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Sri Lanka can overcome any challenge successfully – Minister Samarasinghe

Plantation Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who also oversees the subject of human rights, in an interview with the Sunday Observer says the lifting of the Emergency is a commitment the Government has fulfilled to ensure that the right conditions exist on the ground for national reconciliation.

“There are certain points of view now being expressed that we are totally relaxing the Emergency due to international pressure. This could not be further from the truth. As early as May 2010, we reduced the scope of the Emergency Regulations in keeping with the ground situation. In March and in June this year we told the community of nations in Geneva that we would consider lifting the Emergency when it was warranted. This has been our consistent message.”

He said the Sri Lankan team to the UNHRC in September will not shy away from aggressive and biased criticism, but on the contrary, confidently attack anti-Sri Lanka propaganda and project the true picture of a nation trying to rebuild after successfully crushing the scourge of terrorism.

“As I said earlier, we have nothing to be shy or diffident about. We have impressive achievements to talk about and we also acknowledge that there are challenges that we must overcome”, he said.

Q: You will shortly be attending the forthcoming sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. What are your expectations?

A: It will be my privilege to lead the Sri Lankan delegation to the 18th Regular Sessions of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) scheduled to begin in the second week of September.

In accordance with the brief given to me by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, I will attempt to place our record fairly and squarely before the 47-member Council and the wider international community represented in Geneva.

This is more or less what I have been doing for over five years. During that period - we have interacted with the community of nations in a spirit of constructive engagement with Sri Lanka’s national interest uppermost in our minds. In that effort we have been largely successful.

We have no reasons to be diffident or evasive about Sri Lanka’s situation. On the contrary, we are in a position to announce to the world the great strides we have made in a little over two years since the end of the battle.

Q: There are concerns about undue pressure from certain quarters on Sri Lanka to take certain measures in the post-conflict scenario, especially with regard to what is termed as accountability. How are you going to address those issues?

A: Although the battle ended in May 2009, there are many challenges to face in finally winning the peace. There are many compulsions emanating from various quarters to target Sri Lanka. We, as a Government, have consistently warned that the remnants of the LTTE international network and other elements are working tirelessly to put Sri Lanka on the mat. The so-called anti-Sri Lanka diaspora is well organised and is using every resource at its disposal to maintain and magnify this pressure.

Unfortunately, some of our international friends and partners have uncritically echoed these sentiments without taking a holistic view of the Sri Lankan situation, perhaps driven by domestic political and other imperatives. These anti-Sri Lanka elements have unfortunately lost sight of the opportunities for a new Sri Lanka that the defeat of terrorism has enabled. It is our duty to engage with them, convince them of the new reality and, if possible, co-opt them into rebuilding a new nation in which each Sri Lankan, irrespective of language, religion, ethnicity or cultural background, is welcomed and accommodated.

As I have consistently said, even before the end of the battles, several initiatives needed to be taken to achieve a lasting and enduring peace.

What my delegation will make clear in the weeks of engagement in Geneva is that we have embarked upon most of these initiatives already. We have achieved tremendous progress in some of them and have asked for sufficient time for these initiatives to bear fruit. While we are aware of the international concerns, we cannot rush any of these processes to suit others’ agendas. We must ensure that Sri Lanka’s vital interests are served before anything else. To paraphrase President Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka - our motherland - comes first, second and third. This precedes and precludes any other priority.

Q: But how are you going to withstand international pressures which take many forms? It is alleged the lifting of the Emergency was in response to such pressure?

A: We can and will withstand all pressures by doing the right thing by our people and honouring our international obligations. This is not bowing to a certain grouping of nations, but rather asserting that we are a good international citizen.

As the situation gradually improves, we will make adjustments, refinements and policy changes to reflect a changing environment. For instance, take the Emergency Regulations promulgated under the Public Security Ordinance in 2005 after the assassination of Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar.

There are certain points of view now being expressed that we are totally relaxing the Emergency due to international pressure. This could not be further from the truth. As early as May 2010, we reduced the scope of the Emergency Regulations in keeping with the ground situation. In March and in June this year we told the community of nations in Geneva that we would consider lifting the Emergency when it was warranted. This has been our consistent message.

Careful consideration

The situation has improved to an extent that will permit the lifting of the Emergency altogether. This was not done in a vacuum, but with careful consideration of the needs of the country.

It must be noted that certain legal and regulatory arrangements have to be made to cater to any exigencies that could arise. What is important to stress here is that it was we who decided, the democratically elected President and Government of a sovereign and independent nation, not some other global or regional power. We did so in a manner that was responsible, careful, and consistent with good reason and common sense. The people of this country expect no less.

Moreover, there is no reason whatsoever to consider Sri Lanka a maverick or rogue state. We have been open about what we are doing. We have engaged in Geneva and at other international fora and briefed the international community about our progress, problems and solutions that we have devised. One example is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in the Human Rights Commission which we fully participated in 2008 when the battle was ongoing. Next, we will participate in the second cycle of the UPR in 2012 and all our friends and partners are welcome to engage in that dialogue at which any and all concerns can and will be addressed.

It is my view that it is our openness and willingness to engage that allowed us to win the support of a great majority of the Human Rights Council in May 2009 when a Special Session of the HRC was held on Sri Lanka. We, together with our friends, secured a Resolution that was supportive of Sri Lanka and her efforts in the battle against terrorism. I was honoured to lead the formidable Sri Lankan team under the guidance of the President on both those occasions, and I am confident that, in the same spirit, we will be able to state our case in a forthright manner and win the day for the country.

Q:As a Minister who was formerly in charge of the subject of Human Rights, how would you answer those who say that human rights of the people of Sri Lanka are being violated with impunity?

A: That is a total canard. I referred to the UPR earlier. During that process, we took stock of what we had achieved, what our challenges were and how we were going to address them. It was an accurate snapshot of the human rights situation in the country at that time.

I personally oversaw the drafting of the National Report that was submitted to the HRC. Our report was commended by a great many nations who participated in the UPR on Sri Lanka in May/June 2008. In particular, the frank and candid manner in which we presented the factual situation and the level of detail the report went into, won us special appreciation.

National Action plan

During the UPR, we pledged to devise a National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of human rights. We worked hard on fulfilling that pledge with the assistance of key Government institutions and civil society groups. We were greatly supported by the UN system in that work. The Attorney-General gave leadership to the process of drafting and refining the final proposed Action Plan which is now before the Cabinet for their consideration.

We are now planning for the implementation phase, including monitoring and evaluation. Once adopted by the Government, we will popularise the Action Plan and secure buy-in by every segment of society. This is the pith and substance of the National Action Planning process. Everyone at every level of society must participate in and be a constructive contributor to the successful implementation of the Plan. At the core of the Plan is the concept that we have achieved much in the sphere of human rights, but there are improvements that can be made in keeping with national priorities.

The Plan presents a structured framework which will take us to a higher level in the promotion and protection of human rights. We will move from being ‘good’ to being ‘better’. It is worthwhile to note that a new Human Rights Commission has been appointed in terms of the law and is forging ahead with its work. The Supreme Court has for over 30 years stood as the ultimate guarantor of the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution. They have given innumerable decisions upholding the rights of people during that period.

We have a vibrant media and civil society that is vigilant, dedicated and vocal. We have a functioning courts system, an independent prosecutorial service and an improving law and order situation in the wake of the defeat of terrorism. Language rights, for so long the cause of much dissension and division, are being gradually strengthened through a Ministry, a permanent Commission and a Department. All these are elements of an institutional framework to protect human rights in a democratic setup.

Room for improvement

Of course, there is room for improvement. I would be the last to state that we have a perfect record. That is why initiatives like the National Action Plan are so important to carry through. Impunity occurs when there is a collapse of legal and institutional safeguards to protect the people’s rights. No one with any sense of responsibility can say that of Sri Lanka.

Q: Not long ago, you set out the 4 Rs that underpin the rebuilding of a society in a post-conflict scenario. How would you assess progress in that respect?

A: Soon after the end of the battle, I was invited to deliver a keynote speech to an international forum on ‘winning the peace’ in August 2009. In that presentation, I set out the four elements that, to my mind, were key to rebuilding a peaceful democratic society emerging from nearly 30 years of conflict. They were:

Reconstruction;
Resettlement;
Reintegration including rehabilitation; and Reconciliation including democratic political accommodation.

Now, two years and three months on, I do not need to dwell on the successes of the reconstruction element. The vast level of investment in rebuilding infrastructure has been universally recognised. To enable and sustain this level of expenditure and activity, the first priority was to ensure security and law and order.

De-mining of conflict affected areas was carried out at a pace that compares with the best efforts anywhere in the world. I was recently told by one senior individual representing a key development partner that they admire and acknowledge the lead role taken by the Sri Lanka Army in this respect. The Army is responsible for around 80 percent of the successful de-mining operations. Of course their efforts are supplemented and supported by several international agencies, but the role played by the Army in giving leadership is most commendable.

Roads, bridges, public buildings, schools and health facilities have been rebuilt not just to replace what existed in the past, but at a vastly improved level with an eye on the future needs of people in those areas. Similarly, resettlement has been achieved at a pace that is perhaps unmatched elsewhere. Given the caseload of over 290,000 displaced persons at the end of May 2009, our achievement in this regard is a potential role model for other countries and conflict zones. Along with resettlement, restoration of livelihoods has been accorded the highest priority. It is enabling people to stand on their own feet and take charge of their lives that is most important. It is the cornerstone of guaranteeing human dignity, the ultimate aim of all human rights. Over 11,600 ex-combatants have been put through varying programs of rehabilitation depending on their needs and level of involvement in terrorism. Many have been released through the judicial system. The office of the Commissioner-General of Rehabilitation, successively occupied by persons of dedication and goodwill, has done yeoman service in this context.

A special mention must be made of the child combatants who were rehabilitated. A proper legal and institutional framework was set in place and this critical segment of Sri Lankans have been cared for, trained and rehabilitated at great cost to the State. These persons have now been given the opportunity to become useful and productive citizens a credit to their families, communities and the country. We must continue to monitor their progress and assist them to build a secure future for themselves.

Q: What about the fourth element, reconciliation including democratic political accommodation? There is criticism levelled at the Government that progress is too slow.

A: President Mahinda Rajapaksa and some of my Cabinet colleagues, most notably Prof. G.L. Peiris, Minister of External Affairs, have pointed out that reconciliation and political solutions in other post-conflict societies have taken years, even decades, to evolve into durable systemic responses within a democratic framework.

LLRC recommendations

Currently, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is inquiring into the conflict and its causes and is evolving recommendations to ensure that such a situation never arises again in Sri Lanka. I am happy to wait for that body to finish its deliberations and come up with its conclusions.

A near 30-year conflict that is multi-faceted and complex and had its roots in decades of history, cannot be analysed and dissected in a space of a few days. The persons engaged in the Commission are highly regarded professionals. They should be given time and space to come up with their findings and recommendations. We have briefed our interlocutors in Geneva and elsewhere of the interim recommendations made by the LLRC and the measures taken by the Inter-Agency Committee to implement them without delay.

Reconciliation is about building trust and amity between communities and assuring them that problems and issues can be addressed and resolved in a democratic manner without resorting to violence. This has to evolve from the people itself. The Government can only ensure that the right conditions exist to facilitate this consciousness.

As Jawaharlal Nehru said: ‘Peace is not a relationship of nations. It is a condition of mind brought about by a serenity of soul. Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people’.

Merely prescribing solutions from above without efforts at the grassroots and community-level peace-building will be less than fruitful. We as a people have great strengths. We are nurtured and enriched by four of the world’s great religious traditions that have, at their core, peace and co-existence.

I look forward to the LLRC coming forward with creative, forward thinking and workable recommendations that we can implement with a view to buttressing our common values and ideals and celebrating our rich socio-ethnic makeup; building a Sri Lankan identity that is overarching and inclusive and which nurtures the diversity of our people. All this must be achieved within a paradigm of democratic governance which is the best guarantee of peace, prosperity and security for all Sri Lankan people.

This is also why the President has started the process to conduct democratic elections and let people decide who it is they want to represent them at different levels. Faith in the process and real results over time will give people the confidence to work together and rebuild Sri Lanka from the bottom up.

Elections in N-E

Elections were held in the East and recently in the North. At the upper levels of Constitutional Reforms and discourse at a national level, a Parliamentary Select Committee is to be tasked with formulating a series of measures that the vast majority (if not the entirety) of the Sri Lankan people will find acceptable. This is fundamentally important. All attempts and measures taken in the past 50 to 60 years have, at some point, broken down due to a lack of across-the-board acceptance and bipartisan buy-in.

The key is to forge a national consensus that will support and sustain the solutions proposed. Any putative solution arrived at between two or three political groupings is not going to be ultimately successful if a substantial portion of our polity opposes it. Our experience over the years teaches us this undeniable lesson.

Q: Finally, are you confident that you have the tools to win in Geneva?

A: In diplomacy and multilateral engagement, ‘winning’ is a relative term and concept. We will be successful if we are able to convince our many friends, I do not believe we have any ‘enemies’ in the traditional sense, of our bona fides and our willingness to work together with them as a sovereign and independent member of the community of nations.

Under the capable leadership of the Minister of External Affairs, this engagement is taking place at various levels and on a daily basis through our diplomatic missions in foreign capitals. The subject of human rights is an important aspect of this engagement. As I said earlier, we have nothing to be shy or diffident about. We have impressive achievements to talk about and we also acknowledge that there are challenges that we must overcome.

We are not sitting back, but are proactively addressing those challenges. We seek understanding and cooperation in improving ourselves and not mere unhelpful and biased criticism. We will not shy away from aggressively countering or attacking falsehoods and anti-Sri Lanka propaganda. We have done so in the past and will continue to do so in the future. As ever, I am confident that we as a Government and a united Sri Lankan nation can face any challenge and overcome it, just as we did in overcoming terrorism over two years ago.

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