A: We have been heavily involved in the post-conflict situation and the post-tsunami situation, with humanitarian aid. We have been shifting our aid program progressively from humanitarian aid, to post conflict, to normal development. We are building 20,000 houses for displaced families; in fact we are looking to see whether we can add to that figure, so that it will be 23,000 by the time we finish. We have repaired over 200 schools and we have built local infrastructure to help to rebuild communities.
Obviously we have been working primarily in parts of the north and the east. We hope with the new aid program to build on that but also to move into some areas that are new for us. The new program will be poverty-focused rural integration and development. That will take us not only to the north and the east, where we have already been, but also to the plantation areas, where the poverty statistics are very high and there is a large degree of vulnerability and malnutrition.
All of that is in line with the overall economic strategy of the Government of Sri Lanka – the Mahinda Chinthana. We always strive to make it where our priorities and what we would like to do, match with what the country itself wishes to do. This is important for the long-term sustainability of the measures that we take.
There is also the question of EU member states – we have our own rich and varied experience. Post conflict is at the heart of the origins of the European Union after all. Reconciliation processes – this is something we have a lot of experience on, and like other partners of Sri Lanka around the world, we were very happy to offer our experience to Sri Lanka. Not on the basis that you take the full EU experience and you plonk it down in Sri Lanka. But there may well be aspects of our experience, what we have done well, what we have done less well, which Sri Lanka might find useful.
As I say, Europe is not alone in that. I know that your President has a keen interest in the South African experience. We also have hope there. If there is something in the South African experience that can inspire Sri Lanka, all the better. Our concern is for Sri Lanka.
Q: When you offered this expertise in reconciliation from the EU, what has the response from the Government been?
A: I think we have come through a rocky sort of dialogue. The dialogue was not all that strong for a number of years. But I have been lucky, because shortly after I arrived here last year we had a very high official-level meeting here in Sri Lanka. This was prepared by my predecessor and I was simply fortunate. But it represented the first of those high-level dialogues in a number of years. So that was a very positive experience. I am working with the Government and the Foreign Ministry on a follow up to that discussion.
Q: EU member states have formed a bulk of the co-sponsors of the UNHRC resolutions ever since the Council began engaging on Sri Lanka. How does that impact your engagement in Colombo?
A: I think that we have to remember that the essence of diplomatic work is precisely to strive to engage with people with whom you do not necessarily agree. That’s at the heart of all diplomatic work. To understand their position better, to explain your position and to try and have an influence.
From that point of view, that simply represents a challenge that we have and which I face every day. It is a challenge that my colleagues and counterparts at the Foreign Ministry and other parts of the Government also face. That’s the challenge.
Q: Do you find that after the UNHRC sessions in Geneva in March each year, engagement becomes tougher in Colombo?
A: I can’t really answer in terms of it usually being like this or that. I think the resolution in Geneva is obviously a very serious issue. It is an issue not to be underestimated or downplayed. In my interactions with my counterparts in the Sri Lankan Government I have found that there is the same desire to continue an engagement with the EU. Both sides recognise that it also means having a dialogue on these difficult issues, where we don’t see the situation the same way. But as I said, this is at the heart of our diplomatic work. If we didn’t want to do it, then we are in the wrong jobs!
I found that there is still a very strong engagement on the Sri Lankan side, wanting to see how we can do this. I think we both want to see not only our discussions on these difficult issues – human rights violations, allegations and so on – but also to broaden the range of issues that we discuss. I think that is something we are agreed on. We have important discussions on trade issues, fishing issues, on research and technological development.
Last month for example I facilitated a meeting in Brussels between the European Commissioner for Research and the Sri Lankan Minister for Scientific Affairs.
Q: If you take the UNHRC, as a bloc, the EU is very strong on the Sri Lanka issue there. Can you explain the motivations? Why is the EU preoccupied with human rights and accountability in Sri Lanka?
A: I would point to three major considerations. The first of course is the genuine concern for the long-term stability and prosperity of Sri Lanka. Our European experience shows the importance of reconciliation processes and of having those processes address the underlining political issues in situations where you have divided communities.
We have our own experience from Northern Ireland, from the Balkans and even from the foundation of the EU itself. The reconciliation processes between Germany and other countries in Europe. This is the foundation on which the EU was constructed. Our concern is that Sri Lanka will safeguard its stability and prosperity by addressing these issues.
The second thing is the place of human rights and values in the EU. The EU could not have been born if not for the reconciliation processes between France and Germany and so on. That process itself could not have happened if those countries and the peoples had not accepted the high standard of striving for human rights values. Human rights, democracy, rule of law – these are intrinsic to understanding how the EU was born. How come these countries chose freely to come together to do things together, which in the past they had done separately. Those values are not sideline issues for the EU. They are fundamental to understanding the EU.
Thirdly, the EU itself is a form of multilateralism. The EU is a strong supporter of rules, dialogue and systems across the world. Top of the list on that is of course the UN. We believe strongly in a world governed by rules, with institutions to police those rules. The UN Human Rights Council is an extremely important forum for the EU. This is something the world has created because of its desire to assist those issues across the world. So we are a very strong supporter of the UN and that is also part of the motivation.
Sometimes I see in parts of the Sri Lankan press that European countries are interested in regime change. That to my mind is totally outlandish. I wouldn’t accept for a moment that this is any part of the European motivation.
Q: The Sri Lankan Government regularly accuses “Western” states, a generalisation in which the EU is included in, of prejudging the issues and not providing enough time and space for the reconciliation process to take off. Is five years long enough after 30 years of conflict?
A: The first thing to say is that in the EU we certainly recognise the fact that the war is over and that the conflict is over; this is itself a great thing. It transforms the situation in Sri Lanka. It creates new opportunities. The EU considers the LTTE a terrorist organisation and it is banned throughout the EU. The other thing is to acknowledge that any post conflict situation and any reconciliation process is very complex. This is not something that is instant, it takes time.
Are five years enough? The question itself is too simple. On the one hand, it depends on what has been done. There are certain aspects of the reconciliation process; some aspects can be pricklier than others. Some could take many years.
Now we have seen that the Government of Sri Lanka is indeed addressing many of the LLRC recommendations. This is good. But it is also slow. The sort of reports I get from the ground level indicate that it is going far too slowly. It will be good to tackle that more vigorously.
The Commission on Disappearances is also a good thing. But it needs to be strengthened, if it is to successfully meet the huge task it faces. The Government organised the elections in the Northern Province last year. It is something that deserves congratulations. But again something that has presented a new situation in the north with new political opportunities to move forward in the reconciliation process. Our wish is to see all sides take those new opportunities that have been created and use them constructively in the reconciliation process.
Now all of that said, it also is the case – because reality is complex – as far as we see, we have not seen the Government conduct an independent credible investigation into the allegations of human rights violations and violations of humanitarian law, with a view to accountability. A critical element is a political solution. We understand that the President is keenly interested in the reconciliation process in South Africa. We welcome that. We hope it can inspire Sri Lanka in its own domestic political process. But this is something which is needed and it must address the underlying grievances that exist.
Q: If Sri Lanka delivers on a political solution to the Tamil people, is accountability in Sri Lanka still going to be an outstanding issue for the EU? Are the political solution and human rights tied together, internationally?
A: I think that basically these things go hand in hand. I think a political solution must address a range of issues. It must address human rights and issues of accountability. They must also address issues of security, for example. All of these issues must be addressed in a reasonable and balanced way. So I think it is difficult to extract one from the other.
One aspect for accountability is if people generally in any country, Sri Lanka or anywhere else, are held accountable; that is something that works its way through society. People learn that there are rules and laws and cases that are followed. All of that is part of the fabric of a normal democratic country. If you don’t have that then you run the risk of people believing they can act with immunity. So I think these issues are all intimately linked. I would not be part of it, but I would imagine that a political process aimed at a political solution would have to cover all these issues. But that would be up to the actors themselves.
Q: What happens if Sri Lanka fails to comply with the resolution and refuses to grant access to the OHCHR investigators as it has repeatedly threatened to do? What’s the next step?
A: It would be a very great shame if Sri Lanka did not cooperate. Engagement with the UN is important. I know that Sri Lanka has engagement with different parts of the UN system. But it should also have engagement on this issue. Having Sri Lanka under the focus of the Human Rights Council for a number of years in a row, with resolutions and so on – this is a serious situation. It would be a shame if there was no engagement leading to cooperation. Personally I believe in engagement and dialogue, otherwise you may miss opportunities that are there if you don’t take them. And that is also an opportunity for Sri Lanka to get its message across. Where failure to cooperate would lead to? We can’t say exactly now. But it would have to lead somewhere, because this is the world’s Human Rights Council that has adopted this resolution. So again I would stress the serious nature of the issue and very much hope Sri Lanka will agree to cooperate. Also with Paragraph 2 of the resolution that calls for Sri Lanka to carry out its own investigation.
Q: Is the EU considering compliance with the ban on the 16 Tamil organisations recently listed by the Sri Lankan Government? External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris briefed the Colombo-based diplomats two weeks ago. Has the Government provided the necessary evidence?
A: The short answer is no. But the longer is no because that was not the nature of the briefing last week. It was not the kind of briefing designed to give that kind of evidence. That evidence is itself very sensitive and should be conveyed by the Government to the authorities of individual countries including European countries, directly and through their own secure channels. He made it clear that Sri Lanka would be willing to do that, and that is something that would be absolutely necessary. It would be a basic precondition of our countries to be able to evaluate that evidence.
It is one thing for the Government of Sri Lanka to have reached a conclusion that there is evidence that is so compelling that it can list these organisations. But those organisations are totally legal in European countries. For an European Government to change that position, it would need also to be convinced by the evidence which the Government of Sri Lanka will share. It would need to be convinced that it is necessary to take that measure in Britain and Germany and France, or whatever country.
Q: Is the EU concerned about the Government’s claim about the resurgence of terrorism in the north?
A: I think nobody would ever take that sort of issue lightly. It always has to be taken seriously. But then it has to be seriously evaluated. As I said earlier, security issues are perfectly legitimate. But everything has to be in a certain balance. Nothing should be exaggerated out of that balance. That also applies to security issues. The Government has made it clear that it has acted in a way to nip terrorist activity in the bud; and if that is true, then nobody would argue with that.
Q: Large sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora have made their homes in European countries. How far do their concerns and compulsions influence EU policy on Sri Lanka?
A: On the one hand it would be naive to think they would have no influence whatsoever. Because in democratic societies like European member states, interest groups that are well organised tend to have a voice. They ensure that that voice is heard. That’s what freedom of association, freedom of speech leads to. So that would mean that they tend to be listened to, to some degree. The question is to what degree. And that I would think is greatly exaggerated from here. I think the view from Sri Lanka is greatly exaggerated. One test of that is that the position taken on the Sri Lanka question is the position of all 28 member states of the EU. Now not all 28 EU member states have a Tamil diaspora. So that is something to be borne in mind. A second thing related to that is to note that the EU is strong when it is united and it is united only when everyone agrees. An example of that is indeed of the resolution on Sri Lanka. A counter example is that issues come along when member states do not all agree. You will find that when it came to another issue in Geneva, member states voted differently. It’s not preordained that the EU always has a position, because having a position means getting 28 Governments to support it.
The question of diaspora influence – one way of looking at the issue, if you step back from it, is that one way to reduce the influence of the diaspora is to have a strong domestic political process with the Tamils of Sri Lanka or the north of Sri Lanka for reconciliation.
Q: What kind of trade related assistance does the EU foresee giving Sri Lanka via its bilateral programs?
A: Our main aid program is poverty and vulnerability focused. But we do have funds for trade facilitation. In December last year, the WTO reached an agreement on a trade facilitation at Bali, and part of that whole negotiation also involves developed countries helping developing countries meet their obligations. So that is something we are talking with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce on. Sri Lanka is currently assessing its needs in that regard, and we will continue that conversation. If Sri Lanka has particular needs that fall into our prioritisation as well, I would be anxious to further that dialogue.
Q: Europe Day is an important day in the EU calendar. Looking back at European integration what are the key achievements up to date in your view?
A: I think there have been many achievements. One of the first has been the vindication of, to a large extent, the political vision of the founding fathers of the EU. Which was that if we could find a new way of cooperating between ourselves as countries, by giving up one portion of national sovereignty and putting it on the table for decision by all of us collectively – what we call supra-nationalism – if we do that on certain issues, over time it will lead to something much broader. The EU started off with a desire to regulate the management of those industries that you need in order to conduct war. Steel, coal, iron – these industries are necessary for waging war. Putting those industries on the table and agreeing that it would no longer be purely national management of those industries was a huge step in itself as an attempt to break out of war. The EU was born out of a desire to break out of a cycle of war. The political vision of the founding fathers was that over time we would see the value of expanding that cooperation in other areas. Over time it has gone from six countries in Europe starting off with the coal and steel issues, to 28 countries of the EU today dealing with a whole range of issues.(Financial Times)