Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in an interview with the , said the new government managed to reset the country’s foreign policy to the centre while having excellent relations with the major power centres of the world including the United States, China and India. He said the government would be ready with the domestic investigative mechanism by late July to look into allegations of human rights violations and accountability issues. Excerpts of the interview are as follows;
Q : As the Foreign Affairs Minister, how do you assess the conduct of foreign relations during the 100 day programme of the new government?
Domestic investigative mechanism ready by late July
Whoever is responsible for accountable issues will be dealt with
South Africa’s concept of confession and forgiveness not applicable here
Targets visit of Barack Obama to SL
As we are all aware, when the Sirisena administration took over in January, this year, not only the foreign service of Sri Lanka but also the foreign relations of our country was absolutely in tatters. A country which can boast of many thousands of years of interaction with the international community was facing international isolation in a very serious manner. Therefore, as the Foreign Affairs Minister of the new government, I felt it was my duty or priority to ensure that I reset the foreign relations of Sri Lanka and move the foreign relations back to the centre. That is why, within a short period of time, I undertook flying visits to New Delhi, then to Brussels, Washington, London and China, which I believe are the main power centres of today’s world. I am happy to say that, in a very short period of time, we have been able to win the trust and confidence of the international community, and with many of the countries with whom our relationships have been strained under the Rajapaksa regime.
Q : When moving the country’s foreign relations to the centre as you said, there is a perception that you compromised the country’s relations with traditional friends such as China. What is your response?
Our traditional friends have always been not only China. Our traditional friends have been the United States of America, India which is our closes and dearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, and Europeans who have tremendously helped us over the years. In fact, ever since we achieved independence, all our leaders starting from D.S. Senanayake onwards to S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Sirimawo Bandaranaike, J. R. Jayewardene, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremesinghe did everything to maintain the balance among all these nations. As a result, the doors of all the world capitals, be it White House, No.10, Downing Street, Kremlin, and the Red Square in Beijing are open to all our leaders. So, we have reaffirmed and won back friendship with our traditional friends while maintaining excellent relations with China as well.
Let’s not forget that it was the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which first recognised China immediately after independence. It was D.S. Senanayake who first recognised China as a country. Then, it was S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike who established diplomatic relations with China at that period. And, today, we have a unity government formed by the two main parties. Therefore, there is no way that we will be lesser friend to China than the earlier regime. And, the earlier regime extended its hands of friendship to China for personal reasons. They saw many of the Chinese projects as a convenient and easy way of becoming rich.
But, the new government is even following China’s great example of fighting corruption. Now, we are waging a war against corruption. The Chinese government has promised us help in this regard as they do in China.
Q : But, Sri Lanka’s relations with China look somewhat strained due to the suspension of some China-funded projects such as the port city, and criticism on some other projects by the Cabinet Ministers. How do you respond to this situation as the Foreign Affairs Minister?
I, of course, completely reject there was criticism on China funded projects. There have been lots of criticisms of various large scale projects initiated by the Rajapaksa regime, which we know, are tainted with corruption. These are not only Chinese projects. There are some other projects as well. As the government came into power, we managed to stop the Packer Investment in Colombo. Unfortunately, some of the large scale projects that have come under investigation are China- funded ones. But, investigations are carried out not because they are Chinese but because we feel that they have not followed the proper international procedures in awarding such tenders. China understands it very well. In fact, they too are very happy that the new administration is trying to create a rule-based investor climate in Sri Lanka where international investors can come and invest their money without oiling anyone’s palms.
Q : Against this backdrop, how are you planning to strengthen our economic relations with China?
Of course, the President’s visit to China and my visit that preceded it were tremendously successful. And, as I told you we explained our priorities to the Chinese Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister. The President explained it to the Chinese President. And, they were very happy that the new government is creating a climate in which even the Chinese investors can come and invest their money without being asked for huge bribes, as had been during the previous regime.
Q : During the visit of President Xi Jinping to Sri Lanka, it was announced that China - Sri Lanka relations would be elevated to the Strategic Partnership Cooperation. What are your views?
That is why, the new government has also given priority to further strengthening its relations with China along with all the other power centres in the world. That is why, I said we, while maintaining excellent relations with China, we have moved back to the centre so that we can also further strengthen our relations with the countries like the US, and also our neighbour India and European Union.
Our foreign policy is not based on ideological fantasies. But, it is based on practical realities. Our foreign policy is to ensure that we get the best of the world for our country and its people. For our country to harness the potential of the Asian century, we should be able to deal with all the power centres and get the best they can offer for our people.
Q : In that context, both India and China look important for us. How are you planning to harness the potential available with them for us?
As far as we are concerned, there is no contest between China and India. In fact, the Chinese Foreign Minister himself proposed the trilateral partnership between China, India and Sri Lanka. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself is further strengthening relations with China while maintaining excellent relations with the United States. This is the new foreign policy, not supporting one power block at the sake of another. It is otherwise foolhardy and self-destructive. As I said, especially a country like Sri Lanka can be friendly with all these power centres and get the benefit of such friendship.
Q : You mean Sri Lanka has to take a balanced approach without siding with anyone
Yes. But, you have to take into account certain practical realities in handling your foreign policy. You do not side with anyone. At the same time, a small country like Sri Lanka must have powerful friends. We have been cultivating powerful friends. That was why, Prime Minister Modi visited Sri Lanka last month. That was the first official visit by a Head of State in 27 years. We have planned another visit. Maybe, I am shooting at the moon. My ambition is somehow to get US President Barack Obama to visit Sri Lanka at one point or another.
Q : US Secretary of State John Kerry is slated to visit Sri Lanka. How is the work progressing in this direction?
We have extended the invitation to the US Secretary of State. If he does agree, it will be the first official visit of a US Secretary of State. But, if Secretary of State Kerry comes, it will be a historic event. It will be a symbol of Sri Lanka’s return to the international stage.
Q : How do you plan to restructure Sri Lanka’s multiple relations with the US alongside this visit?
Such a visit will give a huge symbolic message that will help all other sectors. Our foreign policy is anyway placed in order to ensure that Sri Lanka becomes one of the best places for Foreign Direct Investment in Asia. Already, the message I have been taking to every major capital in the world is that Sri Lanka is again in business. Sri Lanka is now in the process of restoring democracy, fast tracking the reconciliation process, and ensuring a society based on the rule of law. In the last few years, much of the foreign investment has been directed at Myanmar ever since the military generals endorsed the democratic agenda.
Many American and European countries rushed to help Burma. The message I have been taking to the world is ‘look here’. There is a new girl on the beach, who could be more attractive than Burma. That is Sri Lanka. Look at us! We offer better opportunities than Burma. I think the doors are open. By next year, you will see a flood of large scale investment from the west if we keep to our original roadmap.
Q : When you say next year, it can be a long time in politics. There are elections pending. How certain are you that your government will remain in power to implement all such policies?
In politics, even 24 hours can be a long time. The election we are going to face this time is also a unique experiment in Sri Lankan politics. It will be an election without losers. The only loser of the next election will be the dictatorial Rajapaksa family and the ultra-nationalist philosophy they represent. We have already agreed to form a national unity government whatever the results are going to be after the election.
It means that the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) along with any other party willing to join, will continue as they are. The only difference, the election is going to have is the choice of the Prime Minister. Basically, the party that gets the most number of seats will be able to appoint the Prime Minister. The party with the next number of seats will be able to appoint the Deputy Prime Minister. Then, both the parties will work under President Sirisena for a period of five years.
A government of such nature is needed to ensure that the far reaching democratic reforms who advocate are firmly entrenched into the system.
I can talk of next year far more confidentially than of tomorrow. Tomorrow is less clear.
Q : Tomorrow is less clear. Why is it?
Tomorrow is less clear because we are dealing with a bunch of politicians who are still trying to salvage their unsavoiry political systems, and the bunch of politicians who are trying to take us back to the dark ages of the Rajapaksa regime. After the election, they will be history. Most of these people making loud noises will be confined to the dustbin of history.
Q : It means there is an election in the offing?
Of course, we have committed ourselves in our 100 day manifesto to have an election.
Q : How successful have you been in your engagement with the European Union to get the GSP plus facility?
I think it is moving in the right direction. Basically, as you know, the Prime Minister spoke to the External Affairs Commissioner of the EU. I flew there and met all the key officials about the question you asked and also on the lifting of the Tuna fishing ban which came into force in January, this year. I am rather confident that we will be able to restore both these facilities during the course of the year.
Q : What is the latest development regarding our engagement with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)?
Basically, when we presented our 100 day manifesto, we clearly stated that we will have a credible domestic mechanism to look into allegations of human rights violations, perhaps war crimes during the latter part of the war. That we will not allow any international inquiry to look into them. Based on the fact that we received a mandate for our manifesto, I immediately met the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and other officials. We discussed with them our ideas and commitment to a credible mechanism. But, of course, we mentioned we were also open to technical assistance in certain areas in order to ensure that this mechanism was acceptable to all parties concerned. As a result of these discussions, we managed to defer the OISL report till September on the basis that we will have the domestic mechanism in place. Then, that report can be referred to our domestic mechanism for action to be taken. We are actually in the process of looking at contours of such a domestic mechanism. We have come up with three or four different options. We will be discussing them with the President, the Prime Minister and the others in the near future, and decide on what the best possible option available for us is. Based on that, I feel, by about next July or August, we will be able to introduce this new mechanism.
Q : Can you elaborate on these different options being considered?
These are strictly speaking legalistic sort of options. So, once we have worked out these contours, we will go to the National Executive Council and the cabinet. We will discuss it with other partners. A lot of work is being done at the moment. Our target is to finalise it hopefully by late July. The mechanism has to be in place by September when the 30th session is due. This is my target.
Q : Is this local mechanism expected to work out a report to be compared with the report on UNHRC investigations?
This mechanism will look into many other reports available. But, we need to have a domestic mechanism to look into any allegation that is there.
Q : Based on this domestic mechanism, will you take action against any individual responsible for accountability and human rights issues irrespective of their positions?
Whoever is accountable has to be dealt with. Let’s face it. If Sri Lanka is to move forward as a nation to harness the incredible amount of goodwill in the world, we must solve this problem of accountability as sections of our own people feel that their grievances are not looked into. If we are to achieve large-scale development, reconciliation process is, if not, more important to achieve it. We have to ensure that all the communities are looked after. That is why, we basically envisage the double track policy where, on one hand this mechanism will address accountability issue, and on the other hand, we should also have truth and reconciliation mechanism to help the healing of hearts and minds. We have to heal the hearts and minds of those hundreds and thousands of mothers who may have lost their sons. Their sons may have been LTTEers. But, on the other hand, there are Sri Lankan women and mothers. When I started the Mothers’ Front in 1980s, many of them were mothers of JVPers. But, it does not make them less human because of the sins of their son.
Q : You have taken initiatives to look at the South African experience. How are you going to derive insights from it?
We are looking at all kinds of experiences. But, we want to come up with something peculiarly Sri Lankan. But, of course, we look at the best practiced examples from the world. Finally, it has to be a Sri Lankan model which serves our purpose. We have been talking with South Africans about their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I frankly feel that the method they used at that time is not suitable for our culture.
Our culture is not based on this concept of confession and forgiveness. In Sri Lanka, people want justice. So, the justice component has to be addressed.