Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture

BlairIt is a great pleasure and honour to be giving this Lakshman Kadirgamar lecture at the Institute which bears his name. Before I say anything else I should say one thing at the conclusion of two weeks’ vacation here: I love Sri Lanka. This is truly an amazing country and we have had the best time. I have to say the last two weeks have been bliss because they have been free from speeches but when I was asked to do this, I wanted to, not only as a mark of respect to the country but also as a mark of respect to Lakshman for all that he achieved and accomplished.

He was a brilliant lawyer, and I know a thing about brilliant lawyers as I am married to one. He was a distinguished statesman and he was also renowned internationally. When he died so tragically 10 years ago the outpouring of respect did not only come from Sri Lanka but from his many friends and admirers from around the world, paying tribute for what he achieved for this country but also for the cause of peace. He was a huge believer in equality between people of different faiths. This fascinates me and takes up a large part of what I do today.

He believed in a Sri Lanka where all people were equal under one law, so Mrs. Kadirgamar thank you very much for inviting me to give this speech in honour of your husband. It is genuinely an honour to be here with you and with so many distinguished members of society in Sri Lanka and to offer you my thoughts at this very important moment, almost a junction between the past and future where Sri Lanka finds itself.

I’m just back from the Middle East, which was the one break in my holiday. I went back to try and contribute to its peace process there. This was actually my 150th visit to Jerusalem since leaving office, although as Cherie once pointed out to me, it’s not the number of visits you make it’s the progress that counts; which I did not think was very supportive by the way, but unfortunately it is true. Not all peace processes end in success. It can take some a very long time to succeed, but in the experience of Northern Ireland we did. However it is worth pointing out we succeeded after, according to some calculations, decades of conflict, and others, centuries of conflict on the island of Ireland. And that is an important lesson in itself to realise, that however tough things seem and however intractable problems are, it is always worth striving for peace because you never know the moment at which peace becomes possible. Here in Sri Lanka for many years you had conflict of a terrifying nature where so many innocent people lost their lives. Today that conflict has ended and the pursuit of reconciliation has begun.

Now each conflict always has its own characteristics, therefore when you compare the experience of Northern Ireland with that of Sri Lanka you have to do so with caution because the circumstances are so different. Having had experience now in different parts of the world since leaving office including, but not limited to, the Middle East it is true that conflict comes in an array of different circumstances and characteristics. It is also true that peace-making and reconciliation have characteristics which are common to whatever the circumstances or whatever the origins of conflict were. With peace comes enormous opportunity, and we can feel this as visitors to Sri Lanka, it is in the air, and it is important that someone from outside tells you of the excitement the world feels about where Sri Lanka can go. So in your pursuit of reconciliation you have many long standing friends who want you to succeed but you also have new interest in the country and what it can do. Even in the two weeks we have been here it is evident that this country has beauty, a remarkable variety of beauty. It has an extraordinary history. When we went to see Anuradhapura, this ancient civilisation now in the process of being excavated and as each stage proceeds we saw the quality of the civilisation, and when I went back to the Middle East I was telling them about the Sigirya. So when you see the way the whole civilisation was built around it with two million people living in the main city, the history of this country is a history that is profound and is the subject of fascination for people coming here. You have natural wealth and resources and to the British most importantly tea! I travel the world today, I travel the world to get a decent cup of tea because the British care about tea. But most places you travel throughout the world, they may think they are great countries but they don’t know anything about tea. I won’t mention any names of super powers, roughly 50 states in it, and then you get your tea and it looks like dish water and when you taste it, it actually tastes like dish water! So to come here and get a decent cup of tea it is such a blessing. You have also the fantastic potential for tourism, and your trade agreements offer amazing opportunities for business to come and locate here. Most importantly, your biggest resource is your people who are kind and generous and want the best for their country. So there is so much to be proud of and hope for. Yet, despite all this, for decades, the country defined by conflict and conflict is always hard, bloody and unforgiving. So right now as peace has come we have to look upon this as the supreme moment of possibility and opportunity. But we have to realise one other thing which the minister did so well in his introduction which is that peace is a beginning which gives you a chance to create something new. It does not in itself create it. When we made that Good Friday agreement in 1998, it took nine years after that before Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sat down in government together. Through that period of time there were ups and down and periods of difficulties and crisis in which we thought peace would not be possible. You have the opportunity, but the opportunity has to be seized, for reconciliation won’t come unless there is much more work done.

I think I can identify, based on my experience not only in Northern Ireland but elsewhere, seven principles of successful reconciliation.

First is the continued absence of conflict.

This sounds obvious but it is very important. Security matters. Lakshman understood this very well, which is why he spent so much time and energy in waking the world up to the LTTE. We have to say constantly as we pursue reconciliation that whatever your grievance and disagreement, nothing justifies terrorism. To achieve lasting peace the cycle of violence has to be put in permanent suspense because the evil of terrorism is not just the act itself, but it also creates a division, a reaction. I have never come across an instance in the world where there is terrorism and there is not a response from the forces of authority and then there is a reaction to the reaction and so it goes and that is why you cannot reconcile while there is violence. What we had to understand in the Northern Ireland situation and the first thing we did, was to create the circumstances in which the violence stopped. This was not easy, but it was absolutely essential, if not we would not be in the position we are today. Right now we see terror around the world and I could take any terror hot spot and I can promise you one thing a majority of people don’t want it! Even in the most war torn areas in the Middle East or in northern Nigeria. What terrorism does is to create sectarian divisions within a community that even if people don’t want it and don’t like it they get caught up in it. For reconciliation to succeed, you should never lose sight of the fact that the very basis of it is the absence of conflict and that has to be maintained.

Secondly, the reconciliation framework needs to be fair.

In a conflict there will be dispute, divisions and disagreements. But for sustainable solutions to come to pass one needs a conceptual framework that allows people to understand the nature of the accord being afforded to them. Essentially what is the framework which is going to govern our view of the future? In Northern Ireland the conceptual framework was simple. You have a republican movement which believes in a united Ireland, and the unionists who believe that Northern Ireland should be a part of the UK. The framework adopted said that whilst the majority wants Northern Ireland to stay in the UK, the principle of consent applies and for the time being Northern Ireland stays a part of the UK. But, in return for that, under the law people are going to be treated equally because for a long time the Catholics, the Nationalist and Republican communities felt that they were not. Thus the conceptual framework permitted the principle of consent to be balanced by equal treatment. In the Middle East, it’s land for peace. Two states for two peoples. The problem in getting there is vast but the conceptual framework is very simple. One of the most frustrating things about the Middle East is that even though there is in principle an agreement on the conceptual framework, the facts on the ground contradict the hopes for peace.

Sri Lanka will have to work out its own framework. Obviously there are issues around devolution, guarantee of rights, development and dignity and fair treatment which will have to be resolved. The second principle is understanding that you can end the conflict of the past but you cannot get reconciliation for the future without a framework for the future which is fair – and seen to be fair – that allows for disagreements to happen within a normal political process without a cycle of violence.

Third is Unity and Diversity.

Where conflict involves different parts of a country, faiths and ethnicities, then for reconciliation to work two things must be in balance: unity and diversity. Around the world, globalisation is pushing us closer together into a global community. It’s a cliche but it is true. Migration, travel and telecommunication devices are pushing us together so people across boundaries of nations, faith, ethnicities and culture are mixing and mingling in a way that is on an epic scale compared with previous times. This trend will only increase. For instance, take the city of London. When I first came to London from where I was brought up in the north east of England, in Durham, communities were very homogeneous and there was not a lot of mixing and mingling. But if you go to London today it is an explosion of different cultures. Of course it has done a lot for us particularly on the culinary front! But, London today is a vibrant and successful city precisely because of it diversity. However, the thing about difference and diversity is that while they have to be celebrated, it is also important that all the different groups recognise a common space which is governed by shared norms and values. One of the main problems faced in Europe and Britain today is that parts of our Muslim communities often don’t feel that they are a part of the rest of society and therefore that common space is not there. So if reconciliation is to work you have to recognise that you are bringing together people who are disparate and different but doing so within a unified nation where values such as democracy, freedom and equal rights for women cannot be disregarded by anyone who may disagree with those values. So in my view, if you are to be a part of the UK, these are the values which are viewed as common; people may worship in different ways and be further differentiated by cultural views and practices but in a UK setting, to be a part of that setting, it is critical that everyone signs up to these values, for that is what keeps the nation together. Lakshman, in his speeches, had a very clear position on these issues, for where as a Tamil, he argued for religious freedom he also advocated for it within a nation of shared values. This I think is very important, because religious freedom today is one of the main bulwarks against religious extremism. I mentioned radicalised Islam but look at any religion and you find its share of extremists, of people who take the faith and i warp its values, ‘such as do unto others as you have them to do you’, into an instrument of violence. This balance is fundamental to the pursuit of reconciliation for as more and more people come to cross those boundaries that separate different cultures, the value of unity alongside diversity will only increase. My foundation works on inter-faith relationships in about 20 countries around the world and where there has been a conflict with ethnic dimensions to it, these values become essential and the balance between unity and diversity needs to be got right.

The fourth principle is the importance to reconciliation of Economic Development.

Conflict creates dislocation, poverty, and despair and reconciliation is hard in a crippled economy, economic development is critical. In Northern Ireland it definitely helped, because this investment, along with the improved security, meant that people came, located and invested. As a result, local communities got a stake in the future, thus mitigating the effects of despair, which was used as an excuse for violence. Where there is economic development there is a real prospect for peace, because as one dimension of reconciliation is economic opportunity for young people. In the Middle East as things have evolved over time and the wealth disparity has grown to enormous degrees between the Israelis and Palestinians by about 10 to 15 times. This is not propitious for bringing about reconciliation and peace. Further, when the economy stagnates the youth don’t feel they have stake in the future and this does not make reconciliation any easier.

Fifth is Education.

I am a person who believes education is a cure for virtually everything. I do believe the more our youth are educated and educated about the world they will grow up in, the easier it will be to pursue reconciliation. Today the whole point about education is not to stick children in front of a teacher in a classroom, but to educate them about the world that they are going to grow up in. In many of the countries I work with I tell those presidents and prime ministers that the key is to get your people connected. It is so that they open their eyes to the opportunities out there and make them realise that around the world young people are all striving for the same kind of opportunity. Education should not be about the number of students in the class but it should be about making them alive to the opportunities and enabling an ‘open mind’. To put it simply, you succeed economically if you are willing to be open minded towards people who are different. So if globalisation is inevitably pushing people together and there are people who have not got the educational opportunities to learn about these new developments and in doing so interact with these other groups, reconciliation cannot be fully achieved. For these young people will not learn to be respectful, tolerant and understanding of the diverse world they are living in. In Northern Ireland we put a lot of effort into education. It is important to remember that extremism is usually taught, it is not natural. It is best if we teach from the beginning, from a curriculum that puts at its centre, education aimed at opening the mind.

The sixth principle is dialogue.

The dialogue has to be deep, it has to be inclusive and it has to be constant. All the time we have to recognise the importance, even after there is peace, even when you have the framework that I described, of a constant process of dialogue, of interaction, of understanding, of people working out their differences together. One of things that happens in a conflict, and I’ve seen this again and again around the world is that people don’t see each other’s pain. They know about their pain but they don’t see the other person’s. In Northern Ireland, as we got the framework in place, those mechanisms brought people together, so that they understood that their pain was mirrored in the person on the other side. It was a really important in getting people to understand that reconciliation isn’t just about laws, constitutions and processes. It’s got to touch the heart. If it doesn’t touch the heart, it doesn’t really work. That dialogue is really important. Today in the Middle East Peace Process – perhaps the only good news – is that there are institutions of dialogue even among business people and young people where they are able to see that the person on the other side is not so very different, not a completely different person with a completely different psychology, but rather a mirror image, just on the opposite side.

And that brings us to the final principle, which is in many ways the most difficult and the most sensitive. The past cannot be erased and is never forgotten, but it can be confined in some way so that it does not disrupt the possibilities for the future. And where the past is examined it should be examined for the truth and not for any retribution. Conflict creates victims. And that pain never leaves them. It may never leave the people in this room. Not least, Mrs. Kadirgamar herself, knows about the pain, the grief, the suffering. And for the people who were left behind, the memory never dies. for them the past is in one sense the present and the future. So when we try to pursue reconciliation always one of the most difficult things is what you do about the past. The conversations that I’ve had that were more difficult than any others were those with the victims of the violence of both sides, who felt that their truth had never been told, and that closure had never been achieved. And they would be very critical of what they thought was a political process that seemed to have diminished or relegated their grief. I used to say, very often, I’m trying to do this because I want future generations to be released of the suffering. The very worst single act of terrorism occurred after the Good Friday Agreement. It might have disrupted the whole of the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

And I remember visiting the families of the victims, and some of them were too torn apart by grief to speak to me. But one man who lost his child said to me, look, people will tell you that now you should stop, but I’m telling you now that you should carry on. This process of reconciliation, it will inevitably involve examination of the past. And countries have done it in many ways around the world. In Rwanda through a remarkable series of courts, specific courts related to the genocide where people – victims and perpetrators – would exchange their feelings with one another. In South Africa they had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In Northern Ireland we issued an Inquiry into one of the worst events of the conflict called Bloody Sunday. It was an event that caused deep anger within the Catholic community. We were trying to get people to understand what they went through and find a way to overcome this. So you in Sri Lanka will have to find your own way to do this, whatever way is consistent with your own sovereignty; but it has to be credible, thorough and it has to succeed in allowing people who have been hurt to understand that any such process should be to salve their anger and not stir it. So the way it is set up is very important.

So these are some of the things I have learnt in the course of Northern Ireland Peace process and other attempts at peace-making in different parts of the world.

Some final thoughts: I believe there is a methodology in reconciliation. You have to get good people in charge of it. Make sure it is organised properly. In Northern Ireland we had a whole series of reforms and changes we needed to get done and make sure it was organised and implemented fairly. You have to realise that some people are going to try to stop the reconciliation. There will always be people out there for whom the quickest way to whip up the audience is to tap into their fear, insecurity and grievance and play those into a situation of tension. The system has to be strong enough, the people have to be strong enough to overcome that. I see your recent elections as important in this respect and you have to persevere. In reconciliation and peace-making you don’t give up. I remember when I first came to power on the 1st of May 1997, I decided to make the Northern Ireland Peace Process a major part of the government’s programme and older and wiser people said to me are you crazy? So, when you get to peace you have got all those other nitty-gritties that have to get done.

Persevere is my final piece of advice. If you can persevere and secure a very clear understanding, which I’m sure is possible for Sri Lanka, that in different cultures people grow up in different ways but somethings are held in common. People prefer to live in a society where they can bring up their children with some peace and security; they prefer to live in a country where if they work hard, by their merits they can succeed; they prefer that the rule of law decides any disagreements they have and that rule of law is impartially administered; they would prefer to have their government underneath them and not on top of them; and they prefer to live in an environment where they can get on with their neighbour whoever their neighbour may be. Now I think these are universal values but many people don’t get the chance to live in such societies.

So you can pursue this reconciliation in Sri Lanka, doing two things: remembering that this is a wonderful country with a rich history and with tremendous possibilities and you can pursue this knowing that the aspirations and the desires of the overwhelming majority of people, whether they are a Tamil, Muslim, Christian or a Sinhalese, there is the deep rooted wish in the heart of your people that peace is maintained and that with reconciliation, the people will feel part of one country. Then there is nothing this country cannot achieve for itself and no aspiration it cannot fulfil. So this is a great moment of opportunity, I have had a wonderful time here, people have been so generous and so kind but most of all as I leave Sri Lanka I feel a great sense of excitement and hope about its future and perhaps more than anything else I can’t wait to come back.

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