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Transcript of Deputy Assistant Secretary Atul

Keshap's interview with Dharisha Bastians

June 20, 2014
Journalist Lets go over why you are here and what issues you are raising.
DAS Keshap Sure. As part of my job Im responsible for U.S. foreign relations with South
Asia, including Sri Lana, so I was here in !anuary with Assistant Secretary "isha #iswal.
And, its been a few months, so we felt it would be a useful moment to come bac and tal to
government officials, civil society activists, people who are in the now about where things are
going right now. $e taled to some religious leaders as well. And just get a sense of the
situation in Sri Lana and what impact that has on U.S. foreign policy and on decisions we
mae going forward.
I had a very good set of meetings% I met with &oreign 'inister (.L. )eiris. I met with *efense
Secretary (otabhaya +ajapasa. I met ,"A leader Sampanthan. I met with #asil +ajapasa,
Lalith $eeratunga, Sajin -aas and Im trying to thin who else. $ho am I forgetting.
!"#assy official ,he business community meeting.
ecutives. So just a very good sort of sampling of whats going on, various opinions.
#ut, I thin the main purpose of my visit was to see, you now, how much progress Sri Lana
is maing as a society, a government people society, path towards national reconciliation, and
putting a definitive end to the conflict and forging a society that is reconciled, peaceful,
democratic, prosperous, inclusive, and firmly dedicated to human rights for all, irrespective of
religious identity, ethnic identity, region, or anything else.
I thin the U.S., and I shared this in my meetings, the U.S. has a very bright and ambitious
vision of the future of Sri Lana, of a Sri Lana connected to Southeast Asia, to South Asia, to
the 'iddle /ast. A Sri Lana that serves as an economic bridge between all those various
regions. A Sri Lana where all people live e0ually and freely without fear of any intimidation
or violence. A Sri Lana with robust democratic institutions. A Sri Lana where investment is
flowing in and connectivity, economic connectivity is generating robust (*) growth. A Sri
Lana above all things that is at peace, that is reconciled, that has had a reconciliation process
that addresses the war and the time after the war and that really consolidates a lasting peace
going forward that is basically built on the foundation of robust democratic principles and
respect for human rights.
Journalist So some of the issues lie human rights reconciliation, given the bacdrop of the
resolution, the U" investigation, these are difficult issues. So are the meetings cordial. $hat
ind of response do you get when you raise issues lie human rights.
DAS Keshap 1f course the meetings are cordial. I had e2cellent meetings all around town.
#ut there are some issues that are 0uite troubling and I did address them in my meetings. ,here
were the riots the other day between #uddhists and 'uslims down south in which a few people
were illed. ,here was the #uddhist mon that was found very badly beaten up just the day I
arrived. ,here had been the ongoing incidents against houses of worship, particularly 3hristian
and 'uslim houses of worship. ,here has been, as you well now, the continuing concern of
the United States about the amount of space available to civil society and to journalists and for
free association and freedom of speech. ,here have been concerns about the ongoing process
of reconciliation and devolution in the north including conditions in the north that have been
highlighted by jurists such as 4asmin Sooa who has studied the pattern of se2ual harassment
and violence against men and women in the north.
So, these things came up because they are I thin impediments to the achievement of that very
robust vision that the United States has for Sri Lana. I raised them as a friend. I say as a
friend and on behalf of a country sincerely desirous of seeing Sri Lana achieve that vision,
you now, and I wanted to get a sense of what government is doing to address that.
1f course the government has said that its taing steps to ensure that the perpetrators of this
violence that too place the other day will be traced down, but I thin its important for
government to do those things and to ensure that there is accountability and that people cannot
act with impunity, especially when using violence, such e2treme violence.
So, follow up is of course essential in all of these areas. ,he tone the government sets is of
vital importance. And the follow through of government institutions in ensuring impartial
justice for all, rule of law, accountability for any agents of the security forces that may have
engaged in any human rights abuses.
I stress that these are very very important for bolstering the confidence in people, particularly
those that are minorities, whether religious or ethnic minorities .
Journalist $ith regard to the riots, the U.S. has repeatedly has raised the issues of religious
freedom and attacs against minorities, and I thin on almost every occasion the government
has been sort of underplayed. *o you sense that in your discussions after the riots, do you
thin the attitude has changed.
DAS Keshap $e condemned the riots both in a statement here and in a statement in
$ashington. And I would note that the U" 5uman +ights 3ouncil +esolution that passed in
'arch also had a mention about the deteriorating climate of religious freedom in Sri Lana.
1ur view in America is that our diversity gives us our strength. And that the very da66ling
diversity of the American people is something to be cherished and appreciated. And that while
we have the demographics that indicate there is a majority of people that are adherents to
3hristianity, it doesnt mean that one religion or one set of beliefs should be above all the
others. *iversity is our strength and e0uality is our strength and it maes our country more
coherent, it maes it more strong, it maes it more stable, and I believe it maes it more
So when it comes to treatment of religious minorities, there have been indications for several
months of an increase in intimidation and violence against particularly mos0ues and churches,
and it was noted in the 5uman +ights 3ouncil report. And I believe that one of 77 I mean
Americans always believe that one of our bedroc freedoms is freedom of religion, right. It
was one of the things that resulted in the founding of the United States. So ensuring freedom of
religion is something we care very deeply about. So I militate for it in all of my meetings.
Journalist *o you thin, what is the reaction. Is the reaction of the government something
positive or 77
DAS Keshap I would say, I dont want to put words in the mouth of the government. ,hats
their job to characteri6e their positions. #ut I would say that I definitely raised our concerns
and I urged that the government tae immediate steps to ensure that the perpetrators of this ind
of violence, including those who engage in hate speech that is inciting toward active threat of
bodily harm against people, be held to account and be punished or put in the court system and
made to be held accountable for what theyre doing. ,his ind of thing is very dangerous.
Journalist $ith regard to the U" probe, it must come up in the discussions. $here do you
see it in terms of cooperation from the government.
DAS Keshap Loo. 4ou now how the United States voted. ,here were 89 countries in total
that voted in favor of the resolution. 3ountries that believe passionately in a democratic,
peaceful, reconciled Sri Lana. A Sri Lana that can really build a strong basis of future
prosperity and democracy and respect for human rights.
$e did tal about the resolution and I noted with dismay the vote in the parliament about the
parliamentarians urging the government not to e2tend cooperation to the U" investigation.
'y view is that the 1ffice of the 5igh 3ommissioner is not only going to through their
investigation in order to enhance Sri Lanans own understanding and insight into what
happened, and it will be complementary to the investigations and insight that Sri Lana has
already undertaen. #ut that the U", especially the 1ffice of the 5igh 3ommissioner, can also
offer considerable technical e2pertise and assistance to the government of Sri Lana. ,he
1535+ has long e2perience in dealing with post7conflict scenarios, in woring on very tricy
issues of reconciliation, of ensuring minority rights within a larger democratic whole. And I
believe if Sri Lana engages in a constructive manner with the 1535+ that it can actually be
of great benefit to Sri Lana.
+ight now the countries that sort of categorically refused to cooperate with similar such
investigations are countries lie "orth :orea and Iran and Syria, and so I would just say does
Sri Lana want to be seen in that company. Is that consistent with Sri Lanas vision of where
it sees itself in world affairs. Is it consistent with the vision that Sri Lanas people have of
themselves in world affairs to be seen in that ind of company.
#etter in my opinion, respectfully, for Sri Lana to engage collaboratively and cooperatively
and use the report and the process as the basis for a good way forward, a positive way forward,
that can meaningfully advance the cause of national reconciliation and accountability.
Journalist "on7cooperation, do you thin it would have conse0uences for the government
ne2t year.
DAS Keshap $ell have to loo at that ne2t year. I cant say today what e2actly the
conse0uences would be. #ut I can say that it is disturbing to me that a country with a long
democratic tradition is currently in a very select company with "orth :orea and Syria and Iran
and other notorious human rights violators in just categorically refusing to wor with the
1535+ investigation.
So I would appeal to the people of Sri Lana that they should loo again at this and loo at this
as an effort by the international community through the U" and the auspices of the U" to wor
in a collaborative and friendly way with the government and people of Sri Lana to get a sense
of what happened and put that into a basis of understanding that can meaningfully advance the
cause, again, of national reconciliation and accountability that then in turn creates the basis for
a very bright future for all Sri Lanans.
Journalist 5ow do you address that with the Sri Lanan government if it has repeatedly or 77
$hat does the U.S. government do if the Sri Lanan government repeatedly denies that it has
engaged in these violations and it will not;.
DAS Keshap $e have a difference of opinion.
Journalist $hat does that mean internationally.
DAS Keshap $ell, it means that there will be continued attention by countries that sincerely
wish only the best for Sri Lana and for the people of Sri Lana to continue as friends, to
engage with this government, to point out that there are issues that we feel need to be
In order for this country to secure the blessings of peace and secure the blessings of this post7
conflict phase, there needs to be a meaningful process of national reconciliation to include a
meaningful discussion about events that happened during the war on both sides, by both parties
to the conflict. And some process of accountability that can create the conditions not only for
reconciliation which is truly important after such a terrible conflict, but also create the
necessary conditions for the political understandings that will heal the wounds and really put
the country irrevocably on the path towards peace, prosperity, greater democracy and greatly
reduces if not eliminates the chances of a return to war.
Journalist *o you thin that for three years this accountability narrative has been, the U.S.
has pushed for accountability in Sri Lana. *o you thin that this emphasis on the war crimes
issues and human rights issues that it maes diplomatic engagement problematic and also tends
to polari6e opinion here. I mean positions held about America.
DAS Keshap ,o be very candid, I thin theres a tremendous amount of spin out there that
says that the United States is only focused on accountability and if you loo at the resolution
te2t it says that we care about accountability of course, but we care about national
reconciliation, we care about human rights, we care about respect for religious minorities, we
care about meaningful devolution of powers to ensure that a true federal compact can be forged
to really cement the peace and put the country on a good trac.
So there are some who say all we care about is accountability. I would say we have a much
broader and much more positive and ambitious vision of Sri Lana.
I feel that we have sometimes, in some cases, more faith in what Sri Lana can achieve that
some people here in 3olombo might articulate. ,here is such a broader and more complete
picture of what weve been advocating for through the 1535+, the 5unan +ights 3ouncil
+esolution, and also in our bilateral engagement. So accountability is one element of a broader
political process that heals the wounds of the war and sets this country on a path towards
greater stability, greater prosperity, and greater democracy.
Journalist $e see that in the broader issues there has been a lot of emphasis on democracy
and even I thin State *epartment report mentioned corruption, nepotism, things lie that. And
the Sri Lanan state construes this ind of tal as intrusive. $hy is the U.S. concerned about
democracy and corruption and nepotism. Its not as if the U.S. doesnt engage with
undemocratic regimes.
DAS Keshap "o, we engage all over the world. $ere a global power. $e tal to everybody
including some countries were not terribly pleased with. #ut the point of being a global power
is you engage all over the world. $e have tals with the Iranians going on on a regular basis
these days.
Loo, Americas foreign policy is based and rooted in American values, and we have a conceit,
whether you thin rightly or wrongly, that our values are good values. ,heyre positive values
and they have contributed to the prosperity and freedom of the American people. And we
believe thats whats franly wored for us is also very liely going to wor for a lot of other
countries around the world.
If you loo at countries that we feel have taen to heart values of freedom, liberty, e0ual
opportunity, the fundamental freedoms of speech and assembly and religion and so on and so
forth, these countries have done very well.
Loo at the large multi7ethnic, multi7religious societies that cherish their diversity, cherish their
freedoms, and build a bright future for their countries. I count the United States as first among
them. #ut there are so many others. ,heres India right ne2t door that is reali6ing the strength
in its very da66ling diversity, right. And its the civili6ational value of being true to these
values, democratic values.
So when we tal about corruption, nepotism, things lie that, our point is that by establishing
clean and transparent systems of government, by ensuring the supervision and oversight of the
people over government, by ensuring robust democratic processes, that those are the best
vehicles for ensuring the prosperity and the happiness of all the people of the country. ,hat it
doesnt serve just a few, it serves the entire population.
So we tae license to tal about these things because they form a fundamental element of our
values and we do tal about it with other countries. $ere an open society. $e certainly invite
criticism of ourselves. And if you read the editorial pages here theres plenty of criticism of the
United States. And we tae it. 1ay, people have a right. $e dont worry about it. $e dont
obsess about it. In fact I thin were pretty good about taing constructive criticism.
Journalist &ive years down the line after the end of the war, does the U.S. still believe that
Sri Lana is on human rights interested in true reconciliation.
DAS Keshap ,hats a 0uestion for the Sri Lanan people to answer. ,hats a 0uestion for the
Sri Lanan government to answer. ,hats a 0uestion for Sri Lanas political leadership to
answer. All I can say is the U.S. believes in a very bright future for this country and it believes
that Sri Lana has the potential in terms of human capital, in terms of resources, in terms of
geographic location, in terms of having secured peace after a very brutal civil war. It has all of
the ingredients to create a bright future of a country with a (*) three, four, five times what it is
today in just the ne2t 9< or =< years. A country connected to the entire world. A country that is
not the subject of U" 5uman +ights 3ouncil +esolutions because it has perfected its
democracy and perfected its respect for human rights. A country that has created a meaningful
formula for devolution of power and federalism, to ensure coherence among the various
regions. A country that is reconciled, peaceful, and prosperous. So again, I cant answer that
0uestion because its really not for the U.S. to say. Its for Sri Lanans to say. *o they have
that vision. *o they share the vision that the United States has for Sri Lana.
Journalist #ut do the increasingly harsher U" +esolutions indicate that theres a loss of
DAS Keshap Its been five years since the war ended and I havent seen any meaningful
discussion or movement along the lines of a meaningful negotiation of the very tricy political
issues related to federalism. +ight. &ive years after the war ended there hasnt been any
meaningful movement toward any ind of accountability. &ive years after the war ended Im
sorry to say that there seems to have been deterioration in the respect for human rights in this
country in the north, in the south, all around. ,hese things do give pause.
Journalist Its nice to meet you.
DAS Keshap -ery nice to meet you. ,han you so much for your time.