Sri Lanka is known, perhaps mostly, as the place where Ceylon Tea originates from, or as the land which was torn by conflict for several years, or the country where the famous science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke lived.
But, we are also so much more, and our history also has a bearing on current peacebuilding in our country.
Located, right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, we are approximately 65,610 square kilometres in size, with a coastline of 1700 kilometres, and located just 32 kilometres away from the southernmost tip of India.
We have a recorded history of over 2500 years, and visitors like the 13th Century Muslim Scholar Ibn Battuta, and the 4th Century Chinese Pilgrim Fa-Hien have described the glorious past of Sri Lanka, vividly, in their records.
During the colonial era, since 1505, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British have held a foothold in Sri Lanka, primarily due to our country's geographic location in the oceans of the world. Contacts between America and Sri Lanka started when merchant ships from New England called at Galle harbour, around the same time that the new American Republic adopted its Constitution in 1789.
Sri Lanka was known in the ancient world as a trading hub and a land that was endowed with precious gems, spices, and other bounties of nature that included elephants and exotic fauna and flora.
Sri Lanka neither existed, nor evolved in isolation in the ancient world. It is recorded that Sri Lankan Kings sent envoys to the Royal court of Roman Emperor Augustus.
The people of Sri Lanka, islanders, since ancient times, were influenced by several waves of external interactions, that led to the exchange, not only of goods, but ideas and knowledge, with travellers and traders passing through, and visitors from lands near and far.
Some traders and visitors settled in our country, making our country their home. As a result, Sri Lanka is today, a rich multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious nation.
Buddhism has thrived in Sri Lanka since the arrival in the 3rd Century, of the Indian Emperor Ashoka's children. Arab traders enriched our land with the teachings of Prophet Mohammed.
The symbol of the Nestorian Cross found in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, dated to within 500 years of the birth of Christ, points to the existence of Christians in my country even before the arrival of colonial powers.
Hindu beliefs and customs have contributed to Sri Lankan culture significantly and are engrained in the everyday lives of all. Almost all Buddhist temples have images of Hindu Gods and Goddesses installed; and the bronze statues of Gods and Goddesses discovered in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, crafted by local artisans and bronze casters, are considered to be some of the best in the world.
The beauty and wealth of Sri Lanka had caught the imagination of Arab writers to such an extent that the land they referred to as 'Serendib' was incorporated into the stories of 'Sinbad the Sailor'.
They believed that Adam, banished from paradise, lived in Sri Lanka. Even today, a Holy Mountain in the country, 7,300 feet in height, called 'Siri Pada' or 'Adam's Peak', is venerated by Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
A depression in the Summit that resembles a footprint is considered by Muslims to be that of Adam. The Buddhists consider it to be that of the Buddha. The Hindus consider it to be that of Shiva; and the Christians consider it to be that of St. Thomas the Apostle.
For a country that is just 65,610 square kilometres, we have six cultural world heritage properties, and two natural world heritage sites, recognised by UNESCO. Ancient historical sites of Sri Lanka include the largest brick building in the world, in the 4th Century AD.
The roughly 21 million people who dwell in my country, share this space with the largest land mammal in the world – around 6,000 elephants; and our oceans are blessed to be home to the largest marine mammal in the world, the blue whale.
As an ancient land, we are a country that has many stories to tell of our history and our people. But it is important to place things in context which will enable one to understand better, how people in Sri Lanka view themselves.
At the time of Independence, in 1948, Sri Lanka was hailed as holding the potential to become the 'Switzerland of the Eas'. The people of our country and in the rest of the world had great expectations and confidence on the future of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. Our per capita GDP at the time was second only to that of Japan, in Asia.
Having introduced universal adult franchise as far back as 1931, we were hailed as the oldest democracy in Asia.
Within the UN, we played an important role, despite being comparatively small in size. We provided leadership to evolve the 'Law of the Sea’ Convention'. We were elected to the Security Council in 1960, just five years after becoming a member of the UN. We held the Presidency of the General Assembly in 1976, and also chaired several important conferences of this Organisation at different times.
Failure at inclusive nation-building, and successful, effective and efficient service-delivery mechanisms, coupled with several complex factors, led to erosion of trust and confidence among communities in Sri Lanka, that led to two youth insurrections and a prolonged conflict involving terrorism. Such violence has affected all communities, and, as a nation, we have deprived ourselves of the socio-economic heights that our nation could have achieved.
Our relations with the United Nations became unfortunately strained in connection with the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, which led to Sri Lanka being isolated on the international arena.
However, then came January 8, 2015. Presidential Elections were called ahead of time, and the people in my country seized the moment in the true sense of the word. They exercised their franchise firmly and clearly, for:
- a change in political culture, against ethnic and religious division and against extremism on all sides;
- against impunity;
- for a strong democracy;
- for the rule of law and good governance;
- for reconciliation and sustainable peace;
- upholding, promoting and protecting human rights of all and the pluralistic nature of our society; and
- for inclusive and equitable growth and development in the country.
This message from the people that was repeated at the August 2015 Parliamentary Election, enabled us to hit the re-set button, to re-gain and re-launch Sri Lanka on a new trajectory to, reach out to the international community; restore and renew valuable relationships and partnerships with countries; renew and restore our partnership with the entire UN system; and work towards restoring trust and confidence both locally and and internationally, including with persons of Sri Lankan origin overseas.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the present Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, their respective teams at headquarters, the present UN Resident Coordinator Ms. Una McCauley, and before that Mr. Subhinay Nandy, and the entire country team including the OHCHR Senior Adviser on Human Rights, and the Reconciliation and Development Advisor, have all been extremely supportive of Sri Lanka's journey since January 2015, from the moment we reached out to the UN.
I recall the very first meeting that our Foreign Minister at the time, Mangala Samaraweera, had with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on February 13, 2015, just a month following the January 8 Presidential Election.
At this meeting, Minister Samaraweera explained the path that the National Unity Government is taking on building sustainable peace and reconciliation in the country, and sought the UN’s assistance through the Peacebuilding Fund.
The funding we received from the Immediate Response Facility and longer-term funding have been invaluable to us in a multitude of areas, including resettlement, and obtaining the correct technical expertise and advise for the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation led by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the SCRM, and for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that works extremely closely with the SCRM on matters that relate to reconciliation directly, as well as indirectly.
What has been most critical for us, is having the resources to obtain the right assistance at the right time, quickly, which the constraints of Government procedures do not often allow, in a timely manner.
Through the Peacebuilding Priority Plan, and Peacebuilding Board, the UN and the Government have succeeded in working together to identify areas where Government requires assistance, and to bring on board all bilateral partners as well, so that there is clarity, and duplication is avoided.
Confidence among the public in the UN system itself was at an extremely low point in Sri Lanka, at the time the January 8, 2015 Presidential Election took place. There was suspicion and mistrust. The UN was viewed as an entity that dictates to Sri Lanka, and is trying to pressurise the country and target the country unfairly.
Indicating the Government's firm commitment to work with the United Nations in Sri Lanka, the President and Prime Minister took leadership, attending a ceremony at the UN premises in Colombo that was held in October 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the UN and Sri Lanka’s 60th year of membership.
Since January 2015, the multiple visits of UN officials including the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the visits of Special Procedures, and the proactive approach of the UN Country Team in aligning itself with the Government's priorities, and assisting the Government in implementing the SDGs, and the reconciliation, peacebuilding and development agenda, have helped regain trust and confidence despite certain media organisations, journalists, and political personalities striving hard, almost on a daily basis, to create divisions between the Government and the United Nations, by influencing the public, adversely.
Although there is a perception that progress in Sri Lanka has stalled or that progress is way too slow, looking back, having been in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service for over 30 years, I can confidently say that I marvel at how Sri Lanka, despite multiple challenges, has managed to achieve so much in multiple areas of policy, legal and economic reform, in just over 34 months.
This, however, is not to say that all is fine and that we are happy with the pace of reform. We are not. There is much left to do, and we are definitely not complacent.
As you may be aware, we have just completed our examination under the third cycle of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), on November 17, in Geneva, and among the documents circulated to you, the 'Vision 2025' document, the 'National Human Rights Action Plan', the diary titled 'Advancing Human Rights, Reconciliation and Good Governance in Sri Lanka, January 2015 to November 2017'; is an Op-ed by Sri Lanka’s Head of Delegation to the UPR, Deputy Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs, titled 'Struggle for Human Rights in Sri Lanka: Progress Despite a Difficult Legacy' which will indicate some of our achievements during the last 34 months.
Our main message to our people through all these campaigns including through mechanisms and processes for truth-seeking, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence is that 'Development begins with Reconciliation' and that Reconciliation is essential for Sri Lanka, which now stands at the threshold of its 70th year of Independence, to realise its vision of a stable, peaceful, reconciled and prosperous nation, for everyone.
The following article first appeared in indepthnews.com. The Following are extensive excerpts from Prasad Kariyawasam, Sri Lanka's Foreign Secretary's address to the UN's Peacebuilding Commission at the UN Headquarters in New York on November 20, 2017.
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