Interview: Hugo Swire
How can Western countries support Sri Lanka as it enters a new stage in its political transition?
HUGO SWIRE: President Sirisena’s election was a clear vote by the people of Sri Lanka for change, and the UK is determined to do all we can to support their aspirations. While much remains to be done, it has been a positive beginning to a transition that few had anticipated just 12 months ago. The best way in which the UK and the wider international community can help is by supporting full implementation of the commitments that the government has made towards reconciliation, accountability, human rights and a political settlement that delivers equitable and just governance for all Sri Lankans. Of course, this is a hugely challenging programme of reform, but the government can count on the experience and expertise of the international community. The UK is already providing assistance in a number of areas and, as Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced, this will continue with a further £6.6m of funding over the next three years.
What are the biggest challenges the country faces around reconciliation with ethnic minorities?
SWIRE: Everyone wants Sri Lanka to achieve its full potential and become a stable, secure and prosperous country for Sri Lankans of all ethnicities and religions. President Sirisena’s government took a significant step in Geneva on October 1, 2015 when it co-sponsored a Human Rights Council resolution that commits Sri Lanka to tackling reconciliation, accountability and other issues head-on.
No one has said delivering this will be easy. It will take time, and no doubt some initiatives will meet with resistance. This is understandable given the legacy of the conflict, in which atrocities were committed by both sides. It is therefore important that the government builds confidence with and between all communities, by communicating its reform plans clearly, by consulting widely with all parties, including the diaspora, and by delivering confidence-building measures that show it is serious about delivering its commitments. On this point, the return of some military land to civilian owners, the release of prisoners held under terrorism legislation and the de-proscription of diaspora groups have been a welcome start, but of course much more needs to be done.
How can Sri Lanka best leverage its strategic positioning within the South Asian sub-continent?
SWIRE: While Sri Lanka is a small, and very beautiful country, its location – strategically situated on trade routes between East and West, and a key part of the South Asia region with its market of over 1.6bn people – means it has significant potential.
Integrating different parts of the country, for example through transport and other infrastructure, will promote a fairer distribution of prosperity, as will directing investment into areas where it is needed most, particularly in the north and east of the country which, in economic terms, has fallen behind due to the legacy of the war. Regionally, Sri Lanka already has free trade agreements with India and Pakistan and is expected to finalise another with China in 2016. Strengthening these links further, in particular through the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, will help provide Sri Lanka with a larger and more easily accessible market beyond its immediate borders.
Above all, Sri Lanka needs to continue to strengthen ties with the international community. In particular, it must do so by demonstrating compliance with its international obligations to restore preferential trade tariffs with the EU under the Generalised System of Preferences Plus scheme, which was withdrawn under the previous regime. I am an optimist and I see no reason why Sri Lanka cannot become both a regional and global economic force.
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