“We will make friends not foes” - Dinesh Gunawardena | Sunday Observer

“We will make friends not foes” - Dinesh Gunawardena

Dinesh Gunawardana  (Pic: Rukmal Gamage)
Dinesh Gunawardana (Pic: Rukmal Gamage)

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer, Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said Sri Lanka will have a strict neutral foreign policy where it will strive to have only friends and not foes among the global community.

Outlining the country’s agenda for the UN Human Rights Council, the Minister said the Ministry has already begun the process to revisit the ‘detrimental’ HRC resolutions co-sponsored by Sri Lanka under the last government.

Q: What will be the cornerstones of the new Government’s foreign policy?

A. The President has very clearly announced that Sri Lanka will adopt and continue on a fresh ‘track’ of foreign relations. It will strictly be a non-aligned, neutral foreign policy. This is the most important foundation in our government’s foreign relations. Sri Lanka, a founding member of the Non Aligned Movement has always been accepted and reputed for this non-aligned policy.

In the last few years there was a shift in this policy and we hope to restore that by building confidence among other countries and international organizations. That will lay the foundation to boost our economic development.

Q: Given our strategic location in the Indian Ocean, a midpoint between the West and the East, is it possible in practical terms to be neutral and to not get in between super powers?

A. Sri Lanka has achieved this with great leadership which was respected by all and it is a possibility. Sri Lanka is not born anew. It has a history of thousands of years. Our neutral policy will allow maritime lanes to be properly used and keep them safe.

The country’s geographical location is indeed strategic to the Indian Ocean. We hope our neighbours and the international community will respect the norms and there is mutual understanding in bilateral and multilateral dealings.

Q: In the recent past the shift was more towards the West. Are we seeing a major shift in the foreign policy in opposition to the previous one?

A. We are coming back to a pragmatic and positive foreign policy accepted by all. Sometimes it is not practiced by all governments in power here, this is a major problem. We have to get back to our clear non-aligned foreign policy. We will look to the West for friendly relations, it is not going to be an enemy.

Q: Sri Lanka had a prominent place in China’s ‘One belt and one road’ initiative.

A. China’s initiative is an asset for Asia and other countries. We are in a century where power is shifting and Asia is going to play a major role, so the contribution that countries can play in the Asian region is very important. We want to enhance economic and other relations with our neighbor India as well as Pakistan and other countries.

Q: What is the emphasis on SAARC?

A. At the moment it is said the grouping is not as proactive as it should be. Sri Lanka has provided free on arrival visa for many countries but it has not been reciprocated for even Lankan Buddhist pilgrims travelling to smaller neighbors.

These matters will be discussed by the President and the Prime Minister with other SAARC member heads of state. We will try to pursue mutual relaxations. We will move on that matter step by step.

Q: A Swiss Embassy local staffer was reportedly abducted at gunpoint and interrogated by men in civvies. Is the government taking this incident seriously? What is the latest on this incident?

A. I met the Swiss Ambassador on Wednesday, when we heard of this situation in the morning. We assured the Swiss Ambassador the Government’s fullest cooperation, we will fast track and chase on the matter which is already happening.

The CID has begun an investigation under the IGP’s instructions, and the foreign ministry issued a statement on Thursday. The Prime Minister himself discussed the matter with the Swiss Ambassador. It is an ongoing investigation so I cannot go into much detail. But we are working with the Swiss Embassy. And we will respect all norms of diplomatic immunity. That has been assured to the Swiss Ambassador and the diplomatic community based in Colombo. We will get to the bottom of this. It is very sad and we condemn this type of action.

Q: Such incidents could tarnish the image of the new government?

A. That is true but we must get to the bottom of this. Allegations are sometimes made, we have seen this during the past few years, how the leaders of the previous government were accused of many things but the charges were not established. We are aware of attempts to tarnish the image of the government, we need to get to the truth. We work with an open mind and extend our support to the Swiss Embassy. I assure that the investigators are on the job.

Q: The accusation is that the state intelligence was behind this abduction.

A. If the Government was involved, it would not have acted so fast and taken responsibility of giving all the support to the Swiss Embassy and the Ambassador to find who is behind this incident. Various allegations can be made, that is the nature of a democratic society. We will not suppress these freedoms.

Q: When will you take up the matter of UNHRC consensus resolution 30/1 and 34/1 against Sri Lanka? Why do you think the process needs to be revisited?

A. The process has to be revisited because, as the President has very clearly said, he wants to review any agreement with any entity that is felt to be detrimental to our sovereignty and independence. And also we will not hesitate to review any agreement that is signed and implemented outside the accepted norms.

The former President Maithripala Sirisena also condemned the MCC agreement. The whole nation had been critical of this agreement. Not only Geneva resolutions, but such other international agreements will be reviewed if they have been entered into without the parliament being informed.

Q: The next UN Human Rights Council session is in March next year. How do you plan to carry forward this process?

A. We have already started the process, the Foreign Ministry is working on it along with the other support agencies and experts. We will take a very clear position and discuss it with our friends in the international community. When the latest resolution was passed at the Council, an annexure revealing the basis and the arguments of this resolution were wrong was attached.

As a new government, the president, prime minister and the cabinet of ministers will go by the constitution and explain the reality. We will take note of Lord Naseby’s exposé in the UK. It has now been revealed that former Sri Lanka government was on the wrong track.

Perhaps the member countries were also unaware of unrevealed information. We will work on it positively. People’s verdict at the election is very clear, that this agreement has to be reviewed. And Sri Lanka’s dignity for all its people - Sinhala, Tamil and Muslims - has to be restored.

Q: Do you think the regional blocs will help Sri Lanka in this endeavour, or how would you get about it?

A. We will explain to the international community the progress that has taken place in the country in relation to issues raised in Geneva and other forums elsewhere. I met the representatives of UN sub-Agency on terrorism and Drugs yesterday. We trust our neighbours as well as international groupings will understand Sri Lanka’s position and ground realities.

Q: Can we review a consensus resolution, are there provisions to do so?

A. There are provisions under which one could act.

Q: A top State Department official last week has said the controversial Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement which caused a huge uproar, particularly prior to the election, would soon be launched in Sri Lanka. Do you endorse this?

A. All the international and bi-lateral agreements that have been controversial and undemocratic were questioned by all other than a few cabinet ministers of the last government. They were questioned by so many key partners of the last government. They definitely need to be revisited.

The countries who have come forth with those agreements must stick to their positions. But our position should also be understood. We are burdened with enough debt and projects which might be positive or negative.

The new government has a mandate to review the whole situation and this is one agreement that will be reviewed. Of course it falls within the purview of the Finance ministry but Foreign ministry will also have observations on the mater.

Q: On what basis did the US official announce that the agreement will be launched soon? Has the previous government entered into this agreement before the Presidential election?

A. So many things have been said about this arrangement. The previous government tried to rush it through. They wanted to make this an issue at the election. But now the people have given the verdict and rejected the canvassing done by the former government that the funding was for the country’s benefit.

According to the clauses in the agreement, to come into effect, it has to go through Parliament. But the parliament never saw this document.

Q: Will it reach parliament before the next general election?

A. It cannot come if we do not agree with it in toto.

Q: The Candidates in certain constituencies in the UK’s general elections are referring to a Sri Lankan genocide. Has the Foreign Ministry taken note of this?

A. The Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in the UK has already raised this matter on November 27. There is a sizeable Sri Lankan diaspora community in the UK in some constituencies who could shift results. This is not the first time political parties who want to come to power, had made such references to please their vote base. We have already conveyed our concerns to the British counterparts.

We should not forget that a former British Prime Minister made similar references during a referendum but it carried little weight. He was rejected by the voters in those same electorates.

These British politicians are canvassing for votes for next week’s election. We do understand that but let us act with responsibility. We hope the leaders of the two parties which have come out with negative remarks on Sri Lanka in their manifestos will make an effort to know the real situation in Sri Lanka.

Q: Many Sri Lankan expatriate voters came to Sri Lanka to vote in the Presidential election and we heard some saying that they arrived to vote for SLPP candidate in particular. Will there be a role for them to take part in the country’s development?

A. The President has very clearly announced in his program that professionals living abroad, all Sri Lankans, are invited to join in the process to bring security and development to Sri Lanka. So there will be a lot of areas which will be opened for such investors and partners in development.

Q: The Tamil diaspora was invited by the last government to play an active role in North and East development. Will this process continue under the new government?

A. As I mentioned before all Sri Lankan migrants and expatriates - Sinhala Muslim or Tamil, irrespective of differences - can join in the country’s development drive. The President has announced that he will expedite the reconciliation process and the North and East development. Let us not forget that the demining is yet to complete. Our government under president Mahinda Rajapaksa moved very fast in demining the North and East, but the pace at which it moved was broken during the past years. Our plan is to complete the demining work by next year.

And also resettlement and housing for the displaced is not completed even after four and a half years. We will expedite these works. There is an open invitation for those who are living abroad to come back and invest in their motherland’s development.

The president has already begun relaxing bureaucratic red tape and is working on cutting down unnecessary state expenditure. He has set an example by reducing the Cabinet to 15 and travelling with a minimum team on his first state visit to India.

Auditor Generals in the past have repeatedly pointed out the burden of state expenditure, but it has been ignored. Therefore, state extravagance has been part of our debt crisis. An international report once pointed out that we waste 30%-40% of our borrowings.

The President and the government is committed to change this situation. This trend of governance will continue even after the next parliamentary election which is due in months.

Q: The political appointments to Sri Lanka’s overseas missions have come down from 37% to 58% within the past year.

A. It is a good trend, as a parliamentarian I have always believed professionals in foreign service must be given responsibility. This ratio has been maintained after a long time. We will maintain this balance and professionalism in our missions overseas. We have had outstanding diplomats in our service, and outstanding men like late Lakshman Kadirgamar at the helm of this ministry.

We have had former Ambassador’s serving in important positions in the UN like late Shirley Amarasinghe who chaired the law of the sea and brought in tremendous changes in the international arena.

We have also sent out a note recalling all political appointees to the overseas missions. It was mentioned during election time not to make new and hurried appointments to any position in the state sector. But there have been appointments of heads of mission during election time.

Besides political appointees, career diplomats who have ended their terms of service will also be returned shortly.

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