ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53

US seeks transparency in human rights probe

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour Erica Barks-Ruggles said the government needs to show more transparency in its investigations into cases of human rights violations and make public details of the investigations it conducts if it does not want to lose credibility in the eyes of the public. Here are excerpts of her interview with The Sunday Times during a visit to Sri Lanka last week.

By Chandani Kirinde, Pic by Berty Mendis

  • What brought you to Sri Lanka?

I am here to continue discussions we have been having for sometime now with the government and civil society members on the challenges that Sri Lanka faces while tying to move forward on a number of issues including economic development. I am here to talk to civil society members and the government about the human rights situation.

  • So your major concern is human rights?

Obviously human rights affect other areas including security issues and development issues. It is more difficult to attract foreign investment when there are security concerns and human rights issues.

  • What did you hear from civil society members about the human rights issue?

I have heard about the challenges that they face especially those in the media. There is a lot of concern about personal security. At the same time I am impressed by the courage shown not only by the press corps here, which is numerous and vocal, but also of civil society. There are many people among them who are committed to Sri Lanka’s future. They are true patriots but they are facing many challenges.

  • What did the government official you met tell you?

I talked with a number of people in the government--the Attorney General, Foreign Secretary, Secretaries to the Ministry of Human Rights and Justice.

I discussed specific issues with them. I welcomed the progress made on child soldiers .We have been encouraged by the releases made thus far by the TMVP but clearly more needs to be done. It is important that both the Government and the TMVP really get a handle on this issue and get the child soldiers out of the ranks of the militias of the TMVP. Obviously the LTTE continues to hold child soldiers and we have been pressing them as well. Children don’t ever deserve to be in the middle of an armed conflict and we are hoping that more releases would be made and the momentum kept up.

I also voiced our concern about disappearances. There has been some progress in this issue. A couple of arrests made in Colombo appears to have helped with the disappearances issues. But we have seen a rise in disappearances in the east which concerns us. If anybody is implicated in these disappearances whether they are members of the security forces, others or even criminal gangs they should be brought to justice.

Thorough investigations must be done and that information should be made public so that the public will know what is being done. Because right now there is not much information out there. So even if the government is undertaking investigations, most will not know about it. This undermines the credibility of the government in the public eye. We discussed these issues in the context of impunity too because what is important is not only bringing those responsible people to justice and bringing child soldiers out, but also education and prevention so that such things do not happen in the future. I have been studying the situation in Sri Lanka long enough to know that some of these cycles repeat themselves. I urge the government to be very forthcoming and public about the investigations

  • What are your views on Sri Lanka losing its seat in the UN Human Rights Council at the May 21 election?

There were six strong contenders for the four Asian seats available. The voting is based on countries evaluating the pledges made by those contesting for the seats and supporting those who act on their pledges. We don’t ever reveal our vote but I know countries base their vote on a strong human rights record.

  • The US preaches about upholding human rights to countries like Sri Lanka but there are cases such as Abu Graib where there have been serious violations. What are your comments?

The US has never claimed to be perfect. The US is a democracy and we don’t claim to have all the answers. We are always striving to improve ourselves but that does not mean we won’t make mistakes. In the case of Abu Graib in Iraq, from the President down, everyone has expressed our deep shame for what happened. It was the American press, our free, vibrant media that exposed the issue. It wasn’t somebody else’s media but our own media that exposed it. Our government launched investigations, verified if the information was right, prosecuted those involved and made that information available. This is part of our self-correcting mechanism. The strong institutions of democracy worked .We don’t have all the answers but we know the problems. If you have strong democratic institutions, you can have self-correcting mechanisms.

  • The US has maintained that we should engage in a negotiated settlement to the country’s issue which would mean talking to the LTTE which has been a designated a terrorist group by the USA as well. On the other hand the US has a policy of not talking to terrorists. Isn’t that position contradictory?

The US is very supportive of finding a political solution to the conflict. At the end of the day a military solution is not possible. But that does not mean the military does not have a role to play. The USA has designated the LTTE a terrorist group for several years and condemned the terrorist attacks they have carried out against the people of Sri Lanka on numerous occasions.

A political solution is needed to the country’s problem but we have never dictated to Sri Lanka what shape the political solution should take but it has to happen in some form and this has to be decided by the people of Sri Lanka.

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