Mon, 06 Dec 2021 Today's Paper

Sri Lanka will not bow down to the sword of Damocles - Prof. G. L. Peiris

18 October 2021 12:37 am - 3     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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  • Time to reform UN system
  • No talks with banned groups
  • President to meet TNA after COP26 meeting
  • Mechanisms specifically targeting Sri Lanka unacceptable
  • We must know who is giving evidence against us
  • Yasmin Sooka is a propagandist
  • NGOs not seen as enemies of the State
  • No exclusive relations with one country
  • Relations with US strained because of Geneva

 

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy has been inconsistent over the past few years under successive Governments and its dealings with certain countries, at times, has raised a number of questions.In his first media interview since taking office, Foreign Minister Professor G.L. Peiris spoke about the foreign policy Sri Lanka hopes to follow in future and about the human rights issue.
Excerpts of the interview: 

 Q   Professor Peiris, since taking office very recently a number of diplomats have met you both during one-on-one meetings and at a briefing you had with all Colombo based diplomats the other day. What is the core message that Sri Lanka has communicated to the world?

The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us. There is general recognition of the vistas of opportunity that are available in Sri Lanka, and I am very pleased with the substance and the tenor of the discussions that I have had with representatives of foreign countries during the last two months

 Q   The Government prior to 2015 under then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, took a very strong line against the West and aligned itself more towards China. Are we seeing a pro-China policy being followed by Sri Lanka even today?

China is a friend. China has stood by us in times good and bad. China has made a very significant contribution to the economic development of Sri Lanka, particularly infrastructure development, highways, ports and harbours. This is greatly appreciated, and we have also stood by China in matters that are of critical importance to that country, like the one China policy, the Belt and Road Initiative. We have very strongly supported. We are part of that initiative. But at the same time, I want to emphasize that we do not have exclusive relations with one country shutting out all other countries. That has never been the case. You referred to the foreign policy during the time of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I was Foreign Minister during that period and there was no exclusivity. Obviously, China was a very important development partner. But that did not detract from equally productive relations that we had with other countries. And there is continuity in that regard. That is very much our approach to our relations with other countries. We have friendly relations with all. We are very clear that we do not permit one country to do anything in Sri Lanka that is detrimental to the interests of another friendly country. So we have been able to evolve and develop mutually beneficial relations with all of the countries that have dealings with us.

 Q   Sri Lanka’s relations with the US has been seen as being on rocky ground since 2019. I recall following your meeting with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010. She noted the confidence she had in you as then Foreign Minister. What steps would you take as Foreign Minister now to rebuild and strengthen the relationship between the US and Sri Lanka?

Well, there are American companies that are keen on investing in this country. Many of our exports, particularly our apparel exports, find their way into the markets in the United States. Companies like BRANDIX, MAS Holdings export a large quantity of their products into the markets of the United States. Victoria’s Secret in the US is one of our principal buyers. And during the COVID 19 period, when our traditional exports could not be sent out any longer because there was no demand for them, there was a very successful, shift to personal protection equipment. And that enabled the production lines to be kept open and for employment to continue to be provided. There was no retrenchment. So the markets of North America are very important for us. Some of the tensions grew out of the United States being the principal country sponsoring resolutions in Geneva regarding Sri Lanka, and that has continued year after year. The US at one time dropped out of the Human Rights Council. But in 2012, 13 and 14, they were active in bringing those resolutions and canvassing very strenuously for these resolutions to be passed. But the other day. I made a lot of Ambassadors and High Commissioners accredited to Colombo, and I told them to be objective. You need to give us credit for the progress that is being made under very difficult circumstances. Just consider what has been accomplished on the ground by local commissions. Local mechanisms like the Office on Missing Persons, the Office on Reparations, and the Office on National Unity and Reconciliation. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. The Commission appointed by President Rajapaksa, chaired by an incumbent judge of the Supreme Court. Not a retired judge, to go into what needs to be done further. We are prepared to work with you to share information. There is nothing we want to be withhold, but there must not be mechanisms that are specifically targeting Sri Lanka, which we find particularly unacceptable. The statement by the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, to the effect that she has collected one 120,000 items of evidence against Sri Lanka. That kind of approach is fundamentally unacceptable because the question arises where is this evidence coming from? Is it consistent with the basic rules of fairness and due process? We must know who is giving evidence against us. They cannot hide in the shadows and give evidence, which is entirely unlisted. There are principles of law which are used to determine the quality of evidence. And so that is what we object to and we are telling the United States and other countries. Let us make a fresh start. Solutions cannot be imposed on countries. Obviously, at the end of a 30 year conflict, there going to be serious problems and that is happening everywhere in the world. So the country concerned must take the initiative in finding the solutions because the solutions have to accord with the culture of the country and the aspirations of the people. They cannot be designed outside and implemented here. That will never work. I would say this is the main reason why the previous government achieved so little on the ground. They made promises. 
They may have had good intentions, but they found that they were swimming strongly against the current. So in order to implement on the ground, you must have a certain minimum of public support. Without it nothing is going to be successful. So what I have been saying is we will work with you in a spirit of partnership, but we don’t want you to resort to coercion through resolutions, through threats. That is not the spirit in which we would look forward to working with you. And I must say there has been some degree of resonance which we may have gotten, and that is a very promising foundation to build upon.

 Q   Since you mentioned the human rights issue, Sri Lanka has been asking the UN to take the country off its human rights agenda. But that has not happened. Will Sri Lanka take a different approach going forward when dealing with the UN, particularly the UN Human Rights Council on the human rights issue?

Is Sri Lanka the most troublesome country in the world at this time? Look at situations elsewhere. So the degree of attention that is being given to Sri Lanka, is it reasonable or proportionate? If it is not, then we have to ask ourselves a question what is the reason behind this agenda? Is it to do with the well-being of people in Sri Lanka or has it to do with the agendas of other actors, politics of other countries, the fortunes of politicians of other countries, the influence of the diaspora, their influence at elections, the resources at their command, the organizational capability. So are those the factors that are driving this agenda? If that is the case, is it in keeping with the well-being of the Sri Lankan people? I mean, many people have told me what is very striking is the disproportion. Is it reasonable in a situation where more than half the world’s population has not received even one vaccine, is it reasonable for hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent on an investigation on Sri Lanka? Does that accord with sound priorities and is that the aim and objective of the United Nations system to target particular countries, applying standards which are obviously not applicable to everybody? Double standards. That is all too obvious. Now the result of this is that there will be an erosion of confidence in the moral and ethical stature of the United Nations system if it is seen to operate in a manner that is manifestly inequitable. Some countries can get away with anything because they cannot be challenged. Small countries which do not have that kind of might are picked on and pursued relentlessly. Is that what the United Nations system is all about? One of the pillars of the system is the equality of States. When the perception gains ground, then the United Nations is an organization that works on the basis of other vested interests that would be hugely inimical to the confidence that the United Nations system commands in the world at large. I also think that the time has come for some serious thought to be given to the reform of the system. We mustn’t forget that the structure that we have today is one that came into existence at the end of the Second World War. The Security Council, its composition, the permanent veto, all of it. Now the world has moved significantly since then. But those developments have not been sufficiently factored in. And I think there is now a strong current of opinion. I found this, uh, very much in New York in my interactions with foreign ministers of other countries and also with the regional groupings. There is a strong resolve to bring the United Nations into line with contemporary realities and to make it more relevant to the world in which we live. Perhaps a greater emphasis on economic and social council. The economic side of things. To make life better for the vast amounts of the population on the planet. I think some of these things have gone by default and the structural reforms which are long overdue should command much more attention than they have received up to now. If ordinary people across the world are going to believe that the United Nations system is useful for them. The money that is being spent is worthwhile and there is a way to ensure, a better future for the system as a whole. 

 Q   Sri Lanka also allocates funds to the UN system. Are we going to continue that process?

We contribute to the United Nations system and therefore we are entitled to dignity and self-respect. No, we do not intend to operate through threats. The amount we contribute is not large, but what matters is not the quantum of the contribution. Countries contribute vastly divergent sums, depending upon their own economic resources. We do not threaten. We do not say that if you behave in a manner that we do not like, we will cut off resources from you. That’s not the spirit in which we want to operate. We have said we will engage. We have been members of the United Nations system almost since its inception. But you must respect our autonomy of action and the right of the Sri Lankan parliament and judiciary and independent institutions to operate within their allotted domain and nothing must be done to usurp those functions, which rightly belong to local institutions. That’s is the kind of relationship that the system needs to develop with us in order to enable problems to be solved with the cooperation and assistance of our friends overseas.

 Q   You mentioned about the diaspora. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had said while in New York, that he will reach out to the Tamil diaspora as part of the reconciliation process. Has the Government begun the process at seeking talks with the diaspora?

Yes, we would certainly welcome that. It is very easy to converse with people who agree with you on everything. Such a conversation is not challenging at all, but such a conversation is also not productive. The challenge is to engage with people who have a point of view fundamentally different from ones one. Diaspora, we are certainly happy to talk about. When I met Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon in New York I said we would be happy to speak to the diaspora. They may not accept everything. Their own views may not be entirely acceptable to us, but it is worth to try to understand each other. And I don’t know whether the diaspora is really aware of the changes that are taking place in Sri Lanka or the initiatives of the current government. And we think that the fullest possible information should be at their disposal. Not just the diaspora. Our attitude towards the NGOs, for example. We do not regard NGO’s as enemies. We have no desire to keep them at arm’s length. We want to engage with them. They have very considerable outreach. They have garnered extensive experience over the decades. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met them on August 3. I met them on September 8. The head of the NGO Secretariat is meeting them, and after that I proposed to them again. Not just to have a pleasant conversation, go home and forget about it, but I think they can play a substantive role in particular areas, for example, the Sustainable Development Goals. That’s something that they can help with. And also the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation. I would like them to be involved. The Office is now beginning district level initiatives. The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward

 Q   Some of these diaspora groups are banned in Sri Lanka. Is the Government looking at lifting the ban on groups like the Global Tamil Forum for you to have talks with them?

No, we can’t speak to organizations that have been banned by the Sri Lankan government. That is not possible because that would be a violation of our law. But there are other shades of opinion. So, it’s useful to engage with them. If they are not satisfied with what we are doing then what are the other things that they would like us to do? But there are things happening in the country, For example, the reform of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. We cannot repeal it. We have made that very clear. National security interests must remain foremost in our minds. Eternal vigilance is absolutely necessary considering the environment not only in this country, but regionally and worldwide. So, we need to retain a legislation that will ensure the security of our country. At the same time, legislation which has been enacted a very long time ago, must be revised from time to time. It is not intended to remain in perpetuity in that very form. There are some provisions that ought to be modified. We are doing that. Not as a response to pressure. Not because of the sword of Damocles, but because we are convinced that it is the right thing to do. When people who have been incarcerated for very long periods of time, former LTTE cadres, we have to examine whether some of them can be released back into the community. They have been rehabilitated. So whether their release can be done without any detriment to national security. These are changes that we are making on the ground.  So that is healthy. We have no intention of making decisions arbitrarily and unilaterally. It won’t be a top-down approach. It is always good to get feedback and we are now having extensive discussions with people right across the spectrum. And I think that is enriching the processes of reconciliation that we have embarked upon.

 Q   Some of these emblematic cases also continue to get highlighted in the international media. And people like Yasmin Sooka continue to highlight these cases. Are those cases also something that this government will be looking into?

But that has to be done in a dispassionate and objective way. Yasmin Sooka was a member of the Darusman panel. So if you’re a member of the committee, you must have some degree of detachment and objectivity. But she has always been a vigorous and relentless activist against Sri Lanka. She has a point of view. She is a propagandist. So on every occasion, and she has been very vituperative against Sri Lanka. And she herself has links with other organizations. We do not regard that as a fair assessment of the situations. Emblematic cases, yes. But for example the Hejaaz Hisbullah matter. That is before courts. I understand that there have been about three or four court hearings. So that is no longer a matter of administrative detention or something that is contrary to the rule of law. It is a case that is being heard by the court of Sri Lanka. So each of these cases, there has been a great deal of misinformation and also one has to have a sense of proportion. Look at the broader picture. Are we moving in the right direction?  If these changes are desirable, then what we want is the involvement of more people, greater cooperation rather than destructive criticism, which will prevent us from moving forward.

 Q   I just want to go back to our foreign relations, just ask you about our relationship with India, since that is also getting highlighted, especially in the Indian media using China, of course. How are we going to deal with India moving forward?

You know, the most important thing to remember about our relationship with India is that it is not confined to one issue. It is a relationship that straddles every aspect of human behavior. It is a very intimate relationship and a relationship that goes back a long, long time. India is one of the five largest investors in Sri Lanka. Right now as we resume tourism and we have 3500 tourists sometimes coming in per-day, a vast majority of those tourists right now are from India. We have very substantial volumes of trade with India. But more than all of that, I would say the most important aspect of the relationship is people-to-people contact. On October 20, there is a flight to Kushinagar. It has been upgraded to the level of an international airport. And the first flight into Kushinagar will be from Sri Lanka. One hundred Buddhist monks will be traveling on that flight. Prime Minister Modi has said that he will personally come to Kushinagar to welcome the flight. So these kinds of people to people contact are based on a very firm foundation that is India’s most cherished gift to Sri Lanka, the gift of Buddhism. Consider the extent and the depth of people to people contact. We have academics going there. We have dance troupes. We have business people going there and we have film industrialists and don’t forget that it is not just a relationship between Colombo and New Delhi. We have relations with the other states of India, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. All these states are important. It is a multi-faceted relationship and we are doing a lot in the field of security, training of our military personnel, exchange of information, biodiversity. Even, our issues relating to fertilizer. India is helping us very considerably, 

 Q   I just would like to ask you about Afghanistan, since that is something that has grabbed the attention of the international community. Is Sri Lanka prepared to recognize the Taliban government?

That is under review. We would like the Taliban to form an administration that is inclusive as possible, the treatment of women is a very important consideration. Girls must have access to education. We are happy that the Taliban has offered general amnesty to officials of the last administration. But it is also important that they establish their credentials. Their bona fide is by their actual actions. So we are keeping that situation under constant review, and we will make decisions in due course as appropriate.
Watch the full video interview on Daily Mirror online by accessing to;

https://www.dailymirror.lk/dm-videos/On-Fire-with-Easwaran-Rutnam-G-L-Peiris-Minister-of-Foreign-Affairs-
Sri-Lanka/111-222608

 

 

  Comments - 3

  • Sriyani Mangalika Monday, 18 October 2021 04:28 PM

    He should know the tone to have communication with inter national. They are comfortable. We have come a position to eat excreta from China. Since they are timid to face prokblems we are in trouble for 11 years. People around are not intelegent and strong.

    Jayasinha Suriyagoda Thursday, 28 October 2021 06:52 AM

    Do you have a strong back bone to stand-up? Then how can you advise for others!! Shame!!!

    Mahila Friday, 29 October 2021 04:51 PM

    GLP, It all depends on who is swinging the 'Sword of Damocles'', because when China is the 'Swinger', the story is different! Peoples Bank is a good example!


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