Interview With Savitri Rodrigo for the Benchmark Business and Current Affairs Television ProgramRobert Blake, U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka
Colombo, Sri Lanka
February 17, 2008
Question: What ramifications arise for middle income countries like Sri Lanka, arising from U.S. sanctions on Iran, a nation we recently turned to in search of aid and assistance?
Ambassador Blake: Sri Lanka, like every other country in the world, has got to abide by UN Security Council resolutions. And I think that Sri Lanka is doing so. We understand Sri Lanka’s need to reach out to countries like Iran for assistance, particularly economic assistance. But obviously, as I said earlier, they must be very careful not to engage in military cooperation with Iran, because that would be contrary to the spirit and letter of the UN Security Council resolutions.
Question: So you don’t see a shift in the U.S.’ stance on the War on Terror and what impact that would have on Sri Lanka? That wouldn’t change?
Ambassador Blake: I don’t think so. I think there is going to be continued strong support to counter terrorism wherever it is, and the LTTE will be no exception to that. We will continue to help Sri Lanka to stop the LTTE in whatever way we can. I think you may have seen that the Clinton campaign recently announced that they would not accept any kind of campaign contributions from anybody who might have a link to the LTTE. That is a good example of how I think every campaign is going to be very tough on that.
Question: What ramifications will this perceived shift in America’s foreign policy actually mean for Sri Lanka? What is the impact it will have?
Ambassador Blake: I don’t think there will be major changes in our stance on the War on Terror. That has bi- partisan support in the United States Congress. Everybody understands that our counter-terrorism policy has to be a mixture of policies, including working with our friends around the world to make the operating environment for terrorists more difficult. And I think that we are making a lot of progress in that area in terms of border security, exchanging information that makes it more difficult for terrorists to travel, limiting terrorists’ finance—issues like that.
But I think that the more difficult challenge that we all must confront and will be a long term challenge is to reduce the underlying grievances that give rise to terrorism in the first place. And that is an issue that we are confronting in Iraq, in Afghanistan and in many, many other countries around the world. And also in Sri Lanka, by the way. And that is, it is very, very important to ensure the rule of law in these countries, to provide for improved governance and provide economic opportunity, particularly for these minorities – and provide hope: I think that is really the missing ingredient. And when young men and women in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are blowing themselves up, you have to wonder why they are doing that. There is such a great loss of hope in those societies. Our challenge for the international community is to turn that around.
Question: Do you see Sri Lanka as a failed state?
Ambassador Blake: I don’t see Sri Lanka as a failed state; quite the contrary. I think that Sri Lanka has got so much going for it. And one of the great frustrations of so many of us who have such affection for your country is that the elements of a solution are fairly widely known to almost everybody. It is just a matter of getting the political consensus and the political will to implement those elements. And so that is why we are pushing for things like the APRC, because we do believe that that offers a way forward.
Question: Does the U.S. support a sharp, strategic war against the LTTE?
Ambassador Blake: I don’t think that such an outcome is possible. I don’t know what that means exactly. We don’t believe that a military solution really is possible. Prabhakaran has survived now since the late seventies. He has shown himself to be very adapt and very resilient, and I think continues to be so. We certainly don’t have any great affection for Prabhakaran. But we think that the ultimate answer lies, as I said, in a political solution, and that is why we are encouraging the government to pursue that path.
Question: How would the U.S. view the very serious allegations that the Karuna faction has compromised the Sri Lankan Government’s image in the eyes of the world, and also the fact that despite the liberation of the East, the Pillayan group continues to terrorize that province? Are some forms of terror OK, do you think?
Ambassador Blake: No. No forms of terror are OK. And we have expressed our concerns about the role of all the paramilitaries, not simply the Pillayan Group or the Karuna faction. Again, we think the long-term answer to the situation in the East is to not allow these groups to bear arms and for them to become part of the political process. And I think that the government is moving in that direction. I was pleased to see the other day that PAFFREL, which is a group that is going to be providing some monitors for the election and is already monitoring the conditions out there, said that the Pillayan group has agreed to lay down their arms and not intimidate people in the East. So, that is a very good sign if that is true, and I hope it is.
Question: What disadvantages, if any, could arise from banning the LTTE, because successive governments have refused to do so on the grounds that this would preempt the possibility of future talks. But given the present all-out war effort, why not take this step?
Ambassador Blake: I am not sure that the government really gains much by banning the LTTE at this stage. I think they have already made their point. I think that banning the LTTE might be interpreted in the international community as taking a further step away from any kind of a political solution. But, obviously, it is up to the government to decide what to do.
Question:President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that he wants his military forces to actually capture Velupillai Prabhakaran alive so that he could be extradited to India to stand trial. Do you actually think this would happen? And would you support it?
Ambassador Blake: Well, he is widely believed to have been responsible for the assassination of Rajeev Gandhi, so certainly I think that would be fine. I am sure that he would get a fair trail in India. We would have no concerns about that. The question is: are you going to be able to capture him alive or not? And I’m not sure if that is possible or not.
Question: What role does the U.S. see India actually playing in conflict resolution in Sri Lanka?
Ambassador Blake: India, as you say, has a long history here; people still remember. They were the ones who really engineered the 13th Amendment and some of the things that are still being talked about today. In many ways they have played a crucial role here. And I think a very salutary role as well. And so whatever role they continue to play will be positive, from my perspective. And we will continue to work very closely with our friends from India.
Question: After the departure of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission and escalation of conflict forced the formal abrogation of the CFA has seen escalated hostilities. Is there a case for a UN Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka?
Ambassador Blake: First of all, there is no peace to keep yet. So that is a bit of a far-fetched scheme. In terms of a role for the UN, of course, that has to be requested by the member state in question. And I have not heard any suggestion that the government is interested in any kind of a UN force at this stage. Quite the contrary, they have taken quite an active role to oppose, for example, any role by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is interested in setting up an office here.
Question: Given the climate of impunity that we see these days, how about a human rights monitoring mission, maybe even a U.S. led one?
Ambassador Blake: Any such mission would be led by, again, Louise Arbor, by her office, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The United States is in favor of such an office because we believe, as you say, that there has been a climate of impunity here, and there have been significant problems with human rights that Sri Lanka‘s own institutions have been incapable of dealing with effectively. So we believe that the office could help to improve not only the functioning of Sri Lanka’s own systems, but help to provide a measure of protection. We favor that, but that is something that is going to have to be worked out between the government and Ms. Arbor. We are not playing any active role in that regard.
Question: How will, if at all, the prospect of off-shore oil in Sri Lanka change U.S. or international interests here?
Ambassador Blake: I don’t think it will have much of an impact. I went with Minister Fowzie to Houston to help lead a “Road Show” there in which we explained to a number of international oil companies about some of the opportunities here. So far no American company has bid on the opportunities. As you know there were three international companies, but none of them were American. I have not had a chance to discuss with them why they chose not to bid, but all of them, of course, are very, very experienced in these matters, and perhaps they felt that either the oil that was there is not enough to justify a significant investment, or perhaps they were worried about the security situation here. I am not sure. I don’t have a real detailed read-out of what the reasons are for the lack of bidding. But I don’t see it as a significant part of the strategic picture here.