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.
Pic: US Embassy Colombo
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
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
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?
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?
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?
He acknowledged that there were many issues still to be
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
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?
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?
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?
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
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.