Press Conference with Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal

biswal  nisha desai US Asst Sec      Ambassador Sison:

I am so pleased to be with you all this evening in order to introduce you to our new Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, Nisha Biswal.

The Assistant Secretary was sworn in in December, less than two months ago by our U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in December and she has made scheduling the trip to Sri Lanka a real priority on her schedule, given the importance of the U.S. relationship with Sri Lanka and with the Sri Lankan people.

Assistant Secretary Biswal arrived yesterday morning.  We have had a very busy Friday and Saturday with her.  Yesterday we met with the Minister of External Affairs; the Minister of Economic Development; the Minister of Justice; and the Secretary of Defense as well as with members of civil society, representative of the UNP and the TNA including the Chief Minister of Northern Province.

This morning we had an early start and we flew up to Jaffna, met with members of civil society, the Bishop and the Governor.  We also had the delightful opportunity today to take the Assistant Secretary on a tour of two beautiful and historic temples, Nallur Temple in Jaffna this morning, and Gangaramaya Temple here in Colombo this afternoon, to show the Assistant Secretary a little of the history, culture, and diversity of this beautiful country.

So we are delighted to have this opportunity to introduce you to Assistant Secretary Biswal. Nisha, welcome.

Assistant Secretary Biswal:

Again, thank you everyone for joining us late this afternoon.  I’m very pleased to be returning to Sri Lanka after many years, this time as Assistant Secretary.

Over the last two days I have had frank discussions with the government, with opposition, and with civil society  representatives in Colombo and in Jaffna.  It has been terrific to meet so many Sri Lankans who care so deeply about their country.

The United States and Sri Lanka have a longstanding partnership dating back to this country’s independence.  This friendship is based on our people’s shared democratic values and strong economic and cultural ties.

The late Senator Edward Kennedy said it very well when he said, “Our relationship is not just government to government, but it is people to people, citizen to citizen and friend to friend.”  It is in that spirit that I am here.

In meetings this week with senior officials as well as with senior UNP and TNA leaders and a diverse range of civil society leaders I reiterated our longstanding desire to see further progress for all people of Sri Lanka.  The meetings were productive, collaborative, but also addressed a range of serious challenges.

We reiterated our commitment to Sri Lanka but we conveyed our concerns to senior government officials about the insufficient progress in addressing justice, reconciliation and accountability.

The United States has always supported a Sri Lankan process to resolve the issues emanating from the conflict.  But as I have noted earlier, the patience of the international community is wearing thing over the pace of progress, including with the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC.

We are concerned about the worsening situation with respect to human rights including continued attacks against religious minorities as well as the weakening of the rule of law and an increase in level of corruption and impunity.  All of these factors lead to undermine the proud tradition of democracy in Sri Lanka.

Furthermore, let me state that we are aware that in the past individuals who have met with foreign officials have been met in turn with intimidating visits and threatening phone calls.  I would say that we view this very seriously and find it completely unacceptable.

I conveyed to senior officials that the United States is motivated here out of a vision for an inclusive, peaceful, prosperous and unified Sri Lanka.  It is this vision, this inclusive vision which also motivates the United States to sponsor a third resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council, calling on Sri Lanka to do more to promote reconciliation, democratic governance, justice and accountability at the UN Human Rights Council in March.  While it’s too soon to say what the text will say, let me underscore that it will be carried out in the spirit of friendship with the Sri Lankan people.

As true partners and friends the United States stands ready to support Sri Lanka as it continues to move forward to establish a just and lasting peace.

In 2013 the U.S. embassy in Colombo donated $2.1 million worth of a forensics laboratory and training to the Sri Lankan government and we are prepared to offer additional technical  assistance and support to ensure that credible, transparent, independent and verifiable investigations can take place.

As we see Asia taking on a leading role in the global economy, we don’t want to see a Sri Lanka that is left behind, but without justice and reconciliation, without accountability, there can be no sustained peace and equitable prosperity for the people of Sri Lanka.  Respect for human rights, promoting transparent and democratic governance are essential to flourish in this global economy.

Unfortunately, continued deterioration in these areas is already beginning to take its toll on Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions and institutions. The United States believes in the spirit of the Sri Lankan people and stands with you as you advocate for peace, prosperity, and a brighter future for all of your citizens.

With that, I’m prepared to take your questions. Thank you.

Media: I am Zacki Jabbar from the Island Newspaper.

There is a lot of terminology here. Would you specifically move a resolution on war crimes or is it more seeking resolution on asking for war crimes to be probed?

A/S Biswal:  Like I said, it’s too early to determine what the text of the resolution will be exactly, but what we have called for in the prior two resolutions has been for a process, a Sri Lankan led process, to address issues of justice, reconciliation and accountability and for Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the LLRC.

Media: I am Shehan Baranage from Derana TV Colombo

You stated that U.S. was any way insisting on a local process; a Sri Lankan process to investigate the war crimes or whatever.  Will this be continued even in the third resolution? Right now the world is thinking there could be an international investigation or whatever. But however, will U.S. back that kind of investigation or would U.S. still insist for a Sri Lankan investigation to proceed?

A/S Biswal:  I think it’s too early to say.  I will say that while our strong preference has always been for a Sri Lankan process to unfold, I have also very clearly noted that lack of progress in Sri Lanka has led to a great deal of frustration and skepticism in my government and in the international community.  And as I have said, patience is wearing thin.  So I cannot tell you at this point what will be in that resolution.  Our hope has always been that this would be a Sri Lankan process.

Media:  I am Prasad from National television

You mentioned about the aim of this resolution is to strengthen the reconciliation processin Sri Lanka.  But don’t you think that this will create more divisions in Sri Lankan society because some Sri Lankans feel that it’s engineered by some separatists and Diaspora groups.  There are a lot of feelings in Sri Lanka.  So don’t you think that your aim will achieve, true reconciliation will be achieved with this?

A/S Biswal:  The divisions have existed long before the resolutions.  And five years, almost five years after the end of the conflict meaningful steps at reconciliation have yet to be taken.  It has been the desire of many to provide space for the Sri Lankan people to come together, to heal the wounds of war.  But when that space is not used productively and aggressively to pursue peace and to pursue reconciliation, to pursue justice and accountability, then it draws the concern of the international community and that is where we find ourselves

Media: I am Shihar from Reuters.

Madam, from your meetings with the Northern people, the Bishop and other civil society;what’s your view on the progress of reconciliation in the North? And why they need, I mean some people they themselves say they want an international inquiry on certain things.  In your view why they need such kind of thing?  Are they basically not confident of the government process?  Why?

A/S Biswal:  Well I would say that there has not been sufficient actions taken by the government to address issues of justice and accountability.  We heard from many people about people who are still unaccounted for, whose whereabouts and fate is unknown to their family members.  We heard about individuals and organizations that continue to feel threatened and intimidated.

And when such a climate persists five years after the end of conflict, then I think that there is some cause for those individuals to feel that an international process is needed.

Media:  I am Stefani Lageras from MTV/MBC

The question I have today is what is the basis in which the U.S. is planning on tabling a resolution in March?  Given the fact that UNHRC Chief Navi Pillay is yet to give a written report on progress made on Sri Lanka.  She has given an oral statement but awritten report is yet to be issued. So what is the basis on which the U.S. is planning on tabling a resolution?

A/S Biswal:  We look forward to the written report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and we are very concerned about the findings presented in her oral report which corroborates our own understanding based on the many conversations we have had with many individuals and organizations in this country and organizations, human rights organizations around the world who have also been following with great concern the developments in this country.

So it is because we have had clear expectations delineated in prior years about our hopes and expectations for implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC and the lack of progress against those recommendations that we feel that we must go before the Human Rights Council once again and seek a resolution to underscore our mounting concern.

Media:  You mentioned — I’m Shaheen from News 1st by the way.

You mentioned that patience is running thin amongst all international countries. Well, Sri Lankan government representatives have over and over again pointed out that they need more time.  Have you taken this into consideration?

A/S Biswal:  The process of reconciliation is a long one and no one expects that it would be completed overnight, but it must be begun in earnest and substantial and credible steps must be undertaken to create the climate that allows people to feel that there is an earnest attempt at reconciliation.

And while there have been some significant steps that we have acknowledged and applauded when they have occurred, those have been too few and far in between.  And the culture of deterioration of human rights gives us great concern when churches and mosques are burned down, when people feel that they cannot practice their faith freely and without fear, then I believe the urgency that has gripped the international community is justified.

Media:  I’m P.K. Balachandran from New Indian Express.

I’d like to know why this time you have not gone to India which plays a big role in the UNHRC, and whether you plan to consult India before you decide on a resolution.

Second question is, whether at any point of time it is possible that economic sanctions might be applied against Sri Lanka?

A/S Biswal:  Certainly we are talking to and working closely with colleagues across the international community including the Indian government with whom we talk on a regular basis about bilateral and regional issues, both in Washington and in New Delhi.  I will be going to Geneva as I leave Sri Lanka and I will seek an opportunity to meet with the Indian High Commissioner while I’m there.

Media (P.K. Balachandran from New Indian Express):  How about economic sanctions?

A/S Biswal:  We are not at this point discussing sanctions.  We are still very much committed to seeing progress on these issues.  We believe that there is a desire within the Sri Lankan people to resolve the issues of the war and to move forward and to bring sustainable peace and prosperity for all Sri Lankans, and we want to work with Sri Lanka as it moves down that path.

Media:  Amal Jayasinghe from France Press.

Sometime in November the British Prime Minister was in Colombo, he was saying that if there is no progress by March he will use Britain’s position in the UN to press for an international investigation.  You seem to be taking a much more softer line.  Is that a fair reading?

A/S Biswal:  Well, I have noted that our very strong desire has always been to see a Sri Lankan process unfold, but I have also been very clear that we are frustrated with the pace within Sri Lanka and we are concerned that rather than seeing the same progress that we are seeing deterioration in the human rights climate in this country.  We will have to see what the way forward is but it is my strong desire, it is the strong desire of my government to see a Sri Lankan process unfold.

Media:  I’m Ranga Jayasuriya from Ceylon Today

You said you are not at a point to discuss the economic sanctions.  Are you at a point right now to discuss international war crime investigation on Sri Lanka?

A/S Biswal:  As I have noted, we have been strongly urging for a Sri Lankan process to investigate the final days of the war.  We understand growing concern, frustration and skepticism amongst many in my country and many in the international community that has led to increasing calls for international investigations and international processes.  I’ll leave it there.

Media (Minelle Fernandez – Al Jazeera):  Ma’am, in your opening statement you made several references to the Sri Lankan people,  underscoring sort of friendship and lots of taking on board of what the Sri Lankan people feel.

In the five years since the end of the war in several elections, the Sri Lankan people in terms of the majority seems to have put their weight behind the current regime.  Is the U.S. government taking note of that fact?  As much as there is frustration and urgency among the international community about its lack of progress, the Sri Lankan people seem to still be happy with the way things are going.  How much is that a factor that the U.S. has taken on board in terms of contemplating this resolution against Sri Lanka?

A/S Biswal:  I think that there is a need for dialogue and there is a need for leadership.  And there is a need for the media to be able to convey in clear terms perspectives of all sides.  I will note there is decreasing space for media to be able to provide those perspectives and that will certainly influence, therefore, the climate in the country.  I would hope that that can be reversed.

 I just want to say thank you again, and I look forward to being able to return many times in my tenure.  Thank you.

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