The UN Chief who was in Sri Lanka for a three-day official visit told journalists in Colombo that the reconciliation will not be accomplished overnight and profound transformations in democratic societies necessarily take time.
“It is a complex process that requires continuous nurturing.”
He said victims of Sri Lanka’s decades long war “cannot wait forever” to heal their wounds and their voices for a solid, credible, transitional justice system must be heard.
Good evening, ladies and gentleman of the media.
It’s a great is an honor and a pleasure for me to visit Sri Lanka once again, especially in my last year as Secretary-General of the United Nations. This beautiful and bountiful island has so much to offer to the world.
I would like to take this opportunity to most sincerely express my warmest thanks to His Excellency President Maithripala Sirisena and His Excellency Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, and many Ministers, many people and citizens for their warm welcome and hospitality afforded to me and my delegation. I am very much touched by such warm welcome and friendship. I know that you have shown such friendship and support, not only to me, but to all of the United Nations.
Ladies and gentleman,
Since my last visit in 2009, Sri Lanka has made great progress and undergone profound changes.&nbsp
Sri Lanka has deep democratic roots, but even deep roots need nourishing. I welcome the initiative that President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe and the unity Government have undertaken to promote good governance.
Sri Lankans across the country have suffered too much from decades of violence. And people now need ways to overcome distrust between communities and mend the fabric of their society.
This country is at a crossroads, and I commend your bold decision to face the past and deal with the legacies of conflict.
The United Nations has also had to address the legacy of its actions in Sri Lanka, which did not meet the expectations of the people and the world.
We reviewed our involvement in the terrible events of that time and continue to take steps to ensure that human rights are at the centre of all our decision-making.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I have had a productive visit and met many inspiring Sri Lankans.
Here in Colombo, I delivered a speech on the Sustainable Development Agenda, in particular, Goal 16, which reinforces people’s demands for more just, transparent, and accountable institutions and a more responsive, participatory Government.
Sri Lanka has much to gain from achieving Goal 16 and all the Sustainable Development Goals.
I visited the North of the country Jaffna, today, and saw an enormous contrast with my experience there in 2009. Great progress has been made in alleviating the problems associated with mass displacement.
When I was there almost seven years ago, they were all staying in refugee tents. Now they have been building brick houses. While I was also sad to see that they are still suffering from all of these, I saw that they were very busy, they were making their own lives with the help of the international community, UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] and other United Nations agencies.
In Jaffna, I also met the Tamil political leadership, the Governor and civil society to exchange views regarding the Government’s efforts to advance transitional justice and peacebuilding and reconciliation.
In the South, I spoke to a large gathering of young people and listened to their views.
While I have been meeting many youth groups – they were quite innovative and creative and committed to work as the leaders of today and tomorrow, to contribute to their society and to the world.
Reconciliation will not be accomplished overnight. It is a complex process that requires continuous nurturing.
Reconciliation asks all of you to do something almost unimaginable.
It asks you to overcome all the harm done, the torture, the murders and extrajudicial executions, the suicide bombings, the disappearances and forced recruitments, the suffering and violence – to transcend your grief and your pain.
It asks you to overcome – but not to forget – the loss of your loved ones.
It calls on you to try to heal the wounds and begin to see each other as people, as part of the same country and same human family.
Profound transformations in democratic societies necessarily take time.
I commend the unity Government for taking steps to pursue truth-seeking and accountability mechanisms and to deal with the grievances of people in the North and the East. I welcome the establishment of an office of missing persons and the process to reform the constitution to achieve a political settlement.
These are positive steps, but more needs to be done.
Victims cannot wait forever. They deserve to have their voices heard. They deserve credible, transparent and solid transitional justice mechanisms. I welcome the Government’s efforts on widespread consultations.
In all my meetings with the senior government and high military leadership, I stressed that it is important to seize the opportunity to provide all of your people with truth, justice, security and prosperity.
The United Nations offers you its unwavering commitment and its full support as you build a peaceful and harmonious Sri Lanka.
Thank you very much.
Question on the pace of the reconciliation process.
SG: The United Nations and the Sri Lankan Government have been discussing, consulting on all matters for a long time, since immediately after the end of this crisis, in 2009, [when] I was here.
As you know, there was a joint statement agreed between me and then-President Rajapaksa. We established a Panel of Experts and the Government also established the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. There were mutual efforts, but all these aspirations and concerns and also mechanisms have not materialized until recently.
In that regard, I commend President Sirisena. Since his inauguration, he has been taking bold actions to talk about reconciliation and to talk about the transitional justice mechanisms and also constitutional reform and, at the same time, socio-economic development and recovery. These are challenging.
At the same time, when the Government has made that kind of programme, these should be carried out. That’s why I have been asking civil society, high-level leadership, political leadership, government leadership, and just citizens to show a sense of unity and solidarity and compassion.
I think that all these processes should be a credible, particularly credible and observant to those people affected, families and victims and communities, people whose communities have been severely affected. I count on the leadership of this country to fully cooperate and show their leadership. The UN will continue to help through peacebuilding processes.
Question on the progress made since the Secretary-General’s visit in 2009.
SG: There’s a huge difference between 2009 and now. [In that] lapse of time, seven years, with the change of Government, and with the active involvement of the international community, of the United Nations, through the Human Rights Council, through the Peacebuilding Support Office and the Peacebuilding Fund, and also through partners of Sri Lanka, you are receiving the full support and sympathy and consideration and very friendly support.
You are receiving recognition and appreciation, unlike in the past. It has been rather difficult sometimes, even for me, to talk with the Government leadership. There was some gap between the expectation of the international community and the level of what the Government had been doing. Now I think, even though we are not fully there, the level of [this] gap, we can reduce [it] as soon as possible.
I have spoken earnestly, and advised, talked to the President and the Prime Minister. There are competing challenges for this country.
First of all, you have to address so many difficult economic and social issues. There is so much desire, honest desire by people to have reconciliation and constitutional reform, reconciliation – it may take longer time than one may expect but that doesn’t mean that you have to take as long as you want.
As I said in my earlier remarks, the victims and families who have been affected, they cannot wait forever. The sooner you address this, the better and the quicker your country will be able to step towards sustainable prosperity and peace.
This morning, in my statement, in my speech on sustaining peace and sustainable development, I said they should go together. When there is sustainable peace, it will be much easier for your country to devote your time and resources in sustainable development. And if you make social-economic progress with peace, it will be much easier to make sustainable peace.
Question on double standards being used by the United Nations regarding Sri Lanka.
SG: With respect to you and all of you, I would not agree that there has been or there is a double standard on the part of the United Nations. We have one standard, one value, one vision when we work with Member States and, in particular, when we work with countries and people who have been suffering like this.
There might be it is true that there was some bad work and level of achievement, lack of involvement by the United Nations. That I admitted already in my statement and that’s what we have admitted a long time ago. We really wanted to see why it had happened to that level, what and how the United Nations could have done better in Sri Lanka, particularly at the time of the last few months of 2009. I launched an investigation, an internal investigation, just [on] the work of the United Nations. We found there was a lapse, and a lack of involvement on the part of the United Nations.
That is why I again emphasized – found a way of emphasizing the importance of keeping people’s lives, safety and human rights – [by launching] the Human Rights Upfront Initiative. This is not only for Sri Lanka, we learned from Sri Lanka, but this policy will be applied to all the countries around the world.
To your mind, there may be some perception, some problem, that the United Nations might have taken some different standard but that’s not true. We are one United Nations. We are working as one team. There is one Universal Declaration of Human Rights and there is one United Nations Charter. I hope you will understand this. Thank you.
Question on the United Nations involvement in reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.
SG: I think that the whole Sri Lankan Government and the United Nations are involved in this process. There may be some differences of the level of involvement or differences of advancement, progress in major issues.
I would say that there are three major areas in which the UN, United Nations, is working. One is reconciliation – I think that you have to do. Then there is the transitional justice mechanism – that I think you have to work together with the international community, with the United Nations.
The Human Rights Council in October last year has adopted a resolution recommending the Sri Lankan Government to establish a credible transitional justice system, credible both nationally and internationally. It should be credible to the standard of your concerns and international concerns. (UN)