US: Cautious,vigilant but engaged :
Sri Lanka needs to urgently address several outstanding issues in the North – including demilitarization, release of military-held lands to civilians, end impunity and introduce fast-paced development in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations and US Representative to the UN Security Council, Samantha Power, told the Sunday Observer.
Power who concluded a three- day visit of Sri Lanka last Monday (24) urged the Sri Lankan Government to ‘not be too late’ thereby missing a ‘strategic political opportunity’ to ensure truth, justice and reconciliation. “Sri Lanka deserves this opportunity and the world would like to see that happen,” she said.
Listed as the 63rd most powerful woman in the world by Forbes in 2014, the Irish-American academic, author and diplomat began her career by covering the Yugoslav Wars as a journalist.
From 1998- 2002, Power served as the Founding Executive Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she later served as the first Anna Lindh Professor of Practice of Global Leadership and Public Policy. Power has written and co-edited four books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,’ a study of the US foreign policy response to genocide.
Q: A key highlight of your tour was the visit to the former war zone. During your meetings with the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council and the political leaders there, what issues emerged as being critical and largely unaddressed?
A: The call for demilitarization was one. The military presence has reduced but it needs to be further reduced was their position. There is an urgency to reduce the visible presence for people to feel the return of normalcy.
Another issue was the release of military-held lands in the North. I met a woman who had been summoned some 34 times by the military over a land dispute. It must have been so frustrating. Then, there is also the issue of the missing persons and accountability towards their families. Every person I met seemed to have at least one person missing in the family. It’s a horrifying reality.
Then there is the slow-paced development that adds to the frustrations that pile up. The people I met called for additional allocations to the North not only for reconstruction but for specific developmental activities that can generate employment.
There is a craving for faster and robust development. They have missed out on a lot of opportunities. Their patience has run out.
They also called for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) by the United States in the Northern Province. Their priorities are clear and the work is cut out for the government.
Q: A key issue that is constantly raised by the northern civil society groups is gender-based violence. Did they raise it with you?
A: They certainly raised the issue. They spoke of the crimes and the impunity there. There isn’t much confidence in the system for taking action against perpetrators.
I met the woman who was raped by soldiers in 2008 and successfully litigated against them. She has managed to extract justice from the system recently. But she has new problems to deal with now. The villagers think that she has been compensated and she has this pot of money and hound her now. Her life has taken a worse turn since the conviction of the perpetrators, for different reasons.
Q: Would you say it is the North of the old?
A: No. It is a far cry from what it was in 2010 with soldiers positioned everywhere. It was not possible to turn around without feeling strong military presence. Undoubtedly, there is a clear shift towards civilian leadership and a much more discreet military presence aimed at normalization. These developments indicate that some positive action has been taken by the authorities. Despite this clear shift, it is natural for skepticism to continue until the system begins to practically deliver criminal justice to the affected, which is the only way to subside deep-seated fears.
Q: During the visit, did you relay the multiple concerns of the Jaffna people to the new Governor? What was his response?
A: He acknowledged that there were many issues still to be addressed.
There is an inherited legacy of neglect and a trust deficit which needs to be addressed. The families there have suffered so much and the action taken is not swift enough or just enough. When I met some of the war widows and asked them whether they would like to raise the issue of abuse by utilsing the legal system, they responded as if I was crazy.
The Governor indicated that he was only getting started and while there was a need for direct and enhanced investment in the war-ravaged region, he was also keen to revitalize the private sector, as responses to the current reality.
He was honest about the limitations and the achievements. It is understood that the trust deficit needs to be bridged and that is not easy, he told me.
During my meeting with the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, C.V. Wigneswaran, he sounded frustrated by the pace of action and sought an assurance from the US that pressure would be continuously applied to deliver on promises.
There is something called ‘strategic patience’ but one can’t be too patient and lose the benefit of peace and prosperity and one cannot be too impatient and lose out on the opportunity, altogether. It calls for a fine balance.
Everyone must seize the strategic and historic opportunity before Sri Lanka and work towards achieving their common goal of peace and development.
Q: There is a certain perception, especially after the Sri Lankan Government co-sponsored the US resolution on Sri Lanka calling for accountability moved before the United National Human Rights Council in September, that the US has softened its stance towards Sri Lanka. The government may have taken some initial steps but doesn’t the US concede that such softening may lull the government into complacency?
A: It is not about the US changing its stance. It has more to do with how much the Sri Lankan Government has changed in a short time.
We pulled no punches when it came to the various human rights issues including the legacy of rights abuses.
If you find our tone to be positive, that is because much has changed here in Sri Lanka. The world sees Sri Lanka differently. So Sri Lanka warrants that changed tone. The United States remains vigilant and cautious, as always. The US tone is decidedly determined by the facts on the ground and our current tone reflects that reality.
Q: You also chose to visit the Jaffna-based Uthayan newspaper, an institution that had suffered much during the years of war and lost many employees, including journalists. After your visit, did you call upon the government to ensure justice for the murdered journalists and to end impunity, twin concerns that worry journalists still?
A: My visit to the Uthayan newspaper brought home the truth about how vulnerable the journalists have been in this country for decades. I also met other local journalists and they were quite forthright about their concerns.They admitted that they no longer had to look over their shoulder and fear constant physical threats. However, the fears lurk as none of the attackers have been dealt with, adding to their sense of insecurity. They said that as long as perpetrators remained unpunished, they could not feel truly safe, as there was always the possibility of being attacked, again.
There should be a dent in impunity and this can be achieved by at least investigating to the very end, at least one case involving one of those people whose photographs adorn the Uthayan walls. It is not enough and it would be just one case. But it would send out a strong message to roaming perpetrators that the system will catch up and they will be brought to book.
That will also offer some solace to the grieving families and restore some faith in the system.
Q: During the meetings with the government leaders, what specific did the US call for?
A: The United States has repeatedly called for robust mechanisms and speedy actions to bridge the trust deficit that exists in the North. The entire country needs to feel that there is positive and concrete action being taken to move forward. There is a lot of international goodwill for the island, due to the recent political changes. The government has commenced a journey and it must deliver the peace dividend to the people by calling for truth, justice and an end to impunity.
As for the future, there is so much the two countries can collaborate on.
The United States would like to strengthen her bonds with the island further. During the former administration, there were serious drawbacks and co-operation was difficult on a number of areas. We would like to see that change. There are many international security issues that we could work on together. But before all that, we all should see how demilitarization takes place and accountability mechanism are in place. The United States will support all efforts to achieve their goals of peace and prosperity