Sri Lanka has the opportunity to promote human rights and accountability, as the US works with the country to implement the UN Human Rights Council resolution passed in October 2015, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal told a congressional hearing.
Testifying at a Asia and Pacific subcommittee hearing on 2017's budget priorities in South Asia, Ms Biswal said that diplomatic relations between the countries are at an all time high.
"[Our] bilateral relationship has been transformed over the past year, thanks to a unity government led by a president and prime minister that are committed to reforms that can benefit all Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka now has the opportunity to assume its rightful place as a leader in the international community, one that contributes to the global economy; promotes human rights, accountability, transitional justice, and democracy; and that helps to uphold international law," she said in her opening remarks at the hearing on May 10.
The chair of the subcommittee, Rep Matt Salmon said the 2017 budget request for Sri Lanka was a ten-fold increase from previous years, now at $39.8 million and asked the assistant secretary how the increase would work towards bolstering democratic change, and strengthening civil society organisations.
Ranking member Rep Brad Sherman also questioned Ms Biswal, asking her about the pace of reforms. "As I talk to those from the Tamil community I see that progress could be moving forward more quickly toward giving more local power to local to local officials and withdrawing the military from the North-East," the Californian Democrat said.
Ms Biswal said that there had been a "sea change between what the environment and the perception was in Sri Lanka amongst the Tamil and other minority populations", since President Sirisena came into power.
"[It] is and continues to be a work in progress. There are many, many areas where we want to see more actions and more progress, but we do see a commitment and a steady sense of actions from the government, including on the return of land over 3800 acres of land have been returned from military to the original land owners," the assistant secretary said.
"We have seen the government take steps to start looking at constitutional reform by convening its parliament as a constitutional assembly; we have seen for the first time a Tamil leader named as the opposition leader in parliament; in May the UN Special Rapporteurs on Judicial Independence and Torture were welcomed to Sri Lanka, both of whom were denied entry by the previous government; and the government has shown itself willing to examine both the progress and the shortcomings and to engage in an honest and open dialogue on what it needs to do," she further said, mistakenly referring to Mr Sampanthan as the first Tamil opposition leader. Appathurai Amirthalingam was in fact the first Tamil opposition leader in 1977.
"We need to see some more progress on things like the establishment of a commission on missing persons; we'd like to see them take a look at their PTA and to see how it can be revised or reformed in light of changing circumstances on the ground so that civil liberties can be ensured, and many other things that I think we'd like to see greater progress on but we are encouraged by the fact that there seems to be a commitment to move forward."
See Nisha Biswal's opening remarks in full below:
"I will now turn to Sri Lanka, where our bilateral relationship has been transformed over the past year, thanks to a unity government led by a president and prime minister that are committed to reforms that can benefit all Sri Lankans. Sri Lanka now has the opportunity to assume its rightful place as a leader in the international community, one that contributes to the global economy; promotes human rights, accountability, transitional justice, and democracy; and that helps to uphold international law. Sri Lanka’s strategic position in the Indian Ocean makes it a key player in regional efforts to ensure maritime security, protect freedom of navigation, and respond to natural disasters. And its natural ports, abundant resources, and entrepreneurial people all mean enormous potential for economic growth and connectivity. With all of these factors in mind, our FY 2017 budget request of $39.8 million will support the government’s reforms to stimulate trade and investment, improve governance and human rights, and pursue reconciliation and accountability.
"Our diplomatic relations are at an all-time high, and we are now working with Sri Lanka to implement the steps agreed to in the resolution we jointly sponsored at the UN Human Rights Council last year. We also support reconciliation through our public diplomacy programs, such as by teaching English, which serves as a linking language between Sri Lankan Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Embassy Colombo is also working to strengthen Sri Lanka’s media environment through training for journalists on access to information, increasing diversity in types of stories covered, and improving English language skills.
"This past month, we launched the U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, which expanded and reinforced our cooperation in development, governance, energy, trade, and security. And our approach to make Sri Lanka’s economy stronger is truly whole-of government. The USTR just hosted the U.S.-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council Meeting at the end of April. Through the Department of Commerce, we train Sri Lankan business leaders and government officials in best practices for their nascent tourism industry, which is on track to have a banner year. And the Treasury Department will soon embed an advisor in Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Finance, who will assist the ministry with public financial management reforms for the next two years."