Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: The EU is made up of many countries with varying views and opinions, but has struck common ground in working together for a common goal. As Sri Lanka has emerged from a 30 year war, what advice would you give us in working together with all communities for the common good of the country?
A: We have consistently urged SL to do a number of things of which firstly to strengthen the rule of law and the question of governance and respect human rights across Sri Lanka which we think is fundamental. Related to that is our message that reconciliation is crucial. We urge that a genuine effort is put to the question of looking at the conflict which Sri Lanka suffered and disentangling it to address some of the underlying issues and to do that in a genuine effort toward reconciliation.
However we made these points not from any position of moral high ground or arrogance, but on the contrary we made these points humbly but firmly because this is what our experiences have taught us. Across Europe we have our own dark chapters of history and we have had to deal with these. In fact the EU is a political project form of reconciliation. It could not have been an EU project if it had not been based on a strong desire on the part of countries like Germany and France to rebuild their relationship after the war and to have a reconciliation process. The EU is based on that. Hence when we make these points as we have consistently done to Sri Lanka, we do it on the basis of our experience.
If you don’t tackle the underlying issues and if you leave issues festering then history has a horrible way of coming back to bite you, sometimes unexpectedly later on. If the past reveals any violation of the humanitarian law or international human rights law, then there must be a proper judicial process that deals with the perpetrators of these violations so that these issues can be put to rest. However there is a difference between putting an issue to rest and burying it. So these are key points that we bring to Sri Lanka firmly but humbly based on our own difficult histories.
Q: As the EU celebrates EU Day, how do you see the status of the relationship between the EU and Sri Lanka, particularly under the new Sri Lankan Government?
A: I have always said that the EU considers itself a good friend of Sri Lanka. That is because we have always offered consistent and clear advice on important issues, but also because our relationship is underpinned by a very important economic and people to people relationship. The EU is a huge market and as such it is no surprise that we are the number one market for Sri Lankan exports. We supply around a quarter of the direct foreign investment that comes in annually to Sri Lanka and around 40% of the tourists who visit this beautiful country come from EU countries. Hence there is a very strong relationship.
In fact Sri Lanka’s relationship with countries such as Britain and Netherlands and Portugal have even greater historical ties that bind us together and we have been a generous partner in Sri Lanka’s development. We have also reacted very quickly and positively in tragedies such as the Tsunami. We spent a lot of money on the post conflict situation too. But as a friend of Sri Lanka we would like to make a point on human rights and reconciliation, as we are very pleased with the commitments of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the new government on those issues. We very much welcome those commitments and we hope that this government has not only made commitments but have started to make concrete changes.
Q: Do you see more opportunities for EU – Sri Lanka partnerships in future?
A: I would very much like to think so. One of the key messages that I give both here and back in Brussels is that I think Sri Lanka is a country that has enormous potential. As a country it is already doing very well on many scores, economically and in terms of socio economic development it is well on the millennium development goals. But there are of course things that need to be addressed but it is a country that has huge potential and I encourage economic partnerships that could be built up with European companies, research partnerships to be developed etc. These are important where people to people partnerships and we have schemes for academics and students to travel to Europe to study and work there. We hence urge Sri Lankans to avail these schemes.
Q: Some countries had in the past raised concerns over Sri Lanka’s very strong ties with China. While it is up to Sri Lanka to decide its foreign policy, is the EU happy with the policy adopted by the new Sri Lankan Government not to have exclusive ties with any country?
A: The first thing I would say is that the EU is the very first to have very good relations with China as with other countries. We consider that to be of important interest to the European Union. So we are not at all surprised that other countries draw the same conclusion. I think the real issue is that firstly it is an issue for Sri Lanka and it is up to Sri Lanka to balance its foreign policy considerations. But the part that affects us, we appreciate the openness and dialog toward the EU and we are always prepared to work very closely and very hard with a country that wants to work in the same manner with us.
We very recently held some high level talks here in Colombo where we did a number of important things and we had some good discussions on human rights and reconciliation issues. We also started a process which may lead to the reintroduction of the GSP plus being granted again to Sri Lanka. But having said that there is a lot that has to be done on the Sri Lankan side and we also discussed other issues such as the fisheries issue. There again there is a lot that has to be done on the Sri Lankan side but it is important to have these discussions. We had similar discussions with the Sri Lankan government in 2013 in Brussels, and they were also good discussions.
However before the 2013 meeting it had been five years since we had those discussions. The reason is that we had fallen out of the habit of working together closely and I think it is very clear that we need to get back into that habit of working together regularly and closely together. Hence we are delighted that the new government is very committed to maintaining that close relationship with the European Union.
Q: Did Sri Lanka need a change in January? Why?
A: It’s not for me to say. In January there was a very clear election and a clear winner and a transfer of power and it is very normal in a democratic system. I think as a democrat I would always applaud countries and citizens for taking a strong and active interest in politics and going into the election process and selecting their preferred leaders.
It is however not up to me to say for whom people of Sri Lanka should vote, but it is very important that elections are held and people participate and if they vote for a change and there is a change and a smooth transfer, this is what Sri Lanka demonstrated.
Q: How can the EU help Sri Lanka move forward six years after the war?
A: I think that we can continue to help Sri Lanka in the way that we have been doing and we have a particular focus on using our assistance programmes to help those people who were most adversely affected by both the ethnic conflict and the Tsunami. The EU was quick to react after the Tsunami and we gave Sri Lanka 270 million Euros which was just from the European Union institutions.
Added to that you need to put the bilateral amounts given by the member states individually as countries and also what our citizens gave, because there was a huge demonstration of solidarity with Sri Lanka. We have built around 20,000 houses and we hope to build around another 3000 houses for the displaced and when we speak of these housing programmes actually we are speaking not only of houses but we are speaking of other things as well. We build into these programmes local community aspects that help to improve the economic chances of these people. We assist to build livelihoods and training and other aspects that are built in to our assistance programmes. We have directly helped around ¼ million Sri Lankans through our housing programmes which as I say will bring us up to around 23,000 houses in total which is a significant amount. In addition to that there are other assistance programmes and that is only one detail of what we have done for vulnerability of poverty focused economic development programmes.
We have been working mainly in the North and the East up to now and with our new programme, which we hope to launch at the end of this year, we hope to move more into the plantation area in the parts of the Central Province and the Uva Province. We recognised that at a macro level Sri Lanka has done a very good job on achieving many of the millennium development goals and it has significantly reduced poverty levels but not withstanding that there are still pockets of poverty and pockets of vulnerability where statistics are much bigger than the national averages. Therefore the focus for the bulk of our assistance is targeted on those vulnerable communities.
We are also doing other things as well. We have programmes that will help develop the trade profile of Sri Lanka and we will help some small and medium scale enterprises benefit from this trade regimes of what we call trade facilitation making it easier to do business and making it easier to import and export. We are also doing work on helping Sri Lanka on what you call geographical indications which is very important for products like Ceylon tea or Ceylon Cinnamon for example. We are also doing work on the climate change area. On the whole environment we have a major programme which has to do with sanitation in towns and we are working in partnership with the National Water supply and Drainage Board. We will grant around 6 million euro in grant fund and working together with the French Alliance Française to do development and on the basis of our 6 million grant, they will come in with a loan of 200 million euro to work on sanitation issues in towns across Sri Lanka.
So these are major things that we will continue to do as we have been doing in the past too.
Q: Do you feel that Sri Lanka has made any progress on the human rights front?
A: I think that there are already positive commitments made by the government of Sri Lanka and based on those commitments we have seen certain actions already. But it is clear that there is still an awful lot that remains to be done. There is always a challenge to transform commitments into actual reality on the ground. That needs a certain amount of time and it certainly needs a lot of energy from the government and all branches of the state needs to participate in that effort. So the commitments made and the concrete measures already been taken while being duly recognised must be completed and we will encourage Sri Lanka on that area and are happy to work with Sri Lanka.
Q: The Tamils in the North have often felt they have been ignored in the post situation since the army still has a strong presence in the area. How would the EU like Sri Lanka to address this issue?
A: Yes we certainly would like to see Sri Lanka address the issues of the Tamils in the country. We would like to see Sri Lanka finding mechanisms to be able to work through these complicated issues with all of the stake holders. I think there needs to be some sort of process that works on these issues at a political level. Nobody expects that the Sri Lankan army would move totally out of the North, and we recognise that what we are talking about is finding a solution to a complicated situation within a unified Sri Lanka. But on the other hand there are reports from many in the North about how they feel that the militarisation and the military presence is considered in an oppressive manner. Therefore it is clear that balances have to be struck and we urge there would be a reconciliation process to find solution to these complicated problems and these have to come from within Sri Lanka itself.
The EU or other actors from the international community can help and perhaps there might be parts of the European experience that can be useful to Sri Lanka but we have seen successive Sri Lankan governments also looking at the South African experience and perhaps other experiences. We urge that Sri Lanka finds a good path for these complicated issues and if there are aspects of the South African model that would work, we applaud that. We have no selfish interest that only European experience should be used. But of course we do have a vast experience, and we have the peace process in Northern Ireland and we have the reconciliation in the Balkans and many we can offer. But ultimately the solutions that have to come from within Sri Lanka.
Q: LTTE elements are known to be operating in the EU. While the ban on the LTTE remains in the EU, is there more the EU can do to ensure the LTTE does not resurface in Sri Lanka?
A: I think our position on the LTTE is very clear and they are a proscribed and listed organisation and all of our member states are very aware of that and vigilant on these issues. The EU itself is a rule of law community and so from time to time cases are taken against individuals and they get processed through the court system. A recent case got processed through the Netherlands for example last year. There was a concern here in Sri Lanka that the EU was somehow changing its position on the banning of the LTTE. This however was not the case and there was a court ruling that had ruled against some of the measures taken at the EU level and the LTTE but not on substantive grounds but on procedural grounds those measures have been appealed and in parallel the EU recently renewed those measures bearing in mind the court ruling of last year. There was at no stage any lifting of the ban or unfreezing of assets or anything like that. So I want to be very clear on the fact that there is no sympathy for the LTTE across the EU.
Q: With the EU in talks with Sri Lanka on lifting the EU ban on Sri Lankan fish imports, where do things stand now?
A: The fisheries imports ban has been in effect since last January and the Sri Lankan government is engaged in taking those practical concrete measures to improve its management of its fisheries policy and is aiming to taking these measures up to the point where the EU can say that they have met the required level. I would stress that the European commission is simply urging Sri Lanka to fulfill the commitments that Sri Lanka has made one way or the other through meeting obligations that come from the membership of the UN or from the regional fisheries organisations including the Indian ocean Tuna Commission. It is not asking Sri Lanka to meet a different set of criteria higher than the European level. Sri Lanka has made commitments in relation to having a modern solid management of its fisheries sector and we hold Sri Lanka to that. This issue at one level is focused on Sri Lanka but on another level it has nothing to do with Sri Lanka and for us the issue is global. There is a huge amount of damage done globally every year through illegal unreported and unregulated fishing and we do not tackle that then there are fishermen who do not care about the rules who will benefit and the fisheries stocks and the fishing communities will go into a structural decline from which they will not be able to recover because the management of the fisheries sector is all about maintaining sustainability.
If there is no sustainability this maybe the last generation that can fish in these waters. So it is a global issue where the world needs to have a sustainable fisheries future, and of course Sri Lanka has an important role to play in that.
Q: The 13th Amendment to the constitution has been something the EU has raised in the past. Would the EU like to see powers devolved to the provinces in Sri Lanka?
A: This again is an issue where Sri Lanka needs to sit around the table and work through those issues. But the 13th amendment is there in the constitution and normally speaking one would expect constitutions to be implemented. That is a rather basic condition of the rule of law. But the very fact that it being an issue proves the point that there needs to be political dialog with the right people round the table in order to solve that issue together with others and that type of political dialog and settlement is clearly needed.
Q: The Sri Lankan opposition feels they are being hunted down by the new Government. What is your message to the new Government when they deal with former Government members on various allegations?
A: As an Ambassador to have the honour of being posted to Sri Lanka, I don’t have any particular message. But again for us it’s a rather basic issue and if the authorities feel that the previous incumbents were acting in an improper way then there has to be a mechanism for investigating that and if it is proven that they had committed wrong then there has to be consequences. However equally the mechanism has to be free from politics. There has to be a strong judicial system that will be able to examine these cases and decide. I would say in any country be it Sri Lanka or anywhere, whenever a politician is accused, it raises the bar of standards and the judicial system must demonstrate that it has done its job properly, objectively and fairly, so as to counteract any easy argument from the political world.