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Diplomacy in Action

Interview with Maharaja TV


Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
New York Foreign Press Center
New York City
September 26, 2012

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Q: Are you satisfied with Sri Lanka’s progress following the adaptation of the March resolution that was sponsored by the U.S. Government?

A: First of all let me say that the United States has had a very long partnership and friendship with the Sri Lankans that dates back to Sri Lanka’s independence. We very much value this friendship. So my visit was undertaken in that spirit. The Secretary of State, when Foreign Minister Peiris visited in May, welcomed the establishment of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Plan of Action and welcomed the discussion that is taking place. So I think that provides a good framework, but now it’s very important to see that implemented. So during my visit I stressed the need for really accelerated implementation, and particularly on some of these issues that are so important to reconciliation and accountability, things like Northern provincial council elections, and other issues like that.

Q: Mr. Blake, the Universal Periodic Review for Sri Lanka will take place later this year. What would be the reaction of the United States government if the UN [inaudible]?

A: Well, of course March is still some ways away, so I don’t want to try to predict what our position will be. But I underlined to our friends in the government that it will be very, very important for them to make as much progress as possible between now and then on the LLRC Action Plan. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay will be preparing the report in advance of that session, and the more that she can report in terms of positive progress by the government, the better.

Q: It’s still six months since the adoption of the U.S.-sponsored resolution. Do you see any clear commitment from the Sri Lankan government to implement the LLRC’s report recommendations?

A: They tell us they are committed to that. But again, I think, to use an American sports metaphor, it’s time to put some points on the board. It’s time to show that with some concrete steps such as the ones that I’ve outlined.

Q: Mr. Blake, many international visitors to Sri Lanka in the recent past have said that the Sri Lankan government has made tremendous progress since the end of the conflict around the country, and especially after the adoption of the U.S.-sponsored resolution in March. Do you think otherwise?

A: I think there has been quite a lot of progress in areas like resettlement of IDPs. Although, there have been some recent cases where the very last part of Manik Farms has been closed now. We’ve had some concerns about the fact that the last remaining IDPs were moved somewhat against international standards. There was not a consultation process with the IDPs to determine where they were going. They were placed; it was not their original home. So there are some concerns in that regard. But overall the IDP process went well. I think the government deserves a lot of credit for developing infrastructure in the North, rebuilding homes and schools, rebuilding some of the medical infrastructure. But again, on a lot of the issues that are of most importance to the Tamils themselves: the right to vote and have their own elected representatives through a Northern provincial council, the right to be able to have their own land—there are still a lot of land issues and no clear land dispute resolution mechanism – the right to know about what has happened to their missing, and for there to be a full accounting, investigation, and prosecution of those who have killed some of their loved ones. Many of these things have yet to be done. I think those are going to be the key to ensuring lasting reconciliation and a just peace.

Q: Mr. Blake, terrorism that plagued Sri Lanka for three decades was eradicated in May 2009, so it’s been just three years since the end of the conflict. Don’t you think time and space should be given to Sri Lanka to recover from the end of the conflict?

A: I think space should be given. But again, one of the things I reminded our friends of was, let’s take the question of elections. When the East was liberated, the government was very quick to organize elections there within a year. And so provincial council elections were held. And now it’s been almost four years since the end of the conflict, or at least the president has announced elections in the North can be held by September 2013, so that will be four years out. So there’s quite a difference between what happened in the East and what is happening in the North. And again, we’re simply reflecting the views of the Tamils themselves on this issue.

Q: Mr. Blake, the government is saying that international community is exerting pressure on Sri Lanka even before the wounds of the conflict have healed. What would you say to this?

A: Well, I would flip it around. I would say the faster work can proceed on many important issues in reconciliation matters, the faster the wounds of war can heal.

Q: The United States government is very concerned about human rights reports in the subcontinent, especially countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, four that matter. Has the U.S. Government been able to do its own human rights report in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and even [inaudible]?

A: We have. And certainly our forces are guilty from time to time of killings and other kinds of infractions. And whenever that kind of thing happens, we’re always the first to investigate those. You will recall that most of the time, those kinds of reports are surfaced by American media. So we believe very strongly in the importance of a free media, an independent judiciary, and those are the intuitions that often surface these crimes and are responsible for the investigation and prosecution of those, not the government. And so we hold ourselves to the same high standards that we hold all of our friends.

Q: Have there been any instances where these individuals that you are talking about have been prosecuted?

A: Certainly. If you look at all the cases in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib for instance, that was a case that was first exposed by our investigative program 60 Minutes. And all of the people that were exposed were tried and convicted and are serving various jail terms now.

Q: I’d like to talk about the U.S. elections now.

A: [Laughter] That’s not something I can talk about too much.

Q: I asked you in 2008, who is your candidate?

A: I’m sure I ducked it.

Q: Mr. Blake, the election of the United States President is going to be held on the 6th of November. If there is a change of government, will there be a change of policy in the subcontinent and Sri Lanka?

A: Well, that’s a little hard for me to predict. To be honest, foreign policy hasn’t been a very large part of the debate between the two presidential candidates. I think that will change when they begin to debate directly during early October, and foreign policy will certainly be one of the subjects. In terms of our policy in Sri Lanka, that tends to be quite bipartisan. Even if Mr. Romney were to be elected I wouldn’t expect there to be major changes in that regard, since most of our policies are based on our values and our interests, and those are not going to change from administration to administration.

Q: However, Mr. Blake, Governor Romney has been very outspoken about the situation in Syria, the situation in Libya, and so on and so forth. [Inaudible] how he spoke about the situation in Libya and the killing of Chris Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, as well. Tell me, will there be any sudden shift or will there be any gradual change in policy towards the Middle East if Governor Romney was elected?

A: Again, I don’t want to speculate about that. I just don’t know. It would be up to Governor Romney, if he was elected, to articulate what his policy is and choose the new Secretary of State and so forth. It’s not for me to speculate. We are career diplomats, and we loyally support whoever our elected president is.

Q: I asked you this question in 2008, Mr. Blake and I will ask you once again: who would you support for the U.S. Presidential elections?

A: [Laughter] Now you’re really trying to get me in trouble. Again, our ballot is secret, and I and many others will exercise our right to vote but I’m not going to tell you who I’m going to vote for. Again, whoever is elected, we will serve that president.

Q: Thank you very much.



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