By Alistair Burt -
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today.
I am delighted to be back in Sri Lanka, two years on from my last visit, and in particular to be speaking here at the Kadirgamar Institute.
Lakshman Kadirgamar brought great distinction to his many roles: as President of the Oxford Union, as a lawyer and as a Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka. He was a great friend of the UK, and the deep respect and admiration was mutual. His assassination by the LTTE in 2005 was both an appalling act and a tragedy.
The values for which he stood: democracy, individual rights and the rule of law, his belief in the importance of international institutions, are as important now as they have ever been.
Since my visit to Sri Lanka in 2011, I have indeed been struck by the development that has taken place here. The absence of conflict has brought greater security and opened up opportunities throughout Sri Lanka.
During uncertain economic times your economy has continued to experience high levels of growth – which is something we are seeing across the country. On my visit to the North yesterday I saw firsthand the changes that are taking place there, with much-needed economic development.
Your infrastructure has developed rapidly, with new roads and bridges opening up the North and East. This is making it easier for businesses to expand throughout the island, and helping to reconnect communities.
But it is much more than new roads and bridges. You only have to look around Colombo to see quite how much things are changing here – construction work is everywhere you look. There are new homes, offices, hotels, hospitals. The Colombo Lotus Tower, whose foundation stone was laid just over a year ago, will be among the tallest structures in the world when it is completed.
A strong bilateral relationship
I am pleased that the UK continues to play a strong role in supporting Sri Lanka’s development.
One crucial element of this is helping Sri Lanka to recover from decades of conflict. The Department for International Development has contributed £3 million for demining work, much of which has been carried out by British charities. The UK has also provided extensive funding through the European Union for the re-housing of those displaced by war, and for the reintegration of former combatants.
But, of course, our relationship goes still deeper.
There are over 100 British companies operating in Sri Lanka, including familiar names such as HSBC, Unilever and Standard Chartered. I understand that British Airways is returning later this year, reflecting the fact that British tourists continue to visit Sri Lanka in large numbers.
Indeed, over 100,000 UK citizens visited last year, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total number of tourists visiting your country, and they are making a significant contribution to the Sri Lankan economy.
The UK is your second-largest trading partner after India.
Our links on education are strong too. Each year, around 8,000 young Sri Lankans choose to study in the UK. In addition, 27 UK colleges and universities offer British-accredited education here in Sri Lanka. And we are excited by plans for one British university to open up the first in-country foreign campus next year.
Our British Council also plays a key role in ensuring current and future workforces continue to have excellent English language skills. I am delighted that they are planning to open a third branch in Jaffna later this year, to complement those in Colombo and Kandy.
Building the Sri Lanka of the future
So Britain and Sri Lanka continue to enjoy a close and mutually-beneficial relationship covering a whole range of areas and built on our long history and mutual interest.
But today I want to focus my remarks on your country’s future; to talk about how Sri Lanka can fulfil its tremendous potential: economically, socially and politically.
Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, is currently co-chair of the panel reviewing the UN Millennium Development Goals. He has talked about a “golden thread” of development.
This is an idea that applies not just to countries struggling to rise out of poverty, but also to those like Sri Lanka who have recently achieved middle income status, and which aspire to make the transition to high growth and high per capita wealth.
The golden thread describes the underlying conditions that provide the foundation for sustainable prosperity and development.
Among these, first and foremost in a world of conflict is an absence of war. It is clear that the end of the conflict in 2009 has underpinned your country’s recent growth. The end of the scourge of terrorism has opened a new chapter.
But an absence of war alone is not enough. As David Cameron has said, we believe that true prosperity is not possible without good governance, property rights and the rule of law, effective public services and strong civil institutions, free and fair trade, and open markets.
It is for these reasons – our determination to promote not just our own, but global prosperity – that the UK will be promoting greater transparency through its G8 chairmanship later this year.
These are also reasons why I have welcomed the LLRC report;
Why we continue to encourage the Sri Lankan government to take concrete action to implement its constructive recommendations;
And it is why the UK speaks frankly to the Sri Lankan government about what more we believe it needs to do to ensure peace and prosperity in your country.
Tackling the challenges ahead
These issues have been an important component of my discussions during this visit.
I have encouraged the Sri Lankan government to cut red tape, to address corruption and to set up an effective co-ordinating mechanism for investment – each of which would make Sri Lanka a more attractive market for investors.
I have again welcomed the end of the war, and the end of horrific LTTE terrorism in Sri Lanka. But I have also called on all parties to uphold civil and political freedoms, and for the government to set an example.
We believe in maintaining independent institutions, in encouraging individuals to speak out and engage constructively in debate. The rule of law is crucial to long-term prosperity.
Respect for our legal systems is part of the cultural heritage of both the UK and Sri Lanka. As a lawyer myself it is a principle I feel particularly strongly about.
For businesses, as well as individuals, knowing that there are fair, transparent and independent mechanisms for resolving disputes is essential. And the concepts found within our legal systems – certainty of contract, non-retroactivity and the equal application of laws – are the foundation for business and growth.
This is why judicial independence is a core principle in free countries; why justice must not only be done, but also be seen to be done. It is why we and others, such as the International Commission of Jurists and the UN, have expressed deep concern at the recent impeachment and dismissal of Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice. And it is why we are so concerned to make sure individuals are brought to justice. In particular in cases of violent attack, it simply cannot be right for the accused to be walking free. As the LLRC said, the rule of law must prevail regardless of the political links of alleged wrongdoers.
But the golden thread is not about individual cases or issues; it is about institutions, about embedding cultures of transparency and consistency and fairness into the very way in which we operate.
And we can all improve on this. Sri Lanka, coming out of 30 years of conflict, has a particularly difficult, and particularly important, job. Re-embedding a culture of peaceful settlement of differences and adherence to due process will strengthen your institutions and your economy for future generations.
I am frequently reminded – by the government here, by victims of the conflict and independent observers – that war only ended in Sri Lanka in 2009. Less than four years ago this country was in the throes of a hugely violent conflict that claimed thousands of lives on all sides.
We are, without question, happy to see the end of LTTE terrorism, and the end of war, in Sri Lanka.
The UK has also suffered at the hands of terrorists. In 1973 alone, over 30 bombs exploded in London as a result of the Irish Republican Army’s campaign of terrorism.
So we know that dealing with the results of conflict takes time. And we know that Sri Lanka has done much already – not least resettling internally displaced persons, demining huge areas and committing to reforms that allow all citizens to communicate in their preferred language.
But our experience in Northern Ireland tells us that long-term peace can only be achieved through an inclusive political settlement that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict. We learnt hard lessons from Northern Ireland. Because of the time it took to reach a political settlement, more lives were lost than should have been.
As I made clear to ministers here earlier today, more work is needed to deliver the path to reconciliation that the President has frequently and sincerely advocated. The Government must ensure that all citizens can benefit more fully from the peace dividend and that peace is embedded for the long term.
And as I have said before, the LLRC report contains many constructive recommendations for action on post-conflict reconciliation and a political settlement. If the report is implemented in full, we believe it would go a long way to achieving lasting peace. Economic development is a necessary, but not exclusive, answer to these challenges.
The actions suggested by the LLRC include a national day of remembrance for all victims of the conflict, closure for the families of missing persons through access to detainee lists, returning IDPs back to their homes, a political settlement which protects minority rights. These are sensible recommendations, coming from Sri Lanka’s own reconciliation commission, which will accelerate Sri Lanka’s recovery from conflict.
The LLRC rightly pointed to the need for political institutions which give all communities a voice, and the need for steps to recognise, remember and reconcile the divisions of war. Part of this must also include accountability before the law for those on all sides accused of human rights abuses during the conflict. And that applies equally to investigating and prosecuting disappearances and abductions that have happened since 2009, as well as answering allegations of crimes committed during the war.
We applaud the establishment of the Commission. Now is the time for implementation.
Looking towards the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting
I have been asked a number of times over the last three years why the UK cares about Sri Lanka.
It is because our links are deep. We have an important partnership, we have history and we want to see a secure, prosperous and stable country for all Sri Lankans. This is in both of our interests.
I do not need to tell you either that Sri Lanka has come under intense international attention on these issues in recent years. That scrutiny will return at the UN Human Rights Council in March, which will review progress on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to set out its achievements and challenges, and work with the international community to advance our shared objectives.
Greater openness should lead to greater understanding on all sides. We very much welcome the invitation for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, to visit Sri Lanka; and we look forward to and her taking this up. But we also want to see the same invitation extended to UN Special Rapporteurs.
And I think it is clear that scrutiny from the international community will be even more intense in 2013 – the year that Sri Lanka is due to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. CHOGM is a time to recall the values uniting the Commonwealth – values to which we have all freely agreed. As the UK has repeatedly stated we have not yet decided on the level of any attendance at CHOGM, but we will be looking to Sri Lanka, as we would any host, to demonstrate its commitment to upholding the Commonwealth values of good governance and democratic principles, adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights. This will help ensure a well-attended and successful meeting.
And I hope too that it can be a helpful reminder of the golden thread. A way for countries to ensure that the necessary conditions for long term stability are in place. A chance to showcase Sri Lanka’s development and opportunities to the world. An occasion for the rest of the world to invest in Sri Lanka’s economic and political future.
It is the responsibility of states to protect the rights and freedoms of every citizen, and it is the responsibility of Commonwealth members to remind each other of our declared Commonwealth values. So the Meeting will also be an opportunity for the Commonwealth and the wider world to see the situation for ourselves, and indeed, the Prime Minister made very clear it is the best way to understand any situation in any country.
Four years after the war, Sri Lanka has an opportunity to demonstrate that it is doing everything possible to make peace here sustainable, and that it is upholding the rights of all its citizens. This is the time for Sri Lanka to create a peaceful, free, democratic and prosperous future.
We will do all we can to help you achieve these goals. But ultimately it is, of course, up to the Sri Lankan government and people to shape the country’s future.
It is a future that can and should be bright, for 2013 and beyond.
*Visiting UK Minister Alistair Burt delivered a guest lecture today on “Sri Lanka: 2013 and beyond” at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies.