Interview
Robert O. Blake, Jr.
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
Washington, DC
August 10, 2009


QUESTION: I wanted to talk a lot about Sri Lanka if possible.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure, of course.

QUESTION: I didn’t know your – the connection there, and I know it’s a focus from the hearing that you just gave.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.

QUESTION: It seemed to be one of the things that you’re really in tune to. So I guess I wanted to see what pressure does the U.S. plan to put on or is putting on Sri Lanka in order to have them release the people detained in the north (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t like to put it in terms of U.S. pressure. One hopes that Sri Lanka will do these things because they feel it’s in their own interest to do that. And we try to not have ourselves be out in front on this, but we do, at the same time, have to speak out publicly about things that we attach a lot of importance to. One of the things that I tell my friends in Sri Lanka in – both in the government and outside is that there’s a very active community here in the United States that’s very interested in what goes on here – not just the Tamil Diaspora, but members of Congress and the NGO community. And so it’s very important that we speak our minds.

Both when I was in Colombo and now here, I continue to be very – I don’t want to say outspoken, but I continue to be very honest about where we see things going. And I can say now that there’s been some progress. For example, they’ve allowed about 10,000 IDPs to leave the camps, and they pledged to have another 40,000 or so leave this August, this month, which would certainly be good. Longer term, they hope to have the majority released by the end of the year.

You notice I say the term “released,” and that’s one of the points that we make to our friends in the government is that it’s very rare for IDPs anywhere to be detained or to be held against their will. And in Sri Lanka, they are; they’re not allowed to leave. One of the points that we’ve made consistently is that it’s important for the government to complete the process of issuing identity cards to all of the IDPs, because after that, they’ll have freedom of movement. Even if the demining has not yet been done that they can be resettled in their home communities, at least they can move in and out of the camps. They’re not --

QUESTION: These are government-issued identity cards?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right, right. Because what they’re doing is they want to register people – so many people were displaced, many of them were displaced seven or eight, nine, ten times in that terrible period. And as a result, many of them lost everything they had, including their identification cards and everything else. So it is important for them to have some sort of identity card. But nonetheless, it’s also important for them to be – to have this freedom of movement, because I think that’s one of the issues that the international community really focuses on.

Beyond that, the other thing that we’re really quite focused on is the question of political reconciliation. And there, I don’t think there’s really very much progress that one can point to. The President, on the contrary, has said that he is not going to be in a position to make any moves on political reconciliation and power-sharing and devolution until after presidential elections are held, most probably in January of 2010.

Obviously, that is disappointing, and I think we hope that we and India and many other friends of Sri Lanka hope that progress can be made sooner than that because it’s very, very important to make the Tamils and other communities feel like they’re part of the country, part of the political process after this very searing civil war that they’ve had. They’ve done quite a lot up to this point to sort of prepare the ground for potential power-sharing. There’s been this All Parties Representative Committee process. They’ve talked about devolving power under what’s called the 13th amendment. And the government has engaged in some dialogue with Tamils, both overseas, but also in the country.

All those are good, but they now have to take the steps to actually share power, and the government needs to find a way to move more quickly than January 2010, because the risk is, of course, that people will become disaffected and that will give new impetus to terrorism. And certainly, none of us want that.

QUESTION: What is – how does their – the disappointment that you feel in their failure to move ahead on this, how does that affect U.S. aid or other potential levers that the U.S. has to sort of express their disappointment?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, we’re not going to in any way condition our humanitarian assistance on any of these things, because we feel it’s very, very important to continue to provide particularly food aid.

QUESTION: There was something in the news today that USAID --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right. The United States has provided, in the last two years, $59 million worth of assistance, and a lot of that is food aid. We’ve been the largest single donor of that, including in the time when all these IDPs were trapped in the safe zone. It was a very important lifeline for them, so we’re very proud of that and we’ll continue to provide that kind of assistance.

But we’ve said to our friends in the government that the longer-term reconstruction assistance really will be dependent on the progress that they make, both in resettling of the internally displaced persons in a rapid and orderly fashion, but also on progress that’s made in the power-sharing and devolution sphere.

So we’ll have to make judgments on that as we go along here, but both have a bearing on our decisions on reconstruction.

QUESTION: That would seem to be a pressure point to --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Certainly.

QUESTION: Is there anything else that the U.S. has at its disposal?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think the United States is, like India and others, donors and we’re a member – the United States, at least, has been part of what’s called a Co-Chairs process. So in that vein, we work very closely with the Norwegians, with the Japanese and others. And so there’s some influence there as well. But again, I want to stress this is something that Sri Lanka should do because it’s in their interest to do that, and we hope that they would see it in that way, not that they wouldn’t do it because of pressure from international countries.

QUESTION: What’s the U.S.’s role in investigating war crimes and war crimes allegations? Is there a role for the U.S.? Should – does the U.S. have a responsibility there, or is this an international (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Mostly, this is a Sri Lankan responsibility to do this, as it is in every country. It’s a national responsibility to undertake these kinds of investigations. As you know, we’ve had a longstanding dialogue with the government on the wider question of human rights. And they have resisted, for many years, the idea of having any kind of human rights monitors that would be deployed to Sri Lanka.

The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, visited Colombo and had quite an active dialogue with the Sri Lankan Government. And the point she made was that she was very interested in having the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights be able to exercise the full range of its responsibilities in Sri Lanka, but the Sri Lankan Government was not willing to have that happen. They were particularly concerned about both the reporting function and the monitoring function that an office of the High Commission would carry out in a country. And so they never came to an agreement on that, and I think that has also been one of the obstacles to this accountability issue as well.

QUESTION: What’s your confidence in this --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: For the moment right now, I have to say we’re really focused on the people who are living and the people who are in those camps, and that’s really our highest priority.

QUESTION: What’s your – just to go back a little bit to that other point, what’s your confidence that it’s going to get done? If it’s Sri Lanka’s responsibility, do you think that they are going to accept that responsibility (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I don’t want to speculate on that. I hope this is another part of the reconciliation process, that there be some sort of process, and hopefully homegrown, such as many countries have done – Rwanda and South Africa and others, who came through similar experiences. They came up with their own processes to develop reconciliation strategies. Every country is different. I think the international community is ready and willing to work with Sri Lanka, but it’s really important for them to take the initiative. And again, we hope they’ll do so.

QUESTION: You mentioned in your testimony before Congress, you mentioned relief workers’ access to the camps. What’s the state of that? Do you feel that you were mildly critical of –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think access has improved.

QUESTION: Since then?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think access has improved for humanitarian workers. I’d say though, the one area where there’s still a little bit of scope for improvement would be access for the ICRC, which, as you know, performs a very important protection function. So the UN and a lot of international NGOs who are delivering relief supplies have had good access now, but the ICRC, less so.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) mentioned local elections in Jaffna and Vavuniya.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Vavuniya, yeah.

QUESTION: Vavuniya.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And says that journalists are barred from covering these elections. I was curious to see if that’s something that you’re aware of and are monitoring or are concerned about.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: To be honest, I didn’t know that they were barred. That’s news to me. But Jaffna has long been an area where there have been restrictions on access up there. Vavuniya, I’m surprised, because journalists have been allowed up there from time to time, not regularly, because they still consider it a military zone, and an area where there are all these IDPs. But I would have thought they would have allowed it. I know there was some election monitoring that went on there, so maybe it wasn’t by journalists, but there are groups that were there.

QUESTION: If we could bounce to Nepal?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure.

QUESTION: What’s the level of U.S. concern about stability in that government with sort of the attempts to reconcile and to work through the differences they have politically?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would say that we’re concerned that there hasn’t been more progress towards implementing the peace agreement that was agreed to in 2006. Specifically, the parties have to draft a new constitution by May of 2010, and they also have to come to agreement on integrating the two militaries, the Maoist military and the Nepalese army, and things like that. And there hasn’t been any progress on those things. There’s a sense of drift, and that drift can be very dangerous if the people of Nepal perceive that their elected leaders are not taking seriously their responsibilities. And so there’s a risk of instability under those circumstances.

We think it’s very important for the parties, including the Maoists, to work together and to stop the kind of intraparty and interparty squabbling that’s going on and to really look at the national interest and put national interests above narrow partisan interests, and really get down to business on these important issues, particularly the drafting of the new constitution and the integration of the two armies.

QUESTION: You mentioned risk of instability. Does that include the risk of a possible return to civil war?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Possibly. I mean, I don’t know. That’s a difficult one to judge, but that’s certainly one possibility and so, again, another incentive for the parties to work together. I guess what I’d to emphasize --

QUESTION: Is it overstating it to say that the –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, let me just make one point.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I guess what I would like to emphasize is that Nepal has come so far in the sense that they ended this ten-year civil war in 2006. They had these very important constituent assembly elections in 2008. And it would really be a shame to jeopardize the progress that has been made. And therefore, it’s important for the parties, all of the parties, including the Maoists, to seize this opportunity.

QUESTION: Would it be overstating it to say that that’s a fear of the U.S. Government, that this could develop into civil war again, that if –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to make that the headline. I think the headline from our perspective is just the need for everybody to work together. I don’t want to start speculating too much on what are the potential outcomes, because I’m not worried about a military coup tomorrow or something like that, but again, the headline is really just for the need for people to work together. And it’s not so much what we think, it’s what the people of Nepal think and whether they’re going to become exasperated with their own political leaders.

QUESTION: Have you been there since you’ve become Assistant Secretary --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yes.

QUESTION: -- to Nepal?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: When did you travel there?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I went there in – everything’s a blur. Let’s see, Bill Burns and I were out in India in –

QUESTION: You went during that trip? Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: So that was May, I think, so –

QUESTION: Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: So – wasn’t that right, Karly?

MS. FAILLANCE: No, you were confirmed May 22nd, and you guys went in June.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: June, then it must have been. Sorry.

QUESTION: And this is –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s on our website, because there’s a – I did a little press thing at the end of that, and you can look for that.

QUESTION: And this is a – I guess this is sort of the similar message that you delivered to government officials.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah. Yeah, but at that point, they were still forming the government and so forth. So at least they had a little bit of a cover then –

QUESTION: So it’s (inaudible) that they were since then?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, nothing’s really happened since then. That’s the problem. I shouldn’t say nothing has happened. One thing has happened – the mandate for UNMIN, which is the local UN organization, has been extended again for another six months. So that’s good because the UN has a very important role to play. But still, the underlying issues have not been addressed.

QUESTION: India.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Please.

QUESTION: There is a – the Pakistanis have expressed concern about the growing warmth of U.S.-Indian ties, the nuclear deal. There were some business and military nuggets that were settled during – this recent trip. I know this is not new, sort of this feeling. But is there something that you say – I know you’re not specifically doing policy with Pakistan – but is there something that you say just generally about this sort of feeling that the U.S. and India are growing close and this might affect U.S. ties with Pakistan?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I would say two things. First of all, I think it’s somewhat ironic that the Pakistanis are saying that because after the President took office and we were devoting so much time to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Indians were worried that we we had forgotten India and that we were devoting too much strategic attention to Pakistan and Afghanistan. So part of the purpose of the Secretary’s trip was to show that India is going to be a very important strategic partner for us, and I think that she successfully conveyed that, and that we’ve upgraded our partnership with India on a wide range of fronts.

But there’s nothing in what we’re doing with India that should, in any way, concern Pakistan. I think one of the messages that we’ve tried to highlight is that for the first time in a long time, the United States and India and Pakistan share very similar interests, particularly on this question of the need to counter the threat that is posed by militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the need for us all to work together on that front.

And I must say, we were encouraged by the meeting that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Gilani had in Sharm el-Sheikh in mid-July that was very businesslike. One could sense that the two of them are looking for ways to find answers to cooperate on counterterrorism, for Pakistan to take action against the Mumbai suspects that they have in custody, and to try to work together to share intelligence, to operationalize cooperation on counterterrorism.

The hope is that if Pakistan can take those measures, that both sides would be able to move forward on the composite dialogue and the confidence-building measures that were agreed to between 2004 and 2007, and again, get that whole confidence-building process going again, including particularly the importance of trade. I’ve really been struck that trade between India and Pakistan is really quite limited still, given the size of their two economies. And therefore, their enormous --

QUESTION: And physical barriers for crossing over in between –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Not so much that. I haven’t seen the very latest statistics, but bilateral trade is about $2 billion, and then there’s quite a lot of Indian trade that goes via Dubai, because the Pakistanis maintain what’s called a “negative list,” a list of goods that cannot be imported from India.

Trade has been going up, but an analogous situation might be China, which is similar in size to India, and Indonesia. Their trade is about 15 times what India’s and Pakistan’s trade is, even though they’re not neighbors. So it shows that there is enormous scope to develop the trade between India and Pakistan. India’s Prime Minister said publicly that India is prepared to go more than halfway. They’ve offered Pakistan, for example, most favored nation status.

This could be a huge opportunity to increase employment on both sides, but particularly in Pakistan. The Pakistan economy has been suffering. They would benefit significantly from greater trade and greater integration with India so – and that, in itself, creates interest groups on both sides who have an interest in peace.

QUESTION: Is it politically feasible for Pakistan to do that at this point in time (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I think it is. Again, I think the first step, though, has got to be this counterterrorism cooperation and to take the steps to prosecute these suspects that are in Pakistan’s custody already, but then also to work with India to make sure that, as Pakistan’s already promised to do, that Pakistan’s soil is not used as a platform from which to attack India or Afghanistan or the United States.

QUESTION: From your talks with the Indians, do you feel that they are satisfied with what – you mentioned the cooperation, that you were –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think they’re satisfied yet. They’re still waiting to see this happen. It hasn’t.

QUESTION: From the Pakistani side?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right, right.

QUESTION: And to jump –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: So there’s not – yeah, the steps have not yet been taken that would give them the – I think, the confidence that they’re prepared to proceed with a composite dialogue.

QUESTION: Do you believe they will be taken? Do you –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I hope so.

QUESTION: -- see that as a –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I think that there is scope for that, and I just hope that that can be done. And I think the Pakistani Government has said that they’d like to do that.

QUESTION: The U.S.-Indian relationship and climate change, how serious a factor is that in relations between the two countries? I mean, is that something that could potentially sour U.S.-Indian ties, the whole Copenhagen --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: As the Secretary said and as our Special Envoy Todd Stern said, this is one of the most important issues on our agenda right now. But I want to stress that there is much more that unites us on this than divides us. I think a lot of the press that came out of the Secretary’s visit put too negative a light on what’s going on here. Both the Secretary and Todd Stern had very good meetings on this. I think it was clear from talking to the Indians that the Indians are already taking steps on both the adaptation and the mitigation side of things.

And the point that Todd made to all of our Indian friends was that we in the United States --

QUESTION: I’m sorry, what’s – mitigation meaning what they’re doing to –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: To basically --

QUESTION: For their own climate emissions?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Yeah, to reduce emissions.

QUESTION: Okay.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: The point that Todd made to everybody was that we in the United States are in the process of hopefully passing a bill, the Berman bill, that would cut our emissions by 20 percent per decade until 2050, ultimately resulting in an 80 percent cut in our emissions. And to achieve consensus in Copenhagen, and more importantly to get the support of our Congress, we need to have countries like India and China participating in that consensus.

Both he and the Secretary were very clear that we’re not looking for India to take steps that will affect its poverty alleviation programs; we’re merely looking for India to slow the rate of growth of emissions, which is very different from capping emissions, which is what the press often reports.

And we’re looking for India and China and other countries to do so in a way that is quantified so that it can be reflected in an agreement. It would not be internationally binding. It would have to be something that would be nationally binding; that is, Indian legislation of some sort.

QUESTION: I see.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: So we --

QUESTION: Not that – whatever protocol comes out of Copenhagen, but –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Right.

QUESTION: -- with India would –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It would be part of that. But the point I want to make, again, is that really the two sides are not that far apart. I think Todd came away, and the Indians have said that we both feel that there’s scope for both countries to work together to achieve a successful outcome at Copenhagen.

QUESTION: It seems – is this a political determination –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: It’s both. It’s both.

QUESTION: -- on India’s point that the fact that they can sort of make hay over this difference and sort of – I mean, internally in India?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to speculate about why India makes the statements that they do. But again, let me just go back to what I said earlier. I think both sides feel that we can work together to achieve a successful outcome. And again, there’s more that unites us than divides us.

MS. FAILLACE: Do you want to take one more or –

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sure. I got to go at 3:30, but --

QUESTION: On Doha, the trade – you touched on the trade bit a little bit. What are the indications that the two countries, India and Washington, are going to be able to sort of find common ground in overall WTO trade talks?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, again, I think the circumstances have changed a lot just since the elections. Kamal Nath, the previous trade minister of India, was, of course, constrained by the fact that India was about to hold these very important national elections, so he had to be very careful about the position that he took, particularly on agriculture, leading up to these very important national elections.

Now that Prime Minister Singh has – and the Congress Party have won those elections, and now that they have returned to power in a strengthened position, they have a little bit more margin for maneuver. They also have a new minister, a man called Anand Sharma, who’s somebody that we know very well. He’s somebody who has worked closely with the United States. He was previously one of the ministers of state in the Ministry of External Affairs. Before that, he was a spokesman for the Congress Party, again, who worked closely with us, so he knows the United States.

And I think it’s significant that one of the first trips that he made after being named as minister was to the United States to meet with Ron Kirk very early on in both of their new jobs. And both of them made positive public statements about their desire to work together. But of course, there’s a lot of hard work to be done here.

Still, I think the atmospherics are good. And again, the willingness of both sides to try to work together; that’s a very important part of it. But we’ll have to see, because this is a global agreement and there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us.

QUESTION: Thanks for taking the time.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Okay.

[This is a mobile copy of Interview With the Associated Press]