Transcript of the press conference by Assistant Secretary Robert Blake in Colombo
May 4, 2011, American Center, Colombo
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It is a pleasure to return to Colombo and see so many old friends. I have had a series of productive meetings with Defense Secretary Rajapaksa and External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris, members of the opposition, and representatives of civil society.
I also had the chance yesterday to visit Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu for the first time. Both of those places were still under LTTE rule during my tenure as Ambassador, so I was particularly heartened to see the progress and development that has occurred there, and the results of some of the U.S. assistance programs.
I had the chance to hear of the progress of demining programs we are funding in Kilinochchi and to meet with students who are now back in school as a result of that demining. I participated in a ceremony in Kilinochchi where we distributed 4,000 water pumps to formerly displaced families. Those pumps will help over 17,000 families to earn a living on their farms.
In Mullaitivu, I met aspiring fishermen and women who received thousands of baby fish known as fingerlings donated by the United States government that will provide new sources of jobs for the people of the north.
In my official meetings today, I assured the Sri Lankan government that the United States is committed to a long term partnership with Sri Lanka and that reports of our alleged support for "regime change" have no basis whatsoever. I expressed support for the government's efforts to recover from its devastating civil war, and encouraged further steps towards reconciliation, and a peaceful, united, democratic Sri Lanka.
I think the government has made some important progress. It is very important that this progress be sustained. For example:
- The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is playing an important role in the reconciliation process. The Commission has heard testimony from Sri Lankans from all regions and ethnic backgrounds. It has provided a forum for individuals to bring injustices to light and to express the personal tragedy and hardship created by the war. We hope that the LLRC will also address accountability and will offer recommendations on how to redress wrongs committed by both sides during the conflict.
- Nearly all of the 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons have been resettled from the camps with the remaining scheduled to be resettled by the end of 2011, if not sooner.
- The military, with assistance from several international demining organizations, and support from the United States government, has cleared over 5 million square meters of mine-infested land throughout the northern provinces of Sri Lanka. Completion of demining in Mullaitivu in particular will allow most of the remaining IDPs to be resettled.
- The Sri Lankan Government has reduced the number of high security zones, further helping Sri Lankans affected by the conflict to return to their homes and livelihoods.
- The government and the Tamil National Alliance have conducted several rounds of talks with another round scheduled for May 12th. I expressed our hope that these talks can result in a comprehensive agreement that can help Sri Lanka heal the wounds of war and ensure that all Sri Lankans enjoy equal rights and a future of hope and opportunity.
I am encouraged that External Affairs Minister Peiris will communicate soon with the UN Secretary General and by his statement that Sri Lanka wants cordial relations with the Secretary General and his team.
The UN Panel of Experts report underscores the importance of a durable political solution that can forge a prosperous, democratic and united Sri Lanka, but also the importance of dialogue between the UN and the Government of Sri Lanka.
Finally, I accepted the congratulations of the Government of Sri Lanka on the death of Osama Bin Laden. His defeat is a victory for the United States and for all human beings who seek to live in peace, security, and dignity. His demise will ultimately make the world a safer place.
Finally, I just want to thank Ambassador Butenis and her great team for all of the great work they do here to advance our relations with Sri Lanka.
With that, I'd be happy to take a few questions.
QUESTION: Now that the UN panel report is out, can you say what the U.S. opinion is with respect to accountability and have you discussed that with the government of Sri Lanka?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The United States has continually expressed to the Government of Sri Lanka the importance of implementing a credible and independent process to ensure accountability. Domestic authorities have responsibility to ensure that those responsible for violations of international humanitarian law are held accountable. International mechanisms can become appropriate in cases where states are either unable or unwilling to meet their obligations.
QUESTION: There were reports that when U.S. troops shot Osama Bin Laden he was unarmed and there was some controversy over that issue. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has also raised the issue and asked the United States Government to explain the circumstances in which he was shot, and other groups like the I.C.J. (International Crisis Group) and Amnesty International are expected to take up this issue. Do you think that as the country leading the campaign against terrorism, this kind of action can undermine the whole operation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I've been traveling in Sri Lanka for the last couple of days, so I'm unaware of the specific allegations that you make. But let me just say as a general proposition that Osama bin Laden was the leader of an armed group that was engaged in armed conflict against the United States. He was therefore a lawful target under the laws of armed conflict. So we certainly stand by our actions and we believe that his death represents a very important step forward in our fight and in the international fight against al-Qaida and terrorism.
QUESTION: Would you say at this point the United States would propose a domestic mechanism to use for accountability first before moving on to an international one? And I have a small question about the Maldives.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As I said earlier, we look first to host governments, in this case the Government of Sri Lanka, to take responsibility for these issues, and we hope they will do so.
QUESTION: On the Maldives, you just traveled back from there. What is the American perception of the situation at the moment? Is it strictly an old fight between old rivals or is it really a genuine attempt to replicate the Middle East and North Africa style unrest?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I wouldn't go that far. I would say that it's incumbent on both sides to try to work together in the Maldives to achieve progress on the many important issues that still divide them. Right now I think the most important issue is that of how to address the mounting budget deficit there and the policy measures that the government has taken. As I said in my press conference in Maldives, the government has laid out a series of steps with the advice of the International Monetary Fund. If the opposition opposes those steps, then it's incumbent upon them to divulge what their own plan would be and then to engage in good faith negotiations with the government to ensure that that plan is passed.
So again, I want to underscore the importance of both sides working together. It is very important to achieve agreement on this budget deficit and to achieve agreement on a way forward.
QUESTION: I have actually two questions. Where would you rate Osama bin Laden and Prabhakaran? My first question. My second question is, when the U.S. forces killed one of the worst terrorists in the world the U.S. President in fact hailed the troops who killed Osama bin Laden as heroes. However, the UN report, expert panel report, is now searching the whereabouts of the Sri Lankan armed soldiers who killed Prabhakaran. Do you think that there is a dual policy over here by UN? How do you see this?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all with respect to your question about Osama bin Laden and Prabhakaran, I think they'll both go down in history as two of the worst terrorist leaders in history. Certainly Osama bin Laden has more directly targeted the United States, so that has been a particular priority for us to ensure his capture or death. The President said his death marks one of the most significant accomplishments in our decades-long fight against al-Qaida which is the principal terrorist group in the world targeting the United States.
But I also want to say that Prabhakaran and the LTTE in general were also one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in history. They were responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of innocent Sri Lankans, and the United States was one of the very first countries to stand with Sri Lanka and to designate the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization back in 1997. We consistently supported all efforts against the LTTE precisely because of their ruthless actions.
With respect to your question about the very end of what happened to Prabhakaran, I don't really know, nobody knows. I think that, again, it just underscores the importance of the domestic authorities here taking responsibility for these issues. Certainly no one in the United States, at least in my government, mourns the passing of Prabhakaran. Again, he was one of the most ruthless terrorist leaders in the world.
QUESTION: Just to verify, there was a story in the Daily Mirror that you came with a secret message to the government that you would divulge only after you met the government. Do you have any message, having met the government?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: If there was a secret message I wouldn't be a very good diplomat if I told you what it was. [Laughter].
QUESTION: Have you met the government?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I have met the Government and I've said all I need to say about what I said to the Government. Thank you.
QUESTION: During your visit in Sri Lanka, you said that you've visited several places in the North and East, and you might have witnessed the ongoing reconciliation programs in those areas.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you feel that the people in those areas have benefitted by these projects implemented by the government?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think that these programs have begun and there's a promising beginning, but there's much more that remains to be done. I think the Government would be the first to admit that. There is much more to be done first in terms of ensuring livelihoods for all of the Internally Displaced Persons who have now returned to their homes, and still a few more need to be returned. There's much to be done to continue the demining process. Then there's much to be done on the political side.
The United States attaches great importance to the dialogue that is now taking place between the government and the Tamil National Alliance. And as I said in my statement, we hope that that dialogue will result in a comprehensive agreement on all of the issues of concern to the Tamils. That includes not only the very important issues regarding devolution, but also very sensitive issues like all of those who remain in detention, and a full accounting of who's in detention, but also a full accounting of the missing, the issuance of death certificates for those who may have died, so that there really can be closure for the families. It involves such issues as land tenure and setting up a process to ensure that there can be fair arbitration for the many disputes about who actually owns some of the lands up in the north.
So I think there are a great many issues that still need to be addressed, and from what I heard today the Government is committed to doing that and is committed to a sincere dialogue with the TNA. But again, the proof will be in results, not in promises. So we very much hope, again, that this will result in concrete progress towards the issues that I just discussed and the others that are of concern to the Tamils. So this will remain a very high priority for the United States and I hope for the Government as well.
I'm sorry I have to run off. It's nice to see all of you again, and thank you so much for coming.