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The New Foreign Policy Priorities By Prof. G. L. Peiris Minister of External Affairs



The role that foreign policy has played in the recent past, most importantly, in creating the environment that made the successful conclusion of the war possible can be described as a genuine achievement. The activity on the battlefield was no doubt a major factor. However the conduct of foreign relations certainly played a major role in bringing about that positive outcome. In the past, there have been interventions which prevented the war from going forward. This time around, president Rajapaksa was able to handle those situations with considerable finesse. Foreign policy is also important in the post war scenario as we rebuild the country. Stability is important to bring about an environment necessary for rapid economic development. Now after two and a half decades of conflict, that stability has come. Our priorities in foreign policy will change from time to time depending on the situation. Now that there is a stable peace in the country, the main component of our foreign relations will be the focus on investment and trade.

Two months ago, our trade attaches all over the world were summoned to Colombo. When I briefed them, what I said is that in the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in the capitals to which they have been sent, this is the most significant part of their work. That is the job of the trade attaches anyway, but our ambassadors and heads of mission have also been instructed that this is their main task. Even in Colombo, the larger foreign missions spend a lot of their time in commercial activity. For Sri Lanka, this is vitally important at this time. We have impressed upon our heads of mission, that they must give the sharpest possible focus to trade and investment in their work. The world is responding in a very positive way to Sri Lanka’s overtures in that regard.

My recent visit to Qatar was a very brief visit of 36 hours. The Qatari authorities are looking for suitable destinations for their investment. I met the Emir of Qatar as well as the Prime Minister who is also the Foreign Minister and what they said is that they are significantly increasing their investments in different parts of the world and that they would certainly like to take a close look at Sri Lanka because they are satisfied that the condition of the economy is propitious for that kind of initiative on their part. The synergies are such that it is a win-win situation for both. Qatar is the world’s largest producer of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) gas. So for Sri Lanka, it would be a decisive advantage to have a multi-purpose storage facility. We are now developing Colombo as a trans-shipment hub and our emphasis is on ports and harbours and linking Sri Lanka with the world. In that context the LNG multi-purpose storage facility would be a matter of high priority between the two administrations. We are now working towards an investment agreement and a joint commission. We already have an agreement with regard to the avoidance of double taxation and we will build on that.

Qatar will be hosting FIFA (Federation of International Football Associations) in 2022 and already they are already preparing for it as a result of which there are plenty of opportunities for skilled employment there. It is not just domestic employment. In Qatar the higher echelons of the banking sector are manned by professionals from this country and they command a lot of respect there. Also in the construction sector there are professionals like Quantity Surveyors who are much in demand. Construction is a major industry there because they were not really affected by the global recession.     

The foreign policy of the government has also generated enormous goodwill. The visit by Indian External Affairs minister S. M. Krishnan in November last year, was a singular success for both sides. The emphasis on people to people contact with the establishment of consulates in Jaffna and Hambantota, then the Indian support for connectivity within the country, the massive railroad system and highways – all of that responds to the need of the hour. Increased connectivity means that civilian life comes back to normal that much more quickly. That’s an agricultural area and connectivity helps get produce to the market. The Colombo Tuticorin ferry which is being re-established is a clear case of confidence. Then there is the massive housing programme of 50,000 houses which is going to be a massive addition to the housing stock in that part of the country.

There will be problems from time to time between countries. You can’t avoid that. But those problems are capable of resolution. An example of this is the situation relating to the fishermen. We had a visit by the Indian Foreign Secretary to Colombo, there were intense negotiations and the joint statement that was issued at the end of the day incorporated viable solutions. That is, rather than dealing with these problems after they have arisen, to have a stable mechanism in place to prevent tensions from escalating. The chosen instrument for this was the revival of the Joint Working Group which had not met since 2006. That establishes a clear framework within which practical solutions can be found.

The contribution made by China to economic development here is also very significant. There is the Colombo-Katunayake highway, the Southern highway, the Norochcholai power project, the Center for the Performing Arts. Sri Lanka enjoys a great deal of goodwill with both these countries. When president Rajapaksa went to New Delhi to participate in the closing session of the Commonwealth games, he was treated like the guest of honour. His visit was upgraded to a state visit by India. Then at the inauguration of the Hambantota port President Hu Jin Tao of China sent a very senior delegation to represent him. Japan too has stood by us through thick and thin. They have never forgotten the contribution that Sri Lanka made to their being given a chance to rise from ashes at the end of the second world war. Japan has for many years been Sri Lanka’s largest donor. That relationship is continuing. They gave us this teaching hospital for nurses in Sri Jayewardenepura. That serves us very well now because there is a huge demand for medical personnel from Sri Lanka in the gulf area and even in Canada. There is a great demand for trained nurses and trained pharmacists and so on and the emoluments are very high for such categories of trained personnel. So the contribution that the Japanese made is very valuable. Japan had made a major contribution to our country in terms of micro-credit, the SME sector, and skills development. When I was the Vice Chancellor, JAICA established the Institute of Computer Technology in the Colombo University.

From all these countries, we have the highest goodwill and support that we can expect. These are not things that happen coincidentally, they are the result of a very focused and very pragmatic foreign policy on the part of Sri Lanka. We are now in a situation where there is greater recognition of the success we have achieved in dealing with our problems. About 17 months have elapsed since the end of the war. About two weeks ago, I gave a very comprehensive briefing to heads of missions in Colombo and the reaction to that was very positive. They said that they had not been aware of what really had been done. Take the very drastic reduction in the numbers of ex-combatants which has gone down to just 3500 and the government’s clear intention is to rehabilitate as many of them as possible and to institute criminal proceedings against only a small hard core.

The young people have been rehabilitated after programmes of vocational training. Then there is the phased dismantling of the high security zones. The problems with regard to land in the north are very complex. The LTTE took over those lands and put the ’ families in possession. The deeds have been destroyed and when the former owners claim the lands, problems emerge. So we have established a Kachcheri system to sort out those issues. The High Court judge of Jaffna presided over a committee to examine the steps that are necessary with regard to the high security zones and they have shrunk considerably in size. The government has made a clear policy statement that private lands will not be acquired for the purpose of establishing military installations. Already there are about 500 Tamil speaking police officers in the north and about 400 more are to be recruited. Then steps are being taken with regard to the use of the Tamil language in civil administration and the courts. These are the interim recommendations of the LLRC.

The government has demonstrated its commitment to implement these recommendations  by setting up the Inter- Agency Committee chaired by the Attorney-General and consisting of the secretaries of seven key ministries, including External Affairs. The LLRC which is a home grown mechanism came up with their interim recommendations which they handed over to the president. The president took the initiative of appointing the Inter-Agency Committee which is a very effective mechanism for rapid implementation. Given all that, there is no need for external intervention. Today, the world recognizes that these problems are best resolved in those countries according to their own cultural values and customs because there is no one size that fits everybody.

There are issues which we need to talk through with the west. In the recent past very strong action has been taken against LTTE activists in those countries. In almost every country in Western Europe, there have been arrests of LTTE cadres who have been raising money through extortion and various other activities which those governments are clamping down on. Many envoys representing those countries have made public statements that it is now appropriate for those who went to those countries to come back because they and the UN High Commission for Refugees had adopted the position that there is no situation in Sri Lanka which warrants their continued absence from this country. There is no systemic discrimination, and that has been accepted.

The whole thrust of our foreign policy today is to open out to the world and to project the image of Sri Lanka as a country at peace, and a country of enormous natural strengths, its geographical location, the FTA it has with India and Pakistan, the caliber of our human resources, the  provisions in our constitution which guarantee the inviolability of our investments, the fact that there can be expatriation of dividends - all of this makes us a very favourable country for doing business, and the world outside has recognised this.     

While at the political level where there are issues and disagreements on human rights and other matters with the west, we find that the private sector in those countries want to make use of the vistas of opportunity that are opening up in Sri Lanka. An example of that is a delegation of more than forty five leading business people who came here from Belgium a couple of months ago. I met their delegation and I was very impressed because their interests were spread right across the spectrum of industry and entrepreneurship. So we see an opportunity here. The business sector is coming here and wanting to make the fullest use of opportunities that are opening up in this country.