Christine Robichon, French AmbassadorBy Ayesha Zuhair
Christine Robichon, Ambassador of France to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, while commending the “huge progress” accomplished on the economic front, opines that economic development alone is not sufficient to achieve a just and lasting peace. Foreign friends, she further asserts, cannot help much in the political reconciliation process, which is the responsibility of the government, political parties, religious leaders, civil society and intellectuals of Sri Lanka.
Q: Is the recent Presidential change of guard in France likely to have any implications on your country’s bilateral relationship Sri Lanka? Do you think that with the election of a left-leaning President, with whom the current Sri Lankan administration can perhaps identify more easily with, presents an opportunity to build stronger ties?
The elections campaign which led to the change in power in Paris has been focused mainly on domestic issues. On foreign policy matters, there is a broad consensus among the main political parties based on shared values. These values include solidarity towards less developed countries, support for democracy, human rights and justice all over the world. It is too early for me to assess the impact of this change on our bilateral relations with Sri Lanka but I can assure you that the new French Government is eager to reinforce these relations.
Q: As a diplomat who has served in Sri Lanka for two-and-a-half years, and travelled fairly extensively to many parts of the island, do you think that Sri Lanka is on the right path to achieving a just and sustainable peace?
Indeed I have travelled a lot throughout Sri Lanka, by car and by train. I have had many opportunities to meet people and to understand the realities of their lives. When I compare what I saw in the North and in the East during my first trip two years ago and what I could observe during my recent visits to Vanni and Trincomalee, I see huge progress. These progresses in de-mining, IDPs resettlement and reconstruction have to be recognised. They show that the country is clearly on the right path to promote economic development, even if there are still many people who are not yet feeling its benefits. Some IDPs are not back on their land yet. Many are not living in a proper house or even in a proper hut. Many are still facing great difficulties to sustain themselves, particularly women and disabled persons.
To achieve a just and lasting peace, development is indeed necessary, but is it sufficient? I don’t think so. Healing the wounds of the war is not limited to reconstructing roads and bridges. The social fabric has also been destroyed. It will take time to build a Sri Lankan nation governed by institutions which will make every person and every community feel safe and respected but I think, more could be done to accelerate this aspect of the reconstruction, which is essential to achieve a sustainable peace. Foreign friends of Sri Lanka cannot help much in this field. Reconciliation is the responsibility of the government, the political parties - be they part of the ruling coalition or the opposition - the religious leaders, the civil society and the intellectuals of your country.
Q: How do you view the National Action Plan to implement the LLRC proposals? Government officials have emphasised the need for the international community to recognise the quick pace at which Sri Lanka has achieved substantial results on the ground in comparison to post-war situations in other parts of the world. Would you concur?
The LLRC report is a very constructive document, providing important recommendations to deal with the root causes of the war. I was happy to hear last week that its Sinhalese and Tamil translations will be circulated during the coming days. We are studying the recently released Action Plan and trying to get a better knowledge of the recommendations which have already been implemented. France considers that the concrete and swift implementation of the LLRC recommendations will play an essential role to guarantee lasting peace and security to all Sri Lankans. As the LLRC members themselves stated, the success of the LLRC will be measured by the degree of implementation of its recommendations.
Q: France was one of the 40 co-sponsors of the resolution on Sri Lanka adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council in March this year, and has repeatedly called for “credible and impartial” investigations into atrocities allegedly committed by both sides during the final stages of the war in 2009. There are many who think that passing resolutions is not the best way to engage with Sri Lanka, and see it as an attempt to isolate the country internationally. Hasn’t the adoption of the resolution led to further polarisation between Sri Lanka and the countries that supported it?
France co-sponsored this resolution because France wishes Sri Lanka to succeed in becoming a united, peaceful and prosperous country, where all Sri Lankans will enjoy the fruits of democracy and citizenship. This cannot be achieved without establishing the truth about the past, neither without genuine and lasting reconciliation. The core of the resolution is about implementation of the LLRC recommendations and additional actions to ensure accountability and justice.
This second point implies conducting credible independent investigations on the war crimes allegations, allegations which may hamper reconciliation and poison the future of your country for generations if they are not dealt with. It is completely wrong to see this resolution as an attempt to isolate Sri Lanka and, as I already mentioned, France wishes to strengthen its relations with your country.
Q: Colombo has taken up the position that the Human Rights Council is guided by strategic alliances and domestic considerations, and not by the merits of a given issue. The Minister of Justice recently commented that EU member states are bound by what is decided in Brussels about the resolutions, and that the EU is misguided in the way it is looking at the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. What are your thoughts?
Thank you for asking this question. It provides me the opportunity to try to clarify what seems to be a rather confused perception of the EU institutions. The positions taken by the 27 Members States on UN resolutions, in the General Assembly or in the Human Rights Council are not determined by binding decisions made by EU bureaucrats in Brussels. Representatives of the Member States regularly meet to share their views on the draft resolutions and to try to adopt common positions, but each country remains free to vote as it deems appropriate and the 27 are not always successful in harmonising their votes.
The other aspect of your question I would like to comment on is the mention of “domestic considerations”, described as an important factor in the decision making process on HRC resolutions. If this suggests that the decisions made by my country regarding Sri Lanka could be influenced by the Tamil diaspora, I can assure you that the policy of France is not determined by such factors but by principles and values. We have no diaspora from Burma in France and we took very strong positions in favour of human rights and democracy in their country.
Q: You have regularly expressed your government’s concerns over the August 2006 killing of the 17 aid workers attached to the Paris-based organisation Action Contre la Faim (ACF), and the need to prosecute those responsible for the tragedy. The sixth anniversary of this massacre was on August 4. Are you satisfied with the government’s response?
This tragedy is an important issue in France. When I tell people in my country - grassroots people, not diplomats or politicians - that I am the ambassador to Sri Lanka, it triggers two kinds of reactions. Some say “a beautiful country, which I visited” or “wish to visit” while some others say “it’s the country where ACF humanitarian workers were killed”. This massacre was indeed a big shock for the public in France because humanitarian assistance is very popular there, many of my fellow citizens contribute voluntarily to finance it from their own pocket, sending small cheques to NGOs like ACF or MSF. As you said, I regularly express the concern of my government on this collective murder, which remains unpunished, as well as the need for an investigation to identify the perpetrators and to bring them to justice. Since the Attorney General made the recent decision to open a new inquiry, conducted by the CID, I expressed the interest of my government for this process and my hope that it will soon be successful.
Q: In light of the current European financial crisis, what is the likelihood of France continuing to support the on-going humanitarian and development programmes in the Eastern Province?
We continue to contribute to humanitarian activities in the North and East through the EU. In the East, we provided to the Government of Sri Lanka a very soft loan to finance an integrated project to reconstruct public infrastructure in the Trincomalee district such as roads, bridges, water and electricity networks and schools. This project, initiated in 2005, has been delayed due to the war but is now almost completed and has already a very positive impact both on people’s life and on the local economy.
We decided, last year, to contribute, also through a loan, to the Jaffna and Kilinochchi Water Supply and Sanitation Project and our development cooperation agency, AFD has a mandate to offer to the Sri Lankan Government non-commercial loans to support projects favouring a green and equitable growth. Due to our constraints, the conditions of these loans are not as favourable as they were in 2005.
Q: In your view, are French investors adequately knowledgeable about the opportunities and investment potential of post-war Sri Lanka? And are you satisfied with the level of business interaction?
Our trade with your country grew significantly last year. The value of the goods sold by France to Sri Lanka grew at an impressive level of 73% and recorded 220 million Euros. We also registered an increase in the Sri Lanka exports to France, almost half of them being garments. I hope that this positive trend will continue. The Trade Commission of the Embassy and myself are fully committed to promote French investments in Sri Lanka.
We organised several events in France and here, where we briefed visiting business delegations, to inform potential French investors about the opportunities created by the robust economic situation of the country, but so far, the results of our efforts is not yet meeting our expectations.
Q: There is a widely held view that Western countries seek to impose their values on weaker states which have little strategic or commercial interest to them. For example, the withdrawal of the GSP Plus facility by the EU – of which France is a key player – was linked to certain demands such as legislative changes. Is it fair to impose political conditions on aid? Retrospectively, do you think that this punitive ‘carrot and stick’ approach has yielded the desired results?
I would like first to emphasise that Sri Lanka continues to benefit from the GSP facility; that means that Sri Lankan exports to the EU are still benefitting from non-reciprocal preferential tariffs. What has been lost by Sri Lanka is just the “plus”, which stands for additional concessions which were offered by the EU to 15 countries, including Sri Lanka, on top of the GSP, as an incentive for sustainable development and good governance. The additional benefit of the “plus” is indeed associated with conditions which are the commitments made by the 15 countries to implement international conventions aiming at protecting the environment as well as human and labour rights. Let me stress here that this aim cannot be presented as an attempt to impose European values. These values are universal and are written into international conventions signed by the Government of Sri Lanka and ratified by Parliament.
As I mentioned, the additional preferential tariff – the plus – is not an arrangement specifically crafted by the EU for Sri Lanka, but for a group of countries. It has not been imposed to any of them. The Governments of these countries, when they voluntarily applied for the benefits of the arrangement, had a full knowledge of the associated conditions. The assessment of the validity of the additional preference will be made on the basis of its results in the different countries benefitting from it.
Q: Respect for human rights is often spoken of as a core French value. Yet the right to practice one’s religion is not fully respected in France. There is an impression that Islam is under threat in France, and that religious expression is barred under the banner of ‘equality’. What is your response?
Your assumption regarding the situation of Islam in France is not correct. The freedom of conscience and religion and the freedom for all people to express their convictions are written into the French Constitution and into the European Convention on Human Rights and they are respected. Islam is the second largest religion in France and the Muslim community is a growing vibrant community represented both in Parliament and in Government. Let me take this opportunity to wish the Sri Lankan Muslim community a peaceful Holy Ramazan.
Pics. by Kithsiri de Mel