US awaits Sri Lanka action, despite rights groups’ warning

[TamilNet, Saturday, 29 May 2010, 12:26 GMT]
The United States will be “watching closely” Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s newly established ‘reconciliation commission’ to see if it lives up to Colombo’s claims, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake, said Friday. Shortly after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described as holding “promise” the body Sri Lanka has set up to investigate war crimes – and which international human rights groups have dismissed as a sham - Mr. Blake said “they’ve now just begun this process … It’s up to them now to prove that they will be able to take on all of these responsibilities.”

Quoting Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Blake said the US expected Sri Lanka’s commission “must be independent and impartial, their mandate has to enable them to fully investigate all of the allegations and to make public those recommendations … witness protection, all of those kind of things.”

“We’re going to be watching closely, and particularly on these issues involving the reconciliation commission. Because I think that’s a particularly hot-button issue not only in Sri Lanka, but in other countries around the world,” Mr. Blake said.

Ahead of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris’ meeting Friday with Mrs. Clinton, international human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) dismissed Colombo’s body and urged the United States to endorse and international investigation.

“Sri Lanka has geared up its propaganda machine to dissuade the United States from supporting an international investigation," said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at HRW. "Clinton should not accept this blatant attempt to avoid accountability, but instead should endorse an international investigation."

“By setting up a commission that won't investigate alleged crimes, Sri Lanka is publicly conceding that it has no intention of meeting its international obligations," Ms. Pearson said.

Amnesty International USA, in an oped published Thursday said “Sri Lanka's commissions of inquiry are a guarantee that there will be no justice and accountability for serious human rights abuses.”

“Since 1991, the Sri Lankan government has formed nine ad hoc commissions of inquiry to investigate enforced disappearances and a number of other human rights-related inquiries. These commissions of inquiry have lacked credibility and have delayed criminal investigations. While most, if not all, of these commissions of inquiry identified alleged perpetrators, very few prosecutions for human rights violations have resulted,” Amnesty said.

Asked if he had confidence in Sri Lanka, Assistant Secretary Blake said “Well, I don’t know. …We’ll have to see.”

Mr. Blake quoted Minister Peiris as saying Sri Lanka would live up to its expectations and noted: “But he also importantly said that if they’re not able to do so, that they would welcome assistance and advice from the United Nations to help them. And Secretary [Clinton] said that the UN can play a very, very important role based on its long experience there.”

Meanwhile, The Sunday Leader newspaper noted in a feature article on May 23 that Sri Lanka’s commission is headed by former Attorney General C. R. de Silva, who whilst in office was singled out for thwarting the functioning of the Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) which President Rajapakse had invited to oversee the work of yet another Commission of Inquiry he had set up to look into a handful of human rights abuses his government had selected.

In its concluding report, the IIGEP protested that it “has not been able to conclude, as required by the Presidential Invitation that the proceedings of the Commission has been transparent or have satisfied basic international norms and standards”, and as its first reason singled out Mr. de Silva: “Attorney General’s Department of Sri Lanka has played an inappropriate and impermissible role in the proceedings of the Commission.”

The State Department published the transcript of Assistant Secretary Blake’s full briefing, which focused on India-US relations, on

Extracts relating to Sri Lanka follow:

QUESTION: And a quick one on Sri Lanka: Is it all hunky-dory now? (Laughter.) There was a – because I remember the Secretary calling President Mahinda Rajapaksa and very angrily telling him that they would like a ceasefire. And there was even the Pentagon sort of getting ready to even transport some of the IDPs. But they were getting all that aid from China and Iran; they told the U.S. to take a hike, went on. So is everything hunky-dory now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: With respect to Sri Lanka, I would say that, as the Secretary herself said, that she had a very productive meeting with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Peiris. They had a chance to have a really extensive and productive review of all of the important issues that you’ve heard me talk about a lot – political reconciliation, accountability, the need to resettle the internally displaced people as quickly as possible, the need to improve the human rights situation. All of those were covered in a very good exchange between our two ministers.

I wouldn’t say everything’s hunky-dory. I think, as the minister himself would be the first to admit, they’re – they’ve now just begun this process now that the elections are over with in Sri Lanka, first the presidential elections that took place earlier this year, and more recently, the parliamentary elections.

So now that a new cabinet is in place, the president has a two-thirds majority in the Sri Lankan Parliament. The minister told the Secretary that he is really ready now to take some important actions. And so the Secretary – and he outlined what those actions are going to be. And the Secretary welcomed that, but she also said that we’re going to be watching closely, and particularly on these issues involving the reconciliation commission. Because I think that’s a particularly hot-button issue not only in Sri Lanka, but in other countries around the world.

And the minister helpfully said that they are – that the commission will have an investigatory role and that if, for any reason, this commission is found to have shortcomings, that they would welcome the assistance and the advice of the UN to help remedy those shortcomings. So I think that we’re in a good position, but now is the time for Sri Lanka to deliver and to proceed with its commission.

QUESTION: You know, Mr. Secretary, in India and in the United States, when we contest elections and if you lose, we don’t put you on – in the jail or court martial. That’s what happened in Sri Lanka, what many people are – including many think tankers and also human rights organizations are asking. Is this the case?

And also, if you are going to discuss the minister’s visit to Washington with the visiting Indian delegations?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Okay. I’ll get to that in a second. On the question of General Fonseka, who was the opposition candidate during the presidential elections, as was rightly noted, he was arrested shortly thereafter, and there are charges pending against him – court martial charges in two separate, different cases.

We haven’t seen the specifics of the charges, but we have consistently stressed that it is important that General Fonseka’s rights be respected and that he be accorded a full due process. And we welcome the fact that the Sri Lankan Government has said that whatever decision is made in the military courts will be reviewed in the civilian courts, so that there will be greater transparency about not only the charges, but the process that has been followed in these cases. So, again, we’ll follow the process of these cases very carefully.

With respect to whether Sri Lanka will come up, I don’t know. We’ll have to see. I mean, I think probably in terms of the region, the most important focus will be Afghanistan, because of course, that’s a very, very high priority for both of our countries. India, I think, is following very closely, particularly this reconciliation process, as we all are. So I imagine that that will probably be more of a focus than Sri Lanka.

QUESTION: It’s been about a year. I think Tamils in the United States are marking a year since the government … took over the Tamil areas with many, many, many civilian casualties. A lot of different conflicting information has been reported about what the U.S.’s position is on, you know, the role that outsiders should play in looking at whether war crimes are committed there. I mean, what’s the real position? Do outsiders have a role in that? Should they?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think in the first instance, we always look to host governments to play the leading role. And so the Secretary today welcomed the Government of Sri Lanka’s decision to establish a reconciliation commission. Ambassador Rice had made a similar statement two or three weeks ago welcoming that commission, and Ambassador Rice laid out a series of things that would – that past practice and past experience has shown would help ensure the success of that commission.

And the Secretary also went through those in some detail today. I can refer you to the transcript of her remarks today, but she talked about how, for example, commission members have – must be independent and impartial, their mandate has to enable them to fully investigate all of the allegations and to make public those recommendations, they’ve got to – the potential witnesses have got to have witness protection, all of those kind of things. So the Secretary went through in great detail all of those things privately, but then also in her subsequent press conference. So --

QUESTION: Do you have confidence that they’re --


QUESTION: -- that the Sri Lankan Government is going to be able to (inaudible) itself?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We’ll have to see. It’s up to them now to prove that they will be able to take on all of these responsibilities. The minister expressed confidence that they will be able to do so. But he also importantly said that if they’re not able to do so, that they would welcome assistance and advice from the United Nations to help them. And the Secretary said that the UN can play a very, very important role based on its long experience there.

QUESTION: If this turns out to be a sham, is the U.S. prepared to step in and do something or to say something?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, let’s give them a chance and then we’ll – before we start automatically assuming it’s going to be a sham. So --

QUESTION: So you’re not calling right now for a foreign, independent, outside investigation to come in?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We are not. We are not.

QUESTION: You don’t support Ban Ki-moon’s idea that he should set one up right away? You think that’s a bad idea?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I haven’t seen exactly what – he and the [Sri Lankan] foreign minister met earlier this week, but I haven’t seen any public statements about exactly what he’s going to do, because there have been various reports about that. And so let’s wait and see what the UN itself intends to do before we start making any pronouncements on that.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Sri Lanka ended 25 years of bloody war and brought peace, at least now, stability, and working on bringing both community together. And they have brought to justice or (inaudible) this most wanted terrorist and LTTE was banned by India, U.S., and of course, many places – UN. My question is that – is there a lesson for the U.S. to learn from Sri Lanka fighting war in Afghanistan, bringing Usama bin Ladin or his (inaudible) to justice?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think there’s any lessons to be learned there, no. I think the situations are so different between Sri Lanka and Afghanistan that trying to make any kind of tortured comparison really isn’t of much use.

External Links:
HP: Sec. Clinton's shot at uncovering justice for Sri Lanka's war crimes
BostonGlobe: Probe war crimes in Sri Lanka
ICG: War Crimes in Sri Lanka
Amnesty: Tell the UN to investigate war crimes in Sri Lanka


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