Visit to Sri Lanka by the UK’s Minister of State for South and Central Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth
Kumar Sangakkara, a sportsperson both our countries greatly admire, spoke passionately about ‘different ethnicities and religions who celebrate their diversity by uniting for a common cause’. Naturally, he was talking about cricket, but I like it as a metaphor for the ties between your country and mine. We hold in our hands the enormous potential to unite – in all our diversity – to create a more secure and prosperous future.
As the UK’s Minister of State for South and Central Asia, United Nations and the Commonwealth I’m visiting Sri Lanka this week to discuss our shared interests and to explore future opportunities. I look forward to meeting people from all communities in Colombo, Jaffna and Trincomalee.
The UK has a renewed focus on the importance of the Indo Pacific region to global trade and investment, and our mutual security. The UK is building a network of economic partnerships and will look to work with Sri Lanka on these issues. I am also keen to support those in Sri Lanka striving for good governance and for strengthening human rights for all citizens.
The UK and Sri Lanka, with our wide range of shared interests, are long-standing partners in the Commonwealth, and share many international concerns. One of these is climate change. In November 2021, the UK hosted the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, COP26, bringing together delegates, along with youth and indigenous leaders, civil society groups and business, across the world. This was a huge moment for the world to take stock of climate commitments and ensure that we deliver the collective action to maintain the target of limiting temperature rises to 1.5°C and finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement, as set out in the new ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’.
Following COP26, the UK will continue working closely with Sri Lanka to help realise its transition to a greener and sustainable economy. This means working together to deliver the action needed to support Sri Lanka’s recent climate, COP26 and Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) commitments. We will support Sri Lanka’s climate adaption and decarbonisation efforts through initiatives like the UK’s ‘Climate Action for Resilience Asia Programme’ and the UN’s ‘No New Coal Compact’ and facilitate green finance and investment opportunities. We will continue to offer support through the Blue Planet Fund and Commonwealth Litter Programme to reduce marine litter, increase and strengthen marine protected areas, and develop seafood and aquaculture industry sustainably. We will also continue to work with Sri Lanka to support their pioneering work on mangrove restoration and nitrogen management to boost environmental protection.
The recovery from Covid has presented many economic challenges. The UK, a long-term partner with Sri Lanka, is keen to support Sri Lanka in its goals to develop new infrastructure, develop the financial services sector and expand trade and investment links, through our honest, reliable, and transparent approach to providing infrastructure finance and support for the green transition. This includes Sri Lankan Government priority projects with significant social benefits, including the transition towards cleaner and more sustainable energy generation. With the right market conditions and open supply chains, there will be potential for financing from the City of London and UK Export Finance.
Dealing with issues of the past is essential to lasting peace, and building an inclusive future. The Geneva process provides an essential framework for all those supporting Sri Lanka’s progress on peace, accountability, reconciliation, and social cohesion following the civil war. The UK supports the promotion of human rights in Sri Lanka, for all groups of people. As Desmond Tutu, the inspiring human rights activist once said: “True peace must be anchored in justice and an unwavering commitment to universal rights for all humans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, national origin or any other identify attribute.”
We strive to combine our words and deeds on the international stage, with practical support for reconciliation and peace building on the ground. One example of this is our support to Sri Lanka becoming mine risk free by 2025, and helping those displaced to resettle and build resilient livelihoods. We have seen encouraging results: the clearance of more than 1.7 million square metres of mine-contaminated land - benefitting more than 120,000 Sri Lankan citizens and, we hope, saved lives.
Like Kumar Sangakkara’s diverse vision for the Lions team, the UK also seeks to play a positive role supporting freedom of religion or belief and the strengthening the rights and opportunities for women and girls. We have supported partners in the country to tackle violence and online abuse, especially where the risks are heightened due to COVID-19 lockdowns. We also support civil society to tackle hate speech and extremism, promoting dialogue and understanding across faiths and strengthening the monitoring and reporting of crime. I look forward to meeting those seeking to make progress on these important issues to share ideas and learn from each other experiences.
As a born and bred Brit, muslim by faith and proud of his Asian heritage, I am acutely conscious of the depth and breadth of historical and cultural ties between our two countries, and the rich network of friends and families. I have often heard of people fondly referring to the British Council and their valuable links in arts, culture, education and the English language, teaching programmes, and improving access to knowledge through its libraries in Colombo, Kandy, and Jaffna. The British Council can also help Sri Lankan students access a UK education through courses hosted in both the UK and Sri Lanka.
I am so proud that the UK has and will continue to offer a world-class education. Four of the world’s top universities are in the UK: Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, and UCL. The British Council can help Sri Lankan students to access a UK education through courses hosted both in the UK and Sri Lanka, with more flexibility than ever before with our learning from the pandemic.
I encourage the best students from across Sri Lanka to apply for our prestigious Chevening Scholarship to study for a Masters qualification in the UK. Details can be found on their website @Chevening.org. The Chevening Alumni network is a group of formidable talent, with business, academic and world leaders in its number.
Of course, the sporting ties between the UK and Sri Lanka are our shared passion. I followed the England and Sri Lanka cricket match in Galle closely last year, and the Queen’s Baton toured Sri Lanka just two week ago. I’m really excited that Birmingham will host the Commonwealth Games later this year, a city that is home to over 190 nationalities speaking more than 200 languages, making the West Midlands one of the most diverse regions in the UK. So we expect Birmingham 2022 to be a ‘home Games’ for every nation competing, including Sri Lanka! This sporting occasion epitomises the resilience and spirit of our two nations as we explore new ways of delivering on our mutual prosperity, security, and shared values as Commonwealth members.
It is my firm belief that if we celebrate our diversity by uniting for these common causes, we can make sure that every one of us has a chance to play their part. I look forward to my visit to Sri Lanka and in celebrating the ties between our two countries, bound together by our people to people links.