SL must step up progress on reconciliation: Dutch FM

  • Stresses it is key to sustainable development
  • Says SL has improved its human rights record and rule of law since 2015 though progress slower than expected
  • Hopes this trend continues after next month’s elections

The Kingdom of the Netherlands Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok arrived in Sri Lanka yesterday on a brief visit. In an email interview with Daily FT ahead of his 

visit, Blok shared his views on the historic ties between the two countries and the importance of accountability and rule of law as well as economic engagement. Here are excerpts of the interview:

By Chandani Kirinde

Q: It’s the first ministerial visit from the Netherlands to Sri Lanka in over a decade. Can you elaborate on the purpose of your visit?

A: Although I have visited Sri Lanka before, it is indeed my first visit as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. The last visit of one of my predecessors took place right after the devastating tsunami in 2004. From back then it was clear there was a very strong bond between our countries. And that bond still exists today. I am here to further deepen those ties. I want to discuss the challenges we all face and see, discuss where we can join efforts and cooperate more. On top of that, this visit will also give me an opportunity to assess the progress made on Sri Lanka’s reconciliation efforts, to which the Netherlands has been contributing.

And let’s not forget our economic ties. The Netherlands is in the top six foreign investors in Sri Lanka, with particular expertise in water management, agriculture and infrastructure sectors. I think it’s essential that our countries continue to exchange expertise in those fields and learn from each other. This will be to our mutual benefit.

Q:  Your visit to Sri Lanka comes a few weeks prior to the Presidential Election. The Netherlands and the EU and other countries have hailed Sri Lanka for its efforts since 2015 to improve on its human rights record and address other accountability issues. What are your thoughts on the progress made in these areas since then, including its commitment to implementing the UN resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka?

A: Sri Lanka has improved its human rights record and the rule of law. I also think that the increased space for civil society and freedom of expression are in a positive upward trend. In other words, Sri Lanka has shown serious commitment. For instance, take the progress that has been made in the area of accountability. The setting up of the office on missing persons, the office on reparations, and the return of civilian-owned lands in the former conflict zones are good examples. 

However, the progress has been slower than we hoped for. It is important for Sri Lanka to increase its progress on reconciliation, as this is key to the sustainable development of Sri Lanka, also from an economic perspective. My visit stresses the fact that the Netherlands is willing to continue helping Sri Lanka in this important field.

Q: Could you elaborate on the relations between our two countries from a cultural and historical perspective? In which areas can the two countries forge stronger ties?

A: The Netherlands and Sri Lanka have had longstanding relations for over more than 400 years. Our shared cultural heritage program is an important area of cooperation. I know that the slogan of my Embassy in Sri Lanka is ‘Sri Lanka and the Netherlands; old friends, new trends’. And I firmly believe in that message. 

When Sri Lanka’s armed conflict ended, the Netherlands promptly stepped in to help Sri Lanka with restoring the monumental Dutch Fort in Jaffna. Today, it stands like a beacon in Dutch Sri Lankan relations from a historical view point. But The Netherlands’ shared heritage policy has moved on from funding brick, cement and sand to providing Dutch expertise in heritage conservation, preservation and management with emphasis on modern-day needs. We have also been providing expertise from urban heritage management to the restoration of the 200-year-old pipe organ at the Wolvendaal Church in Colombo. 

I want to emphasise however that it is a two-way street. I give you the example of water. Water is in both our countries a friend and an enemy. While the Sri Lankan experts have learned from the Dutch, the Dutch learn from Sri Lankans on the ancient water management techniques. I am sure this mutual knowledge sharing will strengthen our future cooperation as well.

Q: You mentioned earlier that the Netherlands holds a top six foreign investors position. In what way does the Netherlands invest in Sri Lanka?

A: When it comes to investment, I see huge potential for Sri Lanka to position itself as a sustainability island, be it for tourism purposes, agriculture or the garment industry. The Dutch Government demands Dutch business to source and produce sustainably, with respect for the environment and human well-being. The Netherlands stands ready to share expertise in order to support Sri Lanka to become the preferred sustainable choice in the region. 

Over 20 Dutch companies are active in Sri Lanka. This year three infrastructure projects have commenced through our Development Related Infrastructure Investment Vehicle, DRIVE (i.e. vocational training centre, bridges and hospitals). And Sri Lanka has made vast steps in the dairy and the horticulture sector. I am confident that we can enlarge our economic engagement even further in the future. A business-friendly investment climate, again I refer to accountability and rule of law, is an important condition for that; Sri Lanka is on the right track. I hope that this trend continues after next month’s elections.

Q: I understand you have visited the island before and hold fond memories?

A: My personal memories of Sri Lanka go beyond my own. My father lived in this country when he was a little boy. He had his first day of school here. Before embarking on this trip to Sri Lanka, I spoke with my father. He remembers his time here fondly. As do I. When I visited Sri Lanka some years ago, I followed in his footsteps and those of the many Dutchmen and women that built memories in this country that are still visible in the streets. I visited the beautiful structure of the Dutch Wolvendaal Church in the heart of Colombo, dating back to 1757, which I hope to see again during this visit. Especially now the pipe organ is restored!

Q: Would you recommend others to visit Sri Lanka?

A: Absolutely. Sri Lanka is a beautiful and vibrant country, with many possibilities for visitors and businesses alike. I was not surprised to hear the number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka almost doubled between 2010 and 2016. For the Netherlands alone, more than 57,000 Dutch tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2018. I am aware the tourism industry was hit hard by this year’s tragic Easter attacks. I hope that my visit is merely a prelude for many more Dutch visitors to come.