Interview with Dr. Jurgen Morhard, Ambassador for Germany in Sri Lanka.
Q: 60 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and Sri Lanka were celebrated on 9 December 2013 by the German Embassy in Colombo: how significant is the milestone for the two countries concerned?
The relationship between Germany and Sri Lanka pre-dates its diplomatic ties and hence viewing it as a 60-year relationship is a limited approach. Little known is the fact that even pre-World War II, during the time of Ceylon and the German Empire, or Deutsche Reich, there was the position of ‘German Envoy’ to Sri Lanka. The first German Government Representative came to Sri Lanka as Consul in 1872. Therefore, to all intents and purposes, the diplomatic relationship dates back to 1872.
Q: Beyond the diplomatic relationship, the cultural relationship between Germany and Sri Lanka has gained increased currency over the years, as have other facets of the relationship. Could you elaborate?
In 1840, the German Prince Waldemar from Prussia travelled through Ceylon. He sketched numerous paintings of this country’s beauty. His works are now on display in a Berlin museum – an initiative led by the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Berlin. In 1861 a biologist named Ernst Haeckel explored the island and wrote a fabulous book titled “A visit to Ceylon.” Moreover, the Mahavamsa chronicle was translated from Pali by Wilhelm Geiger. The Island was also mentioned in old German church documents dating back to the 8th Century under the name ‘Taprobane’.
The formal cultural relationship spans a period of 56 years with the establishment of the Goethe Institut in Colombo, and our technical and vocational training cooperation also dates back more than 50 years. Moreover, bilateral investment and economic development are thriving in a reciprocal manner with the second largest tourist group to Sri Lanka coming from Germany. There also exists a German Business Council in Sri Lanka with 81 registered companies.
Interesting to mention is that after the tsunami, many private initiatives by German citizens were founded in Sri Lanka: these included German tourists who had once visited Sri Lanka and had built personal friendships with Sri Lankans and felt it incumbent to help friends at a time of need. This is testimony to the enormous goodwill and friendship between the peoples of both countries which are undoubtedly at the core of the German – Sri Lanka relationship.
Q: What would you reckon as the reason for the natural and close bond that has developed between the peoples of the two countries over the years that you describe above?
Communication and understanding between Germans and Sri Lankans have always been quite easy and free-flowing which has led to bonding between the two peoples whenever they have had the opportunity to make contact with each other. Germans have often expressed how easy and comfortable it was to travel to and live in Sri Lanka; Sri Lankans are very friendly and hospitable and disagreements or differences are mostly solved in an amicable way.
German people also find Sri Lanka safe for independent travel, good infrastructure is available throughout the country and the standards of water and sanitation are quite high. The number of German tourists per year to Sri Lanka amounts to 75,000 of which many return repeatedly to the country.
Over the years, more than 450 micro projects countrywide have been set up as public and private ventures. These projects aim at helping people at community level, by building schools and kindergartens, providing water and sanitation and supporting income-generating projects to name just a few initiatives.
Hence, as I mentioned earlier, the greatest and biggest legacy is the goodwill that exists between the people in the two countries: 70,000 Sri Lankans currently reside in Germany and have integrated into society with ease and in some cases have excelled in chosen fields of business and even regional and national politics.
Q: The theme for the 60-year celebration by the German Embassy in Sri Lanka was “Connecting People, Linking Minds.” What was the rationale for it?
It must be said at the outset that the theme for the 60-year celebration reflects only one aspect of the German – Sri Lanka relations. The relationship between the two countries is a kaleidoscopic one. It is the job of the Ambassador to link people and civil society programmes between the two countries and the Embassy sees itself as a platform to link the German and Sri Lankan societies: Examples are alumni and business associations, cultural events, such as our street festival, and so forth. The advent of social media has made our task much easier in this regard. The aspect of linking minds reflects research, transfer of knowledge to business communities and increasing exports from both countries which makes for a healthy relationship. The demand for each other’s products exists in both the Sri Lankan and German markets and hence is not a one-sided relationship as is sometimes projected. Furthermore, the German Government’s Partner School Initiative (PASCH) aims at promoting the German language in Sri Lankan secondary schools. Currently we have three PASCH-schools in Sri Lanka, with a fourth to be opened shortly in Jaffna, which receive special support for teaching German, but I believe countrywide there are more schools where students have the opportunity to learn our language!
We at the German Embassy in Colombo see this not only as a theme for the 60-year anniversary of diplomatic relations but also as a mission statement and guideline for the future.
Q: There exists a rising discourse on the need for an international dialogue between the European Union and Asia. What would you say is the German perspective towards Sri Lanka in this regard?
For Germany, Sri Lanka is a small country and not an immediate neighbour. The countries of geographic and therefore political priority for Germany remain its immediate neighbours in the European Union and the transatlantic countries. There isn’t an institutionalised political dialogue between Germany and Sri Lanka. Political dialogue with Sri Lanka takes place through the European Union in Brussels. This is in consonance with the Common European Union Foreign Policy which engages as a regional grouping with third world countries and is the same in Sri Lanka’s case.
Germany has been multinationalising its aid programme which means that a big part of its aid is channelled through multinational institutions such as the Asian Development Programme, United Nations and the European Union. 25 per cent of the European Union is funded by Germany which also means that we make a big contribution to the EU’s development programmes in Sri Lanka.
The increasing interest in Asia is due to the growing demographic and economic strengths of the region and we recognise and acknowledge that any instability in the Asian region will in turn affect global relations and consequently our own national interests.
Q: Has this recognition of the inextricable link between Asian stability and European interests led to a shift or even alteration of previously traditional priority countries for Germany?
We do recognise new centres of priorities in addition to our traditional countries of priority and these are Asia and Latin America. Germany wants to play an active role in the globalisation process. To this end we advocate the need for structuring the process of globalisation: our most recent effort at the United Nations is the call for ground rules for the collaboration and partnership between two countries, in order to ensure that all countries have an equal share of the benefits based on their interests and strengths. This also means that Asian countries have a growing global responsibility and this is what led for example, to the expansion of the G-8 bloc to a G-20 bloc within the United Nations’ system.
Q: Could you explain in the context of political relations between Germany and Sri Lanka, the recent events surrounding the two German political foundations that have been operating in Sri Lanka, namely Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and Friedrich Naumann Stiftung?
It is rather unfortunate that the political relationship between the two countries has not developed to its full potential. Two German political foundations which have been operating in the country for over 30 years have currently suspended their activities. It has been alleged that they should have registered under the NGO Secretariat despite the existence of signed Memorandums of Understanding covering their operation in the country. As a result of misunderstanding and miscommunication, both political foundations cannot continue their work in Sri Lanka, because their very legality has been called into question.
It is a part of German policy to enter only when invited as a partner and hence we do not seek to impose ourselves when not wanted anymore.
Q: What would the German government be advocating in the lead-up to and at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva in March 2014 in relation to the assessment on Sri Lanka’s progress towards national reconciliation?
The German government partners with European Union countries in its engagement with the Government of Sri Lanka: We are keen to learn what has been achieved with regard to the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations and the previous two resolutions prior to the next session in Geneva.
Q: Could you describe the process that is undertaken in the assessment that you describe above as being in partnership with European Union countries?
I must make it clear that Germany as a country does not sit in judgment with a ‘ticking-box’ approach – the way we approach the subject is that we wait for the Sri Lankans to tell us their achievements and to what extent such successes resonate with society and the citizenry as a whole. In recent weeks there has been a fresh impetus for the implementation of recommendations of the LLRC with new initiatives and progress being recorded which is to be welcomed. Once we understand how both the Sri Lankan government and Sri Lankan civil society evaluate the progress, we adopt a common position with other European Union countries and by no means stand alone in our assessment.
Q: You seem to imply that the ‘assessment’ is not a ‘judgment’ but rather a ‘position’ that countries, including Germany and others, take at the United Nations’ Human Rights Council meetings. How can it be so when there do exist timetables and deadlines to such resolutions?
I must explain that a resolution is never intended to be a judgment or a tribunal: basically the approach is not a confrontational one as sometimes perceived; rather the international community offers a ‘tool-box’ for moving a country forward according to the values shared by UN member countries and endorsed by numerous international conventions. To this extent, a resolution is an expression of opinion of the majority of members of the body, in this case, the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. It must also be remembered that countries as members of the UN submit themselves to be audited by other members of the body and hence is not a process or instrument of imposition, but rather one of cooperation and understanding. It is important that such a clarification is made and understood by all members who participate in the United Nations’ Human Rights Council proceedings. (Eurasiareview)