(Text of Opening Statement delivered by US ambassador to Sri Lanka Michele.J.Sison to the Sri Lanka Foreign Correspondents Association at the American Center in Colombo on April 3rd 2014)
April 3, 2014
Thank you for inviting me to speak tonight. Last year, you also invited me to speak in early April, and I described the long relationship between the United States and the people of Sri Lanka, as well as the broad spectrum of activities and engagements that characterize our relationship. None of that has changed.
Amb Sison visits Most Venerable Mahanayake Thero Malwatte Chapter to offer best wishes for the #SriLanka New Year-pic via-twitter.com/USEMBSL
I also spoke to you last April about U.S. concerns regarding the lack of reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka, ongoing human rights issues in the north and east, and attacks against journalists and religious minorities.
Unfortunately, those concerns also remain unchanged.
The United States remains firmly committed to working with the people of Sri Lanka to build a future in which all of Sri Lanka’s citizens can achieve their aspirations.
At the 25th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the international community addressed urgent human rights issues throughout the world.
The United States successfully led two resolutions at this session: one that renewed the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, and another focusing on justice and accountability for human rights abuses and violations in Sri Lanka while promoting reconciliation, democratic governance, and respect for human rights.
For a third consecutive year, the UN Human Rights Council, by a wide margin, has strongly urged the Government of Sri Lanka to address these issues. This year’s resolution enjoyed the support of a core group of member states, and was co-sponsored by 42 states.
For the first time, the resolution requests a comprehensive investigation, to be undertaken by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes committed in Sri Lanka, by both sides, during the 2002-2009 period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report.
In addition, it requests that the OHCHR monitor, assess, and report on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including any relevant domestic processes dealing with reconciliation and accountability.
We encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to take heed, to fulfill its own obligations to its people, and to take meaningful, concrete steps on reconciliation and accountability. This reflects genuine concern on the part of the United States for all communities in Sri Lanka. We also encourage the Government to cooperate fully with UN mechanisms.
To those who have accused the U.S. over the past few months of “targeting” Sri Lanka, I want to point out that this was only one of numerous multilateral responses at the UN Human Rights Council to the human rights situation in a particular country.
At this session alone, one of three annual sessions, the UNHRC took action on human rights in Iran, Syria, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Burma, Libya, Mali, Guinea, Haiti, and South Sudan. The United States also led 41 states in expressing concern at the situation in Ukraine, and we joined a cross-regional statement on Egypt.
As we do at every UNHRC session, the United States expressed concern about human rights issues all over the world, including Venezuela, China, and Cuba.
I have also heard the claim that the resolution sparks division in the country. Sadly, those divisions existed long before any UN resolutions. But I do want to point out that the resolution passed last week also reaffirms a commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.
There has been criticism that this resolution is somehow “against’ (quote/unquote) the Sri Lankan people. It most certainly is not.
As Secretary of State John Kerry noted, this resolution supports the Sri Lankan people, in recognition of the resilience they have shown after years of war and their yearning for democracy and prosperity. As Secretary Kerry also said, “the time to pursue lasting peace and prosperity is now; justice and accountability cannot wait.”
The resolution represents the international community’s unwavering support to help prevent a return to violence and to ensure a secure, unified, and prosperous Sri Lanka for the future. Our ultimate goals are ones shared by friends of Sri Lanka: stability and long-lasting peace on the island. These are also goals shared by Sri Lankan citizens across all communities.
The end of the conflict presented an unprecedented opportunity to move past the divisions that have existed in this country for far too long, and to bring people together to heal the wounds of war.
As a friend of Sri Lanka, the United States does not want the story of Sri Lanka to be a story of missed opportunities.
I think few will disagree with a goal as simple and as important as that. The question, however, is how to achieve it?
The resolution asks the High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into allegations of serious violations of human rights by both parties – I emphasize, both parties – during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
There have been many questions about why the time frame of the investigation was limited to this period.
It is not because the international community only cares about what happened between 2002 and 2009. In fact, an independent and credible investigation into all actions, by all parties, for the entire period of the conflict would be good for Sri Lanka.
This resolution, and its call for an independent international investigation, does not in any way preclude – and is, in fact, meant to support – a genuine, credible, and transparent domestic process.
Indeed, the High Commissioner’s investigation can and should support the government’s own efforts to fulfil the recommendations of the LLRC.
The resolution also calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its public commitments, including on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population.
Sri Lanka has a long history of international engagement, and has been a member of the United Nations since 1955. The broad support for the resolution passed last week at the Human Rights Council in Geneva is an indicator of concern for Sri Lanka’s people that cuts across the geographic regions.
In fact, one might ask why countries as diverse as Argentina, Macedonia, and Sierra Leone – three nations in three different regions of the world with very different histories and heritages – all supported the Sri Lanka resolution?
The answer is simple: all three countries have wrestled in very real terms with the legacies of conflict. All three have seen the devastating effects such conflict can bring. All three strongly voiced what steps must be taken to heal societal wounds, as did a number of nations that supported the Sri Lanka resolution during their explanation of vote commentary last week in Geneva.
The resolution, of course, is not just about what happened during the conflict.
The resolution also urges the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate all alleged attacks on journalists, human rights defenders, members of religious minority groups and other members of civil society, as well as on temples, mosques and churches. Additionally, we echo the High Commissioner’s concerns regarding the increase of sexual harassment and violence against women in the former conflict zones.
The resolution urges the Government to hold perpetrators of such attacks to account and to take steps to prevent such attacks in the future.
Impunity is contagious, and there has been an alarming surge in attacks against members of religious minorities in Sri Lanka.
For example, an incident which occurred on March 9 at the Good News Church in Mahiyangana in Badulla District is similar to dozens of others that have been reported by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. While services were in progress, a mob gathered outside the pastor’s premises and began interrogating him. Although the police were alerted, officers arrived at the scene only after the pastor had been physically assaulted and the mob had dispersed.
And just last week we heard reports that on March 26, two petrol bombs were thrown at the Dambulla mosque by unknown persons. Although the police took statements, no one has been arrested in connection with the attack.
These events in Badulla and Dambulla are just the latest in an alarming string of incidents throughout the country in which perpetrators are not brought to justice.
The UNHRC resolution expresses the international community’s concern about the rise in these attacks against religious minorities, as I have mentioned, and urges the Government to hold perpetrators of such attacks to account and to take steps to prevent such attacks in the future.
I also note our serious concern about reprisals against those who meet with visiting diplomats and UN officials, or those who traveled to Geneva to meet with various delegations during the month of March.
It is disturbing to see this targeting of human rights defenders who have devoted their careers and lives to promoting and defending the rights of their fellow Sri Lankan citizens.
We were concerned to learn that last weekend, an NGO program organized for journalists in Polonnaruwa on “Using Media as a Tool for Addressing Issues of Inequality” — a reconciliation theme — was shut down due to threats.
The harassment of those who support the quest for reconciliation, justice, accountability, and respect for human rights and democratic governance sends a chilling effect across Sri Lanka’s vibrant civil society, and undermines Sri Lanka’s proud democratic traditions.
Even as there were discussions in Geneva about the need to protect human rights defenders, two human rights defenders were detained under the anti-terrorism law and questioned for over two days before being released.
The Sri Lankan government has responded that some of these actions are in response to a resurgence of terrorism.
No one is saying that a government does not have the responsibility to combat terrorism to protect its citizens.
In fact, the U.S. helped the government and people of Sri Lanka in every way we could to try to end the LTTE’s reign of terror, which included brutal LTTE suicide bombings and assassinations.
The United States was at the forefront in formally designating the LTTE a terrorist organization; this designation played a key role in helping dry up the LTTE’s overseas support networks.
The LTTE remains on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organization list to this day.
Just last week, a federal court in Brooklyn prosecuted an individual for supporting the LTTE, and he was sentenced to prison.
We know that families and communities all over Sri Lanka suffered terribly during these many long years of violence.
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. The United States, too, has faced terrorism, and we know how it can tear at the fabric of state and society.
An equally important challenge, however – one which 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.
Reconciliation is a lengthy process; it must be started in earnest as soon as possible.
We try at the U.S. Embassy to play a helpful role in reconciliation.
We are supporting a number of Sri Lankan civil society efforts in this regard. Not all such work needs to happen around a conference table, however.
For example, I’ll be traveling later this week to Kandy to host our first U.S. Ambassador’s Cup Cricket Tournament, bringing the American Corner Youth Group from Jaffna to play with the American Corner Youth Group from Kandy.
These goodwill efforts to promote mutual understanding among youth are important, we believe.
As I’ve noted, we have strong, important, and long-standing ties between our two countries.
The United States upholds its commitment to the people of Sri Lanka through a broad relationship that extends to economic development, education, access to justice, and other activities island-wide.
Since Sri Lanka’s independence, we have worked through USAID to provide over 2 billion dollars in assistance.
Today, USAID livelihoods projects are creating thousands of jobs. They are focused on especially vulnerable populations, in particular those households headed by women.
In addition, our USAID economic growth projects are helping provide the groundwork for sustainable economic development.
The U.S. and Sri Lanka are strong trading partners, and signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, a “TIFA,” in 2002.
Now in its 12th year, the TIFA talks continue to be an important forum for bilateral trade and investment discussions.
We engage in the “TIFA Talks” to expand market access, increase trade promotion efforts, protect intellectual property rights, address sector-specific challenges, and expand technical cooperation between Sri Lanka and the United States.
Meanwhile, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, an independent U.S. government agency, is working with investors to expand its activities in Sri Lanka and has a team visiting Colombo this week.
You may also have seen that last month we helped facilitate the launch of the All World Network’s “Sri Lanka 25,” which will encourage growth by highlighting Sri Lanka’s most innovative entrepreneurs and companies.
We believe that creating economic opportunity must go hand in hand with political reconciliation.
In terms of military to military engagement, the U.S. maintains maritime security, peacekeeping training, disaster response, and educational support programs. All dialogue on these issues includes a focus on human rights and rule of law aspects, as well.
We also continue to be the largest supporter of humanitarian demining.
On the education front, we have American scholars and teaching fellows at the Universities of Peradeniya, Jaffna, and Kelaniya.
We are teaching English to secondary school students all over the country: in Kandy, Polonnaruwa, Matara, Tissamaharama, Tangalle, Mullataivu, Killinocchchi, Mannar, Beruwela, Mathugama, Negombo, and Batticaloa.
We have also established and expanded youth clubs to foster leadership and life skills for the next generation and will be bringing U.S. basketball players to coach in both Colombo and Matara later this month.
Through USAID, we support the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the Legal Aid Commission to help ensure all Sri Lankans have access to justice.
There is so much more in terms of engagement. Just last month, the U.S. Forest Service visited Sri Lanka to discuss areas for future collaboration with local stakeholders.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of U.S. activities in Sri Lanka, rather, it is meant to illustrate the active outreach of the U.S. Mission to Sri Lankans all across the island.
This U.S. outreach to and engagement with the Sri Lankan people goes on each week, each month.
The U.S. and Sri Lanka have a longstanding partnership dating back to this country’s independence. This friendship is based on our shared democratic traditions and strong economic and cultural ties.
The U.S. and all others who supported the Sri Lanka resolution at the UN Human Rights Council sent a clear message that the international community is committed to working with the Government of Sri Lanka to promote greater peace, stability, and prosperity for all citizens of Sri Lanka.
Thank you, and I would welcome the chance to answer any questions you might have for me.