Concern over Boycott Lanka move in West

By Leon Berenger

The United States yesterday distanced itself from a well-organized campaign there against the purchase of Sri Lankan manufactured garments.“We have seen reports of the boycott. Private citizens have organized the action and it is not backed by the U.S. Government. In the United States, citizens have the right to organise such campaigns and to decide what they buy,” U.S. Ambassador Patricia. Butenis said.

She was responding to the ‘No-Blood-For-Panties’ video campaign released in the U.S. this week by a group calling itself ‘Boycott Sri Lanka’ to protest over the alleged oppression of the minority Tamils and their continued internment in welfare centres.

U.S. Ambassador Patricia. Butenis

The campaigners have charged that taxes paid by textile manufacturers in Sri Lanka were being used to fund government operations including post-conflict militarization and the systematic colonization of traditional Tamil lands.

Sri Lanka is one of the largest exporters of lingerie to major brands in the U.S., Britain and India. Anjali Manivannan from Boycott Sri Lanka said:

“This video series allows us to reach customers who might otherwise be unaware of the repercussions of their consumer habits.”

The campaigners have also staged protests outside malls in the U.S., Britain and other European countries calling on shoppers to boycott Sri Lankan products.

Local apparel industry official A. Sukumaran said they were watching the situation closely and hoped the Government would act effectively.

“This is a political issue and it should be handled at Government level,” he said.

US neutral, but wants fair poll

US Ambassador Patricia Butenis has declared that the US government will remain neutral at the January 26 Presidential election.

“The U.S. has no favorite candidate, but we hope the process will be free, fair and without violence. We have heard of some incidents regarding cutouts. The elections commissioner has ordered police to remove these cutouts. There have been reports about attacks on campaign offices. People should be able to exercise their franchise without violence or intimidation. These are some of our concerns,” she said in an interview with the Sunday Times.

Interview with U.S. Ambassador Patricia. Butenis

By Anthony David, Pix by Lakshman Gunatillake

US Ambassador in Sri Lanka Patricia A. Butenis said the US government continues to expect that the Sri Lankan government will establish some sort of accountability process or mechanism to investigate the allegations of human rights abuses and bring some measure of justice to those who have suffered in the war.

The Ambassador in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times said that the US is also concerned that the process of upcoming Presidential elections be free, fair and without violence.

Excerpts of the interview;

Q.  Many believe that relations between Sri Lanka and the US have strained in the recent months, how do you see this relationship.

A: The U.S. is a long-time friend of Sri Lanka, but it’s fair to say that there have been concerns and some tension on both sides, but that’s normal.  On some important issues of concern we have seen a positive trend, as with IDP releases, resettlement, the greater freedom of movement for IDPS in the remaining camps, and that kind of progress allows us to focus on less contentious areas, like business and reconstruction.  Of course, our overriding interest right now is the upcoming elections.  The U.S. has no favorite candidate, but we are concerned that the process be free, fair and without violence.

Q: Any particular reasons to be concerned about the elections

A: In general there has been some of the incidents  issues of cutouts ,  the elections commissioner has ordered to remove cutouts, some have been taken down, there has been reports about attacks on campaign offices, People should be able to exercise their franchise without any violence or intimidation. These are some of the concerns.

Q.  There is also a thinking that the US closely following the issue of war crimes. The US state department report had listed the incident that had occurred during the final phase of the war. How seriously is the US following this issue.

A: We continue to look very seriously at the issues of possible war crimes and human rights violations in general, as do many Sri Lankans.  Sri Lanka as a democracy has pledged to observe international human rights conventions, so there is a responsibility not only to the people of this country but to the world community.  Sri Lanka’s human rights record has already had a negative impact on our military-to-military relationship.  We continue to expect that the government will establish some sort of accountability process or mechanism to investigate the allegations, give people a chance to make their claims, and bring some measure of justice to those who have suffered, who were caught in the middle.

Q: What is the current status of the military-to-military relationship

A: We have had a long term military to military relationship. Since 2008 we could not offer certain types of training because of accusations of civil rights violations. We have been trying to work on putting the military to military relationship back on track. We would like to offer complete training. IN Washington Foreign policy is a public issue. There are many entities have a role. For instance we at congress the Foreign relations committee put forward proposals to President Obama on how the foreign policy should go towads Sri Lanka. It was very positive approach Almost at the same time the population Committee in the Congress took a tough position regarding the type of training to be provided to Sri Lanka. There are many voices on deciding the policies. Therefore will not be able to fully engage with the Sri Lankan military to the fullest extextent.

Q: So do you mean that until Human rights issues are cleared it will be difficult to get back to the normal military training

A: It will be hard to go back to normal bilateral relations. When you say cleared it is upto the Sri Lankan government to decided how it should be cleared. 

Q.  The US state department wanted to interview the former army commander Gen Sarath Fonseka about the events which transpired during the war.  The request has been turned down, but is the US govt still planning to interview him.

A: Under our rules, I can neither confirm nor deny whether any such investigations are taking place and if they were to provide any details. 

Q.  There are allegations that some of the LTTE front organizations such as "Tamils against Genocide" based in US are  seeking to persuade the US government to take Sri Lanka to task on charges of "genocide." Your comments about the pressure from various groups lobbying to investigate war crimes against Sri Lanka.

A: The US Government itself has an interest in promoting respect for human rights and that includes accountability for any war crimes or violations of international humanitarian law.  That said, it is true that there is great interest among some diaspora and human rights groups in an investigation. I would not characterize every group with human rights concerns in Sri Lanka as “LTTE front groups”, though.  At the same time, the LTTE remains on our list of foreign terrorist organizations, and the US Government vigorously investigates and prosecutes anyone who provides illegal assistance to a terrorist organization.

Q.  The US government has been concerned about the resettlement of the IDPs- is the US govt satisfied about the progress of the resettlement process.

A: We are very encouraged by the progress made in releasing the IDPs, resettling many of them, and allowing greater freedom of movement for those who for one reason or another remain in the camps.  We think the government’s decision to help resettle the Muslim IDPs displaced years ago is also welcome.  Our USAID assistance is now being redirected to supporting the returns process, to reflect this positive development.

Q.  A political settlement to ethnic conflict is another issue which the US has been pursuing. But so far there is no indication that a political settlement could be reached. Does the US government still insist on the political solution.

A: We continue to believe, as do many Sri Lankans, that the Tamil communities have legitimate concerns which can only be addressed through greater control over their lives.  Whether this comes about through the 13th and 17th amendments or through elections or other mechanisms is for the citizens of this country to determine.  We do think that postponing political reconciliation will delay the country’s full recovery from the decades of terrible strife.

Q.  The Presidential elections are to be held on Jan 26,  but most of the displaced persons have either not registered to vote  or still not in a mood of  concentrating on elections. Has the US govt has any concerns about this issue.

A: Our overriding interest is that the elections be free, fair and without violence.  This certainly includes giving the IDPs as much assistance as possible to register and vote.  The Election Commissioner, who I think is working very hard in a very difficult task, has said that his staff has taken measures to facilitate registration by the IDPs.  While the numbers are disappointingly low, as your question suggests, perhaps not all IDPs are thinking about elections right now but concentrating on more basic survival concerns.   

Q.  To ensure free and fair elections is the US govt backing any election monitoring process

A: As I’ve said, our concern is that all eligible citizens in this country be able to cast their vote without intimidation or obstacles or violence.  We are strictly neutral regarding the candidates; it’s the process that we are focusing on.  To help ensure a fair election, the Sri Lankan government invited international election observers and some delegations will be coming.  The United States, while not sending a bilateral monitoring delegation, is supporting training and other assistance for domestic election observers.

Q.  How do you compare the US trade relations with Sri Lanka and what are the areas this could be developed.

A: We remain Sri Lanka’s single most important trading partner, as the U.S. received 23% of Sri Lankan exports, and 40% of Sri Lanka’s garment exports.  The USG has worked with Sri Lanka to increase the trade links between the two countries.  In October, the United States and Sri Lanka held the seventh annual Trade Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) talks, where senior trade officials met to resolve trade issues.  The 2009 TIFA talks were here in Colombo, and the two countries brought a trade mission of over 40 US firms to Sri Lanka to investigate business opportunities.  We also went to Trincomalee to encourage investment in the Eastern part of Sri Lanka.

There is great potential for additional U.S. investments and U.S. imports.  There are new opportunities with the end of the war, and US firms are interested in construction projects, agriculture, and information technology to name a few.  We also hope to increase US exports to Sri Lanka.  Unlike some Asian countries, the United States has a large trade deficit with Sri Lanka.  For example, in 2008 Sri Lanka exported $1.9 billion in goods and services to the United States, but the U.S. only exported $227 million of goods and services to Sri Lanka. 

Q.  Sri Lanka’s garment sector has been affected in the recent months and the chances are that the country will be deprived of the GSP concessions – Is there any plan from the US govt to back the garment industry here.

I think that it is important to explain the difference between the European Union GSP+ program and the United States GSP.  The EU GSP+ program provides tariff preferences for apparel exports, and the current European Union review examines whether Sri Lanka is complying with international treaties on issues such as human rights.  The United States GSP program provides tariff benefits to other products, not apparel, and is based on compliance with international labor standards.  Therefore, the United States GSP program does not impact apparel exports. 

Sri Lanka has developed a world class apparel industry which a major producer for elite American brands such as Victoria’s Secret.  It is true that Sri Lankan exports to the United States have fallen, but our apparel imports have generally dropped because of the recession.  The United States does not have a specific plan to help Sri Lankan exporters, but we will treat Sri Lanka equally with other Asian apparel exporters. 

The US Agency for International Development has provided assistance to train 600 workers in the Brandix factory in Batticaloa District.  I visited this very impressive factory, where Brandix has made a point of hiring employees from all ethnic communities.  USAID provided a stipend of $100,000 to help train 600 workers.

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