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Far-sightedness essential for a stable Sri Lanka

27 August 2012 06:30 pm - 6     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Ayesha Zuhair

Q: What are your views on the Action Plan to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)? Do you feel that it adequately demonstrates the government’s commitment towards peace, justice, and reconciliation?
We welcome the action plan just as we have welcomed other statements of intent. Such statements do not by themselves demonstrate commitment, however. Only concrete action can do that and therefore it is ultimately on the basis of its actions that the government will be judged by the Sri Lankan people and international stakeholders.


Q: Do you think that enough is being done on the ground to ensure that there is no relapse into armed conflict?
When I arrived, the most important change had already taken place and that was, of course, the end of the violent conflict. The relief of the general population, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation was, and still is, palpable.
There is no magic formula to “ensure” an end to violence. But I leave Sri Lanka with a nagging sense that there is not sufficient urgency on the part of various players to take the difficult steps needed to address underlying grievances that could fuel a resurgence of radicalism. “Winning the peace” is not just a slogan. Making Sri Lanka a stable and prosperous home to all of its citizen groups will require magnanimity and far sightedness from those holding the levers of power.


Q: Canada has expressed concerns intermittently that Sri Lanka is not living up to her international obligations with Prime Minister Stephen Harper even warning last year that he will not attend the 2013 Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Colombo if there is no progress in terms of human rights. What is your assessment of the human rights situation in the country? Does accountability for alleged war crimes continue to be of concern to Canada?
There are general human rights issues and also specific ones arising from the closing months of the war. On the general, we empathize with many Sri Lankans who feel that there has been erosion in standards previously held dear. Too many crimes occur that seem to go unpunished, undermining the people’s faith in their institutions. If a culture of impunity takes hold, if journalists simply disappear without a trace, it becomes a slippery slope.
Where the alleged war crimes are concerned, Canada naturally supports bringing perpetrators to account. Indeed, Sri Lanka supports the same principle or it would not be signatory to international human rights covenants, nor would it belong to organisations like the Commonwealth.
But while Canada believes in and will continue to press for accountability, it would be best for Sri Lankans themselves to design internationally credible mechanisms to bring all criminals to justice.


Q: What are your views on the freedom of expression, minority rights and women’s rights in Sri Lanka?
I referred to a certain erosion in an earlier response and will stick to that. There are many countries in the world with worse records than Sri Lanka but where human rights are concerned, on-going vigilance and the strengthening of the responsible institutions must be a constant.




Q: A recent travel advisory issued by the UK Foreign Office has warned British citizens of an upsurge in nationalism, sexual offences and anti-Western rhetoric in the country. I understand that as a diplomat you may not wish to directly comment on travel advisories issued by other countries, but in general, do you see a rise in nationalism, sexual offences, and anti-Western rhetoric? Also, what is Canada’s position on travel to Sri Lanka?
I will not try to quantify problems in any of the areas that you list but will acknowledge that we receive very troubling, frequently tragic reports. Anti-western rhetoric is not new (I am sure that this interview will invite more!) but what should be of concern is when it is used as an excuse to avoid tackling basic societal ills that have nothing to do with the West.
On travel, we continue to encourage Canadians to come to Sri Lanka as long as they exercise appropriate caution where warranted.





Q: Canada is host to the largest Sri Lankan community overseas and as the country’s top diplomat to Sri Lanka you have had numerous opportunities to interact with the influential Sri Lankan Diaspora in Canada. What do they tell you, and what do you think their role is in the country’s reconstruction and reconciliation process?
I have made no secret of my desire to see the diaspora become more constructively involved in Sri Lanka. The responsibility goes both ways, however. I know that some in the diaspora are put off by hearing themselves routinely described here as “pro LTTE”. If that is how the Sri Lankan government sees them, they say, then probably anything they try to do here by way of serious investment will be met with suspicion. I do not happen to agree with that reaction but recognise that it is a reality that will take time to change.


Q: How do you view the trade and investment environment in Sri Lanka?
It is a mixed bag. The world economy is going through a pretty tough period and Sri Lanka is not immune. Experts would say that its best course of action is to strengthen its fundamentals so that when the world economy starts to rebound, it can take advantage. Some of those fundamentals – inflation, deficit, etc – are in reasonable shape but there is still work to be done to improve transparency, to be the kind of place that would-be investors see as an opportunity rather than a challenge.


Q: On a more personal note, what do you consider to be your key achievements for your country during your term here, and what memories of Sri Lanka do you take back with you?
I will leave any comment on my achievements (or lack of same) to others given that I am not running for office! The chief memory I take away is of the warmth of the Sri Lankan people, regardless of background or social standing. We were made to feel very welcome all the time. Well, perhaps with one exception – the opening match (Sri Lanka vs Canada) of the 2011 World Cricket Cup!


Q: What are your plans for the future?
My wife, Ingrid Knutson, and I decided some time ago that our posting in Sri Lanka would be a nice way to cap 30 years each of government service. We will spend the next few months in Canada, including our first snowy Christmas in eight years, but after that hope to move to Spain and manage a small bed and breakfast. Special discounts for Sri Lankan friends!
Pix by Kithsiri de Mel
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  Comments - 6

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  • Hussain Tuesday, 28 August 2012 05:22 PM

    Wrong guy to preach to Sri Lankans , when Canada took 47 years to reconcile with the Japanese-Canadians, when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized to them in parliament announcing with a compensation package on September 22, 1988. Among the Japanese-Canadian kids who were sent to internment camps after the Pearl Harbour bombing by the Japanese

    Hussain Tuesday, 28 August 2012 05:24 PM

    There was nothing ‘friendly’ about ‘ties’ with Sri Lanka when Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper went about trying to intimidate and embarrass Sri Lanka when he said, “I intend to make clear to my fellow leaders of the Commonwealth that if we do not see progress in Sri Lanka in terms of human rights and some of the issues that you raised, I will not as PM be attending that Commonwealth summit.” Do you know whom he was addressing then? It was the September 9 round table event with the ethnic media where Tamils were represented.

    Hussain Tuesday, 28 August 2012 05:26 PM

    Canada believes that it is the God’s gift to humanity? Shish….! Not when you know, Harper knows and we all know that the native peoples of Attawapiskat in the Northern Reserve needs houses, respect and a future. Sri Lanka has given all that to the 294,000 Tamils they liberated from the Tamil Tiger claws on May 19, 2009, and also gave back the 21 million Sri Lankans their right-to-life which was hijacked by the Tamil Tigers for 27 years within three years of the Tamil Tigers demise.

    Gautamadasa Wednesday, 29 August 2012 06:08 AM

    Do we see any real reconciliation in the last three years? We are buying time to face the UN and forget till the next session is about to meet with similar tactics. How far can we go like this?

    Iqbal Tuesday, 28 August 2012 07:53 PM

    We thank Canada among other democratic countries for moving Sri Lanka from a position of intransigent 'zero civilian casualties' to that of admitting war crimes and drawing 'an action plan' for implementing the recommendations of its own LLRC.

    Shaik Ahamath Saturday, 01 September 2012 02:13 AM

    This is rich coming from Canada when their own displaced native Indians have not been settled for nearly 200 years and the new Canadians took away their livelihood too with the wholesale slaughtering (with clubs) of young seal cubs for the fur trade. The seals were a source of food clothing and shelter to the native indians.


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