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Empathy of outlook, objectivity of judgment is Sri Lanka’s expectation from the west –Prof. Peiris in address to leading think tank in France


Sri Lanka, a proud and accomplished nation, has the courage of its convictions, and is prepared to engage with the  world in respect of all  aspects of its current experience, Professor G.L.Peiris, Minister of External Affairs,  said in Paris just before his meeting with Alain Juppé, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs  of the French Republic.

He said that  he would be forthright in  his presentation which would be characterized by  readiness to explain the  complexity of issues.  Given the value of the French contribution to humanism, modernity  and universalism, the Sri Lankan experience is bound to strike a chord in the  collective consciousness of the French, he observed.

Prof. Peiris was addressing members of the French political establishment, the media, diplomats, scholars and representatives of civil society at the prestigious Academie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris.

One of the pillars of current government policy in Sri Lanka is emphasis on reconciliation, he said.  Prof. Peiris referred to the moving ceremony two weeks  ago in Colombo, where President Mahinda Rajapaksa presided over the reintegration into society of 1,800  ex-combatants who returned to their villages after  exposure to vocational training which assured them of access to livelihoods and incomes.  Prof. Peiris said that, as a former  Vice Chancellor of one of the  largest universities in Sri Lanka, he was proud of the success achieved in efforts to bring youth who had been misguided into  espousing violence, back into the democratic mainstream.  Some of them have secured admission to universities, while others are gainfully employed in the public or private sectors, or in self-employment projects.

The President, in his address to the  youth who were beginning a new life, had stressed the themes of inclusivity and solidarity, and exhorted them to leave the  past behind them and to identify unreservedly with the destiny of the nation to which they belong.  Members of the diplomatic  corps in Colombo had joined the President in  awarding  certificates to the rehabilitated youth.

The Minister underscored the importance of the international community rejoicing wholeheartedly in these  salutary developments without any preconceived judgments or partisan attitudes.

He explained  to his audience the crucial role of the  Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission in addressing in a  constructive spirit the pain and anguish  of the past and in building the foundations  of a future typified by promise and expectation.  As a mechanism sensitive  to local context and  aspiration, it is entitled to respect;  and any adverse presumption is a reflection of prejudice which will inflict harm on a delicate reconciliation  process, Prof. Peiris continued.

Reconciliation, in Sri Lanka’s view, has significant economic dimension.  This is Amply demonstrated by the fact that the economy of the Northern Province is growing by    22%.  The Minister gave an account of infrastructure development in that region, with particular reference to highways and railroad systems, the large volumes of capital made available  by the banking system to entrepreneurs, with resulting generation of employment, the success of private sector-public sector partnerships and the  revival of agricultural activity and fisheries.

Important as the economic component is, it does not by any means over the entire spectrum of reconciliation, Minister Peiris observed.  He referred  to political empowerment symbolized by resuscitation  of the electoral process in the  form of the holding of elections  - universally acknowledged to be free  and fair – to local government institutions in the Northern Province, and the government’s resolve to hold Provincial Council elections in the early months of next year.  

He made mention  of  the dialogue which  the government had initiated with Tamil political  parties with a view to addressing issues in respect of constitutional reform.  He also indicated  the steps which  the government had taken to reach out to the diaspora  so as to  secure their involvement and participation.

On the issue of accountability, Prof. Peiris asked  his audience to bear in mind the factual situation  which existed during the concluding phase of the war.  While the exclusive focus in a thirty year  war seems to be  on the last ten days, the situation at that  time was that the terrorist group, restricted to a narrow strip of land, was holding the civilian population-numbering about 300,000 – hostage at gun point.  Contemporaneous reports by the United Nations acknowledge  that the terrorists deliberately placed heavy weaponry  amidst the civilian population, and used such artillery to fire  at government troops.  High ranking  diplomats in Colombo, including Western envoys, were members  of a Co-ordinated Committee for Humanitarian Action  and, in that capacity, had personal knowledge of sustained efforts by the government to send food and medicine to the North, despite repeated action by the  terrorist group to sink ships, obstruct highways and in other ways to disrupt supply lines, Minister Peiris continued.

He expressed confidence that a French audience of thinkers and policy makers would place a premium on fairness and equity.  Unjust    value-judgments about Sri Lanka had  arisen from the report of the Panel of Experts appointed by  the Secretary-General of the United Nations.  Assessed by  any  objective criteria,  the report is deeply flawed,  the Minister asserted.  Among its most indefensible  features are the opaque modalities of gathering evidence, involving recognition of anonymity for those providing  vital information for a period of thirty years, arriving  at the conclusion that there is  “credible” evidence of  grave wrongdoing  by the Sri Lankan State when  the Panel itself admits that it had no authority to investigate, and in fact did not investigate,  and the presentation of unfounded allegations in the form of a narrative, the accuracy of which the Panel declares itself unable to vouch for.

In light of the vibrancy of civil society in France, it is appropriate to point out that the major Chambers of Commerce  and Industry in Sri Lanka, premier professional organizations  like the Bar Association and the organization of Professional Association, and  other leading non-governmental organizations have  all denounced the report of the Panel as being  tainted  by bias  and fundamental error.

Nevertheless, the Minister continued, Sri Lanka-which has been a member of the world body since  1952 -is firmly resolved to work with the United Nations  in a spirit of  amity and candour.  However, it is important to insist that pivotal organs of the  United Nations system must not only function with  total impartiality and objectivity, but that they must be seen manifestly to be doing so.  This is the essential condition for retaining  unqualified confidence on the part of  the international community  as a whole,  Prof. Peiris said.  This consideration highlights the importance of a sharper focus on balanced representation for  the different geographical regions in structures  of the UN, the Minister added.

It is vital to ensure that the wellbeing of a country like Sri Lanka, emerging  from  conflict and entering an era of stability and prosperity, should not be put in peril by domestic political interests in other countries.  It is well known  that the diaspora has substantial political clout in many Western countries, not only in terms of voting strength but also with regard to financial and organizational capability. It is  quite apparent that the attitudes and postures of   some Western countries in multilateral fora are determined, to a large extent, by assessment of domestic electoral fortunes, Minister Peiris said.

He was confident that France,  with its political culture shaped strongly by nationalist sentiment and commitment to social  equity in international relations, will have empathy with Sri Lanka’s cause at this challenging time.

Embassy of Sri Lanka Paris
12th October 2011