Transcript of press conference by Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Refugees
July 27, 2009 | Galadari Hotel | Colombo
I have just completed a short visit to Sri Lanka in which I visited Manik Farm in Vavuniya, where over 200,000 of the 280,000 persons recently displaced in Sri Lanka are now located, and met with President Rajapaksa, as well as Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, Justice Minister Milinda Moragoda and other senior officials.
I first want to thank officials of the Government of Sri Lanka for their hospitality, and their generous efforts to facilitate my visit to Manik Farm.
The United States has provided over fifty million dollars for humanitarian assistance in Sri Lanka in 2009, and I was here to observe the state of the humanitarian effort, as well as to examine ways to further support effective relief and equitable and sustainable recovery.
Working in collaboration with local and international partners, the Sri Lankan authorities face the formidable task of providing food, shelter, and healthcare to some 280,000 displaced persons, while at the same time facilitating returns in conditions of safety and dignity. And the United States welcomes the sustained efforts of relief providers, both from the Sri Lankan government and from local and international organizations, to address the critical needs of this very large community. For example, in recent days and weeks, serious efforts have been made to decongest the sites and improve sanitary conditions.
At the same time, the United States remains deeply concerned about a range of issues where further progress is essential. In particular, the vast majority of displaced persons remain confined to camps, and my visit to Manik Farm – and my conversations with displaced persons – underscored for me the hardships they are enduring. Moreover, there remain burdensome limitations on access to those camps for those international humanitarian organizations and others who are in a position to ameliorate the conditions faced by these victims of conflict.
I had long discussions on these issues with all my interlocutors, and I was encouraged to learn that significant and substantial returns will take place over the next month, in the districts of Mannar, Vavuniya, parts of Kilinochchi, as well as other parts of Sri Lanka. Moreover, officials told me they are determined to strongly support development and the overall well-being of the populations in all the affected areas. The United States of America welcomes these commitments, and I appreciated the Sri Lankan government’s invitation to me to return shortly to observe the process of return and recovery, which I fully intend to do.
The Government of the United States believes the focus now must be on the prompt return of the displaced in safety and dignity, and we want to support and accelerate this process. To this end, I am pleased to announce a U.S. contribution of eight million dollars in support of return, recovery and the resumption of a normal and more productive life for the many tens of thousands who were forced to flee their homes. As is the case with all such assistance we provide, we will seek to encourage the involvement of local communities in the design and implementation of projects.
I am asking Rebecca Cohn, the USAID Mission director, to say a few words about this assistance, and then I will be pleased to take your questions.
Statement by Rebecca Cohn
Director of USAID Sri Lanka
As the Assistant Secretary said, the U.S. government and USAID are committed to helping the people and communities of the North return to normalcy as quickly and safely as possible. The funding we’ve announced this evening will support international organizations, such as UNHCR, as well as NGOs who are longstanding partners in Sri Lanka. These projects will be designed with the feedback and participation of the communities they will serve, which will ensure the success of these efforts.
This new funding will support the early return of people to their original communities by improving their living conditions and helping to restore their livelihoods as soon as possible upon their return home.
We will help improve their living conditions by providing shelter materials so that families can build or rebuild their homes. We will also help clean and repair wells, and provide new water storage tanks so communities have clean, safe water to drink.
In order to restore livelihoods, the US Government will provide necessities such as nets and small boats for fishermen, and tools and seeds for farmers. We will also give grants to help people start small businesses that will generate income and provide needed services for the community.
In addition to this new $8 million donation, USAID is also providing nearly thirty million dollars of food aid to the World Food Program this year alone. This food can also support those people returning to their homes by providing them up to six months of dry rations.
I’ll now turn this back over to Assistant Secretary Schwartz for your questions. Thank you.
Now I will take questions.
MTV: Sir, the United States Government did adopt a hard line position with regard to Sri Lanka’s human rights record in the past few months. Has that position changed, sir?
A/S Schwartz: I think the United States Government has substantial and sustained concerns about human rights issues in Sri Lanka and human rights and humanitarian issues, and those concerns are longstanding. They are and will continue to be the subject of extensive dialogue between our governments and they are extremely important. We also recognize that the way any government manages human rights and humanitarian issues has a profound impact on the prospects for reconciliation between communities.
Unidentified: I would like to know whether the unwillingness of the United States to approve the IMF loan to Sri Lanka during the past months had anything to do with the humanitarian concerns in Sri Lanka.
A/S Schwartz: As you know, the United States abstained on that vote and this is really an issue for my colleagues in the Department of the Treasury, but let me do my best to fashion a response that is consistent with what I know our policy has been. First, the United States has supported the efforts on economic reform by the Government of Sri Lanka. But I believe that the United States identified a range of implementation risks surrounding this proposal, which informed the decision for an abstention, but since this contribution is made in tranches, the issue will remain under observation on the part of the United States. In relation to your specific question: any program of economic reform or any economic program of the government will include a substantial reconstruction component for the North, and the government’s capacity over time to sustain the engagement and support for that economic development activity from donors will be very much related to how the humanitarian situation is addressed.
Socialist Website: What is your assessment about the conditions faced by people in IDP camps? Are you satisfied with the present conditions they face?
A/S Schwartz: I think that when dealing with refugee camps, under any circumstances, people are living in conditions that are not of their making and not of their choosing. I think you come out of a camp and you identify ways that the care of the people in the camp can be improved. I do believe that basic assistance is being provided by Sri Lankan authorities and international partners, and I think their efforts are serious and substantial. At the same time, there are important areas on which progress can be made in the short-term and I think, as I said in my opening statement, there are a range of humanitarian assistance providers who would like to partner with the government in the camps and have had some difficulty on access, and I think the more those issues can be resolved, the better it will be for the people in the camps. Secondly, there is a bit of a dearth of information in the camps, and I have discussed [this] with the government and they understood completely the concerns I raised about the ability of people in the camps to have some understanding of what’s happening. People in those situations can endure a lot, but they can endure a lot more easily when they have some sense of what the end game is, and so we discussed better provision of information to people in the camps. And then the other concern that I raised in my prepared remarks, the fact that the vast majority of people in the camps are confined to the camps. I discussed that concern with the government and, as I say, I was encouraged to learn of plans for substantial, significant returns over the next month, and we all need to continue to be helpful on those issues.
Lanka Business Online: According to UN figures there are approximately 660,000 refugees in Sri Lanka, going through the whole. Is the US contemplating giving any development aid? And if you are giving any development aid, will it come with strings attached?
A/S Schwartz: The focus of my announcement was really on recovery and assistance relating to returns. I may ask Rebecca Cohn to talk very briefly about USAID programs, but let me say on your question about conditionality: I think when we see conditionality in legislation—you may have different views about conditionality—but there can be no debate, in my view, over the fact that what it usually represents is concern by members of the US Congress about human rights and the humanitarian situation. These are good faith concerns. I think the way to address them is what we’ve done with this trip—that is, engage in a sustained and productive dialogue with government officials on moving forward on these sets of issues. Becky, would you like to say a word about general USAID programs here?
Cohn: Sure. I think people know that USAID has been in Sri Lanka for 50 years and we’ve had many success stories that we can take a lot of credit for—the stock exchange, the national agribusiness council, our work with the private sector. Currently, we’re doing a lot of work in the East, trying to grow businesses so that people have income and their families are happy. We’re working in dairy development. We are doing quite a lot in the East. In the North there are clearly many development challenges. We would want to watch closely how the government facilitates the returns process, and we would want to consult closely to insure that what we do is consistent, working in partnership with the government. At this point we have our own wish list but because the US government is a bureaucratic organization, it takes us a while to gear up. I can assure you that we are thinking and looking forward and very much hoping that we can play a role in reconstructing the North.
A/S Schwartz: Let me just add one thing. I sought to deliver this message in my prepared remarks, but I think it’s worth re-emphasizing. We want to support the people of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankans who are the displaced population, and we want to signal our support for the return process. It seems to us that a concrete way to support and encourage the prompt return of displaced persons is through the measures we announced today. What we can do as a government is say, “We’re there to help in this process of return.”
Swedish Broadcasting and Swedish National Radio: There is an opportunity to improve the camps and thinking they might be permanent—is that something you have been discussing during your trip here?
Schwartz: I didn’t really have to discuss it so much because the government officials with whom we met insisted that these camps are not going to be permanent. They voiced great sensitivity on this issue. For example, if there was discussion on improvements in the camps, it was government officials and others who said they didn’t want to create the specter of permanent camps. For my purposes, that’s encouraging. Because I don’t think anybody expects or would like to see these camps in any kind of permanent status. And everything that I was told by officials during my visit was that it is absolutely their intention to ensure that these camps are temporary and the duration of the stay is limited. As I have said, the government has invited me—and I’m very grateful—to come back and to continue to monitor this process of return and I think friends of Sri Lanka need to do that. And I certainly will be back.
The Bottom Line Newspaper: The US has consistently backed a political solution to the ethnic crisis and I was just wondering if there were any discussions regarding fast-tracking this political solution and whether you voiced any concerns regarding it.
A/S Schwartz: The focus of my visit was primarily return, conditions in the camps, and the ability of people to get out of the camps. The issue of reconciliation and broader political issues may have arisen in one or two meetings—I frankly don’t recall right now—but the focus was really on the humanitarian situation and return. I will say that this issue of inclusive reconciliation is a constant and continuous component of the high-level bilateral dialogue between the government of the United States of America and the government of Sri Lanka. This issue is important to all of Sri Lanka’s friends.
Socialist Web: Did you raise the question of casualties during the war which was of great importance at one point in time?
Schwartz: The focus of my visit was very much on current humanitarian conditions. But the issue of casualties has been of great importance to the United States of America, including to the President of the United States, who spoke about this issue last spring.