“No doubt we are going through a tough time now, but I hope to continue the good working relationship I have with key people in the Sri Lankan Government,” Ambassador Butenis said.
The US envoy said that her government views the proposed US backed resolution to be presented at the 19th Session of the UNHRC in Geneva as an effort to move the Sri Lankan Government towards implementing some very good recommendations born of a Sri Lankan Government commission. “The LLRC is the Sri Lankan Government’s own commission, with some excellent recommendations. I have to say that on accountability we find that it is disappointing and really fell short of things we think and some people in this country think need to be addressed. But by and large it’s a good report. What we would like to know is – where is the government’s action plan? Which of these recommendations has the government embraced and which do they feel they can’t?” the Ambassador told this newspaper in a candid interview.
Addressing concerns raised by thousands of government-backed protestors on Monday, Ambassador Butenis dismissed claims that the resolution the US hopes to move in Geneva is in any way a conspiracy.
“This is by no means a conspiracy … the government has made some progress, but not on all the issues. I think now is the time to ask the government to commit publicly in an international forum – ‘this is our plan and we commit to doing it’ – that is what we’re asking for,” the US Ambassador explained.
Asked what the take home message was from the government-backed protests on Monday, Ambassador Butenis responded that they certainly reflected the anger of the government over what was going on in Geneva. “I did not take it frankly as repudiation by the population of Sri Lanka against human rights issues,” she said.
Ambassador Butenis hailed the LLRC report and the commissioners, saying they ‘delivered’ except in the accountability area. “Up to a point I think some in the government felt that these were foreign issues. That we were meddling, that we were the only ones that cared about certain issues. And yet, the LLRC disproved that. These are Sri Lankan issues; people who had suffered from all communities,” the US Ambassador said.
She said that the US Government would not threaten or throw down ultimatums at Sri Lanka, but believes that attention to the country’s post-conflict issues in an international setting will apply pressure on the government to meet their obligations. “I think there is considerable sentiment in Sri Lanka for progress on these issues. It’s a little frustrating that the government does not share that sense of urgency,” the Ambassador said.
“I understand that the government had huge challenges. They had 280,000 IDPs for whom they were responsible and we were working with them to get those folks resettled. But at the same time there were these other issues I am sorry they didn’t begin to address,” the US Envoy revealed.
In a week when anti-American protests in Colombo and scathing statements by the Sri Lanka Delegation in Geneva dominated the headlines, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Patricia Butenis spoke out exclusively to Ceylon Today about the timing and rationale of the US backed resolution at the council and why the US continues to be a true friend of Sri Lanka
The Government and protestors are calling this international pressure, a western conspiracy for regime change. Is it?
The protest that was coming towards our embassy was very orderly, very disciplined and we took the petition and I read it. And of course, peaceful protest is a key element of American political culture so I felt that people have a right to express their views that way. In terms of the objective of the protest, there is no Western conspiracy – and of course I can only speak for my country but from a bilateral perspective, we see this resolution as an effort to move the Sri Lankan Government towards implementing what are some very good recommendations coming out of a Government of Sri Lanka commission. It’s the Sri Lankan Governments own commission, with some excellent recommendations. I have to say that on accountability we find that it is disappointing, and really fell short of things we think need to be addressed. But by and large it’s a good report. So what we would like to know is – where is the Government’s action plan? Which of these recommendations has the Government embraced and which do they feel they can’t? That information is not publicly available. This was the substance of our discussions with the Government on these issues. We really are not an enemy of Sri Lanka. And once whatever happens in Geneva happens, the bilateral relationship will still be here. I hope to continue the good working relationship I have with key people in the Government. No doubt about it, we are going through a tough time now, but by no means is this any sort of conspiracy.
As a DPL mission how do you react to a host Government mobilizing forces of people against you?
That was clear, they did. At the same time, I have to say I reached out to security officials and thanked them for the excellent protection we have always received. We were ready – we took precautions. We remembered the UN situation where one of the Ministers blockaded the building for a while. But by and large I knew we could count on the Government to fulfill its diplomatic obligations.
Thousands have rallied in Colombo against this resolution. What message does the US take from the protests?
I am not sure how aware the Sinhalese community – the rural community – not the Colombo folks are of these issues frankly. I think that people have day-to-day issues – bread and butter issues. So I don’t know how villagers in Hambantota for instance feel about the LLRC recommendations. I do know that all over, people are concerned about particular issues raised in the LLRC. Rule of law issues — people are disappearing, they are being picked up or they go to a police station and are not charged and their families can’t find them. These are recommendations I thought that would serve and benefit everybody in Sri Lanka even though they are in the context of aftermath of the war and addressing largely the needs of the Tamil population. When I looked at the recommendations, I think they would make this society, stronger. I don’t think the majority community pays much attention to it at this point. I think that the people who were demonstrating were organized by the Government – and that’s fine – those were politically aware supporters out there. But I do think that it did reflect the anger and the reaction of the Government against what was happening in Geneva. I did not take it as repudiation by the population of Sri Lanka against human rights issues.
Secretary of State Clinton in a letter to Minister GL Peiris mentioned that the US Government was disappointed that you s were not given a preview of the report. Did you expect this?
This goes back to this long conversation that we have had with the Sri Lankan Government. And my approach to managing the relationship here, is to try not to surprise the Government with anything. If something’s coming I do my best to communicate it to the Government. They may not like what’s coming, they may disagree with it, but they know it’s coming. So we have had this dialogue for a long time – with the Ministry of External Affairs, with Temple Trees, in Washington with the Sri Lankan Embassy there. So these are all familiar issues and because Secretary Clinton had decided that we would not prejudge the situation and gave the Government the “time and space” to address it, we wanted to know ahead of time, what the action plan was going to be, so that we could be prepared ourselves. The report comes out, it has recommendations and what is our response? We were looking for a little bit of a head’s up. And we did get it. I was given a bit of a preview – and then early that week Minister Peiris briefed the entire diplomatic corps which he does from time to time. So that way I do feel we were allowed to share in this as the secretary had asked.
Were you provided a road map about how Sri Lanka would proceed?
No, and again these were diplomatic conversations. I was given just a sense of what the Government’s plan would be, some of the recommendations that they thought were going to be accepted immediately. And it reflected the statement that Minister NimalSiripala De Silva made in parliament when he presented the LLRC report. So I am not claiming I got any insider information – it was more like courtesy. And then the minister followed up by briefing the diplomatic corps.
It has been just two months since the LLRC report was released. After the US gave Sri Lanka this much time why a resolution now?
From my point of view, the clock did not start ticking in December 2011. It started in May 2009. When the fighting ended, there was tremendous relief. I think everyone would agree to that. But in the way of human events, when one issue is over, other things crop up. There are all these issues being raised immediately after the end of the fighting – particularly very human issues like the missing or people not knowing where their family members are. People wanting death certificates for family members they knew were dead, people wanting to go back to their villages. I understand that the Government had huge challenges. They had 280,000 IDPs for whom they were responsible and we were working with them to get those folks resettled. But at the same time, there were these other issues I am sorry they didn’t begin to address. And those issues began to fester with really not much being done. From our perspective, yes, the report came out but everyone knew what it was going to contain because the LLRC was very open, it took testimony. So there was not much surprise about what it was that people cared about. So it’s not really accurate to just view this as a two month time frame – the Government has known for a long time what some of the key problems were. The LLRC articulated them and put them into one document and the Government has started working on some of these things. They started trying to resolve the land claims issue and another area where I think the Government has done well is the rehabilitation of ex-combatants – I think everybody even Tamil political parties here recognize that was a very good programme. So there has been this progress but not on all the issues. I think now is the time to ask the Government to commit publicly in an international forum – ‘this is our plan and we commit to doing it’ – and that is what we’re asking for.
Assistant Secretary Blake just made a statement that the resolution was being discussed. Is that to be interpreted as the resolution may not be tabled in Geneva after all?
I think for the record we would say that it is still under discussion, we are still consulting with members of the human rights council. I know Sri Lanka continues to consult and lobby. We were pretty clear about what we think needed to be done but until we actually get to the point where the resolution is introduced, I would not want to commit to it. Neither do we want to give anyone the expectation that there is still a chance.
What we have is a really good dialogue now – a back and forth with the Government – and that was what we were lacking before. That was part of our frustration.
If the resolution goes through – and Sri Lanka does not stick to the time frame, what next?
I don’t know whether there is a time frame. This is part of a process. We have been talking with the Government since before May 2009 about these issues. Up to a point I think some in the Government felt that these were foreign issues. Or that we were meddling, that we were the only ones that cared about certain issues. And yet the LLRC disproved that. These are Sri Lankan issues. Every day people who had suffered from all communities – and they made these points. I have a lot of respect for those folks on the LLRC. I think that they had a tough job and they never expected to have to serve for so long – they gave up everything to serve. They travelled, they took a lot of verbal abuse in the press, a lot of questioning of their patriotism and yet, they delivered. And again I have to make the exception for accountability but it’s a very good report. I don’t think anybody intends to make a threat to Sri Lanka, but we feel that the more attention that is paid to these issues in an international setting, the more pressure they will feel to meet their obligations and deliver. But at this point I don’t think anybody is talking about a year from now, what do we do. We are waiting to see how this develops. I think there is considerable sentiment in Sri Lanka for progress on these issues. It’s a little frustrating that the Government does not share that sense of urgency.
Has the US Government run out of patience?
I wouldn’t say that. I would say that we expect to see certain progress within a reasonable period of time and I think that Secretary Clinton and the US Government has been very patient and given the LLRC process time to work. It had to be extended a couple of times but these are complicated issues. So I think that we would continue to expect to see progress. If we don’t see it we will comment on it, we will call attention to it. But I think we are in this for the long haul. I don’t see us walking away and throwing up our hands and saying ‘you’re on your own, we’re going to take whatever action we feel is necessary.’ That’s not how you make progress. I think even this run up to the session in Geneva seems to have generated activity on the part of the Government. It seems to have stimulated them to take new steps and maybe facilitate ongoing ones. I know they don’t talk about everything they are doing – they probably feel they don’t have to answer to people. But the thing is with so much international attention on the LLRC report and the good things in it, I think we will maintain our focus and always be ready to work with the Government. I don’t see us throwing down an ultimatum.
The draft resolution calls for an independent credible investigative mechanism. Does the military court of inquiry satisfy?
I don’t want to prejudge any court of inquiry. I think though that the burden of proof would be on the Government to explain how a military court of inquiry would be seen as independent. I think that would be a tough one. I think these are good steps that any military takes – they have their own internal processes, but the point is ‘independent’ and ‘objective’ and I think that it would be a hard sell for the Government to convince people, that this was an independent one.
The US Government expects something different?
We are waiting for Sri Lanka on that. They did not produce that mechanism in the LLRC report. It doesn’t mean that still can’t come up with another mechanism. I think we and the rest of the international community have offered technical support, advice, expertise on how to do this. Other countries have done it – and are willing to provide advice and support. The Government has not so far chosen to take advantage of those offers. Those offers will be there. I can’t say that we have a particular model in mind, but we will be looking to the Government here for the next step. You feel you can do something that’s credible and internationally accepted, okay, if not, then we are looking at some sort of international mechanism. But all along, the whole purpose is to partner with the Government here and I hope that message gets through.
The US State Department calls SarathFonseka a political prisoner. How does that reflect on the judicial system in Sri Lanka?
We do consider SarathFonseka a political prisoner and it is in our annual human rights report. That is not a comment on any charges pending against him, but just the manner in which he was chosen and prosecuted. All in all, that does not reflect well on the judicial process here. I do think rule of law institutions are under stress in this country – that is by no means categorizing all the courts or all the judges. But I think there is a lot of pressure brought on civil society and the judiciary. Political influence sometimes plays a large role. And any accountability mechanism that the Sri Lankan Government chooses to set up, even outside the military court, to address these issues would have to make a persuasive case that it will be independent and will follow procedures. It’s a tough case to make – I am not saying I don’t think they can, but we would be waiting to see what they offer.
Secretary Clinton invited Minister Peiris to Washington DC in March. Was that aimed at getting some assurances from Sri Lanka that could lead to a dilution of the resolution? Is he going?
Again it’s all part of the dialogue. The US Government had already made its decision that it would support a resolution at this session of the UNHRC. But we are still reaching out to the Government, to Prof.Peiris, come and talk to the Secretary. Tell her what your plans are. What’s the way forward even beyond Geneva? That is what a partnership is. You can’t pick a country that doesn’t have an issue we’re working on. So the idea is to continue the dialogue, we hope he still will come to Washington — dates to be determined. We still have a robust relationship with Sri Lanka and the only way you maintain that is to talk. Sometimes i think it is good to go to Washington because if they just listen to me here, they think I am out of touch or I have been here too long. But you go to Washington and you hear from our political bosses that this is what the US Government considers a concern and that can be a sobering experience, but also an opportunity for clarity. That is what this invitation is and we hope he will accept.
How do you respond to Minister Samarasinghe’s statement in Geneva that the loudest human rights advocates also contribute least to Sri Lanka’s recovery effort?
MahindaSamarasinghe claimed that countries who are complaining aren’t helping – and that is not true. He didn’t mention us specifically but we have given a lot of assistance to the people of Sri Lanka – the IDPs and now to the people who have been resettled. We have been a real supporter of Sri Lanka here, for a long time. So I think that really was unfair. He did not mention the US but if he meant us, it was an unfair and inaccurate comment.
What does the US Government see as the way forward for Sri Lanka?
I think Sri Lanka has a democratically elected Government, and it ended a nasty war. Everyone was relieved it was over, ourselves included. But there’s the aftermath that they need to deal with and I think that if they keep their focus and at least accept international assistance and support, they can work through this. Because one of the things we recognize is that President Rajapaksa is very popular. He has a lot of support and we understand that. Therefore that has been our focus – that he has the support and the leadership that could implement changes. He could deploy his considerable leadership skills and popularity and majority in parliament to implement the LLRC recommendations and make the case to the Sri Lankan population. We respect his position and we have been encouraging the Government to use it, to make some of the hard decisions that the LLRC is recommending.
By Dharisha Bastians