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Sunday, 8 February 2015

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A new beginning

The Government led by President Maithripala Sirisena has barely completed one month in office, but fresh winds are already blowing in the arena of Sri Lanka's foreign relations which sank to a nadir during the previous regime. It is clear that the new administration is seeking a distinct change in the foreign policy direction that will benefit all Sri Lankans.

Part of the credit should go to the new Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who has lost no time in renewing our ties with traditional allies such as India and the USA. The Government has also reiterated that strong ties will continue with China, with President Maithripala planning to undertake a State Visit in March, while dispelling any unfounded fears on this relationship. He will also visit India this month, his first official trip abroad after assuming office.

The previous Government believed in confrontation with the international community, whereas this Government believes in consultation. There is no use in being pushed to a corner and engaging in rhetoric instead of properly managing and facing the multitude of challenges we face on human rights and other fronts.

There is no doubt that the biggest challenge before us is the issue of war crimes charges or violations of International Humanitarian Law that are alleged to have taken place during the final days of the conflict in the North in 2009. Sri Lanka has already lost three resolutions in this regard at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and another one is due to come up this year. Several adverse UN reports have been issued against Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a member of the United Nations and there are certain responsibilities and obligations that come with its membership. There is a civilised manner in which countries should deal with the UN and its officials, even if they do not like what is being discussed about them at the UN. The previous Government completely ignored this dictum, going to the extent of name-calling senior UN officials and berating the friendly countries that sponsored resolutions focusing on Sri Lanka.

For example, it was alleged that the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay was biased towards the LTTE because she was of Tamil origin. They either did not know or chose to ignore the fact that UN officials are shorn of such partiality in discharging their duties. In the end, little or no effort was made to engage constructively with the UN or the countries that opposed us. The gulf grew wider day after day.

It is true that some Western countries that opposed us had no clear grasp of the ground realities of the war or the efforts by the Security Forces to rescue the Northern civilian population in the midst of LTTE barbarism. It is also true that certain sections of the Tamil Diaspora in those countries may have influenced some lawmakers to look negatively at Sri Lanka. But instead of providing them with an opportunity to understand our side of the story, everyone who spoke in favour of justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka was lumped together with the Tamil Diaspora and branded LTTE sympathisers by the previous Government.

On the other hand, having realised the value of true diplomacy in the modern world, the present Government has already initiated a dialogue with the UNHRC and countries which were not exactly on good terms with us over the HR issue. Senior Presidential Advisor on Foreign Relations Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala, who counts years of experience in the UN system, has already met the new UN Human Rights Commissioner Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein for a discussion on various issues including the pending UN probe on Sri Lanka. It is understood that Hussein would be invited to visit Sri Lanka and see for himself the ground situation.

Sri Lanka has also initiated a fresh dialogue with the USA, relations with which were strained to breaking point during the previous regime. US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia,

Ms. Nisha Biswal was in Colombo last week, outlining the US Government's desire to work closely with the new Government in Colombo. "There is such a strong commitment that's visible in this government to want to address issues such as reconciliation and we very much want to work with them to see that happen," she said.

US National Security Adviser Susan Rice has included Sri Lanka alongside Myanmar and Tunisia as a country "in transition." "We'll help countries in transition - like Burma, Tunisia, and Sri Lanka - become more open, more democratic, and more inclusive societies," Rice said in a speech at the Brookings Institute. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States had commended the steps taken by President Maithripala Sirisena to address post-war reconciliation and long-standing issues such as governance and accountability. "Certainly we have seen some positive steps there," she told a regular news briefing. Minister Samaraweera is also due to visit Washington this week for discussions with Secretary of State John Kerry on a range of issues including the HR situation.

Moreover, emissaries will be despatched to Europe to discuss the fish exports ban, GSP Plus issue and the lifting of the ban on the LTTE. This is a positive step and if these issues are resolved, Sri Lanka stands to gain economically and diplomatically. Even some of Sri Lanka's most virulent critics such as Human Rights Watch have begun to appreciate the steps being taken by the Government to achieve post-war reconciliation and ethnic integration.

Some critics of the new Government have described this approach as a sign of weakness and an act of bending down before powerful countries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Diplomacy is the best way to resolve disputes that arise among nations and there is nothing to be ashamed of in engaging constructively with the rest of the world. The previous government tarnished our international image by engaging in an unnecessary confrontation with well-meaning friends of Sri Lanka and this Government is striving to undo the damage caused.

Yet, the best way for Sri Lanka to deal with this issue and avoid foreign interference could be by strengthening its domestic justice mechanisms. The recent changes in the upper echelons of the judiciary could be a harbinger of such a positive direction. Minister Samaraweera has gone on record saying that a strong judiciary at home coupled with good governance would be the best way to ward off any international inquiry. The previous Government and the new Government have rightly rejected any international investigation on Sri Lanka, saying that Sri Lanka should be given an opportunity to deal with its own problems.

Sri Lanka has to come to terms with its past including the 30-year conflict and ensure justice to the victims of the war. In doing so, a strong, impartial and independent domestic justice mechanism is essential. It is up to the Government and the Opposition to decide on the parameters and composition of such a domestic probe. That may pre-empt any move by the international community to intensify their scrutiny of Sri Lanka which has renewed its efforts to seek lasting peace and reconciliation.

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