I think in general we would like to see the government to do as much as it can to reduce its bureaucratic impediments to investments here; to reduce corruption and to do everything they can to provide a transparent and open environment in which American and other investments are encouraged. I gave a speech today at the American Chamber of Commerce and I will be releasing the full text of that so I refer you to that to know more about what I said.