By Jehan Perera –
The visit to Sri Lanka of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg to Sri Lanka was significant as it confirmed that the long and positive relationship that Norway has had with Sri Lanka is back on track. The two visits earlier this year of Foreign Minister Børge Brende and Foreign Secretary Tore Hattrem (who had been Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war) signaled the change. Relations between the two countries got strained after the Norwegian facilitated ceasefire agreement broke down. Sinhalese nationalists with the tacit backing of the government in power at that time accused Norway of being partial to the LTTE and acting in ways that were detrimental to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. Visitors from Norway at that time felt it was pragmatic to say they were from Europe. However, the warm welcomes afforded to the high level Norwegian visitors this year showed how much has changed since the new government took office.
Norway has been a longstanding development partner of Sri Lanka and been providing it with economic assistance since the 1960s. Norwegian assistance came in the early years in the form of technical support for fisheries in addition to integrated rural development. Support to economic development was directed at supporting the improvement of the living conditions in the least developed parts of the country. In fact it was the contacts made by Norwegian development specialists in those early years that paved the way for Norwegian facilitation of the peace process that commenced during the period of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Norwegian development workers such as Jon Westborg, who served with the Red Cross in both the north and south of the country, became involved in the peace process. Jon Westborg was the Norwegian ambassador to Sri Lanka during the signing of the ceasefire agreement.
One of the highlights of Prime Minister Solberg’s stay in Sri Lanka was the speech she delivered in Colombo under the aegis of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. She chose the theme of achieving Sustainable Development Goals by working for the common good. She is presently the co-chair of the UN Secretary General’s Advocacy Group. In the course of her speech Prime Minister Solberg acknowledged Sri Lanka’s welfare policies which attracted international attention especially in the decades of the 1960s and 70s and influenced policy making in other countries. These are achievements that the country has continued to sustain half a century later. Sri Lanka remains in the top half of the world’s countries in terms of social and physical quality of life indicators and is now regarded as a middle income country and able to handle developmental issues with its own resources.
In this context Prime Minister Solberg’s reference to Norway’s present priorities in regard to bilateral development cooperation with Sri Lanka is significant. She identified key sustainable development goals as being climate change, conservation of the ocean, peace and justice, gender equality and affordable and clean energy. These are areas that require societies to put the interests of all, or the common good, into the forefront, and not selfish interests that put one’s own country, gender or ethnicity to the fore. The Norwegian prime minister pointed out that Norway was a strong supporter of multilateral initiatives such as UNICEF and UNESCO, whose head Irina Bokova visited Sri Lanka shortly thereafter. She also pointed out the importance of civil society in the education process and to build accountability and engagement at the community level.
At the present time the Sri Lankan government’s priority in terms of the key sustainable development goals identified by the Norwegian prime minister is achieving sustainable peace and justice through a two pronged process in which accounting for the past and constitutional reforms are the main components. The government is developing new mechanisms, laws and constitutional proposals in consultation with civil society as recommended by international best practices. These consultations have been with those in civil society who are knowledgeable about the areas that require reform and who are sympathetic to it. The Public Representations Committee on constitutional reforms headed by Lal Wijeynayake has already completed its process of consultations and finalized its report which has been handed over to the Constitutional Council. The consultations with regard to the reconciliation mechanisms by the Consultation Task Force headed by Manouri Muttetuwegama are still in the process of being finalized.
Initial reports from the Zonal Task Forces which are meeting directly with civil society indicate a positive response to the government’s proposed reconciliation mechanisms, comprising of an Office of Missing Persons, Truth Commission, Special Court on accountability issues and an Office of Reparations. Even the politically controversial issues, such as the role of foreign judges in the accountability process, have been viewed in a positive light by those in civil society whose views have been obtained. The government has been under considerable pressure from both the Tamil polity and the international community with regard to international participation in the accountability process.
The passage of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) bill through Parliament shows that the government is determined to meet its commitments by the Tamil polity that fully supported it at the last elections and the international community to whom it made commitments by co-signing the UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva. The OMP legislation has won support from the international community led by the United States. The government was able to successfully overcome political opposition to the OMP and pass the bill in Parliament despite protests by the nationalists in and outside Parliament. It is likely that the other three mechanisms that the government has pledged to set up, the Truth Commission, the Special Court and the Office of Reparations will be of similar quality.
Through its process of consultations with civil society and the passage of legislation in Parliament the government is putting the superstructure of sustainable peace into place. However, Norwegian Prime Minister Solberg’s words with regard to the role of public education in achieving sustainable development need to be heeded. She said that “It is important to build accountability and engagement at the community level and local NGOs have a key role to play involving parents and local communities. The downward trend in education over the past years must be reversed.” Despite the changes in thinking and attitudes that are visible today in Sri Lanka at the level of the government leadership and much of the polity with regard to the reconciliation process this message needs to be taken in a cohesive and systematic manner to the people at the community level also.
Last week the Justice and Peace Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors of the Catholic Church organized a three day leadership training for school children from Catholic schools of the north and south. There were Tamil children from Jaffna, Mannar, Kilinochchi, Pudukuduirrippu and Mullaitivu who mixed with Sinhalese children from Kandy, Negombo, Ratnapura, Kalutara and Colombo. They got on well with each other in the sports and social activities. But when they were given the opportunity to ask each other questions about the ethnic conflict and the post war situation, sharp differences in their thinking manifested itself. The Sinhalese children wanted to know whether the Tamil children appreciated that Sinhalese soldiers had liberated them from the LTTE and from war. The Tamil children asked how those who fought against injustice could be called terrorists. Although the children shared a common religion and had been exposed to each other in a friendly environment, their inner thoughts remained at odds with their outer behaviors.
If peace in Sri Lanka is to be sustainable there is a need for public education on the ethnic conflict, even after the reconciliation mechanisms are in place. Sri Lanka has an unfortunate history of missing opportunities. What governments have tried to do to resolve the conflict in the past, those in opposition have effectively undone by arousing primeval fears and mobilizing mass opposition. This time around the existence of a national unity government mitigates this risk, but it is still necessary to ensure that the people understand and accept the changes to ensure sustainability.