US Policy Towards and Continuing Engagement with Sri Lanka

by Amb. Michele Sisson, US Embassy, Colombo, April 8, 2013

The 2012 resolution, passed by a majority of countries on the Human Rights Council, sent a clear message that the international community shared the United States’ concerns regarding the lack of progress on reconciliation and accountability. The 2012 resolution simply asked the government of Sri Lanka to fulfill its own commitments to its people from its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, and to meet its own international obligations.

Ambassador Sison’s Remarks:“US Policy Towards and Continuing Engagement with Sri Lanka” to the Foreign Correspondents Association


Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight.  It is a pleasure being here, and also a pleasure to have the opportunity to show my support for the role of the media here in Sri Lanka at a Foreign Correspondents Association meeting.

I have been asked to speak about the next steps for U.S. engagement with Sri Lanka.  First of all, let me emphasize that we value our relationship with Sri Lanka and the people of Sri Lanka.  I would like to spend a few moments talking about how we see the current situation in Sri Lanka, and why the U.S. decided to table a second resolution a few weeks ago at the Human Rights Council.

The people of the United States have a long history of friendship and cooperation with the people of Sri Lanka.  In the 1800s, the sole representative of the U.S. government was a consular agent.  He is said to have sat on the porch of the Galle Fort Hotel, waiting for the ships to come in so he could register American sailors.

We seem to be a lot busier these days at the U.S. Embassy! Now, in the 21st century, our ties with Sri Lanka have continued to expand and deepen.  Today we are one of the largest contributors of humanitarian and development assistance in Sri Lanka, as well as a big supporter of education and civil society.

The U.S. has a good friend of Sri Lanka in times of need.  The United States was one of the first countries to respond to the devastating 2004 tsunami.  The U.S.S. Duluth arrived within days of the disaster to provide assistance, and we were one of the leading partners in helping with recovery from that terrible event in communities all over the island.

The U.S. also helped the government and people of Sri Lanka in every way we could to try to end the LTTE’s reign of terror – decades of LTTE attacks which included countless suicide bombings and the assassination of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

We, too, have faced terror.  We know how it can tear at the very fabric of state and society.

The United States was at the forefront in formally designating the LTTE as a terrorist organization.  This designation played a key role in helping to dry up the LTTE’s overseas support networks, helping to contribute to its ultimate demise.  The LTTE remains on the U.S. Foreign Terror Organization list to this day.  We know that families and communities all over Sri Lanka suffered terribly during these many long years of violence.  So we have been a longtime friend of the Sri Lankan people, in good times and in bad.  We know the challenge of maintaining national security against the threat of terrorism.

An equally important challenge, however – one that bears on our very identity as a nation – is to protect and maintain our core principles of democracy and rule of law during difficult times.

The United States and Sri Lanka have long had a strong relationship.  It is a relationship that historically had been based upon shared democratic values.  And that is precisely why the United States will always speak up when we feel such values are threatened.

As many of you know, the United States remains particularly concerned about threats against, and attacks on, media outlets in Sri Lanka.  Several prominent journalists have fled the country, and a number of attacks on journalists remain unresolved.  This includes the 2009 killing of “Sunday Leader” editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, the January 2010 abduction of Prageeth Ekneligoda, and the July 2011 attack on Uthayan news editor Gnanasundaram Kuganathan.

I know that this room full of journalists is only too aware that attacks against the media continue to this day, and that suspects are rarely apprehended – or, if apprehended, are almost never convicted.  Just last week, the Uthayan offices in Kilinochi were attacked by masked assailants, one of a series of unsolved attacks against Uthayan, and its employees over the past several years.

I raise these issues because the United States has always worked to defend the universal right to freedom of expression.  We believe freedom of expression by all individuals, including the media, is not only an essential democratic prescription, in its own right, but also critical in protecting other democratic institutions and values.

In a participatory democracy, people must have access to accurate information about the situation in their country and the activities of their government if they are to make informed choices – choices which provide the fundamental legitimacy of the government that represents them.   Thus, we urge the Sri Lankan authorities to fully investigate the Uthayan attack and hold the perpetrators accountable.

Support for freedom of expression was in fact one of the many recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, and was also raised in the March 2013 resolution at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.  The United States has raised other concerns recently, as well, including dismay over the process that led to the impeachment of the Chief Justice and what that means for a free and independent judiciary in Sri Lanka.

And just this weekend, we saw that the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and others raised concerns about the announcement of a significant number of transfers of judges and magistrates by the Judicial Services Commission.  I understand that the Bar Association has appointed a subcommittee to look into this development.

As you might have noted, the March 21 Geneva United Nations Human Rights Council resolution also cited concern about discrimination on the basis of religion or belief.  Against this backdrop, the United States, along with many Sri Lankan citizens, is alarmed by the recent attacks on Muslim businesses and certain inflammatory calls to action.  This type of hateful sentiment must not be allowed to fester.

The resolution also stressed the importance of the full participation of the local population, including representatives of civil society and minorities, in efforts to promote justice, reconciliation, and livelihoods.

And, of course, the United States has expressed disappointment with the stalled progress on reconciliation and accountability since the end of the conflict in 2009.  As you know, this is the second year the U.S. has sponsored a resolution in Geneva.  Some have asked me, “why a second resolution?”  Let me explain.

The 2012 resolution, passed by a majority of countries on the Human Rights Council, sent a clear message that the international community shared the United States’ concerns regarding the lack of progress on reconciliation and accountability.  The 2012 resolution simply asked the government of Sri Lanka to fulfill its own commitments to its people from its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, and to meet its own international obligations.

Following the 2012 resolution, the United States Government continued to raise concerns on the human rights front.  We monitored the situation throughout the country, engaged with the government when we had concerns, and offered assistance whenever we were able.

Of course, I want to emphasize that this was just one aspect of our engagement here:  we continued our major work on economic growth and humanitarian assistance projects, exchange visitor programs, demining, and much more.

A few months after the 2012 resolution, the government of Sri Lanka took the positive step of releasing a National Action Plan to implement its commitments regarding the recommendations of the LLRC report.  Unfortunately, the National Action Plan did not cover all the recommendations of the LLRC, just as the LLRC recommendations did not address all the outstanding issues of reconciliation and accountability.  Nevertheless, the National Action Plan included many steps that, if completed, would be helpful for the country.

Some have complained that the desire to see real and credible progress in these areas is either unfair or unrealistic.  It is true that reconciliation and accountability are often long and complicated processes that can take years to complete.

We understand this.  But it is important to start those processes as soon as possible, and to accomplish what it is possible quickly.  There were a number of items in the LLRC report and National Action Plan which could have, in fact, been achieved quite quickly.

Some items were subjects of intense international scrutiny.  For example, the government accepted LLRC recommendations to investigate the killing of five students in Trincomalee in January 2006 and the killing of seventeen  “Action Against Hunger” aid workers in August of the same year.  These killings were already the subject of a commission of inquiry, but now – more than six years later – there have been no perpetrators brought to justice.  The LLRC report also maps out a path to progress on investigating enforced and involuntary disappearances.  However, the Special Commissioner to conduct these investigations has not yet been appointed.

Even freedom of movement remains restricted, as we saw last month — when hundreds of family members of the disappeared were blocked in Vavuniya and prevented from coming to Colombo to ask what had been done to account for their loved ones.

I will note that the government has provided the diplomatic community with regular briefings on the status of implementing the recommendations of the LLRC National Action Plan.  We appreciate these efforts.  But, some of the most important steps in achieving real reconciliation have not yet moved ahead.  Government dialogue with the TNA on political devolution is crucial.

It is also important to continue to return property to rightful owners and to implement a process that resolves outstanding land claims issues.  And, of course, people must not only be able to return to their homes, they must be able to return to their livelihoods as well.  That means farmers must be able to go back to their farmlands, and fisherman must be given access to the sea.  The people of the former conflict zones must be able to live their lives without interference, as do other citizens of Sri Lanka.

So, at the beginning of 2013, the U.S. Government looked at what the government of Sri Lanka had undertaken to do under its own LLRC report.  We looked at the conditions around the country.  We compared those to the government’s commitments and stated goals.  We realized that not only were many of the concerns that led to the first resolution still there, but also, that in some ways the situation had deteriorated.

The U.S. then consulted widely with other countries.  We found a broad consensus that the international community should remain focused on the situation in Sri Lanka.  Many countries shared concerns about the pace of reconciliation and accountability.

Some have asked me what the U.S. means when we speak of “reconciliation” or “accountability.”

When we say reconciliation, we mean finding a way for all Sri Lankans to live together in peace, harmony, and security in a unified country…a country in which the democratic space exists for all to be able to express their views freely, and for all to share in the prosperity of the country in terms of access to land, employment, education, and so forth.  When we say accountability, we mean, identifying those responsible for committing abuses and imposing consequences for these acts or omissions.

Some form of credible investigation is in the interest of the government concerned.  For when there are serious allegations of human rights violations – whether a government likes it or not – those allegations will persist until they are credibly addressed.  We note reports that highlighted a Sri Lankan Army Commission of Inquiry report on actions undertaken in the final phase of the conflict.  We respectfully suggest that this report should be made public.

As Sri Lanka moves forward from the Human Rights Council session, we will look closely at what steps the government chooses to take in response to the resolution.

This brings us back to the original question: what happens next?  I would submit that this depends on the government of Sri Lanka.  The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ report dated February 11, 2013 reaffirmed a long-standing recommendation  for “an independent and credible international investigation” into alleged violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka.  The latest resolution took note of this call, and asks the Office of the High Commissioner to update the Council on Sri Lanka’s progress at the September 2013 session and present a comprehensive report in March 2014.  The latest resolution also encourages Sri Lanka’s government to respond to the eight outstanding requests by UN special procedures mandate holders.

As we examine next steps, we will renew our consideration of all mechanisms available, both in the Human Rights Council and beyond.  But it is important to emphasize that calls for reconciliation and accountability should not simply be seen as exhortations by the international community – reconciliation and accountability should be viewed as essential to ensuring a peaceful and prosperous future for the country.  History has shown that societies that do not adequately address reconciliation and accountability usually return to a conflict situation at some point down the road.  Thus, however difficult this process is, it is ultimately vital to the stability of Sri Lanka.

Let me close by reiterating that while we do have concerns about some recent developments here, our relationship with the people of Sri Lanka is enduring.  At the same time that we raise the concerns I have listed just now on the human rights and democratic governance front, we continue to contribute to the development and prosperity of Sri Lanka in a wide variety of ways, every day and throughout the country.

We continue with our academic support programs at the universities of Peradeniya, Ruhuna, and Jaffna.  We have civil society capacity building, youth empowerment, and English-language teaching programs in all regions of the country, as well as programs for the disabled.  We fund economic growth projects in the former conflict zones to expand livelihood opportunities, enhance economic productivity, and increase incomes.  We are working to revive agricultural production in the Northern Province, providing food security and support for newly resettled IDPs.  We support mine-awareness and demining programs, and work with the military on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness.  We support clean energy access and public-private alliances in aquaculture, horticulture, and industry.  We are funding the construction of a forensics lab within the Ministry of Justice.

Last Friday, I announced U.S. support for a labor inspection system for the Sri Lankan Labor Ministry to promote worker’s rights.  Later this month, we will offer a maritime law enforcement course to the Sri Lankan Coast Guard.  We have worked with other Ministries to protect vulnerable populations, including recent funding of a women’s shelter.

So you can see, by anyone’s standard, U.S. engagement with Sri Lanka remains robust and multifaceted.  Our US-Sri Lanka relationship is not limited to a single agenda, as some have claimed, but represents a truly multidimensional approach driven not by any short-term agenda but by long-term goals and partnerships. It is my sincere hope that this partnership with Sri Lanka can expand, even as the Human Rights Council resolution sends a strong signal from the international community that the government of Sri Lanka must do more to fulfill its obligations to its people.

We are now approaching Avurudda, the traditional New Year, at the end of this week.  Each year, this celebration brings the hope of new beginnings and fresh promise.  It also brings an Opportunity for Sri Lanka to recommit itself to reconciliation and accountability, and making sure all can enjoy a lasting peace.  Thank you, and I welcome any comments or questions you might have.

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