The British Government has taken a very active role on the Sri Lankan issue, especially at the UN Human Rights Council. In a wide ranging interview with The Sunday Leader the British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, John Rankin, spoke about the UK position on Sri Lanka, talks Britain has with the diaspora and the potential Sri Lanka has for investments.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Does the British Government see positive developments in Sri Lanka in the recent months and a more concerted effort to address the human rights issue?
A. Nobody should mourn the end of LTTE terrorism. We welcome the economic growth which is taking place in Sri Lanka. We welcome the infrastructure development which is taking place, including in the North and East. We also welcome the progress the Government has made, for example in resettling Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), although that issue is not completely resolved and there are still IDPs who are unable to return to their own land.
So all these things are welcome but we also have concerns. We have concerns over accountability for events which occurred during the final stages of the conflict. People have questions over what’s happened to their loved ones and they understandably want answers. Those questions are not going to go away and Sri Lanka’s own LLRC report set out the need for an investigation in important areas.
Secondly we would like to see progress towards achieving a long term political settlement in the country. And we have concerns about the current human rights situation, over freedom of expression, freedom for journalists to be able to go about their business unhindered. We are concerned about the level of militarization in the North and East of the country. We understand why the army is in different bits of Sri Lanka, but we would like to see military levels being normalized and we would like to see the military less engaged in civilian activities. We are also concerned about the situation of women.
The level of domestic violence, the level of sexual violence that takes place here, and we continue to hope that Sri Lanka might join over three-quarter of the world’s countries in signing up to the prevention of sexual violence in conflict initiative.
Q: Is the British Government satisfied over the measures taken to address some of the concerns you raised through domestic mechanisms?
A: The UK has consistently called for a credible, independent and transparent domestic process to investigate allegations of human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law. As I say the LLRC report made a number of important recommendations in this area. We note that the Commission of Missing Persons has had its mandate expanded and that international advisers have been appointed to assist in its work. We wait to see the outcome of that process. We hope that might be able to shed light on some of the events that had occurred. We also are aware that the witness protection bill has been introduced to parliament and we hope that it will be passed soon and that the relevant law will be fully implemented.
But at the same time the Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva, passed by a very clear majority, has also mandated a United Nations investigation into the events here and the human rights situation. UK strongly supports that UN investigation which will go ahead at the same time as any domestic process. We continue to urge the Sri Lankan Government to cooperate with that international investigation and we have made clear that there must not be intimidation of those seeking to give evidence to the UN investigation.
Q: How do you see the view of the Government that a UN led investigation is interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs?
A: There have been similar investigations in other countries. This is not an interference in a domestic process. Sri Lanka is a party to major international human rights conventions, including the international convention on civil and political rights. The UK is also part of that convention and most countries in the world are. It is entirely legitimate for one country to ask another to abide by its international commitments and if a State fails to abide by its international commitments, and fails to address these issues domestically it is then legitimate for the international community to call for an international investigation.
Q: And would you also expect a time frame by when a domestic investigation should end and a report made public?
A: I think it is important that people can understand when the process can be completed. It is now over 5 years since the end of Sri Lanka’s conflict. Not every issue can necessarily be resolved overnight. But we would like to see speedy implementation of the LLRC recommendations and hope that the Commission on Missing Persons can produce substantive results in investigating our areas of concerns.
Q: When looking at moving forward and reaching a political solution, is there a major role the British Government feels the Tamil Diaspora can play to achieve that goal?
A: First of all we hope there can be a long term political settlement. I think the diaspora can be a constructive part of that process in reaching a settlement. The LTTE has been, and remains a proscribed organization in the UK. But groups which maybe sometimes critical of the Sri Lankan government, but which do not espouse violence, can be a legitimate part of the process. We don’t believe that the Sri Lankan proscription of diaspora groups is conducive to a successful reconciliation process, and indeed we raised our concerns with the Sri Lankan Government that proscription of groups who are committed to peaceful means must not be used to stifle their free speech or legitimate criticism.
Q: So does that mean Britain does not recognize the ban imposed on some of the diaspora groups by the Sri Lankan Government?
A: Well these groups have not been proscribed under UK law. They have been proscribed under Sri Lankan law. But as groups which are not using violence or supporting violence, we believe it continues to be legitimate to meet. I should also say that there is a diverse diaspora in the UK. I as High Commissioner, when I’m back in London, have met groups from all communities. So I’ve met Sinhalese groups, I’ve met Tamil groups, I’ve met Muslim groups, I’ve met groups with different views on the position here in Sri Lanka. That consultation is a normal part of the British political process. But the decisions on UK policy are made by our Ministers having considered all the evidence and they are not determined by any single group.
Q: On the issue of militarization, the government, as you are aware, has been saying there is still a threat from the LTTE and so the Government needs to maintain a military presence in the North and East. In your view, is that a legitimate concern?
A: I’m not saying there should be no military presence in the North and the East of the country. Rather we hope the level of military can be normalized. Of course if there is a genuine terrorist threat one can understand why the Sri Lankan government wants to combat that threat. But we hope, for example, that military engagement in civilian activities can be reduced so the local population in the area can carry out those civilian activities which would help create a more normal situation, which we believe in turn would help to increase stability in the country.
Q: How does Britain see the position taken by the Tamil National Alliance to boycott the Parliament Select Committee (PSC) on the National issue until some of its demands are met even when the Government says the PSC is the only way forward to reach a political solution?
A: We will welcome progress towards a political solution. Precisely how that is achieved is for the parties to decide among them. So what we hope is that a way through could be found to get an effective dialogue going between the Tamil National Alliance, the Government and other parties who have an interest in this area. So we don’t have a set view on how that has to be achieved but we think it is important that the sides come together to find a way to have that dialogue.
We welcomed the elections that took place for the Northern Provincial Council. We hope that the Northern Provincial Council will be able to operate fully to carry out its full responsibilities.
Q: The political and human rights issue aside, how closely is Britain working with Sri Lanka on the development side? Is the British Government looking at increasing investments here?
A: UK provides aid in two ways to Sri Lanka. The first is through direct funding of a number of projects here. When Prime Minister David Cameron was here in November he announced a further 2.1 Million Pounds for de-mining work and we fund the Halo Trust (UK based organization) for that de-mining work. That’s really practical assistance. They are helping clear land to help people return to their land and put it to productive use.
We helped to fund women’s organizations, helping to assist women who may face challenges within their communities. And we support community policing training.
Helping to develop the model of the police working effectively with the communities in tackling law and order issues. As part of that we are helping to fund more Tamil language training for the police so that the police can better engage with their local communities.
Beyond our de-mining work, we no longer have a broader UK aid program in this country which we used to have because Sri Lanka is now a middle-income country so it is no longer eligible for broader funding from our department of international development.
But of course the UK is a major contributor to the European Union (EU) and the EU has major programs here, including in housing and helping to improve livelihoods and the UK continues to support those projects through the EU.
Q: There is this thought among some groups, particularly the Tamil diaspora that Britain should cut aid to Sri Lanka in order to send a clear message to the Government that it wants to see progress on the human rights issue. Is that a fair demand?
A: I think the areas we are currently funding, in de-mining work, in community policing is money well spent. I think it’s helping to make a practical difference on the ground for people in the country, including in the North and East of the country. So I remain committed to projects of that nature. What I am convinced of is that if the areas of concern that I have outlined are addressed, it can help to create greater stability in the country, and will help, for an example make the country more attractive for those who want to come and further invest in Sri Lanka. So I think if Sri Lanka can address those areas of concern it will be welcome to the UK and it will also help Sri Lanka move forward.
Q: The British media has been reporting on alleged incidents where failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers who are sent back by Britain are at times tortured or abused on their return. Are these reports authentic and does your High Commission monitor the safety of returnees?
A: The UK has a proud record of fully respecting its international obligations in relation to asylum seekers. Those who are returned know how to get in touch with the UK authorities, if they so choose. But we are satisfied we are fulfilling our obligations in this regard.
Q: How is Sri Lanka seen as a tourist destination by Britain? Has there been a drop or increase in UK tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka lately?
A: Tourism figures have actually gone up. Tourism from the UK is the second largest source of tourism to Sri Lanka after India.
Up to August this year tourism figures were up 5.4 percent from 2013. UK tourists tend to stay here and spend more than tourists from other countries. Sri Lanka has huge natural advantages in terms of the seas, beaches, forests and cultural heritage. So this remains an important area of tourism growth.
Going forward it’s important that our tourists feel safe. There are cases of attacks on UK tourists from the UK or from other countries. That is an area of concern. Our travel advice, advises tourists on the risk. It is important that British tourists, when they come here, can enjoy the beauty and feel safe.
Q: Is Britain satisfied with the outcome of the investigations and judicial proceedings in relation to the murder of British tourist Khuram Shaikh?
A: Khuram Shaikh case was a dreadful case. it was a dreadful killing of a British national, who was a man carrying out very good work for the Red Cross in the Middle East and a dreadful sexual assault on his Russian partner.
When the verdict in the Khuram Shaikh case was issued the UK Government issued a statement and welcomed the fact that the case had reached a conclusion and thanked the Attorney General’s Department for the work it carried out in bringing the prosecution and we hope it would help bring some closure for Khuram’s family.
Q: On the investment side, do we see a lot of British investments in Sri Lanka? Are there some changes the British Government would like to see in the system to allow more investments?
A: We got over 100 British companies operating successfully in Sri Lanka. Big companies like HSBC, Standard Chartered, Unilever, Glaxosmithkline and the London Stock Exchange Group are doing good business here. And of course the growth rate in Sri Lanka makes this an attractive country for UK investors. We will hope to bring over a significant UK trade delegation at the end of November to further explore the investment opportunities in the country.
I think in terms of attracting further Foreign Direct Investments (FDI), companies would welcome if there were less red tape and bureaucracy to be going through. The more the Government can tackle corruption, the more that will help attract companies from the UK to come into the market here. Companies also want certainty of contract. They want to know that their contracts will not be subject to arbitrary decision making.
Sri Lanka tops the World Bank’s ‘easy to do business’ index in South Asia. If they can address those areas I have mentioned they can move further up that table. We hope that the legislation currently gone through on foreign ownership of property here will not act as a deterrent to FDI. I should also say we believe having UK companies coming here with the ethical standards which they abide to and the transparent management can help further improve the commercial environment here in Sri Lanka.
Q: Do British companies find it difficult to compete in a market where Chinese companies seem to be given more leverage?
A: China is investing in many countries around the world, including in the UK. I am glad to say that British companies are continuing to win contacts in this market, particularly where there is an advantage in the skills and techniques they can offer. So I remain hopeful there will continue to be good investment opportunities for UK here.
Q: With Presidential elections expected to take place here there is a lot being said. Some in the Government even feel the West is attempting to push for a regime change here. How do you see those views?
A: It’s absolutely not for the UK Government to take a view on who should win elections here. All we hope for is a free and fair election process so that the people in Sri Lanka as a whole can democratically express wish. We will respect whoever is democratically elected after the next elections.
The UK believes Sri Lanka is a country with great potential. We want to support a democratic, stable country. The reason that we raise issues of concern is not because we are an enemy of Sri Lanka. We are a friend of Sri Lanka but a frank and honest friend of Sri Lanka.
Our belief is by addressing these areas of concern, it can further enhance the stability of Sri Lanka, democracy in Sri Lanka and allow the country to reach its full potential. (Sunday Leader)