'No change' in US policy towards Sri Lanka - Boucher

[TamilNet, Friday, 11 May 2007, 11:48 GMT]
Concluding his visit to Sri Lanka, top US envoy Richard A. Boucher Thursday expressed concern about human rights abuses in the country backed President Rajapakse’s military campaign against the Liberation Tigers. Promising international assistance would help Sri Lanka “to face the threat of terrorism,” he called on Sinhala parties to forge a consensus and “show the Tamils they have a role in [Sri Lankan] society.” Saying “in all this we continue to view the situation with hope,” Mr. Boucher made clear: “I don’t see any immediate changes [in US policy toward Sri Lanka].”

PDF IconText of Ambassador Boucher's Press Meet
In his opening address to a final press conference Thursday, Mr. Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said Washington has been “closely following” events in Sri Lanka.

Richard Boucher
In wide-ranging comments, Mr Boucher backed the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to defeat the Tigers whom he denounced as terrorists.

He urged southern political parties to come up with a consensus on the role Tamils would be accorded in Sri Lankan society.

Acknowledging the human rights situation in Sri Lanka had “deteriorated” recently, Mr. Boucher was non-committal on international human rights monitoring, saying instead that this was the responsibility of the government and local institutions.

The transcript of the press conference was released to media by the US embassy in Colombo.

“I am concerned about the way things have been heading [here],” Mr. Boucher said at the outset.

But the prevailing situation “is a consequence of people making difficult decisions because of the security situation, the breakdown of the ceasefire, and the human rights situation on the island,” he said.

“We recognize that the people of Sri Lanka continue to face the threat of terrorism,” Mr Boucher said.

“They face the threat from the Tamil Tigers, an organization that continues to be a terrorist group, continues to be a group that recruits child soldiers, extorts money, kills people, blows up buses, and attacks government facilities.”

“We also know the international community can help in this regard. We are helping, and we will help. We do have defense cooperation with the Sri Lankan military. The international community has been taking action to try to slow the ability of the Tamil Tigers to get supplies, to get money, and to get weapons.”

“There has been a lot of action by the international community to try to constrict the flow of money and arms to the Tamil Tigers because we are opposed to terrorism and stand with the people of Sri Lanka against terrorism.”

Later, when asked about comments from White House that his mission to Colombo was meant to explore new initiatives for peace, Mr. Boucher replied: “You are ahead of me on the White House briefing. I didn’t see exactly what they said or how it is worded.”

However, he said, “we come here knowing that people here are basically committed to the same goals and the same values as we have. and our goal is to work with them to find a way forward, to find the avenues for peace and the basis for negotiations and peace.”

In his opening address, Mr. Boucher said: “we need action to try to move the situation forward -- forward toward peace, forward toward respect for justice for all the people of Sri Lanka.”

He said he’d been speaking with southern leaders about “the prospects of having a set of proposals from this side of the island that can give a perspective to the Tamil community to show them that they have a place of respect, that they have a place on the island, that they have a role in society where they can control much of their own affairs.”

Mr. Boucher welcomed the ruling Sri Lankan Freedom Party’s (SLFP) putting forward a proposal to this end and said “all the parties need to cooperate [to achieve a consensus].”

Going further, he said “it’s important that people put all the parties to work toward a consensus through the All Parties Representative Committee.”

“The other thing that we have talked about quite a bit has been the human rights situation,” Mr. Boucher said, referring to interactions with President Mahinda Rajapakse’s administration.

“And there are two aspects that concern us most. One is abductions and killings, and the second is freedom of the press.”

“We remain very concerned about some of the killings, the killings of aid workers, killings of people at various places on the island that have occurred in the last year or so,” he said.

He hailed the government’s reiteration of the guidelines for arrest and transparency of arrest by the police or the military, saying “It is important that they have asked all people in government employment to respect those guidelines.”

Commenting on US concerns about press freedom, Mr. Boucher said:” We’ve seen a lot of different reports. We’ve seen reports of intimidation, reports of government power being used on newspapers and journalists; and then, of course, we’ve seen killings and violent acts committed against newspapers and journalists.”

Mr. Boucher did not refer to abductions and killings of civilians by Sri Lankan security forces, but urged the restraining of Army-backed paramilitaries.

“It is also important that the government ensures security for everybody. And in the current circumstance that means stopping and controlling the paramilitary groups that have operated in various parts of the island and who are suspected, believed, known to be involved in many of the abductions and killings that have occurred in recent months.”

However asked if the US would outlaw the Karuna Group, a leading paramilitary group blamed for widespread human rights abuses and conscription of child soldiers, as a terrorist group, Mr. Boucher said no decision had been taken.

“As far as whether Karuna could get itself listed for engaging in terrorism, at this point I don’t know what to predict.,”

“Certainly we will look at any group that consistently engages in terrorist activities and we will develop information and determine whether or not they meet our specific legal standards.”

Mr. Boucher said there had been “some reduction of abductions in the Colombo area” but noted two people had been abducted the night before.

“But I don’t think that is true at all in Jaffna,” he said.

“I found a lot of people who are very afraid, a lot of people who are afraid because of the killings and abductions in Jaffna.”

“You have seen journalists killed, we have seen people killed up there, and these are really serious threats to the people in that area, and they feel them very deeply,” he said.

Mr. Boucher was asked by a Thinakkural reporter if “rather than issuing statements, are there any active measures to prevent these abuses, especially abductions, extra judicial killings, and threats to media personalities?”

Mr. Boucher replied: “I’m not quite sure what you are asking for. The United States, I think, has been active. We have been active in looking at these things, looking for solutions. We have appointed and sent experts and representatives for the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons. We have raised these issues in very precise and specific terms with a variety of people on this island who can do something about them. And that is where things have to be done.”

When the Thinakkural reporter pressed the human rights issue, Mr. Boucher cut him off.

Mr. Boucher also avoided endorsing growing calls for international human rights monitoring in Sri Lanka, saying it was the responsibility of the government.

“As far as calls for international human rights monitoring, we will see where that goes and how the discussion develops. I think the first responsibility for human rights monitoring falls with the government, falls with the country, falls with the people.”

“Free press is a vital part of that, but also organizations like the Human Rights Commission and other organizations on the island need to be active in monitoring the human rights situation. The police and the other groups need to actively investigate, and it should be the government that takes responsibility for monitoring and improving the human rights situation.”

In his opening comments, Mr. Boucher said: “There are a number of committees and proposals operating now, inquiries to try to ensure accountability for things that have occurred in the past. … These committees and groups have an important role to play, and now that they are formed, now that they are working, they need to come up with answers.”

Mr. Boucher refused to be drawn into commenting on Sri Lankan government claims that the LTTE’s newly unveiled aircraft posed a threat to India’s nuclear plants.

Later when he was pressed on US views on the LTTE air strikes which had compelled the closure at night of Sri Lanka’s sole international airport at Katunayake, Mr. Boucher said:

“We think they are very bad. They should not happen. They ought to stop. And the government has every right to stop those airplanes from hurting people and killing people and damaging the interests of the island.”

 

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