By Dharisha Bastians
Visiting State Department officials insisted that accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka continues to be a key focus for the US Government, but defended their apparent focus on economic growth and investment on a two-day visit to the island, saying peace would not be sustainable in the country without a peace dividend.
Concerns have mounted about the Government’s commitment to implementing the Geneva resolution it co-sponsored last year and the US Government’s seemingly softening positions on truth and justice processes in the island. But the visiting State Department officials said they were being realistic about the nature of the country’s reconciliation challenges. “But it’s also important to give credit to those who are clearly trying to create a different future for this country,” US Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Tom Malinowski told a press roundtable in Colombo last night.
“This trip was no different from any other visits,” Malinowski insisted, after the two officials spent two days touring the Colombo Port and a private flour mill in Trincomalee and speaking about economic ties between the US and Sri Lanka in addition to their political engagements.
US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Biswal who is on her sixth visit to Colombo told reporters that for Sri Lanka to move forward on reform and reconciliation it must also move forward economically and that was ‘driving’ her focus on economic opportunity. “For people to be able to move in a direction to make decision and take the steps, they must also see what comes of going down this path. What we in the US firmly believe is that a united and reconciled Sri Lanka is also going to be a more prosperous Sri Lanka,” Biswal observed.
The visiting officials said the US was committed to continued engagement on truth and justice in Sri Lanka, making regular visits to determine ‘what is moving and what is not’. The US officials urged the Government to address the expectations of the people on reconciliation, reform and economic prosperity with a sense of urgency.
Assistant Secretary Biswal said the US Government was seeing a Government in Sri Lanka that was committed to be accountable to its people and its press, even though frustrations were growing about the pace of progress.
“In my conversations with people in Sri Lanka, I see impatience and frustration, but I don’t see despair. There is hope, but also anxiety that this hope will not be realised,” Biswal told reporters yesterday.
Biswal drew stark comparisons with her visit to the island in 2014, when she said she had encountered great despair in Jaffna. “Many people thought the country would go back to conflict. Across Sri Lanka there was a sense that the Government was not responsive or accountable to its people,” Biswal said, referring to what she called ‘dark days’ for the island.
Assistant Secretary Biswal recalled that before January 2015, since bilateral engagement with the Government of Sri Lanka was not working, the US Government had used other international forums to encourage progress on reconciliation. “We were put in a position where the only real avenue we had was to apply pressure through international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council,” she explained. “So there are different ways to encourage progress,” Biswal said, responding to a question about whether the US was toning down its pressure on accountability in Sri Lanka.
Malinowski said the US understands where the scepticism and suspicion was coming from since there was a long history in Sri Lanka of decades of promises not fulfilled. The mere fact that the Government has made an ambitious and principled set of commitments, was not enough to convince people who had lived that history, Malinowski noted.
“We want those people to know that we know that history too, and we are not taking anything for granted,” he said.
Assistant Secretary Malinowski who met with the Defence Secretary and the tri forces commanders during his visit said that one of the most important discussions the US was having was with the military. “We had very candid conversations about the steps that would be required to restore a full military to military relationship with the US, including the need for the armed forces to support the accountability process – recognising that this would be a difficult process for some in the military,” he explained.
Responding to questions regarding the Government’s pushback on the question of foreign judges on a special court to prosecute alleged war crimes, Malinowski said that the Geneva Resolution ‘fully respects’ the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. The Government would determine the structure and composition of the court, he explained. “The Government of Sri Lanka also made a commitment to exercise that sovereignty within certain parameters in ways that could include international participation at various levels,” Malinowski asserted. He said the commitment was made because there was an erosion of confidence in the courts of Sri Lanka. “The commitment was made with the understanding that this whole process of accountability is aimed at winning back that confidence,” Malinowski said.
International participation in the court, was not a remarkable concept, he said. “Sri Lanka itself has contributed judicial expertise to other countries and it has perhaps benefited from that.”