By Mangala Samaraweera –
“Development begins with Reconciliation and that Reconciliation is essential for Sri Lanka to realize its vision of a stable, peaceful, reconciled and prosperous nation, for everyone.”
Remarks by Mangala Samaraweera, MP, Minister of Finance of Sri Lanka – Ambassadorial-Level Meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission: Update on Advancing Peacebuilding and Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka, New York, 17 April 2019:
His Excellency Ambassador Ion Jinga, Vice Chair of the Peacebuilding Commission,
Assistant Secretary General for Peacebuilding Support, Mr. Oscar Fernandez-Taranco,
UN Resident Coordinator, Ms. Hanaa Singer,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning to all of you.
It is an honour for me to be here to share with you, Sri Lanka’s experience in Peacebuilding. I am joined by the Secretary-General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms Mr. Mano Tittawella, the Chairperson of the Office on Missing Persons Mr. Saliya Pieris, and the Secretary-General and CEO of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, Ms. Dhara Wijayatilake who has just been appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, as Chair of the Office for Reparations.
I agree wholeheartedly with the Secretary-General’s words that,
Efforts to build and sustain peace are necessary not only once conflict has broken out, but long beforehand through preventing conflict and addressing its root causes. And that we must all work better together across the peace continuum, focusing on all the dimensions of conflict.
Therefore, I want to first thank all of you for the work that you do through the Peacebuilding Commission, the Peabuilding Fund, and the Peacebuilding Support Office, in connection with situations across the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As all of you are probably aware, almost 30 years of conflict in Sri Lanka ended in May 2009.
Yet, for almost 6 years since the end of the conflict, we did not succeed in addressing fundamental issues related to good governance, rule of law, human rights and dealing with the past, that are necessary for sustaining peace and securing economic development that are required for our nation’s long-term progress and prosperity.
However, following the mandates given by the people at the Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in January and August 2015, we were able to hit the re-set button to re-gain and re-launch Sri Lanka on a new trajectory to,
reach out to the international community;
restore and renew valuable relationships and partnerships with the international community including the United Nations; and
work towards restoring trust and confidence both locally and internationally, including with persons of Sri Lankan origin overseas.
The peacebuilding journey that we embarked upon in January 2015 to ensure non-recurrence of conflict was based on the pillars of –
strengthening democracy and good governance;
inclusive and equitable growth and development in the country.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the present Secretary-General Mr. Antonio Guterres, their respective teams at headquarters and the Country Team in Sri Lanka have all been extremely supportive of Sri Lanka’s journey since January 2015, from the moment we reached out to the UN.
I recall coming to New York as Foreign Minister, to meet Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on 13 February 2015, just a month following the January 8th Presidential Election. At this meeting, I explained the path that the National Unity Government that we had formed was taking on ushering in sustainable peace and reconciliation in the country, and sought the UN’s assistance through the Peacebuilding Fund. The funding we received from the Immediate Response Facility and longer-term funding have been invaluable to us in a multitude of areas, including resettlement of the internally displaced, holding country-wide consultations on reconciliation mechanisms, and obtaining the correct technical expertise and advice at the right time, in a timely manner which the constraints of Government procedures do not often permit.
This was especially useful following Sri Lanka co-sponsoring Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 on “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” on 1st October 2015, taking ownership of the reconciliation and the transitional justice agenda.
Through the Peacebuilding Priority Plan, and Peacebuilding Board, the UN and the Government have succeeded in working together to identify areas where assistance is required, and to bring on board most bilateral partners as well, so that there is clarity, and duplication is avoided.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Although there is a perception among some that progress in Sri Lanka has stalled or that progress is way too slow, looking back, I can confidently say that Sri Lanka, despite several challenges, has managed to achieve much more than even some of us had imagined, in multiple areas of policy, and legal and economic reform, in just over 48 months since January 2015.
This includes the 19th amendment to the Constitution and the setting up of the Constitutional Council and Independent Commissions; the Right to Information Act; the Victim and Witness Protection Act; criminalising enforced disappearance; introducing Certificates of Absence through legislation; setting up the Office on Missing Persons and more recently the Office for Reparations; making Sri Lanka more free and open; making governance more transparent and fiscally responsible; becoming a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and assigning the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka as the National Preventive Mechanism; and greater engagement with the systems and procedures of the UN. In fact we extended a standing invitation to all thematic special procedures in December 2015, and since then, apart from UN high officials, we have received 08 thematic special procedure mandate holders including 02 Working Groups. Just last week, we received the Sub Committee on Torture.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The best proof to demonstrate that Sri Lanka’s reform agenda since January 2015 has in fact worked is the peaceful resolution of the recent crisis that most unexpectedly plunged the country’s politics into turmoil and tested Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions. The peaceful resolution of the crisis through constitutional means was a triumph for democracy and democratic institutions. The 52 day crisis or coup as they call it in Sri Lanka demonstrated the resilience of our democracy and democratic institutions that had been strengthened since January 2015. The Independent Commissions, the Legislature, and the Judiciary – all acted with great responsibility and strength of purpose in line with the Constitution, rule of law, and good governance. In fact the assertion of judicial power to defend and uphold the Constitution was made possible because of the fact that the Constitutional Council under the 19th amendment to the Constitution is empowered to screen judges for impartiality, strengthening the independence of judiciary.
The spontaneous yet peaceful mobilisation of people – young and old – including some who had never participated in a protest or demonstration in their lives – inspired much hope for the sustenance of democracy, rule of law, and non-recurrence of conflict. What was most heartening was that citizen mobilisation transcended party politics, ethnicity and religion, standing instead for universal values and norms, and respect for the Constitution and the onward march of progressive reform.
While Sri Lanka had a coalition government since January 2015, with the two main political parties in the country coming together to form a National Unity Government, what we have now, following the resolution of the 2018 October 26th political crisis, is a Government of the United National Party that is in co-habitation with the President who is from another Party.
While coalition government posed its own set of challenges as many of you would understand, cohabitation too poses challenges. Nevertheless, what is important to us and what must not be ignored is that through the crisis, Sri Lanka’s democracy was tested and emerged triumphant. And, we are determined to continue on our chosen path of progressive reform that includes reconciliation, transitional justice, and economic development to ensure peace, stability and prosperity for all our citizens.
The co-sponsorship of Human Rights Council Resolution 40/1 on 21st March this year which was a procedural technical roll-over of Resolution 30/1 of 2015 is a demonstration of our commitment to continue working with the UN system, and our bilateral partners to advance our national reconciliation and development agenda for the benefit of all citizens. In taking this decisive step we have demonstrated that moving backwards toward the autocratic and exclusionary policies that prevailed in pre-January 2015 Sri Lanka is no longer an option.
Our main message to our people through all our communication campaigns and through the mechanisms and processes for truth-seeking, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence is that ‘Development begins with Reconciliation’ and that Reconciliation is essential for Sri Lanka to realise its vision of a stable, peaceful, reconciled and prosperous nation, for everyone.
My colleagues who are here with me will explain in detail, the Transitional Justice Mechanisms that have been established and the processes that are presently underway. However, before I give the floor to them, I want to make one important point.
With universal adult franchise introduced in 1931, Sri Lanka is considered as Asia’s oldest democracy. We are at present a nation of 22 million citizens – multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural – with a gross domestic product of approximately USD 90 billion. We are determined to make use of Sri Lanka’s geostrategic position to develop Sri Lanka as a hub in the Indian Ocean, to ensure that Sri Lanka finally achieves the status of economic development that has eluded us since Independence 70 years ago. We fully recognize that economic prosperity cannot be achieved without reconciliation, sustainable peace, and stability.
As Minister of Finance, my staff and I have ensured that steps are taken to allocate adequate financing for reconciliation mechanisms as well as reconciliation related programmes and projects in our national budget. Yet, this is not a journey we can complete successfully on our own. We need your support in many ways, including technical support for the mechanisms that are being set up; training; and capacity building as well as sharing of experiences.
If I may share a simple example – Sri Lanka has set a target of being completely mine free by the year 2020, and some of the countries represented here today support us in this endeavour. When Sri Lanka becomes completely mine free, however, the workforce engaged in demining work consisting several thousand including almost 50% women and some ex-combatants will become unemployed. We would appreciate learning how similar situations have been handled elsewhere and how best to absorb these citizens of our country who are currently engaged in this delicate work, risking their lives, into the regular workforce.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As I explained earlier, the political crisis tested our democracy. The peaceful resolution of the crisis in line with the constitution and the rule of law was clearly a triumph for those who stood firmly on the side of democracy, values, and progressive reform. Especially as this year and the next are election years, this is the time that the people of our country who stand on the side of democracy and progress need the support of the international community the most. They must feel appreciated and supported. They must feel that the international community and the United Nations including the Peacebuilding Commission and the Peacebuilding Support Office stands with them in their journey towards achieving sustainable peace, stability and prosperity. They must also feel that democracy, rule of law, sustainable peace and reconciliation yield dividends. Therefore, I urge you to remain engaged and continue to support us in this journey.