Your Excellencies, Ladies & Gentlemen,
It is my privilege to have been invited to address this forum today on a theme of importance for my country. That it is taking place in India is particularly heartening. India is not just a close neighbor, but is inevitably bound with Sri Lankaon many aspects- social, cultural, and economical, and in some respects, strategic.
Our two countries, Sri Lanka and India, are among Asia’s oldest democracies and maintain values and ethos, steeped in fundamental freedoms, participatory governance, and solidarity. Ours is a lasting friendship that has faced the test of time over centuries. In the contemporary world, our peoples aspire to the same future- a future that is built upon peace, stability, and prosperity.
Our two countries and the broader region have not been immune to conflicts. We have had our own share of violent past, of varying degrees, though. Conflicts, which essentially arise from internal contradictions, often with cross-border ramifications, are not new to the region that we are situated in. Causes or grievances which are real or perceived have enmeshed with political and other factors to produce the explosive mix which has often manifested in violence extremism or terrorism.
As far as India and Sri Lanka are concerned, I am pleased to observe that such situations have helped us to understand each other better. They have also helped us tosupport each other in tackling the criminal or violent part of the challenge, and in addressing concerns, which are found to be real. Our being democracies, with mutual respect, goodwill, and friendship towards each other, goes a long way in ensuring this outcome.
I am not going to talk about how Sri Lanka fought LTTE terrorism, one because there are people who were involved in the strategy and fighting who can talk about it better, but more because the LTTE was a guerilla outfit which used acts of terrorism to supplement their fight.
The 30 year war left Sri Lanka losing its ability to earn its rightful place in the world, struggling with the legacies the war left behind; debt ridden economy, weak state institutions, and a population that suffered the scourges of the war and terrorism.
In Sri Lanka, we now have the onerous task of rebuilding the nation with vigor and verve, taking the people from all communities on a common journey of peace and progress almost 8 years after the armed conflict had ended. Reconciliation remains at the heart of this process which is reinforced by two of its main adjuncts, namely re-democratization and economic development.
The election of His Excellency MaithripalaSirisena as Sri Lanka’s President in January 2015, on a policy platform of peace building, development, democracy, rule of law, and human rights provided a real opportunity to reunite our people - one which was within our reach immediately after May 2009, but was not availed of for reasons unfortunate for the people. So President Sirisena and Prime Minister RanilWickremesinghe with the Unity Government were tasked to put the nation through a healing process, and to advance along the path of progress. For the first time since the end of the armed conflict, doors were opened in 2015 for people to seek solutions to their conflict related issues.
The strengthening of the National Unity Government at the Parliamentary Elections held in August 2015, which reflected the popular will across the nation, led to the adoption of new initiatives aimed at expediting economic advancement, intensifying national cohesion and peace building. It was hardly a month after the new Cabinet was sworn in following the Parliamentary Electionsthat the Government of Sri Lanka decided to co-sponsor Resolution 30/1 at the UN Human Rights Council. The Resolution contains the voluntary commitments undertaken by the Government of Sri Lanka in the interests of its own people. It is important to highlight that all this followed the change of tact in Sri Lanka’s outreach strategy, which puts premium on constructive engagement and dialogue with UN agenciesand other organizations including the Human Rights Council.
As I speak here today, I wish to state that there is another resolution under consideration at HRC in Geneva,intending to give adequate time to the Government of Sri Lanka to continue to make progress in its voluntary commitments. While, on the one hand, this signifies the acknowledgement by sections of the international community that Sri Lanka is making efforts in good faith to progress further, on the other, it testifies to the fact that Sri Lanka has also gained confidence in its engagement with its partners and friends.
Let me now come to the topic at my hand in detail.
With around 30 years of armed conflict, which had torn the people of Sri Lanka apart, and almost 8 years of the post-conflict phase, of which only the recent two years have witnessed national healing and reconciliation at a faster pace, it is all but natural that post-conflict priorities continue to abound today.
One of the key challenges that any peace building enterprise encounters in the post-conflict phase is a set of priorities covering all aspects of human endeavor, often competing with each other for scarce resources. All priorities appear urgent at once, and all are demanded as immediate needs to be fulfilled without delay, but the Government inevitably has to work within a number of constraints to see those priorities and needs through. While attuning to the urgency, it needs to take care not to create or contribute to inter-regional, or inter-group disparities or any other inequities. It is important, as well, to ensure that when priorities or needs are catered to or facilitated, people at the local level feel that they own them. This is imperative if the people who were affected by conflict and the remainder of the population both are to gain confidence.
The Government of Sri Lanka, working with stakeholders, which include in some cases donor countries or donor organizations, introduced several reconstruction, resettlement and rehabilitation projects in the North and East. Building of houses, schools, hospitals etc., providing for irrigation facilities, payment of compensation through institutions like Rehabilitation of Persons, Property and Industries Authority (REPPIA), land release and livelihood assistance are among the many programs that are being implemented in the conflict affected areas.
The National Policy on Durable Solutions for conflict-affecteddisplacement approved by the Cabinet of Ministers on 16 August 2016 and the signing of the Kigali Principles for the Protection of Civilians constitute two important pillars in assuring conflict affected people the protection need they deserve.
In terrorism as in armed conflict, psychological factors completely disorient people and make them lose confidence in their own lives. The environment they livein is one of fear. Fear in the context of conflict, terrorism, or violent extremism is manifested in different ways: internal disturbance, suspicion of others, loss of self-confidence, sexual or other forms of abuse (since their fear or vulnerability is exploited), hopelessness for justice, self-restriction of movement, etc. Many people have lost their near and dear, their neighbors, leaders etc., and have themselves been attacked, wounded, or harmed or subjected to sexual violence. Some of them have been denied access to relief, redress, or justice. All these require to be addressed with the seriousness they deserve in the post-conflict situation.
It is not just the victims alone who always seek post-conflict justice. It is also sought, in some instances, by those who are reported to have committed excesses, claiming that they themselves were victims of policies or command orders. Even in such instances, it is important to note that it is fear or other psychological factors that drive them to such excess.
Both, addressing all types of fear and providing access to justice are required as is ensuring non-recurrence in the future.The record of the National Unity Government is self-evident in this context, since it has put in place a number of legal and other frameworks to address these challenges.
First and foremost, we have commenced the process of drafting a new constitution having converted the whole house of Parliament into a “Constitutional Assembly”. Minority rights, center-periphery relationships, decentralization and devolution are some of the issues that are being discussed extensively. One of the key questions that the framers constantly have in mind is how do we manage root causes of conflict.
In the meantime, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution enacted by the Parliament in 2015 is aimed to address the issue of fear through making national institutions independent, while also bringing in several democratic safeguards to governance. It is seen more often than not how aggressively these institutions uphold their independence since their creation.
Second, the Right to Information Act also serves as an effective tool to obtain information about persons or things that are within the knowledge of Ministries and agencies of Government.
Third, the Victim and Witness Protection Act secures a witness or victim in a criminal case from being threatened or harmed by a party to the case or any other and prescribes specific punishment for anyone who violates the provisions of the Act.
Fourth, the Office on Missing Persons Act enables the tracing of missing or disappeared persons and having access to places of detention. It is one of the important pillars in the reconciliation and right to justice architecture that is currently being designed.
Aside from these legal instruments, there are several others, which are in the varying stages of drafting or approval, before being enacted by the Parliament.
Placed in the Order Paper of Parliament a week ago, the Prevention of Persons from Enforced Disappearance Act introduces provisions which would hold criminally responsible not only those who were engaged in disappearance but those who exercise command responsibility as well. If adopted, this will be one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation in place in Sri Lanka to prevent deprivation of liberty.
Similarly, an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code Act has been drafted with a view to allowing lawyers’ access to suspects in police custody.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act had earned notoriety as one of the most draconian pieces of legislation in Sri Lanka. The GOSL has developed a policy and legal framework for a new Counter Terrorism Act, which would comply with international human rights norms. The draft is currently going through revisions following Cabinet approval and consideration by the Parliamentary Oversight Committee for National Security.
There are several other initiatives such as the Amendment to the Registration of Deaths Act No. 19 of 2010 which introduced Certificates of Absence, launching of National Human Rights Action Plan for 2017-21, ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, acceptance of the communications procedure of the Committee against Torture, etc.
All these policy and legal measures as well as other initiatives redefine Sri Lanka’s legal regime and access to justice in such a manner that accountability remains an entrenched feature of the rule of law. They would also ensure that prevention and non-recurrence would be the overarching principle of justice and governance in Sri Lanka. All these would go a long way in assuring that fear has no place in the life of any person in Sri Lanka.
Next we must concentrate on converting the fruits of peace into tangible outcomes for the people. This is challenging. Development of destroyed infrastructure, livelihood opportunities, and linkages to market and national and international value chains are prioritized areas. Access to credit and capital has to be facilitated.
Sri Lanka also recently enacted legislation removing limitations of prescription with regard to conflict-affected people and property giving them a window of two years to claim their property rights through the court system. Sri Lanka, throughout the war, managed to maintain essential public and other services and our Courts were functioning fairly effectively. We have accelerated streamlining these services, judicial services specifically included.
We have the enormous challenge of reorganizing our security sector. Wars leave countries with armies of battle hardened young people who, after the war, find themselves without purpose, without work, and more importantly without the necessary skill set to integrate into the post war peacetime economy. We have initiated rapid training for Police Officers who served in conflict mindset. In the immediate aftermath of the war, we saw the engagement of military in non-military activities such as construction and maintenance of public utilities. These provided a respite for the government to come up with a more robust strategy. We also managed to rehabilitate approximately 12,000 ex LTTE combatants and many of them have now integrated into mainstream employment, with a group very recently taking steps to form a political party to contest the next elections.
Sri Lanka was, is, and continues to be a multi ethnic country; rich in diversity and rich in tradition. The forces of language, religion, caste, and ethnicity will continue to have their interplay, as they should. Then our challenge is to think of a way as to how best we can manage this so that such results in outcomes for the nation and its people, and not allow the ugly head of conflict to rise again. What we have to now do, more than anything, is to build the confidence in all people; that their Government is doing what is right for them. That can safeguard us from conflict.
Finally, I have to assure you that we remain alert for any form of International terrorism that can have an effect on Sri Lanka or the region.