I am delighted to welcome Dr. Peiris here to the State Department. I first met him 15 years ago when I was in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And it is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss Sri Lanka’s efforts to rebuild after more than two decades of violence and terrorist activity that have deprived the Sri Lankan people of the progress they deserve. Dr. Peiris is a capable, experienced public servant whose leadership is helping to move Sri Lanka toward renewal and reconciliation and, we hope, to greater peace, prosperity, and security for the future.
The United States has long been a friend of Sri Lanka. Our countries share a history of democratic institutions, and we have an active USAID program that has invested more than $1.9 billion in Sri Lanka since 1956 and is currently helping to create new opportunities for people who were displaced by the conflict.
Since the LTTE terrorist group was defeated one year ago, USAID has rebuilt or repaired seven schools and a hospital damaged by the conflict, launched public-private partnerships in northern and eastern Sri Lanka to create the equivalent of 5,000 full-time jobs in former conflict zones, supported work training for young people to spur economic development, and provided extensive aid and assistance to internally displaced people seeking to return home. The United States will continue to provide Sri Lanka with humanitarian and de-mining assistance to help heal the wounds of war and bring lasting peace and prosperity to the country.
As part of this effort, the minister and I discussed Sri Lanka’s Reconciliation Commission. The United States strongly supports political and ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Such commissions of inquiry have played an important role in advancing accountability and redressing wrongs in other countries emerging from periods of internal strife. Sri Lanka’s commission should apply the best practices from these other commissions and should have the mandate to investigate any allegations of war crimes.
We also discussed the issue of internally displaced persons with the minister. There has been tremendous progress and many thousands and thousands of such internally displaced persons have returned home. And we discussed the need to continue the safe, dignified and voluntary return to homes. Sri Lanka has made progress, and we will continue to support efforts to safeguard the rights of IDPs and complete their relocation.
After decades of LTTE rule in the north, the Sri Lankan Government is committed to re-establishing democracy. I was very pleased by the briefing I received from the minister about the many steps that are being taken to return to democratic order. Sri Lanka will remain a strong, united country by drawing on the strength of all of its citizens, valuing the diversity of its people, and ensuring equal rights for everyone.
So once again, I want to thank Minister Peiris for our productive discussion today and commend him for his commitment to the reconciliation process. The United States pledges our continued support to Sri Lanka, and wishes the Sri Lankan people and the government success in this very challenging but important work ahead.
Mr. Minister.MINISTER PEIRIS:
Let me begin by thanking Secretary Clinton very sincerely for her initiative in inviting me here to the State Department at this very critical juncture in our country’s contemporary history.
It’s a time of great promise and hope for Sri Lanka. New vistas of opportunity are opening up in every sector of life in my country. Today, we have two singular advantages. One is an honorable and enduring peace consequent upon the eradication of terrorism. The second strength we have is an unprecedented degree of political stability which the country has not achieved during the last 25 years. As Secretary Clinton pointed out, we are proud of the tremendous progress that we have made during the short space of one year.
With regard to the resettlement of internally displaced people, an excruciatingly difficult problem, we were not really well equipped to handle it at the time we were called upon to do so unexpectedly. We have been able to resettle people in their natural habitat. But we have not been content with that. It is not a question of just resettling people physically, but we want to ensure a restoration of livelihoods so that they’re able to live their lives with dignity without bitterness or rancor. That’s very essential.
The other challenge, of course, was the reactivation of the electoral process which had been dormant for a long period because of the turbulence in that part of the country. And there is a need today for political space to be provided for the emergence of a legitimate democratic Tamil leadership, particularly at the local government level, because the LTTE had destroyed the leaders of the Tamil community just as much as they had annihilated the leaders of other communities.
And one of our principal challenges in Sri Lanka is to revive, to strengthen, institutions of democracy. And now that the country is returning to normal, I expressed President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thanks to Hillary Clinton for the steps that have been taken by the State Department to remove the Travel Warning on Sri Lanka that is a recognition of the improvement, the basic (inaudible) improvement of the security situation.
The government went to parliament just three weeks ago to remove more than 70 percent of the emergency regulations under which the country had been governed for as long a period as almost five years, and this demonstrates the political resolve of the government to expunge these regulations as soon as possible, not to apply them for one moment longer than they are necessary. We believe, Madam, that there is a strong correlation between economic contentment and political motivation. As we move forward towards a political motivation as we move forward towards a political resolution of the country, we want to ensure that the people of those areas live with a sense of dignity and well being. So these are some of the challenges that we are facing in our country at present, and this is the trajectory that we envision for the future.
We have, in Sri Lanka, a very committed, courageous political leadership that is capable of grappling with these problems. And we look forward to a multidimensional relationship with the United States on the lines of what is envisioned in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee report of Senator John Kerry and Senator Lugar, who have called for a broadening and a deepening of the relationship between our two counties at this time. I think there’s a role for American companies to come in and to participate vigorously in the rebuilding of infrastructure, in the resuscitation of democratic institutions. All of this is possible and we look forward, Madam, to a rich and deep relationship with the United States in the new and exciting situation, which has arisen in my country.
Thank you.SECRETARY CLINTON:
Thank you so much, Minister.MR. CROWLEY:
We have time for questions (inaudible).QUESTION:
My question is for both of you and it concerns the reconciliation commission that Sri Lanka is setting up. Human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, today basically said that the parameters of this commission are much too narrow and that there really should be an independent international investigation of the alleged war crimes that occurred at the – in the last month of the war. And I just wonder what your reflections are on that.SECRETARY CLINTON:
Well, the United States supports the creation of the reconciliation commission. It’s a commission on lessons learned and reconciliation. The end of the conflict in Sri Lanka is, as the minister said, a promising opportunity to move forward on ensuring greater respect for the human rights of all Sri Lankans.
Experience in other countries has shown that such a commission that has the credibility and legitimacy within the country has a valuable role in advancing accountability. And we are very supportive of the approach taken by the Sri Lankans. We, of course, will continue to work with them and to observe this commission. We expect that it will be given a broad enough mandate with the resources necessary to be able to follow the trail of any evidence that is presented.
It is especially important that commission members be and are perceived as being independent, impartial, and competent. And the minister has told me in our meeting that that’s exactly the kind of people that are being appointed to this commission. We expect that the mandate will enable them to fully investigate serious allegations of violations and to make public recommendations that commission members and potential witnesses must enjoy adequate and effective protection, and the commission must be able to work with the governments so that the government will give due consideration to the recommendations. And we expect that this commission will reflect the desires and needs of the citizens of Sri Lanka who were, after all, the primary victims of this long and terrible conflict.
I think that the steps that have been taken by the Sri Lankan Government are commendable, and we are supporting that effort. The minister and I talked about the continuing role of the United Nations, which intends to have an independent oversight role. But I think that this commission holds promise and we hope and expect that it will fulfill that promise.MINISTER PEIRIS:
Well, I think the point of the (inaudible) is the observation by Secretary Clinton that the paramount consideration is the needs and the priorities of the people of Sri Lanka. Commissions of this nature have made a useful contribution to healing processes in other parts of the world, in post-conflict scenarios. But the focus has to be on the local culture, on the local situation.
So it is our firm conviction that the commission which has been set up in Sri Lanka consisting of the people of stature and independence with a mandate that is broad enough to address the critical issues – the mandate specifically empowers the commission to give their minds to these issues. Adequate financial resources have been placed at the disposal of the commission, and the commission enjoys a broad measure of public support within Sri Lanka, which is a decisive consideration.
So our plea is that we be given the space to allow the commission to begin its work without impediment or without hindrance. And certainly, along the road, if we feel that there is a need for support, then we would certainly be happy to engage in a dialogue with the United Nations to get the benefit of the wisdom and the experience of the United Nations.
But we think that at the start, the commission must be given every encouragement to set about its work, and there must be a presumption that it is going to succeed. We must begin on that note. It’s going to succeed. We want it to succeed. And we want all our friends abroad to support us vigorously and unreservedly in that endeavor. MR. CROWLEY:
We’ll go to Charley (inaudible). QUESTION:
Madam Secretary, thank you. So many eyes today on the oil spill, and we know there have been some offers of assistance from other countries. From where you stand, from your perspective, do you want more offers of assistance? And are you disappointed that more hasn’t been accepted by the United States and the oil company, as so many people in the United States are clamoring for more booms, et cetera? And also, what message do you have to America’s neighbors who may experience the ill effects of the spill?SECRETARY CLINTON:
Well, Charley, the United States Government is working every second of every minute to mitigate the effects of this terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We are very grateful for the generous offers of assistance that we’ve received from 17 countries and the European Union, including the European Maritime Safety Agency, the environment unit of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the United Nations Environment Program, and the International Maritime Organization.
Countries from all over the world have offered general assistance and then some have made very specific offers, including experts in various aspects of oil spill impacts, research, and technical expertise and equipment, including booms, dispersants, oil pumps and skimmers. And we are very thankful for all of these efforts. The U.S. Coast Guard, which is the lead agency in the U.S. Government’s response efforts, continues to monitor developments, evaluate specific needs, assess offers of assistance, and determine our response.
While no offers of direct material assistance have been required by the United States Government thus far, we have accepted and are grateful for assistance in the form of notification regarding the spill sent by the International Maritime Organization to its member states and coordination of EU offers of assistance. And BP has accepted boom and skimmers offered by the governments of Mexico and Norway in coordination with the Unified Area Command. We are in very close, constant communication with other countries that border the Gulf.
This is just a terrible environmental disaster and we are working very hard with all of our partners to try to contain it, prevent further damage. But because of the extraordinary nature of this particular disaster, it is taking some time to fully bring to bear all of the material that is needed. But as the President said yesterday, this is the highest priority from the President on down to every federal government representative that is in the Gulf trying to work to mitigate the impact. But we are, as I said in the beginning, very grateful for the concern and the offers from our partners and friends around the world.MR. CROWLEY:
Thank you very much. QUESTION:
Madam Secretary, are you sending that (inaudible) to Sri Lanka for humanitarian aid?SECRETARY CLINTON:
We are continuing to provide to humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka. We are doing so as a part of our very long partnership with Sri Lanka. And we support the Sri Lankan Government’s efforts to expedite the delivery of such humanitarian assistance. As I said, the number of internally displaced persons has dropped dramatically. We are still providing humanitarian assistance to those who remain in the camps, but we’re moving far beyond that to repair schools, to help with infrastructure, to create jobs.
So the emergency humanitarian aid has moved to be broader than just the immediate necessities because, as the minister has said, we agree with the Government of Sri Lanka that it is not enough merely to return people to their homes. We have to help them recreate livelihoods, we have to rebuild and repair schools, we have to provide the necessities of life to the people who are returning after this conflict finally ended, and help the Sri Lankan Government and the people of Sri Lanka build a firm foundation for peace, security, and prosperity. QUESTION:
Madam Secretary -- SECRETARY CLINTON:
Thank you. Thank you all.