Equal human rights for all in Sri Lanka – Ambassador Jaliya Wickremasuriya

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States Jaliya Wickremasuriya, in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer, said the US should be aware that human rights have been restored equally to all Sri Lankans without fear or favour.

The Sri Lankan envoy in Washington has also told the Western media, who has been very cynical of Sri Lanka’s human rights, that Sri Lanka has been very practical and implemented these rights equally unlike the Western world which is merely theoretical. The envoy also said 12 Fortune 500 listed multinational corporates have written to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month that Sri Lanka’s investment climate was sound.

The full interview:

Q: Ambassador, What is the status of Sri Lankan-US relations right now, two years after the end of the conflict, and in the middle of the reconciliation process?

A: We have had a historically strong relationship with the US and that continues today. I know the State Department is putting great stock in the work of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). They have been supportive in noting our progress since the conflict and in the effort to bring US investments to Sri Lanka.

We speak with the State Department, as we do with the Department of Defence and other departments that are extremely important to us, such as the Commerce Department and the Office of the US Trade Representative. Each of these has been a source of vital support to Sri Lanka both during the conflict and now during reconciliation and re-development.

In Congress we have many strong supporters and an active Sri Lankan Congressional Caucus, and of course a few critics. That’s the nature of a body with 535 elected representatives. But I have personally been meeting with some of the most important members of Congress, including those who run the foreign affairs committees.

We held a Sri Lanka Day in Congress in June – nearly 100 Sri Lankans from around the US – many of them professionals – came to Washington to meet with members of Congress and their staff. This was a very successful initiative. It has resulted in dialogue with many members of Congress, and we will continue to hold Sri Lanka Days in Congress in the future.

There are several diaspora organisations that support the LTTE who also lobby members of Congress. They have not given up the fight, but have aligned themselves with a few NGOs who have a different agenda. They continue to aggressively push that agenda in Congress and the State Department. They tell a very distorted view of what happened in Sri Lanka, and what is happening here now.

We are watching these groups closely. We are working hard to have pro-active meetings with members of Congress and a continuous discussion with the State Department. We want them to get the actual facts and figures of Sri Lanka before these groups arrive with their false claims of atrocities and human rights violations.

Basically, we want those in Washington to know that it is the policy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to restore human rights to all the people of Sri Lanka. That’s what ending the conflict was about – restoring freedom and opportunity to people and ending the scourge of terrorism.

The end of the conflict has provided freedom, safety and opportunity to every Sri Lankan, for those in the North and for those in other places where terrorism occurred. The fact that we have had successful, lasting peace for two years suggests that people do not see any purpose in violence and that opportunities have replaced despair.

Solid economy

During our meetings with US officials in Washington we talk about those initiatives and the resettlement, development and de-mining work that is under way. We talk about the economy, and how Sri Lanka is moving forward with steady, solid growth in a world economy that is struggling. We talk about trade – how the US is Sri Lanka’s most important trading partner, and how we want to build on that.

Q: Along those lines, you brought some American companies to Sri Lanka in March. Have any of them invested in Sri Lanka yet? Are they going to?

A: The answer to both questions is yes. You may have seen some recent business reports that SriLankan Airlines is planning to acquire some airliners from Boeing. That would be a first, since SriLankan right now is an all Airbus fleet. But Boeing has been working hard to get our business.

With our tourism up, they see us as an integral, stable and secure part of the South East Asian market. The hotel companies on our trip were also very keen to get started, and they’re examining sites right now. Several heavy equipment operators, Caterpillar and John Deere, will very likely export products to Sri Lanka soon, since there are obvious construction and agriculture opportunities here. Another company, Electro Motive Diesel, wants to sell us train locomotives. Bell Helicopters joined us and a few energy and IT firms also came along on our trip.

Some US trade rules during the conflict prevented certain sales to Sri Lanka, such as helicopter parts from Bell. But that environment has changed now so that matters like aircraft sales may now go ahead. These rules were mainly hurting US businesses. All 12 of these companies have put their faith in Sri Lanka in writing – in late June they sent a letter to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and to US Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

Business partnerships

The letter states: “It is with great pleasure that we announce that our companies have agreed to join the efforts being made to launch a Coalition for US – Sri Lanka Business for the purposes of; (1) ensuring that the growing relations between these two nations include a thriving economic partnership, and (2) promoting US business involvement in the reconstruction and development of Sri Lanka as the nation sustains a new era of peace, hope and unity.

All of our companies are presently active in or have taken significant steps towards doing business in Sri Lanka. As a democratic nation with over 21 million highly-literate citizens, we have long been convinced of Sri Lanka’s attractiveness for commercial activity and investment. And now, in a time of reconstruction, we see concrete opportunities for American participation in development projects in Sri Lanka.

In fact, Sri Lanka has already demonstrated tremendous signs of economic progress. These companies obviously carry a lot of weight in the US and in Washington. We have worked hard to develop alliances with them and we are very pleased to have these new business and personal friendships.

This trip in March was our latest effort to generate business interest in Sri Lanka. As you know, for the last two years there have been four US business delegations to Sri Lanka involving more than 100 companies. At least 40 companies came in October 2009 for a private-public partnership investment conference, and about 70 attended the same conference in October 2010. Many of these are Fortune 500 companies from the US, and also from India.

Those conferences were organised around the annual talks over the Trade Investment Framework Agreement with the US. The talks alternate between Colombo and Washington each year. But in 2010 the Assistant US Trade Representative for South East Asia, Michael Delaney, asked that the talks be held a second year in Sri Lanka to further promote investment here. His view was that US investment is a stabilising force, and that it will speed reconciliation.

These are companies that do their homework. They can see the value in Sri Lanka as a great place to do business. They see Sri Lanka as a country earning an eight percent GDP at a time the world’s major economies are struggling with just a few percent GDP.

Business interest

This business interest sends a message to the world: Sri Lanka is open for business, it is peaceful and prosperous and growing. Their interest will generate even more business for Sri Lanka.

Apart from business development, I am also personally involved in promoting Sri Lanka in the US as a tourist destination. In August I will lead our second Signature Tour with the Ambassador. Last August I brought 25 American professionals from Washington, DC to see Sri Lanka. I’m doing the same this August, and probably expanding the group to 50 or so. We will see everything, from Colombo to Galle to Kandy to Anuradhapura to Jaffna. I want them to get a real taste of what we’ve got.

I have also hosted dinners for travel writers and have met with other groups in Washington that want to sponsor tours to Sri Lanka. Tourism has become one of our busiest sectors in the embassy.

My residence has become a popular destination for travel and food writers and editors. We do a lot to promote Sri Lankan culture through traditional dance performances, music, art and food. People in America love Sri Lankan food. A Washington television station did a feature on Sri Lankan food, visiting my residence to see how it is prepared and to taste it. We recently held a cultural show at the International Monetary Fund, and a celebration of Sri Lankan food – complete with chefs from Colombo – at the World Bank.

Our travel promotion efforts are bearing fruit. As you know, The New York Times last year named Sri Lanka its number one travel destination. And a number of other travel-related publications and websites, including National Geographic, Lonely Planet and the Daily Candy have followed suit.

This is really great because tourism helps everybody. It provides a lot of new jobs and it makes good use of our infrastructure investments. It brings in foreign capital. It will help shape Sri Lanka’s future to ensure that we protect precious resources and allow careful development that won’t spoil the gifts we live with now. Areas that are affected by extreme poverty will see improvement as a rising tide lifts all boats.

Already we’re seeing expanded services like a nationwide electrical grid and excellent mobile phone service – phone reception in remote parts of the North is better than in some parts of the US.

And Sri Lanka and some of our companies are also investing in improvements in the tourism service industry and the level of service that we deliver to our foreign visitors. This is important. We are already a significant player in the international travel market, and we want to make sure that we maintain that standing by maintaining the levels of service and attention to detail that are important to world travellers.

I read somewhere recently that Sri Lanka has a lot of return visitors, and I think that’s got to be true – people come here once and they want to come back. When you read negative headlines overseas, these frequent visitors know the real story – they have been here. They know our people and our culture. They take part in it and respect it. They are sophisticated enough to know that some stories are devised by people who would like to plunge us all back into turmoil instead of working hard on solutions. We obviously don’t need that. We need forward progress like we’ve got right now.

Good reviews

Q: Why does the Western media, both print and electronic, sometimes seem so negative about Sri Lanka?

A: They have missed a lot. The business press sees progress – Bloomberg, CNBC, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times have all given us good reviews. But a few in the press fail to delve at all into the reality of the situation in Sri Lanka and look at how people are living right now. We met recently with the Gallup Poll organisation in Washington and they told us that their polling in Sri Lanka shows that Sri Lankans are very happy with things now, especially those living in the North. But some in the Western press seem to be fixated on the sound-bites of a few misguided NGOs.

For example, a couple of NGOs regularly claim that there were 40,000 civilian casualties in the closing days of the conflict. They don’t present evidence to support this figure, because there isn’t any.

But that number was bandied in early 2010 by one person, a former UN employee who also failed to cite any evidence. He just came out with it months after the conflict was over and after he left the employment in the UN. At the time, the UN said that it had no evidence to support that figure. But a few NGOs took it up as the gospel truth and have been using it ever since.

Then it was picked up by the Darusman Report authors – more shoddy work. This figure – 40,000 casualties – came from a man who the UN had to repeatedly correct when he worked for it. The UN said in February 2010 that it has no evidence to substantiate the 40,000 figure, nor an earlier claim of 20,000 casualties attributed to a UN source – presumably this gentleman – nor for a claim of 7,000 casualties that was also uttered publicly by this gentleman, Gordon Weiss. My guess is that he’s responsible for all three estimates.

It’s interesting that Weiss is a primary source for the infamous Channel 4 video, which the London Sunday Times trashed as “not journalism.” And that, frankly, is the problem. Weiss of course can say whatever he wants. But a few journalists and NGOs in the West don’t seem to care much about accuracy.

I always thought that the role of journalists in society was to do actual reporting to verify or debunk the claims that people make. Apparently that’s not true in this media environment. Channel 4, for instance, apparently did nothing to verify who is in the video they were handed, where and when it was filmed, etc. They just built a false story around it and put it on air, quoting people like Weiss. You would think they could do better, but then you see that news organisations are hacking into people’s private cell phones and databases and it makes you realise that the standards have slipped.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the June 19 London Sunday Times review of the Channel 4 program, but it’s worth looking at. Here’s a quote from it: “Channel 4 has been flogging this story for more than a year, ever since it was given an unattributed but disturbing clip of footage that appeared to show Tamil Tiger prisoners being executed. It has shown it so often, to righteously harangue the Sri Lankan ambassador and various spokesmen, that now nobody will talk to it.

The channel has accumulated a large collection of amateur footage from mobile phones and video cameras – mostly unattributed and uncorroborated. It mixes this footage with comments from unnamed sources with distorted voice, shadowed faces and human rights lawyers. It was brutal, it was shocking, but it wasn’t journalism. Not a second of this has been shot by Channel 4; none of the eyewitnesses’ accounts comes from journalists.”

Q: Have the Channel 4 video and Darusman Report had a big impact in the US?

A: Not really. Both are viewed, I think with proper skepticism. Most Americans will never see the Channel 4 video, and most don’t know what the Darusman Report is. We have talked to the US government about the Darusman Report and assured them that the LLRC will take up the allegations and any evidence that is presented. But I know that the US government would like to see the results of the LLRC’s work.

Handling criticism

Q: Several human rights organisations are very critical of Sri Lanka. As ambassador, how do you handle that criticism?

A: I have told them that there cannot be two kinds of human rights. I have told them that what Sri Lanka has is practical human rights and not theories on Human Rights as the West does!! I believe that you can’t have different kinds of human rights.

What has happened in Sri Lanka with the end of the conflict is the restoration of human rights to all Sri Lankans on a massive scale. First, a primary human right is to live without fear. Those in the North who lived among the LTTE remained in constant fear for years. Violence there was rampant and arbitrary. That is now gone. I have told them.

Other Sri Lankans faced fear everyday, when they sent their children to school or everytime they climbed on to a bus. All of us have a relative or friend who suffered through a terrorist attack. But the human right of freedom from fear and free movement and the freedom to pursue prosperity has been restored.

In fact, there has not been a single death due to terrorism since May 2009. I have also told them that what the Government did at the end of the conflict was establish human rights for 300,000 people who were held hostage by the LTTE.

It freed them, housed and fed them, and then helped them return home. It did this in a year’s time – the average stay for a refugee in a refugee camp

worldwide is 17 years, according to the Women’s Refugee Commission in New York.

Not only that, the Government also rehabilitated about 1,000 LTTE child soldiers and returned them to their families and schools, and it has given more than 11,000 hardcore LTTE terrorists amnesty, jobs, education and training. About 6,000 have been returned to civil society and more are returning each month. There has been large-scale re-development of war-torn areas, and de-mining continues with strong international support.

Q: Finally, the US State Department a few weeks ago changed Sri Lanka’s status in its annual trafficking in persons report. What was that change and is it good or bad for Sri Lanka?

A: It is a very good thing – our ranking has improved. We have been working for several years to improve Sri Lanka’s status in this report.

Each year the US State Department ranks more than 180 countries on their enforcement of international and domestic human trafficking laws to prevent slavery, prostitution, child labour and so forth. There are four rankings: Tier I, Tier II, Tier II Watch list and Tier III.

For several years Sri Lanka has been ranked at “Tier II Watch list.” That means that while the State Department believes that we are aware of human trafficking laws, we are not strictly enforcing them. If you stay on their Watch List too long they drop you to a Tier III ranking – the worst.

We worked hard in Washington this year to make the State Department aware of our prosecution record and other initiatives that the Government has taken to protect people, especially those who work abroad, such as establishing shelters in countries where many Sri Lankans are working.

And of course our Defence Ministry has done a lot of work on this issue, enforcing new regulations and measures to protect Sri Lankans.

So this year our status was elevated off the watch list to Tier II. I would say that the bulk of the countries in the report are Tier II, including Japan and Switzerland.


Courtesy: Sunday Observer