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Commonwealth Controversy; The Most Powerful Woman in the World?; Imagine a World

Aired November 14, 2013 - 14:00:00   ET


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN HOST: Good evening and welcome to the program. I'm Fred Pleitgen, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Commonwealth conferences are usually ceremonial events, bringing together the 53 heads of government of the former British territories.

But the one about to begin in Sri Lanka is mired in controversy. Many are questioning whether the country should be hosting the event at all.

Sri Lanka's government stands accused of shelling civilians in so- called no-fly zones at the end of a civil war with the Tamil Tigers, killing up to 40,000 people by some estimates. Britain's foreign secretary has urged the government to finally launch an inquiry into these claims.


WILLIAM HAGUE, FOREIGN SECRETARY OF GREAT BRITAIN: Terrible crimes were committed. All the evidence is very clear about that a few years ago. And accountability for those in our view has to be addressed.


PLEITGEN: The Sri Lankan president denies the accusations and lashed out at those calling for an investigation. His media minister reminding Britain, quote, "We are not a colony; we are an independent state."

Now journalists trying to report on the situation have not had the warmest welcome in Sri Lanka. A team for ITN's Channel 4 news have found demonstrations wherever they go, accusing the news organization of falsifying reports of atrocities. Even a train journey toward the former war zone was halted by a protest. The reporters say they suspect the government is organizing these demonstrations.

Sri Lanka says it's trying to showcase its progress during the summit. But some countries are so critical, they're boycotting the gathering. The prime ministers of both Canada and India will not be attending.

And we will get a view from India's delegation in just a moment. But first we want to hear from the Sri Lankan government's side. Dr. Chris Nonis is Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and he joined me earlier from Columbo.


PLEITGEN: Excellency, thank you for joining the program tonight. The first question, of course, is, are you surprised at the amount of criticism of your country holding this commonwealth summit that we're hearing internationally?

CHRIS NONIS, SRI LANKAN HIGH COMMISSIONER TO THE U.K.: No, I think that what you have to understand is the context. We've had a 28-year conflict with terrorists and finally after 28 years we achieved peace in the country under the leadership of His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa and finally have run free of the autocracy and hegemony of terrorism.

But one has to understand that there's a tremendous influence from those who've funded the terrorist conflict, who are now carrying out, really, a proxy propaganda war.

So, no, it's not surprising at all that the proxy propaganda war is continuing; but, certainly, what we realize is that, over the years as people realize the wonderful reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction program that we are carrying out in Sri Lanka, that gradually that proxy propaganda war will lose its currency.

PLEITGEN: But of course the big concern remains the fact that there still is a long way to go as far as reconciliation is concerned.

And of course, the biggest concern there is the fact that there are still these allegations out there of alleged war crimes in the dying hours of the campaign to oust the Tamil Tigers. There's talk of indiscriminate shelling of no-fire zone. There's talk of executions.

Why not address all of that? Why not put all of that to rest by starting an independent international investigation into everything?

NONIS: Well, because we respect the independence and sovereignty of your country. And we expect you to respect ours. We don't need an international investigation when we have had a vibrant civilization for 2 and a half thousand years. We have perfectly educated people. And I think we're perfectly capable of carrying out our own domestic inquiry.

And that is precisely what we're doing. If you look at the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission, it's a very holistic, very comprehensive, very impartial report.

And, actually, if you do come to Sri Lanka, you'll find that we've made enormous progress. I mean, let's look how we've been after the end of the conflict of May 2009. You know, the A-9 was opened; we removed the emergency regulations. We had 297,000 people --


PLEITGEN: But, sir, and I don't think -- I don't think anybody -- I don't think anybody is doubting. I don't think anybody is doubting the fact that there has been progress since the end of the civil war.

But there still is a lot of reconciliation that needs to be done, and there certainly can't be full reconciliation if there is not justice.

And there are many people, among the Tamil community in your country, who says that justice has not been done, that their rights are still being fundamentally infringed upon and that there is the need for a broader investigation into what happened in 2009. There's a lot of video out there; there's a lot of evidence out there.

Why are you not looking into that more, especially in light of the fact that you have the summit there right now, where you could adopt further measures?

NONIS: The Lessons Learned in Reconciliation Commission, it is important for you to understand, is not based on the principle of punitive justice, where you punish people.

It is based on the principle of restorative justice, where each one gets an opportunity to be able to hear what went on, whether the victims or the perpetrators, and that's the -- that's the essence of the LLRC and it's the similar -- a similar report and a similar principle behind the TRC of South Africa.

PLEITGEN: It is also important to bring all the facts on the table and to look at exactly what happened during the end of that conflict, isn't it?

I mean, you will agree that it is fundamentally important for the people who are affected by all this, for the community who were affected by all this, to understand what exactly happened there.

NONIS: It is very important. But as I say, the whole fundamental principle of the LLRC is restorative as opposed to punitive justice. That's number one.

The second point I'd like to take you up on, which you mentioned earlier, where you said a substantial amount of the people who were affected are still saying there's no justice. That's manifestly untrue.

It is important to realize that the majority of the opprobrium, the vitriolic diatribe that we have encountered over the last four years, comes from a small group of people. But it happens to be the same group, the same institutions.

And if you really look at who they are, they're either people behind them who funded terrorism, who made it, funding of terrorism, as a business. That business has now ended.

So this issue you -- it is very important to understand that this very vitriolic diatribe that we sometimes hear is predominantly coming from a small segment of the diaspora communities and a small segment of people, of funded institutions, who have their own collateral agendas.

PLEITGEN: Well, sir, you say -- you say that the people who are criticizing you -- you say that the people who are criticizing you are a small minority in the diaspora.

But there are also those heads of government who are simply not attending this summit because it is in your country. You have the prime minister of India. You have the prime minister of Canada. You have the prime minister of Britain, who was very critical, who says in a bilateral meeting he's going to bring all these issues up.

You have William Hague of Britain, who said that clearly there were crimes committed in 2009 and all of this has to be dealt with.

NONIS: Well, the three countries you mentioned, curiously, what you have to look at is where is our diaspora largest, wealthiest and strongest. And the three countries you mention happen to be in the top five. There's your answer. Just look at it.

Each country, each leader has their domestic political considerations. We understand that. After all, they're politicians.

We understand that each country has their domestic electoral compulsions.

We're a vibrant democracy and we cherish the principles of democracy and development, the twin pillars of the commonwealth.

PLEITGEN: If you're telling me that you cherish the principles of democracy then I'm sure that you also -- you also cherish the principles of free speech.

For instance, why is it that journalists that are coming to your country are being heckled when they try to visit, for instance, the north?

You have a team from the British broadcaster, ITN, who was prevented from going into the north on a train because of demonstrators that show up, apparently demonstrators showing up everywhere where this crew goes.

You have Sri Lankan journalists that are also running into issues. You're saying people need to visit the country and need to check out how great things really are.

Why are they being held back?

NONIS: I don't think anyone's holding anyone back. The point you're trying to make is that people are protesting against other people. That is precisely what happens when different people go to your country. Even some of our leaders have been heckled time and time again.

Why? The response we are given is the response you gave, is that you are a vibrant democracy.

And that's the response, sir, I'm giving back to you. It is because we're a vibrant democracy; it is precisely because we believe in free speech that we encourage divergent opinion. And I think you should respect that.

PLEITGEN: Thank you very much for joining the program.

NONIS: Thank you.


PLEITGEN: And as one of the most populous nations in the commonwealth or the most populous nation and Sri Lanka's neighbor, India has a particular interest in attending the conference.

But the country's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is not going. He's boycotting the summit, sending his foreign minister instead. And I spoke to the foreign minister from Colombo earlier today as well.


PLEITGEN: Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, thank you for joining the program. And directly the question, what sparked Prime Minister Singh's decision not to attend the commonwealth summit?

SALMAN KHURSHID, FOREIGN MINISTER, INDIA: Well, I imagine a lot of things were factored in. We are now into five elections and important elections, the last round of elections before the general elections sometime in the middle of next year. We are also handling some very, very critical economic issues including issues which are far-reaching reform issues, some of which will come before the next session of Parliament that's now a few weeks away.

And of course, there was -- there were competing sentiments in the country about some outstanding issues with Sri Lanka, particularly on the rehabilitation and reconstruction that's imperative after the end of the war.

And I think the totality of things that he took into account persuaded him not to come and that he would send a team instead, headed by the foreign minister of the country. So here I am.

PLEITGEN: Now that you're there, are you going to sit down with your counterparts from Sri Lanka? And are you going to tell them you have to allow for an push a real investigation with everything that needs to happen with it, witness protection, all the other things, to finally come to terms with what happened in that country for 27 years?

KHURSHID: I think what happened in this country for 27 years is something that nobody can discount. And I think the proportional responsibility and putting things in the right perspective, the responsibility that we all owe to each other, and certainly Sri Lanka owes to itself as indeed they owe to their friends.

We have suffered as far as that tragedy. And I know that many friends and are valued enormously in Sri Lanka, including Tamils, who spoke in -- with great confidence and (INAUDIBLE) spoke with great clarity in conditions that were extremely dangerous for them, having lost many of those, is something that is not easy to forget.

But we need to move on. And I think that's the spirit in which everybody has to approach this, which is not to forget and to forgive everything, but to find the optimal level of truth and reconciliation.

PLEITGEN: What about the importance of the commonwealth itself, the commonwealth represents a lot of people on this planet. At the same time it is an organization that seems to be on the brink of irrelevancy. And some people are saying that this discredits the commonwealth even more, the fact that you have this controversy about Sri Lanka holding the summit. You have countries like your own that's not sending your prime minister. You have the Canadians that are not coming at all.

What do you think this does to the commonwealth?

KHURSHID: Well, the commonwealth is more than five -- 50 countries and most of them are here. Most of them, more than 30-35 are here at the level of heads of state of government, there are other foreign ministers here. I know that some principal positions as taken by Canada are there for us to take note of.

But it would be, I think, both premature and perhaps somewhat unwarranted to comment about the Sri Lankan episode with any country bilaterally as being somewhat casting a shadow on the commonwealth engagement.

PLEITGEN: Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, thank you so much for appearing on the program.

KHURSHID: Thank you very much. Thank you.


PLEITGEN: And what would a commonwealth summit be without a member of the British royal family?

Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, were given a royal welcome when they arrived in Colombo today. And later Charles will blow out the candles and cut the cake because this is his 65th birthday. Charles is increasingly assuming the duties of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, but even though he's still waiting for the job of his life, the throne, he is now officially a pensioner.

The prince plans to donate his 110 pounds a week pension to a charity for the elderly.

And after a break, from a princely summit to the trillions in the U.S. Federal Reserve and the woman expected to take charge.

But first, Janet Yellen has to run a congressional gantlet. Her chances and her choices when we come back.




PLEITGEN: And welcome back to the program. I'm Fred Pleitgen, sitting in for Christiane.

A woman you've probably never heard of could soon be one of the most powerful people in the world. Janet Yellen appears before the United States Senate today. She's tapped to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve, America's central bank.

The Fed is the 800-pound gorilla in the world's economy. Right now it's buying up almost $4 trillion of assets to stimulate the economy. So financial experts are hanging over her every word and the best expert to put it all in context for us is our own Richard Quest, who joins me now from New York.

And Richard, for years you've pressed me for answers on the German economy. Now it's time for me to ask for answers on the American financial system.

Tell us who Janet Yellen is and what she stands for.

RICHARD QUEST, CNN HOST: Well, to look at Janet Yellen, you'd think she's everybody's favorite grandmother, a small, white-haired, aged, in her late 60s. And it seems that thoroughly delightful, charming, elderly or older lady. And then you're told from those who've met her and those who know her the woman has a fierce intellect. She doesn't suffer fools gladly. She has sat at the top table of U.S. economics for decades. She was head of President Clinton's Economic Council. She was president and CEO of the San Francisco Federal Reserve and vice chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve in Washington.

And now, of course, she stands just this far away from the top job. And, Fred, it is worth pointing out, yes, she went for her confirmation hearing today; but it's more like a crowning. There is just about no doubt that Janet Yellen will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. And will be the first woman chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

PLEITGEN: And of course that is very significant as well.

One of the things that they're talking about a lot at these hearings is quantitative easing, of course, the U.S. Treasury buying up all these bonds, buying up all these assets.

I want to listen to one thing that Janet Yellen had to say about that. Let's listen to it together and then you can tell me all about it.


JANET YELLEN, U.S. FEDERAL RESERVE CHAIR NOMINEE: I think pursuing a policy of low rates to get the economy moving will best enable us to normalize policy and to get rates back to normal levels over time.


PLEITGEN: So apparently when she says this, the stock market started rising and never stopped as long as the confirmation hearing was going on.

How significant was her saying that?

What does she stand for?

QUEST: Well, what she said there, of course, was she's in no rush to start raising rates. She said it was imperative to continue to promote economic growth. And what the stock market -- even though she also said she did not see it as the role of the Fed to promote stock market growth or to support the stock market, this, as long as the U.S. Fed prints money at the rate of $85 billion a month, they are pouring cash into the banks, into the banking system, and through that, into the stock market.

So the mere fact that the market believes they have, as we say, a dove, somebody who will continue this very easy money policy, keep their foot firmly on the gas, the market loves it because, of course, it means the market continues to rise.

The other side of that coin, Fred, the mere threat of so-called tapering, when you start to stop pouring the drinks at the party, people get worried.

PLEITGEN: That's true. At some point, they are going to have to stop buying up all those assets.

But Richard, what does all this mean for the average American? And also, of course, for the global citizen? I mean, the things that happen to us also depend very largely on what the Federal Reserve does, doesn't it?

What does it mean for ordinary people?

QUEST: It is so easy, Fred, to think that this sort of thing is high- falutin' macroeconomics that has no effect on ordinary people. And nothing will be further from the truth. Just look earlier this year at the effect that it had on India, on Brazil and other emerging markets. When the mere threat of U.S. tapering came out and we were looking toward September, money was sucked out of those economies and taken back to the United States and elsewhere.

And so the -- whatever Janet Yellen and her colleagues on the FOMC, Federal Open Market Committee, decide to do, will have ramifications in the United States; no question about it. It therefore has ramifications for the dollar, which has implications for U.S. exporters and imports. And that transmits itself in a world where the ECB is printing money, the Bank of England has very low interest rates and a new governor in Mark Kearney. These people are taking decisions that affect everybody's lives because they filter through into the wider economy.

PLEITGEN: And, Richard, just one final question, you watch these hearings extensively. What are the sort of little nuances that you look for when you watch people who are going to be so powerful very soon?

What are the little things that stick out to you?

QUEST: Well, the great part about watching any form of confirmation process -- or indeed a House of Commons Select Committee or, indeed, a Bundesbank committee or anything like that is that these very powerful people to whom nobody ever says boo, yes or no, suddenly find themselves having to sit there, stony-faced, and listen to a barrage of criticism.

Now it wasn't as bad today with Dr. Yellen. She's enormously respected. So everyone was on their best behavior.

But she did get an ear-bashing from some senators on income inequality, who reminded her that the Fed have done very nicely, thank you, for many wealthy people. They've pumped money into the stock market. People with shares and property were feeling wealthier.

But what have they done for ordinary people? What have they done for the poor, the disadvantaged, those without jobs?

Now there's no point in hitting Janet Yellen over the head too much with this, because she's one of those doves; she's one of those liberal Democrats that wants to do more. But it is fascinating to watch the way she sat there and she had to listen and very sweetly, back to the grandmother, just simply said, "Yes, Senator."

PLEITGEN: Yes. She speaks softly but she certainly carries a big stick.

Thank you very much, Richard Quest.

And while the next head of the Federal Reserve may indeed be the most powerful woman on Earth, there is news today that one of the most powerful men on Earth has received a letter from one of the most popular musicians on Earth.

Last night, we covered the Greenpeace activists, the Arctic 30, detained in Russia for protesting at sea against Arctic drilling. Former Beatle Paul McCartney has written to Vladimir Putin to take up their case.

He writes, "Vladimir, millions of people in dozens of countries would be hugely grateful if you were to intervene to bring about an end to this affair."

We will bring you Putin's response, should he give one.

And from very famous to the very obscure, imagine a children's nanny who lived and died in obscurity only to be discovered as one of the world's great photographers when we come back.




PLEITGEN: And a final thought tonight, imagine a world where a nanny became one of the world's great photographers six years after her death.

Vivian Maier's self-portraits are mesmerizing, but they tell us very little about the enigmatic woman who spent the 1950s and '60s in Chicago, caring for children to make a living and cradling a camera to pursue her secret passion, capturing the extraordinary in ordinary people.

She might have died as anonymously as she lived if the thousands of undeveloped negatives she left behind weren't bought at a local auction for a few hundred dollars.

Once discovered and developed they revealed the mother lode of street photographer, unforgettable faces from the hardscrabble sidewalk.

The reluctant artist who hid behind her camera is now hailed by critics as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. A new documentary of her life and work premiered earlier this year, tracing the search for the real Vivian Maier.

But perhaps the real Vivian Maier is right in those pictures, in black-and-white reflections of people, places and things most of us pass by and never notice. Thankfully, she did notice and the world is richer for it.

That's it for the program tonight. And remember, you can always contact us at our website, Thank you for watching and goodbye from London.