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United Kingdom's Peace Building Efforts in Sri
Dr Tennakoon, Director of the BCIS, ladies and gentlemen, good evening. I am delighted to have this platform to set out what the UK’s peace-building efforts are in Sri Lanka. Thank you to the BCIS for the opportunity. I look forward to hearing what the distinguished panel have to say later. Rome was built on seven hills. My presentation is in seven parts. It is going to cover the following ground.
Firstly, what is the UK’s motivation for our efforts in Sri Lanka? It’s a fair question because some of the time the government, with whom we have friendly relations, and its supporters do not appreciate what we do. The Defence Secretary’s interview to Reuters and the BBC earlier this week in which he accused Britain, amongst others, of trying to bully Sri Lanka illustrates the point. If the Defence Secretary’s views reflect the government’s more widely, why don’t we just pack up, go home and save ourselves all that money and effort.
Part of the answer is the number of general, global reasons that would be sufficient to explain why the UK should support peace building in Sri Lanka. These derive from an appreciation of our enlightened self-interest. We want to raise respect for human rights and standards of good governance around the world because that makes the world a safer place. Democratic standards are badly eroded in countries in conflict and Sri Lanka is no exception. There is our commitment to advance the Millennium Development Goals, which is partly altruistic but also means that we have the prospect of more prosperous trading partners for Britain’s goods and services. Sri Lanka’s economic and social development is significantly held back by its civil war.
But as well as the general arguments, there is a more direct connection between the conflict in Sri Lanka and the interests of the UK.
There are perhaps some 4 million British people of South Asian origin living in the UK. And, as you would expect, that translates into a rapidly rising number of MPs and local councillors of South Asian origin playing an active role in British politics. This large number of political representatives and the much larger number of constituents from this region means that British politics is bound to take a close interest in developments in South Asia.
I don’t know a reliable figure for the number of people of Sri Lankan origin resident in the UK. It could be anything from 200,000 to over half a million. What you can be sure of is that the Sri Lankan diaspora community follows very closely what happens here. The conflict stirs up the diaspora who make representations to the British government to do something about it. The LTTE illegally raises money within the diaspora, using extortion and threats. The phenomenon of Tamil criminal gangs may be, directly or indirectly, linked to the LTTE’s activities.
The internal conflict also increases the number of Sri Lankans, of all communities, who wish to emigrate. That in turn feeds the demand for the services of criminals engaged in smuggling people illegally into the UK. And it raises the number of political asylum seekers from Sri Lanka who land in the UK. Immigration is a very sensitive political subject for the British government. So the conflict here creates law and order problems for the UK and makes managing immigration more difficult.
The conflict also directly affects British interests by complicating the patterns of trade and investment between our two countries and by the threat it poses to British travellers and residents in Sri Lanka. Some 150 British passport holders, for example, were stranded in Jaffna for weeks when the A9 road was closed last August. Two weeks ago, a British couple, ethnically Tamil, were arrested and later released in one of the regular security sweeps in Colombo.
So it’s not difficult to establish that Sri Lanka’s internal conflict has a direct impact on the interests of my country and its people. In the modern, globalised age, no country is an island in political terms, not even when it is one geographically.
This brings me to the second point. In the happy event that the civil war can be brought to an end, what sort of Sri Lanka does Britain want to see emerging in the peace?
Firstly, whatever peace is achieved needs to be lasting and fair to all communities, commanding their support. We want the unity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka to emerge intact and whole. We support a single state solution, not a two state one. In countries with internal conflicts, the traditional way of reconciling people with distinct identities within a single nation state is through some form of power sharing and devolution.
A new constitutional dispensation, that removes discrimination, upholds human rights for all and removes the causes of alienation from the state, is a necessary and central component of achieving lasting and fair peace.
There are plenty of examples of successful power sharing arrangements and devolution in other countries. I don’t want to use the words unitary or federal because they come with too much political baggage and people can stop thinking when you use these labels. In the UK, we have developed our own unique power-sharing arrangements in order to keep Britain united. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish each have their own parliaments or assemblies, each with different powers, set up on a different basis.
The English do not have their own parliament or assembly. Our devolution is therefore sometimes called asymmetric. But that reflects the different political aspirations and needs of different communities with the country. We don’t all want the same things. So we would expect that whatever arrangements for power-sharing and devolution are designed for Sri Lanka are modeled on the needs of this country and its different communities.
It goes without saying, I hope, that a newly united Sri Lanka, at peace, would be one where democratic standards and respect for human rights would be strengthened and apply throughout the country. We would not support a despotic regime continuing in the north and east, because we do not believe that would contribute to a lasting peace.
Such a newly united Sri Lanka, at peace, could expect to benefit from a massive economic boom. This country is waiting to take off economically when the conditions are ripe. The most effective way to afford the huge costs of putting in the infrastructure to connect the rural areas to the main cities and to the outside world, which is the key to the economic and social development of country people, is to achieve a lasting peace. That way, money spent today on bombs and bullets and MiG29s can instead be invested in the country’s development.
Against that background, what is Britain’s policy towards Sri Lanka? Well it’s all about trying to end the conflict and bring about the state of affairs in Sri Lanka I have described.
We recognise that outsiders cannot make peace in Sri Lanka. Peace has to come primarily from Sri Lankans themselves. But outsiders can help shape the political and security environment in which efforts to make peace or war are attempted.
The aim of our peace building strategy is to contribute to the creation of the conditions in which peace can be achieved. It’s a relatively modest and realistic aim. Britain is not trying to impose a peace arrangement on Sri Lanka. Nor are we contemplating putting lots of troops on the ground. We are not trying to copy what the Indians did in 1987.
We think Britain’s added value in peace building derives partly from our experience of peace processes, especially from Northern Ireland; from our specialist expertise in key sectors, such as security sector transformation; and from our knowledge of and cultural links with Sri Lanka.
In accordance with the strategy, the British government is focusing its peace building activities on four objectives.
The first objective is to generate in the country a greater commitment to a negotiated peace.
We believe in the simple proposition that a necessary condition for a lasting peace is that all parties involved in the dispute should commit themselves sincerely to achieve a negotiated settlement to the conflict, rather than to pursue their objectives by military means. We do not believe that a political process will succeed against a background of violence and hostilities.
This requires us to sustain political and diplomatic engagement with the government and others here, keeping broadly in line with the wider international community.
We support, for example, the efforts of the Norwegians, who remain the officially invited facilitators to the existing peace process. We are not trying to take the place of the Norwegians. We use the broad range of UK contacts to encourage the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to end violence and commit themselves to dialogue. In this context, our experience of conflict resolution and peace building in Northern Ireland means we have something important and relevant to bring to the table. More on this later.
More generally, we aim to share our experience of conflict resolution by encouraging key opinion formers, including those Sri Lankans living in the UK, to pursue every avenue for peacefully resolving the conflict.
The second objective is to improve the safety and security of communities in Sri Lanka and improve overall adherence to human rights.
We believe that violence and human rights violations are not only a symptom of the conflict, but also a major reason why the conflict continues. Hostilities and human rights abuses corrode trust between the communities. Sri Lankans need to have a greater sense of confidence and control over the security and management of their lives, if peace is to be sustainable.
Under this objective, the UK funds a number of projects, which are implemented by NGOs such as the Foundation for Co-existence and the Asia Foundation. These projects have a number of aims. For example, we aim to strengthen local capacity for managing conflicts within communities. We want to increase the opportunities for people to seek redress for grievances and human rights violations, through improved access to justice.
We wish to enhance the conduct and human rights record of the security forces and are funding training for them on human rights and International Humanitarian Law.
We are working with local stakeholders, the UN and other agencies to attempt to improve the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. And we support processes that reduce the availability of small arms, taking action at community, national and regional level.
Our third objective under the strategy focuses on reforming governance in certain key institutions, particularly the armed forces and security services.
British security forces have acquired expertise (principally in Northern Ireland and by taking part in UN peacekeeping operations) in policing conflict zones in a way that reduces tensions and violence. We want to transfer that know-how to Sri Lanka’s armed forces. To that end, we are helping the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence with the development of policy and training in peacekeeping operations, civil military relations, international humanitarian law, and the law of armed conflict. We are also working with the Sri Lankan Police to support their development of a community based policing programme.
The UK is additionally supporting the work undertaken by the Sri Lankan government and security forces to develop civil oversight of defence policy and military activity in order to promote transparency and accountability. We are also funding language training to improve the English and Tamil language skills of the police, military and judiciary.
Our fourth and last objective under the strategy is to strengthen civil society so that is becomes more effective in peace building. Our activity here aims to encourage the engagement of a wider range of organisations (including the business sector, religious organisations, the media, regional universities, political groups and other key opinion formers) to come forward and take initiatives in peace building;
So that then is our peace building strategy, a mixture of diplomatic and political work and project work.
I have mentioned Northern Ireland a few times. I think I should expand on that theme.
Northern Ireland is a successful example of how a very longstanding conflict, rooted in grievances that go back hundreds of years, proved eventually to be solvable. Previously mortal enemies are now sitting down in government together as partners in Northern Ireland’s future. It is an extraordinary turn around.
My Prime Minister and quite a few British ministers who have experience of the Northern Ireland story believe that there are lessons from Northern Ireland that would apply to other countries suffering from internal conflict. It was with that in mind that Mr Blair asked Paul Murphy, a former Minister in Northern Ireland, intimately involved in the negotiations that led up to the Good Friday Agreement, to visit Sri Lanka last November.
Mr Murphy returned convinced there were many parallels between Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka. He is, of course, not the only one. Martin McGuinness, of the IRA and Sein Fein, came here last year. Who better to try to persuade the LTTE that they should abandon the armed struggle and pursue peace through the democratic process than someone who has trod that path himself?
I would like to set out a few of those lessons now so that you can see what I mean. This will not be an exhaustive presentation. The lessons of Northern Ireland for Sri Lanka constitute a subject worthy of PhD thesis. So this account is necessarily over-simplified. After Mr Murphy’s visit I jotted down 15 lessons from Northern Ireland. I won’t go through them all now. But here are the first seven, almost half of them.
To begin with, a word of caution. We don’t think you can translate the process in one country lock, stock and barrel to another country and expect it to work in the same way. Each country has its own characteristics. So the lessons from Northern Ireland do need to be adapted to Sri Lanka’s situation.
The first lesson: all sides to the conflict have to acknowledge that no-one can win through violence or a military solution. In Northern Ireland, even the immense apparatus of the British state, including tens of thousands of highly trained troops with state of the art equipment, could not eliminate a few hundred terrorists. For their part, the IRA realised that better government intelligence was frustrating the effectiveness of its armed struggle. If you want peace, you must want to stop fighting.
Second lesson: even in the darkest days, there needs to be communications between the government and the terrorists. The modalities can alter according to circumstances. Often the communications will be conducted through a secret back-channel. But the communication should never be entirely shut off. It’s important that the parties talk to each other as that enables a degree of trust and confidence to be built up, which is a necessary foundation for when the parties are ready to move to talks.
Third lesson: there must be a cease-fire in order for formal talks to be possible. Politicians can't make the compromises necessary for peace against a backdrop of violence and public revulsion at violence. But one must be realistic; violations of the cease-fire are likely to continue and shouldn't be allowed to derail the process.
Fourth lesson: the process for talks is more important at the outset than the substance of the talks. Let me list some of the features of the process in Northern Ireland that led up to the Good Friday Agreement.
(a) Inclusivity. In Northern Ireland's case, all political parties and many civil society organisations were present at the talks. So it was as inclusive as possible.
(b) Intensity. Representatives were elected to the talks and paid to attend them. They were full-time, dedicated negotiators to the peace process. The worked every week from Monday to Friday for about two years.
(c) Facilities. A special purpose-built building was used for the talks, with each party having its own offices and secretariat, provided free of charge.
(d) Parity of esteem. Each party had the same number of places at the table and had the same rights to speak. Every party was treated with the same respect, despite the terrible things some had done.
(e) Complexity. The talks were continuous and involved a complex structure of plenary sessions and working groups. The scope of the talks was very comprehensive, covering anything any party wanted to put on the table – prisoners, education, constitutional change, transport, justice, discrimination, human rights, the economy etc.
Fifth lesson: international mediation by a person of stature to chair the talks was crucial. Senator Mitchell, a very accomplished American politician and a Catholic, was critical to the talks' success. He was supported by a Canadian general (who enjoyed the Protestants' confidence) and an ex-PM of Finland (for Nordic balance). Senator Mitchell's role was hands-on throughout.
Sixth lesson: the people themselves have to feel they own the talks. The solution must be generated by them, not produced by outsiders. The British Government and most outsiders knew what the solution would almost certainly have to look like. They could have drafted it in two weeks. Had they done so, it would have failed. The parties may have taken two years to reach the same destination but it was vital that they should feel ownership of the outcome.
Seventh lesson: organisations can change their fundamental positions during the talks process. The IRA moved away from insisting on integration with Ireland to accepting devolution. The Protestants moved from a centralised, unitary system of rule from London to devolution.
And the list of lessons goes on and on. It is not too difficult, even with a quick run through like the one I have just given, to spot similarities and, perhaps more importantly, differences between the state of affairs here and what worked in Northern Ireland.
I want now to say something about the critical importance of human rights, which has come up once or twice already. Of course, human rights are not just a British or Western concern. There are a number of Asian countries represented on the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, chaired by Justice Bagwati, a former Chief Justice of India, whose recent statements, agreed unanimously, show a rigorous and proper concern about human rights.
I shall put my remarks about human rights in the context of Britain’s experience in Northern Ireland.
There is a simple, if not always universally accepted, connection between human rights and the conflict. The fundamental cause of the internal conflict is the alienation of numbers of Tamils from the modern Sri Lankan state, for whatever reasons, and their consequent aspiration to run their own affairs in their own homeland. The more that sense of alienation is fuelled, the more difficult it will be to bring the conflict to an end and for all Sri Lankans to reach a new political accommodation with which all are satisfied. Human rights violations are a major part of what sustains the sense of alienation amongst the Tamils today and therefore continues to drive the conflict.
We in Britain know what we are speaking about because we made some very crass mistakes in Northern Ireland, ignoring the legitimate grievances of the Catholic minority community in order to pursue immediate and urgent security concerns.
Peter Hain, the present minister for Northern Ireland and Wales, has described the decision in 1971 in Northern Ireland to introduce internment without trial as a disaster. He believes it is questionable whether internment could, in principle, have worked in preventing the IRA from developing into a sophisticated urban guerrilla army. But the determinedly one-sided application, based on flawed intelligence, ensured that it back-fired catastrophically.
Serious errors in handling public disorder –the curfew and search operations in the Falls Road area in 1971 which was, in effect, a sort of martial law and, most dramatically, the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972 (where 13 people were killed in shootings by British Forces) – contributed to a comprehensive reversal of early hopes that the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Catholics could be won over.
That is not to say that the Catholics embraced violent alternatives – the vast majority never did – but it helped to create a further alienation from the institutions of the state which meant the IRA invariably had sufficient community support for its violent campaign.
Happily, after some time the penny dropped and the British government understood the critical importance to our peace efforts of raising and protecting human rights standards. In the end, the Good Friday agreement of 1998 was applauded by local, national and international human rights organisations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the time, Mary Robinson, said the agreement was conspicuous "by the centrality it gave to equality and human rights concerns".
Without that approach, putting human rights at the centre of our efforts, we would not have persuaded the IRA to put down their weapons and take part in the peace talks leading to the Good Friday agreement.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Before I conclude, I would like to address the concerns of some people that Britain’s peace-building activities are bullying or that our concern about human rights is helping the LTTE or that we are guilty of double standards or of acting contrary to international law.
I hope this presentation has made it clear that our key instruments for delivering our peace building strategy are advocacy and some small projects. We are not trying to impose anything on Sri Lanka, not least because we believe for a peaceful settlement to work it has to be home-grown and owned by all Sri Lankans.
But as I said at the beginning, no country these days is a political island. What happens here in Sri Lanka resonates on the streets of London. We do not have the luxury of being indifferent to developments in Sri Lanka. So when things happen here that we think are unwise or contrary to international standards, we tend to say so privately and sometimes publicly. Sometimes, when we have major concerns about developments, there are consequences for our policies towards Sri Lanka. As you will know, we have temporarily suspended our debt relief programme here, worth over £40m over ten years, as we were worried that the money might be used to support the prosecution of the civil war, a war that is giving rise to serious human rights concerns.
Does raising human rights concerns help the LTTE? If the internal conflict is a zero-sum game, then I suppose that anything that embarrasses one side will be seen as victory of sorts for the other. So there is an element of substance in the accusation to which one should be sensitive.
But for the reasons I have mentioned, we think that such short term analysis misses the main point. Human rights violations in themselves alienate the victims’ communities and help to prolong the conflict.
But there is also something about this accusation that does not add up. The LTTE are an anti-democratic regime, with a record of appalling human rights violations. They have no concept or respect for free speech. They eliminate dissent. They do not live by, nor represent democratic values in any sense.
So it is surely a false position to argue that defending fundamental rights and freedoms, which the government of Sri Lanka believes in but which the LTTE does not, should be seen as being pro-LTTE.
What about double standards? What about Iraq? The decision to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein’s regime was undoubtedly controversial. But whatever the rights and wrongs of that, the policy of the coalition now is to provide, with the help of the Iraqi forces, the minimum level of security necessary to enable the political system in Iraq to take root. That system aims to give all communities a fair say in the running of the country. The future of Iraq is almost certainly federal.
When violations of human rights by British and other Coalition forces occur, as they do in Iraq since no armed forces are perfect, there is a law enforcement system of military justice that deals with perpetrators. There are strict rules of engagement for our troops. When these are violated, the soldiers concerned can expect to find themselves, when the evidence is collected, in serious trouble before a tribunal. We do not operate a policy of abductions and extra-judicial killings in Iraq.
Lastly, is it contrary to the Vienna Convention, which sets out the functions of diplomatic missions, to raise human rights concerns. The answer is no, it isn’t.
One of the functions of a diplomatic mission, according to the Vienna Convention, is to protect in the receiving State, in this case Sri Lanka, the interests of the sending State, in my case Britain, within the limits prescribed by international law.
Treaties are agreements made between States and human rights treaties are like any others in this respect. A State's obligations under human rights treaties are owed not only to the individuals present in the State's territory but to all other States Parties to those treaties. As both the UK and Sri Lanka are party to all six of the core UN human rights treaties, in the hypothetical case that Sri Lanka failed to comply with any of the provisions of those treaties, it would be in breach of obligations owed to the UK (and to the other States Parties to the treaties concerned). The UK would then be well within its rights, according to the Vienna Convention, to take action to defend its interests in seeing those human rights standards upheld in Sri Lanka.
And the same would be true in reverse, of course. Should the UK fail to live up to any of the provisions in these human rights treaties, for example in Iraq or Afghanistan or at home with our own struggle against Al-Qaeda terrorism, we would be failing in an obligation to Sri Lanka as well as to our own people. And the Sri Lankan government would then be acting quite properly in drawing attention to our failings and expecting us to take remedial action.
So from the perspective of international law, it is a mistake to see human rights as purely internal matters. Human rights, ever since they have been governed by international treaties, are properly the subject of concern of the international community.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am coming to the end. I have tried to set out, pretty comprehensively, the motivation behind our peace building activities and describe those activities themselves. I have dwelt on our experience of Northern Ireland, which explains why we approach the conflict here in the way we do. I have elaborated on the importance of putting human rights at the centre of peace building policies and tried to deal briefly with some of the commonest objections to our engagement.
Britain has no magic bullet to solve Sri Lanka’s civil war. Only Sri Lankans themselves can do that. But we cannot be indifferent to the conflict. It touches us and we are bound to respond. We are not trying to become the official facilitator; that remains Norway’s role. We want to work in partnership with the Sri Lankan government. What we are trying to do is to help create the conditions in which the parties may, one day (and we hope it will be sooner than later) be ready and able to come together to forge a lasting and fair peace and give the people of this lovely island the chance to live to their potential.
Thank you very much.