The visiting British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Office Hugo Swire in a brief interview with the Sunday Observer says relations between Sri Lanka and Britain could be reset under the new Government.
British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Office Hugo Swire
Swire whose responsibilities in the Foreign Office includes South Asia added that his Government is willing to assist Sri Lanka overcome issues that deprived the country of GSP+ tax concessions.
“I had the first bi-lateral meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena. I think that itself is symbolic.”
” We are excited for this new phase,” he said.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: How was your trip to Jaffna, was it your first trip?
A: That’s the first time I have been to Jaffna. I’ve always wanted to go to Jaffna. I was unable to go there when I came for CHOGM in 2013. Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jaffna.
We had a very busy day. I was able to have a meeting with the Chief Minister and went to the British Council, and to see a de-mining project funded by the HALO trust to see how they were getting on.
I’m pleased that UK had been able to finance it. ( The UK has contributed over £5 million towards de-mining in Sri Lanka since 2009.)
We went to a village of displaced people and saw some children. I went to the library and gave them some books. We met some journalists. We had a pretty action packed itinerary in Jaffna.
Today I had meetings with the newly appointed Governor of the Northern province.
Q: Do you bring any special message to the newly appointed Government from the British government?
A: A message of engagement and friendship. The relationship between UK and Sri Lanka goes back a long way. It has gone through some difficult challenges recently. But I think we reset the relationship.
We agree with a lot of issues. We talked a lot about the Chair in office of the Commonwealth which we are very keen about. There are many different areas that they want the British to help and we stand by to help them in these different areas.
So I think bi-lateral relations are reset, and as I said I had the first bi-lateral meeting with the President.
I think it itself is symbolic. I said we could reset the relationship, to where it was before, I think we can do it even better than that. We are very excited for this new phase.
Q: What are the chances for Sri Lanka to reinstate GSP + tax concessions as well as the fish exports to the EU and could Britain take a lead role in helping Sri Lanka?
They had GSP + before and there were issues of some human rights aspects of it, and we are working with them through the High Commission. They are very keen to get it back, we are certainly working with them to assist them.
On the fishing issue, that’s more of an issue of compliance and some of the ships lacking the necessary equipment. They (Sri Lanka) have ordered some equipment from a Danish company – vessel monitoring system. We also have British companies who would be happy to assist as well, because they need to get these equipment very quickly and install them. Then the ban will be lifted.
Q: What are the chances for Sri Lanka to get a quick reinstatement?
A: They have to get the vessel monitoring system in place and as soon as they have done that the rest will be pretty straightforward. It is important for Sri Lanka and the fishing industry.
Q: There is a new government in place now?
A: The new Government is interesting. They have a 100 day program and they show everyday what they have marked out to achieve. It was the day of mini budget yesterday. And certainly they are on course so far.
Q: Did you discuss any future areas of joint action between the two countries with the President and other officials?
A: Yes we discussed a whole range of issues. We are trying to absorb some of the areas we have been asked for assistance. We have a visit, later in the year, from Lord Mayor of London who would bring some financial services experts. We discussed how we can improve educational links, we discussed how we can assist in good governance, in accountancy procedures – a whole range of ways UK can help Sri Lanka, particularly, with this new government who want to reset their relationship with the rest of the world. That is something we welcome.
Q: The LTTE is a banned outfit in 30 odd countries including the EU. But we see protests and events, many of which seem to be politically motivated, taking place under Tiger flag on British soil. Why haven’t we seen any action by the Government to stop these?
A: I think we have to be clear on this. The LTTE were De-proscribed by the EU but the UK have appealed that and so they still remain a proscribed organisation in the EU. In the UK, the LTTE remains proscribed anyway. We have argued that they should remain proscribed, however the previous government also proscribed a whole lot of Tamil organisations which we see no reason for them to have proscribed. Hopefully this new government will share that view as well.
We have a big Tamil community in the United Kingdom. The vast majority of them are totally peaceful businessmen and women. If there are occasions when some of them wear a T-shirt or flag of the LTTE, that is an illegal act for a proscribed organisation and that is a police matter and not a government matter to prosecute.
Q: Is it not correct if I say LTTE fronts have misused your liberal policies to regroup and pose a threat to Sri Lanka?
A: I don’t recognise that accusation at all. I think that is rhetoric from a group of people who don’t understand the facts on the ground. The LTTE is a proscribed organisation. If you can show me evidence that there has been fund raising by groups in the UK and the money has been coming back here to do bad things, show me that evidence and I will give that straight to the British Police.
But I think that is wrong. I think majority of Tamils in the UK are emotionally attached to the Northern province, the areas they come from and their relations are still here. But to suggest in some way, every Tamil in the UK is linked to the LTTE, is an outrageous assertion to make.
Q: With the change of Government, what will happen to the human rights probe initiated by the UNHRC against Sri Lanka? Reports suggest that they have already wrapped it up.
A: I don’t have any knowledge where they are now. The UK was one of the leading countries who wanted to get this motion from the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. I think we were right to do that. I am not aware that they have completed their inquiries. I do not know where you get that from.
They may have but I have no knowledge. The UK is not part of that process, this is run by the High Commissioner Prince Zeid. And he would be engaging in his own way with the object of the inquiry, this being Sri Lanka.
Hopefully Sri Lanka will react in a constructive way. From what I heard from the present Government, they do want to address these issues.
They do want to look at all the allegations to see which ones are true and which ones are not. And they will listen to carefully to what the international community, through the UN mechanism, says.
At the same time they want to continue with their own internal investigation through the LLRC and the disappearances commission as well. All these things are beginning to come together, I think the government of Sri Lanka will work out a way on how the situation should move on.
Q: Will the British government support the internal investigation by the Sri Lankan Government ?
A: We haven’t been asked to support any internal investigation by Sri Lanka. If anything the British Government had done is actually to encourage other member states of the UNHRC to get a motion which we did in Geneva to launch this human rights probe, that’s the limit to what the United Kingdom has done.