Mr. Chairman, Professor Jonathan Goodhand,
High Commissioner for Sri Lanka, Mrs. Amari Wijewardena,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is indeed an honour to speak at the historic Chatham House today, as one of the first speakers in the New Year. May I also take this opportunity to congratulate all of you at the Royal Institute of International Affairs for being chosen as the, “Think tank of the year by Prospect Magazine” which commended your work as “Reliably excellent” and a “Gold Standard of knowledge and professionalism”.
The topic on which I speak today – ‘The Reconciliation Process in Sri Lanka’, in fact holds special significance for us Sri Lankans this week. This is because, the Cabinet of Ministers recently declared this week, from January 8th to the 14th, as the ‘National Integration and Reconciliation Week’. This coincides with the completion of two years since the historic Presidential election of January 8th 2015, and this is the first occasion on which this annual National Integration and Reconciliation Week is being observed in my country.
As one of the main features of this Observance, on 9th January, in schools and state institutions including in Parliament, a Pledge for National Integration and Reconciliation was read out, -resolving to work together, hand in hand, while respecting the richness of our diversity, to foster peace, understanding, mutual trust, and brotherhood; a new Sri Lanka united in its diversity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Several of my predecessors too have spoken here at the Chatham House. This includes the late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar who spoke at length here, in 1998, about the danger faced by our nation at the time, and democratic societies everywhere, from terrorism.
Almost twenty years later, I feel fortunate to be here representing a country where the guns and the bombs have finally fallen silent.
Although the violence ended in May 2009, the healing of wounds of over two decades of conflict, achieving reconciliation and national integration, catching up on economic progress and development that eluded us due to conflict, and ensuring non-recurrence, remain challenging tasks for our Nation. Similarly, the tasks of improving governance, institutions, rule of law, and putting in place necessary measures to strengthen, promote and protect individual rights; while ensuring the dignity of all and building a truly national identity while preserving our pluralistic society – remain work in progress.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This week, 2 years ago on the 8th of January, the people of Sri Lanka courageously turned out to vote across the country to end authoritarianism, corruption and the politics of hate; they voted for a new democratic Sri Lanka where democracy, reconciliation, the rule of law and sustainable development would flourish.
This courageous decision by the people of Sri Lanka enabled us, for the first time in our country’s history, to form a Government of National Unity, bringing together, the two main political parties – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, and the United National Party headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Having achieved a significant number of promises set out in the 100 Day Work Programme of the Government, the most significant being the repeal of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, and the adoption of the 19th Amendment, fresh Parliamentary elections were called in August 2015.
The 19th Amendment, as most of you I am sure are aware,
- Re-introduced the two-term limit of the Presidency,
- Reduced the term of the Presidency from 6 to 5 years,
- Established a Constitutional Council,
- Restored Independent Commissions,
- Recognized the Right to Information as a fundamental right, and
- Recognized the Promotion of National Reconciliation and Integration as duties of the President.
The Government also had in its hands, the task of restoring Sri Lanka’s relations with the outside world, and restoring lost credibility.
The Government, since January 2015, therefore, started reaching out to the international community, re-engaging with governments and international organizations.
The power of Parliament has been strengthened. Oversight Committees have been set up with Opposition members chairing several key Committees.
The Right to Information Act was enacted by Parliament last year and is now in the process of being operationalized.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
In two years Sri Lanka has made considerable strides from soft-authoritarianism towards consolidating a rights-based democracy with deeply entrenched institutions and values.
We are convinced and we recognize clearly, that societies that avoid looking at the past, fail to build sustainable peace. Sri Lanka has suffered conflict several times both in the South and in the North. There is hardly anyone in Sri Lanka who can claim to have not been affected by conflict. We know that traumatic memories don’t simply vanish and we have learned, through experience since Independence that grievances that are left unaddressed, can go on for generations, becoming entrenched, and holding the risk of descending into cycles of violence.
It is these realizations that cry out to us that our nation will never be able to achieve the full socio-economic development potential that our nation can reach, and our citizens are so deserving of, if we fail to address grievances, that risk plunging our nation into conflict once again, that led us to co-sponsor the Resolution that we worked on with members of the Human Rights Council in October 2015. The content of the Resolution is based on commitments that we ourselves as a Government, made to our people, and proposals that we presented to the Council based on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report, the Paranagama Commission Report and advice of our experts.
As the President said in his Independence Day speech in February last year, Sri Lanka is committed to the implementation of that resolution so that we as a country can deal with the past honestly and truthfully, accept that past, put it behind us, and then move forward to build our Sri Lankan nation anew.
The set of actions that the Government has identified to deal with the past in a comprehensive manner, addressing the grievances of all victims, include truth seeking, justice, reparation and measures for guaranteeing non-recurrence. As a first step, we have enacted legislation to set up an Office on Missing Persons.
Now that the Consultation Task Force set up to seek the views of the public has just handed over its Report to the Government on the 3rd of January, the relevant experts of Government, in an exercise coordinated by the Secretariat that has been set up to Coordinate the Reconciliation Mechanisms will be studying the Report and finalizing the designing of a Truth-Seeking Commission and a Reparations Office.
As some of you may be aware there are divergent views even within the government in respect of the participation of foreign judges in the proposed judicial mechanism.
However, despite this divergence of opinions, there is a clear consensus across the board on the need of an independent and credible domestic mechanism as promised by the manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena. As a democratic and sovereign government, we will work out the architecture of such a mechanism in consultation with all the stake holders.
Among the various multiple tasks, we have undertaken include the drafting through a consultative and inclusive process, of a National Human Rights Action Plan for the next five years beginning from this year (2017-2021).This draft Action Plan is currently before Cabinet.
As you are aware, Missing Persons is a phenomenon that has plagued Sri Lanka for long years. Apart from steps being taken to set up the permanent Office on Missing Persons, we have also become parties to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. The draft enabling legislation to give effect to the provisions of the Convention is also presently before the Cabinet.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As you are aware, one of the first steps taken by the National Unity Government in January 2015 itself was to restore civilian administration in the North and the East of the country. We have also taken a series of symbolic steps to establish equality of all citizens, such as singing the National Anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil; promising the people to ensure that we don’t allow our country to plunge into conflict and the shedding of blood of our citizens by adopting a Declaration of Peace on Independence Day in February 2015; and observing the National Integration and Reconciliation Week annually, beginning from this week.
As an important measure to prevent non-recurrence of conflict, the Parliament, last year, unanimously adopted a Resolution for the Parliament to sit as a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new Constitution that would, among other provisions.
Much of the preparatory work for the new constitution has now been completed. Wide-ranging public consultations were conducted for the first time in Sri Lanka’s constitutional history; much study, reflection and negotiation was undertaken to arrive at consensus at the six sub-committees set up and final negotiations on a draft are currently underway.
Right now, the President’s party, the SLFP, and the JVP have asked for time to present their respective final proposals. The Interim Report therefore is expected to be tabled in the Constitutional Assembly in early February, for debate.
On the developmental front, a solid foundation for economic growth, job creation and broad-based prosperity is being laid. First, the government is dealing with the white elephant economy it inherited: debt, fiscal pressures and wasteful expenditure were serious problems that have now been stabilized.
The Government’s plans of making Sri Lanka an Indian Ocean hub are beginning to bear fruit: the Colombo International Financial City; the Hambantota, Colombo East and Trincomalee Ports; and the Katunayake and Palali Airports are all hives of activity. By 2020, Sri Lanka will have the necessary infrastructure, regulations, and companies in place to achieve its hub ambitions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Sri Lanka has been at the cusp of breakthroughs many times before. There were much expectations from Sri Lanka at the time we gained Independence. Since then, we have been permanently at a make-it or break-it cross-roads for decades. Peace and prosperity have always been in sight and within grasp; but these many moments when history was pregnant with opportunity ended in disappointment.
But this time, there is reason to hope. The violence has finally ceased. The two main parties that have always worked against each other have now come together.
The President, Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are people with wisdom who know that what we have today in Sri Lanka is a unique opportunity which we simply cannot afford to miss. It is not the opportunity of the decade but the opportunity of our life-times. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history the UNP, SLFP, TNA and Muslim parties have agreed to work together to address the root causes of conflict. We have learnt from the mistakes of the past, and we are committed to ensuring that we achieve the promise that shined so brightly at our Independence.
Our history tells us that Sri Lanka was the marvel of the ancient world when she embraced multiculturalism, openness and trade. Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, at their heights, were home to people of all races and creeds. A spirit of celebrating diversity prevailed, and our civilization was enriched with ideas and practices from Rome, Persia, Egypt, Greece, India, South East Asia and China. We were a connected civilization proud of our position at the centre of Indian Ocean trade.
The lessons and the choices of our history are clear to us today. We have a choice between impunity, conflict, corruption, extremism and poverty, or the rule of law, accountability, equality, multiculturalism, openness and trade. We have a choice between conflict and poverty, versus peace and prosperity.
The statement issued in Brussels earlier today by the European Commission on granting the GSP+ concession to Sri Lanka is yet another indicator of Sri Lanka moving along the right track.
Two years since the 8th of January in 2015, the National Unity Government remains steadfast in its determination to achieve the objectives it set out to achieve for our country. We have succeeded against far greater odds and more powerful foes. The challenges that we have before us are not easy ones. But determination and unity, and courage and moral fortitude drives us to embrace tough choices and endure hardship to break the cycle of missed opportunities and disappointments to achieve for our people, especially our future generations, the prosperous and peaceful land that they so deserve. We are determined to ensure our success.
That is why I say to the cynics again that there will be no U-Turn despite some detours from time to time.
Breaking from the past, we will confine those who spin webs from the threads of ignorance to the dust-bin of history; finally put prejudice, ignorance, mediocrity and opportunism behind us once and for all, and build a truly united, democratic, multi-cultural and prosperous Sri Lanka where peace, justice, equality, dignity and freedom for all, prevail.
FESTINA LENTE; slowly but surely Sri Lanka is making haste towards a new beginning.