It is my pleasure, this evening, to welcome all of you today to the Republic building, having been sworn in early this week as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. At the moment Sri Lanka has the dubious honour of having the smallest Cabinet in the world, having had the largest in the world last year. At the moment we have a Cabinet of five, but the Government will be in place by Wednesday.
However, as you know, a lot has happened since then.
On the 26th of June, the Parliament was dissolved. Elections were scheduled for the 17th of August. And I am sure that all of you would have watched the developments from then until the 17th with as keen attention as all of us.
Those of you who have seen elections in Sri Lanka in the past would have noticed the difference between those instances and the manner in which the last election was conducted.
As the Election Observers said in their preliminary observations:
the atmosphere was more calm and peaceful on this occasion; election laws and guidelines were enforced strictly;
the “proactive and even-handed” approach of the police was commendable;
the media environment surrounding the election appeared to be, on the whole, fair to all those contesting;
and on the day of the election, voters were able to exercise their franchise freely in a peaceful environment;
election officials managed the entire polling process efficiently and transparently;
the police were positive and visible in maintaining security at polling and counting stations and in ensuring that violations of election law were kept in check;
vote and preference counting was conducted transparently and results were swiftly relayed to the media and the public.
And in this report they concluded that the election was credible, met the key criteria for democratic elections and that the outcome reflected the will of the people of the country. In fact we consider this election, Your Excellencies, and the manner in which it was conducted, as a victory for the people. A victory achieved as a part of the important and decisive journey which actually began on the 8th of January with the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, to usher in good governance, and strengthen the rule of law and democracy.
The manner in which every phase of the election was conducted – the campaigning as well as the polling – was possible, mainly, as a result of the provisions of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that was adopted in April. Non-interference of the Government and the position taken by the President to remain neutral, which was in line with the duties of the President set out in Article 33 5 (d) of the 19th amendment which states that it shall be the duty of the President, on the advice of the Elections Commissioner, to ensure the creation of proper conditions for the conduct of free and fair elections and referenda, enabled the outcome that we achieved.
The way the election was conducted inspired in all of us, the confidence, that the people of Sri Lanka supports progressive reform. It is clear that strengthening good governance practices and democratic institutions, respect for the rule of law and enabling structural and legal reforms are all measures that the people cherish and support.
The Election victory of the 17th of August also signifies, I believe, the triumph of centrist politics in Sri Lanka over the extremist politics of what I would call the ‘National Socialism’ as propagated by the Rajapaksa regime. Extremism on both sides of the divide were resoundingly defeated on the 17th of August.
The people have clearly expressed confidence in the approach to governance followed by the Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and their common vision of Sri Lanka’s engagement with the world:
-A nation that is at peace with itself and with the world; a nation that believes in maintaining friendship and goodwill with all; a nation that believes in engagement with the world community including international organisations; sharing information, discussion and dialogue with our partners at all times to seek solutions through collaborative approaches; negotiated outcomes and consensual decision-making through reasoned dialogue in a manner that protects the interests of all the people of this country.
-Such methods will be pursued in our dealings with our bilateral partners and multilateral organisations, not only to address issues of concern for Sri Lanka but for the global community as a whole.
-We will, at all times, be respectful of the important role played by the UN and multilateral agencies as vehicles for international discourse and norm setting for the common good.
-We will also work closely with all our partners to ensure a stable and secure atmosphere for sustainable economic prosperity for all our people.
Following the Parliamentary election last week and the victory of the United National Front for Good Governance led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the new Parliament as you know will convene on the 1st of September, next Tuesday. The Cabinet, reflective of the formation of what we call a national or unity government, is expected to be formed shortly thereafter.
This new Government under the leadership of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, aims to overcome one of the main ills that plagued our country since independence – that is the temptation of political parties to follow a narrow path of confrontation in order to achieve short-term political gains over the long-term interests of the people of our country.
The formation of a National Government will ensure the formation of national policies and the passage of important legislation including the provision required to adopt a new Constitution that will include a Bill of Rights that takes into account not only civil and political rights but economic, social and cultural rights as well. A Constitution that addresses the requirements of all citizens and communities; one which would allow greater participation for the public in decision making processes relating to matters in their respective areas. These measures, we expect, would enable more accountable and more responsible government in the country. Such a Constitution, we believe, with electoral reform and restoration of stronger Parliamentary government would be essential to ensure reconciliation and durable peace with justice and rule of law.
President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe work with full realization, that, in order not to allow the country to slip back into unfortunate conflicts such as the insurrections in the South and the problems in the North that led to terrorism, it is important that all citizens must feel that they are equal partners with equal rights. They are firm in their resolve to address the root causes which led to the conflict as recommended in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
This brings me specifically, to an issue which has, and continues to receive a lot of media attention. This relates to the nature of Sri Lanka’s engagement with the United Nations, the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his Office.
You all know very well that, for much of our history since Independence, Sri Lanka was considered to be an important member of the international community including in the United Nations. Since becoming a member of the UN sixty years ago in 1955, Sri Lanka has contributed in many ways to the UN system including in its norm setting processes. We have had the distinction of presiding over several UN conferences as well as the Security Council and the General Assembly.
However, the last few years saw Sri Lanka drift from this position of engagement. Our relations with the UN system as a whole became strained especially following the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009.
As you all know, the change of Government on January 8th enabled Sri Lanka to once again seek to pursue policies of engagement with the international community and international organizations including the United Nations.
In this context, I gave priority, soon after assuming office in January, to establish contact with the UN Secretary-General and with the High Commissioner for Human Rights while also reaching out to our bilateral partners to renew our ties.
Soon after my meeting with the UN Secretary-General on the 13th of February in New York, he dispatched the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Mr. Jeffrey Feltman to visit Sri Lanka at the end of February – early March to follow-up on our discussions. Mr. Feltman called on President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as well.
At the end of his visit, he addressed the media. He made the point that: “As requested by Sri Lanka, the United Nations is committed to assisting in the process of accountability and reconciliation, through the Peacebuilding Fund and other facilities, as appropriate. But it is first and foremost for Sri Lankans themselves to shape how to address issues of the past in order to find a common future.”
You are all aware that soon after the end of the conflict in 2009, the previous Government did two important things:
One, the Government made a Joint Statement with the United Nations at the conclusion of the UN Secretary-General’s visit to Sri Lanka in May where it undertook, on behalf of the people of this country, to take certain steps including on accountability.
Soon thereafter, on the 27th of May 2009, Sri Lanka proposed a Resolution in the UN Human Rights Council titled ‘Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights’ which was adopted by the Council. This Resolution too contained a series of measures to be taken by Sri Lanka including endorsement of the Joint Statement between the Government and the UN.
Thereafter, the Government appointed the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation which made a series of recommendations for implementation.
There is full realisation, Your Excellencies, that it is the lack of commitment to address issues locally – i.e. meet the promises made to one’s own people locally and carry out the duties towards one’s own citizens as well as realise the promises made in international fora coupled with the general breakdown of the rule of law and democratic space in the country over the years following the conflict that led to the call by the Human Rights Council in March 2014, for an international investigation on Sri Lanka.
This lack of commitment on the part of the previous Government, to carry out its duties towards its own people changed with the election of President Sirisena on the 8th of January 2015.
As you are aware, item 93 of President Sirisena’s manifesto in January expressed the intention of the common candidate, if elected, to address issues of accountability through national independent judicial mechanisms.
Moreover, on 4 February 2015, the Government, through its ‘Declaration of Peace’, promised to ensure non-recurrence of such tragedies in this country.
The President, Prime Minister and Members of Government have consistently stressed the importance of achieving meaningful reconciliation for durable peace and prosperity in the country on several occasions. The President has stressed many times that the greatest challenge that we have is to unite the minds of the people from the North and the South for a national reconciliation framework. On the 19th of May 2015 at the Armed Forces Day in Matara, the President emphasised that a process of reconciliation involves searching for the truth, achieving justice, dispelling fear, doubt and mistrust among all communities and building trust among communities.
Since the 8th of January, the Government has taken a series of steps including strengthening civilian administration in the North and the East, releasing land to their original owners, resettling the internally displaced, strengthening freedom of expression, and working with the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Reconciliation as you know will take time. It is an essential process for our country involving the broad areas of truth seeking, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. It also involves the important element of consultations to ensure ownership of processes, guarantee long-term sustainability and ensure that the deep grievances of all communities and within communities are addressed. Therefore, the mechanisms that we aim to set up and the processes that we aim to set in place will have to be evolved through wide consultations.
Accountability or truth seeking will at no point be a witch hunt the way some sections of our society are already attempt to portray. It will be about upholding the rule of law and building confidence in the people of all communities in the criminal justice system and the importance of being accountable.
It is about creating a culture in the country where society at large values the concept of being accountable not only in terms of criminal liability but in every sense including public accountability. Our objective is to create a culture based on the rule of law to prevent impunity for all violations including for violations of human rights.
This process is already underway. Justice that has long proved elusive is now becoming a reality and Sri Lanka’s courts are again vigilant in protecting all its citizens. The alleged perpetrators responsible for the massacre of eight civilians, including three teenagers and a five-year-old child, in Mirusuvil, Jaffna in the year 2000 were tried, and one of them was found guilty, in June this year. Our law enforcement officers are also now able to investigate without hindrance many of these cases. In fact, four members of the armed forces were arrested this week in connection with the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. By exposing such miscreants who tarnished the image of the armed forces over the years, we will be able to regain the armed forces’ lost reputation as one of the most disciplined and professional armies in the region. As we restore the armed forces credibility, we look forward to contributing to peace and stability around the world through greater engagement in peace-keeping and humanitarian activities.
Having said that, there is something important that I must emphasise.
For far too long now, our relationship with the international community has been dictated by ‘human rights’.
I can confidently say that the Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is committed to address human rights and related issues, work on changing the political culture and achieve meaningful reconciliation. In fact the President, in keeping with his constitutionally mandated duty under the 19th amendment of being in-charge of reconciliation and integration, has decided to establish a Ministry under his purview for these important subjects.
As much as we would need your invaluable support in terms of technical expertise in the setting up of domestic mechanisms and assistance for peacebuilding related efforts such as resettlement, infrastructure development, and providing psycho-social support, we think the time has now come to focus our attention to other areas as well which will contribute to strengthening our economy. This, we are of the view, will be key in ensuring long-term peace and stability and preventing the recurrence of conflict.
We want to discuss on securing access for our goods and services in the global market. We look to you for assistance in terms of expertise in enhancing the quality of our goods and services for this purpose to be able to plug into value chains.
We want to focus on making our exports competitive. We want to create new jobs. We want to equip our young people with the technical skills required for success in the present job markets around the world.
As you are aware, Sri Lanka has in place, free trade agreements with both India and Pakistan. We would like to invite investors in your respective countries to explore opportunities available in setting up manufacturing plants in Sri Lanka to access the large markets in the subcontinent.
The Government will enact necessary legislation required to create investor confidence without delay. But we are aware that legislative reform alone will not reset the investment climate. Therefore, ensuring policy stability and creating a level playing field for all investors is a priority for the new government. The bi-partisan consensus resulting from the National Government I am sure will aid in this process.
Fighting corruption will be one of the Government’s primary objectives and new laws and institutions in line with the UN Principles on Anti-Corruption will be adopted.
The Government is also keen to pursue new trade agreements with foreign countries and aims to set up 45 Economic Development zones with 11 Industrial and technological zones throughout the country including in Hambantota for ship building and manufacturing, Raigama for consumer and new technology, Maha Oya, Vanni and Killinochchi for Manufacturing, Colombo for commercial and monetary services, Kandy, Jaffna and Galle for IT.
My colleagues in Cabinet and I, when the full Cabinet is formed, will share with you more details of how we can work closely together in these areas and collaborate as well in the coming days.
I am also keen to undertake the task of restructuring the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that this institution will be oriented more towards economic diplomacy and closer engagement with all of you.
I will now conclude by thanking all of you for being present here today and for your constant commitment and determined efforts to foster stronger relations between Sri Lanka and the countries and international organisations that you represent.
I look forward to working with all of you closely in the coming days.