US Ambassador to the UN tells Daily FT that while Washington may have softened its tone on Sri Lanka and believes steps taken by new Government in Colombo warrants the shift, the US remains concerned and alert about the human rights climate in Sri Lanka
By Dharisha Bastians
Q: During your visit to the north, which key issues were flagged as being still unaddressed by the Sri Lankan Government?
A: The issue of demilitarisation. The recognition that the size of the military presence had become somewhat smaller, but that it needed to still come way down. There was an expression of the sense of urgency about the size of the military presence coming down.
Two, and very related, giving the land back to the people who had lived on it for many years and related issues, but I met not only the local officials but also individuals who were heading households who didn’t have access to their land and were desperate to get it back. In one case, the woman who was summoned by the military 34 times because there was a structure there that the military wanted to destroy. So they wouldn’t let her live in the land but they were not moving quickly to destroy the structure, so she kept getting displaced from her land and kept having to go back.
I think third, accountability was a very prominent issue raised because of the vast numbers of missing family members of the people who are up there, so I heard about that. All forms of accountability were raised, but finding the people and then the other forms of accountability for the people who were involved in their abduction or killing. But actually just accounting for the missing seemed to be a real concern. Everyone seemed to either have a missing family member or know someone with a missing family member, all the families there seemed to have been affected in some way.
The other thing is economic development. The Budget had just come out and people were still going over it, but there was a real belief on the part of people there that because of all the damage in the war, there should be additional allocations to the north in order to reconstruct. I can’t speak for the Finance Minister’s Budget, but I think that it is true that across the country there are people who are craving faster and more robust economic development. They want the Government to catalogue that and they want the United States to energise foreign direct investment and trade and create more jobs. People just want to be able to feed their families and have homes that they are not going to get thrown out of and to walk in safety on the streets.
Q: Were there concerns raised about ongoing sexual and gender based violence in the north during your meetings with the women’s groups?
A: The short answer is yes. They did raise the concerns. I think the concern is that the crimes are being carried out, but the impunity issue also came out. There wasn’t a lot of confidence that if something bad like that happened, the perpetrator would be held accountable. We met one woman who amazingly had been sexually abused in 2008 at the tail end of the war. She had been pulled away and raped I think by several soldiers in the Sri Lankan military. Amazingly she had decided to bring a case against them and she won the case and the soldiers are in jail for 25 years.
Her husband had been very supportive of her bringing the case and that is amazing from a cultural standpoint, but since the judgment said the soldiers were ordered to pay some kind of fine, and because the community thought she was going to get all this money and thinks she has received this money, they are harassing her and intimidating her. So she said her life has got so much worse since the conviction and she hasn’t got a penny from the soldiers and her husband now is behaving very differently towards her and her children are stigmatised. So there is the crime itself and then there is the whole pipeline of justice which needs to clearly be strengthened dramatically.
Q: Your last visit was in 2010, what has changed?
A: It is different from 2010. In 2010 when I went up there, there were checkpoints and soldiers. You couldn’t turn left or right and not see an armed presence. The Governor was in the military itself. So there is a clear shift to civilian leadership and a much more discreet military presence. But the fear is still there. The history is still there and fear is still there and until the justice system really starts delivering – and it did in some ways for this woman, but through the full pipeline – I think the fear will be there.
Q: How did Government representatives react, the Governor and other officials, to these concerns?
A: First I asked him how he knew about what is going on in the community, because sometimes Government officials are often in a bubble. He said they had just instituted a practice of opening the doors to the public on Wednesday. I don’t know how that process is going, but he said he really wants to know what was going on. He didn’t spin us. He wasn’t saying ‘we fixed everything, women are treated with respect and perpetrators are being held accountable’. He described the huge number of issues that have to be tackled. And an inherited legacy of neglect. Not just a legacy of suffering, but not a lot of curiousness about tackling these issues that left families feeling so invisible to the Government.
One thing that was interesting when I talked to the war widows, when they described their land being taken or their husbands being missing, and to all of them I asked, have you brought a case forward, have you talked to the Government – and they looked at me like I was crazy. It’s just going to take a long time for local people to believe that the Governor and the people he works with are there for them. I think that you would call it muscle memory, that reflex to say ‘let me go and complain to my local official’ – people just don’t think that way yet. I think that it was refreshing that he said that they were only just getting started. He was also talking about the need for business investment and trying to revitalise the private sector because livelihoods were so important.
He was very open about how much they haven’t accomplished yet, and he said they were trying to get a meaningful dialogue going, but that they can’t claim a huge victory on it yet, and that there was a trust deficit that they were trying to overcome.
So that was the refreshing thing. It felt like we were on the same planet. Seeing the same facts, hearing the same stories. Like I said, no spin.
I think the Chief Minister notably is frustrated by the pace of action. So in my meeting with him I told him that most of the issues that he was raising, we raised too, and that we were very concerned about. But I think it’s also important to note that some land has been given back, that some families have returned to their homes, that there is a military commitment to shrinking the presence much more substantially, that there is a consultation process happening – sometimes it feels like more in Colombo than elsewhere – but on the accountability issues.
So it’s true that there is no instant gratification. But I think you need both strategic patience and strategic impatience. If you become too patient you can really miss an opportunity here to get reforms from the Government that are really going to make people’s lives better. If you are too impatient, you can somehow miss that life is really different, in the north and the south and in the west, that the whole political tenor here has changed, and that the objectives of the Government are ones the Chief Minister and the Governor and everybody shares.
Q: Was there any negative reaction from the local groups or civil society in the north towards the US because of the developments in September at the UN Human Rights Council?
A: I didn’t hear that, but I don’t think that means that view does not exist. Maybe the Chief Minister wanted reassurance that we really wanted to see accountability and I was able to give that to him. But maybe people were being polite to me. (Laughs).
Q: You also visited the Uthayan Newspaper. Because we are talking about accountability and impunity, are you satisfied about the measures being taken to ensure there is some kind of end to impunity for attacks on journalists?
A: It is a serious concern. First, it was incredibly moving to see the computers that had been shot up and the bullet holes in the walls and more importantly the pictures of all the individuals who had risked their lives, not only journalists but riding a motorcycle to deliver papers to a neighbouring town, or a guard outside just doing nothing other than night duty. So it really was a moving visit and it brought out just how vulnerable journalists have been in this country for too long.
Second thing, talking to the journalists – not just at Uthayan but others at a roundtable later – there was a very clear message sent, and I don’t think anyone was being polite – which is that they feel totally different. That the voice inside their head that existed for so long – ‘if I write this, will I have to look over my shoulder when I am heading home?’ – that voice has faded. However, they drew very clear distinctions – they said ‘we are not being attacked anymore for what we write, but because those who attacked us have not been punished or investigated even, we will not be able to feel fully safe.’ Because it is entirely possible that this culture could come back, and frankly the killers of these people could be at large.
In my meetings with senior Government officials, this is a point that I have been able to convey and relay. I said press freedom is alive and well in Sri Lanka again, that’s great. But without moving forward on some of these cases – you can’t solve all the cases at once. But what the journalists said to me was if one of these cases on the wall, and we talked about which case would be a better case to bring – we really got into those details. And that is the same message the US is delivering. You can’t solve everything at once. But you can make a dent in impunity by moving forward and investigating cases and making those who might think again about terrorising journalists – it might make them think twice. And it would also offer some solace to the families of those who died and who have felt completely ignored in the processes afterwards.
An investigation into one journalist’s death in the north would powerfully reinforce the other investigations that are happening in Colombo on the other cases. Even though it is starting very slowly and not nearly as quickly as anyone would want, but that there is now justice that applies to all communities and press freedom is going to be something that is enforced, rather than something that just exists in the air. It is something that requires support from the State, and not just restraint from the State. I have made that point in all my meetings.
Q: There is a sense here that the US has been a little too quick to embrace the democratic changes that are taking place here. And while there has been change, there is also a fear that the US attitude could lull the Government into complacency about how much progress is left to be made. For instance, the UN Working Group on Disappearances complained that families who had spoken to them had been intimidated and questioned after their visit. This points to a systematic problem, like many others that remain unaddressed by the new administration. How would you respond to the charge that the US has been too quick to judge the new Government?
A: I’d say, we pull no punches. We pull no punches on contemporary human rights concerns, on legacy human rights issues. We recognise that to make many of the reforms that have been committed to will be politically challenging and have been politically challenging. And we do think it is important, not just in Sri Lanka, but in general, that when we see something good that happens, that we express our appreciation for something good that happens. So it is appropriate to look at how much land that has not been returned, but for every family that has got that land back, it has been a very important day when that happened. So to pretend that nothing has changed would be a mistake.
Many of the concerns that we have about militarisation, land return, impunity, we are raising these issues routinely. We feel that the fact that Sri Lanka co-sponsored the resolution was not a reflection of us changing or softening. That was actually a reflection of the Sri Lankan Government having changed so much in a relatively short period of time.
Some of the examples of our vigilance and our caution are, for instance, the kind of military relationship we had before the last administration necessitated the suspension of a lot of different programmes. We haven’t yet made a lot of changes in that area. We would like to. We would like to see a relationship with the military that is strong and reinforces all of our shared regional security interests. But we have made very clear that that kind of progress is dependent on progress on accountability, on demilitarisation and with time also on security sector reform. So I think it’s true that our tone is much more positive, but I think that the steps taken by the Government so far warrants that tone.
I understand why Sri Lankan society and the victims of violence would be nervous that they are going to be disappointed, because there has been a lot of disappointment in this country. But the one thing they can count on is that we are not going to lose sight of the kind of reforms that will fuel reconciliation, deepen the democracy that exists here, reverse some of the erosions of the checks and balances that occurred under the last administration. And also critically, also bring about economic return to Sri Lankans.
Sometimes we will be doing a lot of things privately that won’t be as evident. Sometimes we will be very public about it. But I want to assure the Sri Lankan people that our objectives have been consistent over time. We want to see a stable, unified, prosperous, strong democracy, where different communities can reconcile after a very difficult period. That was true when the last administration was in power. Of course we were forced to suspend military assistance and our economic relationship was dialled way back, we didn’t have high-level visitors. Now we are trying to increase our assistance to the country with two cabinet level visits in a short period of time. President Obama is very focused on this.
We have a much more positive tone but our objectives really are the same and nothing has changed. And our tone and our engagement will be dictated by the facts on the ground. We know from our own experience that you wish you could just snap your fingers and make the Parliament approve a statute, but sometimes it takes a little more jockeying. We are alert to that but it doesn’t make us stop pushing for the set of policy objectives that we think would enhance Sri Lanka’s prospects for democracy, stability, reconciliation and prosperity.