Forum on Women's Role in Post-War Reconciliation
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
As prepared for delivery
Thank you all for having me here today. Thanks particularly to Ms. Visaka Dharmadasa, the Association of War Affected Women, and the Cross Party Senior Women Politicians’ Coalition for coordinating this discussion—and to the many ministers and officials who have agreed to share their wisdom and insights.
This is my first time to Sri Lanka. But I’ve followed events here for years. And I’ve always imagined that Sri Lanka is not unlike other multiethnic societies that have experienced conflict.
Most ordinary people in such societies want nothing more than to live, work and raise their children together. When they look at each other, they see neighbors. When they look up at their pagodas, temples, churches and mosques, they see different manifestations of the same idea.
The last thing they want is to disturb the peace that makes possible everything that is good in life.
But in every society there are grievances, and it is not hard for irresponsible people to exploit those grievances to set people against each other based on ethnicity and religion.
For 30 years, Sri Lanka endured such a conflict. You experienced here some of the evils that now bedevil other deeply troubled parts of the world – including terrorism, driven by a fanatical ideology, employing suicide bombing, hurting most of all the people it falsely claimed to defend.
Cruelty on one side hardened hearts on the other; abuses and grievances mounted on both.
Victory by one side on the battlefield brought an end to the fighting, but did not heal the division. I would suggest that Sri Lanka experienced what America learned 150 years ago and many other countries have since, that you cannot really win a civil war.
A civil war is like a fistfight with a mirror. You can land powerful blows, crack the glass, and bloody your hands. But in the end, you still have to deal with your own reflection.
The opportunities that existed in 2009 to bring the country together were not seized.
So after 30 years of war, Sri Lanka struggled for five more years to achieve reconciliation, and to hold on to the traditions of democracy, tolerance and civil society for which it had long been known, but which civil war always weakens. For five years, there were tensions between Sri Lanka and the international community over these issues.
Now by your efforts, you have come to a pivotal moment in Sri Lanka’s history.
Thanks to your dedication, Sri Lanka has a chance now to achieve reconciliation, justice and true peace. That will require, in part, looking backward, to acknowledge the suffering of the innocent and account for the wrongdoing of the guilty, on every side. You can finally close the gap between competing narratives so that all Sri Lankans can read their history from the same text.
The United States will continue to encourage that process, because experience has taught us that no society can move forward by burying the past. But our greatest hope is that you will keep moving forward.
The Sri Lankan people and their new government have taken a great leap already to reclaim their traditions of democracy, tolerance and civil society. We hope you will stay on that course, and not let anyone divert you, so your children can live in their tomorrows, not your yesterdays.
Now, many institutions will have to do their part, including the government and the military – and I’ll have a chance to discuss these issues with them during my visit.
But the women of Sri Lanka are critical to this reconciliation process as well. You cannot build peace with only half a nation’s voices at the table.
Women of all backgrounds have suffered alongside their husbands and brothers and sons, so they have an equal stake in seeking justice. But Sri Lanka also needs them—their perspectives, their talents, their skills.
Supporting women to play a role in peacebuilding is not a new concept. It’s an idea that the United States has emphasized for over a decade now at the United Nations, and it’s an idea that women and men around the world have embraced as a cornerstone of peace and prosperity.
Women’s perspectives enlarge the scope of conversations about peace and reconciliation; they draw attention to critical priorities that might otherwise be overlooked.
We support the work of vital organizations like the Association for War Affected Widows and many other organizations gathered here today to reach across religious and ethnic lines and promote reconciliation.
We are encouraged by efforts by the National Peace Council to bring together religious and other local leaders from across Sri Lanka for district-level, grassroots monitoring and dialogue, reducing tensions and promoting understanding.
Consider the roles women are already playing in addressing development needs across the country.
They help the needy and displaced, encouraging people to build secure and prosperous communities. They’re supporting ex-combatants and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence, among other human rights abuses, providing counseling and psycho-social services.
But in Sri Lanka, as in the United States and other countries around the world, women still are not allowed to stand on equal ground with men.
Many households across the country lost husbands and fathers to conflict, and the number of female-headed households has increased tremendously.
But too often, when job opportunities are created in conflict-affected areas, they’re offered only to men. Women lose out on the chance to lift up their families and to improve their communities. And the community loses out too.
Experience has shown that a country becomes truly strong not by spending on its military but by investing in—and empowering—its women. We’ve also learned they are a lot harder to intimidate.
The U.S. government has long supported programs in Sri Lanka to increase women’s political participation at the local, regional, and national levels.
One project in Batticaloa strengthens the capacity and skills of women’s rural development societies to ensure that women play a greater role in the local governance. Another project focuses on raising awareness of the economic, political, and cultural rights of women and on gender based violence and gives women access to support mechanisms and legal remedies for violations.
So, today we celebrate the women here who are advocating not just for the rights of women from their own class, ethnic or religious group, but for the rights of all Sri Lankan women.
I also want to recognize representatives of the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus here today. You have overcome significant barriers to women’s participation in politics, and the United States commends your commitment to engaging with women from all backgrounds to determine the next steps forward for your country.
Now, we’re all aware that after so much suffering and conflict, the road ahead will not be easy, especially when not everyone is pulling in the same direction.
In every society, there are those who want their people to be angry, divided and afraid, because they know that the people will only support them if they are angry, divided and afraid.
But we know now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the vast majority of Sri Lankans want to live a united and democratic country, not divided between victors and vanquished or Tamil and Sinhalese.
You know that those divisions are a diversion. In the end, everyone benefits when there is democracy, transparency and trust, and everyone, not just one party, suffers from impunity.
And I hope you know that the international community will be your partner as you keep moving forward.
We welcome actions taken by the Sri Lankan government to rebuild trust with the Sri Lankan people; and we stand ready to support your efforts in establishing just and lasting peace.
All around the world, there are countries that are going through, in their own ways, what you went through here.
Read the headlines from Yemen to Iraq to Afghanistan to Burma, and you will see why we want Sri Lanka to succeed. Not just for your sake, but for all our sakes: the world needs Sri Lanka to keep showing that a society divided by ethnicity and faith can find peace through democracy and dialogue.
And while only you can make the hard choices needed to keep moving forward, we will do everything in our power to help you if you do.