US Ambassador Says US-Sri Lanka Relations are Strong and Enduring, but Urges More Progress in LLRC Recommendations
The outgoing US ambassador to Sri Lanka Ms. Patricia Butanis in an exclusive interview in late June with The Kandy News stated that US-Sri Lanka relations remain strong and enduring. However, the ambassador stressed that US would like to see more practical progress being made on the recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the LLRC in May 2010 and its final report was handed over to the president in November 2011. An interim report was issued in September 2010.
LLRC rejects the claim made by some critics of Sri Lanka that that there was serious violation of international humanitarian law in the last phase of the war. However, it has about thirty-five specific recommendations including several that urge the government to investigate some killings that created a public outcry, establishment of an independent public service commission to depoliticize the public service, and a good-faith effort at devolving power to the provinces and power sharing at the centre.
Some major international human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights watch and International Crisis Group refused to appear before the LLRC claiming that it lacked independence and credibility. However, Ambassador Butanis says that the US Secretary of Sate Hilary Clinton was willing to give the government time and space to go through the LLRC process. But after two years we (USA) did not see much progress being made to implement the LLRC proposals. US recognizes the progress that has been made in areas such as resettlement of IDPs, demining, and rehabilitation of a significant number of ex-combatants. These are important, the ambassador noted. However US feels that over two years have lapsed since the LLRC process started and that more progress could have been made in, for example, engaging the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in talks to reach a political settlement. US sees the March Geneva resolution as a signal to Sri Lanka from USA and other members of the international community that more progress is required to implement the LLRC recommendations.
Referring to the alleged “secret” talks between Secretary of Sate Clinton and Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister G L Peiris, Ambassador Butanis said that the dialogue between the two countries has been friendly, open and transparent. We have “no plan” let alone a “secret” plan she said. We have been assured that implementation of LLRC will take place under the management of the secretary to the president, Lalith Weeratunga, she added. However, since March 22 we have not been so far made aware of any specific steps that the government has taken to move forward, the ambassador noted.
The Kandy News asked the ambassador to respond to the often-heard accusation in Sri Lanka that US was hypocritical in its behavior on human rights issues and adopted double standards. More specifically critics of US point out that it violated international humanitarian law in countries such as Iraq (for example, ill-treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib) but has been quick to take to task small countries such as Sri Lanka. Ambassador Butanis conceded that US has made its share of “mistakes.” “However, we do not treat organizations such Amnesty International that make such criticisms as our enemies. We listen to their complaints and take action to rectify our mistakes,” she argued. She pointed out that Sri Lanka has from time to time signed international humanitarian law protocols that obligate the country to adhere to them.
Ambassador Butanis recognized that Sri Lanka was a very complex society. It takes a while for a foreigner to understand the complexity. “When I enquired after missing people in the north some Sri Lankans, quite rightly noted that people went missing in the south in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I totally agree with that factual point. But the answer is not to forget the mistakes of the past but to understand the reasons for the mistakes made, take corrective measure and move forward. If not there is a risk of repeating the mistakes, Ambassador Butanis noted.
Discussing US-Sri Lanka trade Ms. Butanis noted that owing to some concerns about labor practices in Sri Lanka such as the prohibition of formation of trades unions in the FTZ, for a period of time Sri Lanka had lost its GSP privileges in exports to USA. These have been restored earlier this year. In fact she noted that trade between the two countries is heavily favorable to Sri Lanka. For example, in 2011 Sri Lanka exported $2,145 million worth of goods to USA that accounted for 20.3% of the country's total export earnings. Sri Lanka imported only $266 million worth of imports (1.3% of total imports of Sri Lanka) from USA in the same year. Ambassador Butanis pointed out that the US Trade Representative visited Sri Lanka a few weeks ago to iron out trade issues. “Although we may have some political differences, our bilateral relations in other areas are very good” she asserted.
Asked about a possible free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries the ambassador said that no such matter is currently being discussed between the two countries.
Ambassador Butanis who moved to Colombo in 2009 from a posting in Baghdad and has served in, among others, Bangladesh, Pakistan, El Salvador and Colombia described Sri Lanka as one of the most beautiful countries she has visited or lived in. She believes that tourist destinations such as Kandy have enormous untapped potential in tourism and cited the example of hiking and bird watching that many tourists would like to do.
Ambassador Butanis describes herself as an animal lover, particularly fond of dogs. On her visits to Kandy she makes it a point to visit the Kandy dog shelter that holds homeless dogs. She also has informally helped improve the conditions in the elephant orphanage in Pinnawela. She says she loves gardens and described the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens as a “national treasure” that needs to be protected and developed and pointed out the considerable potential it has as an international botanical research centre.