By Namini Wijedasa Britain will do its utmost to ensure that Sri Lanka is able to recognise the principles on which the Commonwealth works and takes the right course, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the United Kingdom’s (UK) Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Alistair Burt said last week in an exclusive interview with the Sunday [...]


UK to do utmost to see Lanka abides by C’wealth principles: Alistair Burt


By Namini Wijedasa

Britain will do its utmost to ensure that Sri Lanka is able to recognise the principles on which the Commonwealth works and takes the right course, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the United Kingdom’s (UK) Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Alistair Burt said last week in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times. Excerpts from the interview:

The UK has regularly expressed concern over negative developments in Sri Lanka—whether during the war, over other human rights abuses or, most recently, the Chief Justice’s (CJ) impeachment. Yet, transgressions continue. Are you worried that the concerns of the international community are being ignored?

AB: Yes, of course. We don’t express our concerns for no purpose, as I hope I made clear. The base of our concern is a desire, firstly, to support the international obligations that we are all party to. Secondly, out of our concern for Sri Lanka, because of the long relationship that we have. And perhaps it was our own experience with dealing with reconciliation after conflict. We know that it’s very difficult, but that, there are key essentials which I set out. My fourth point is what David Cameron has said about the ‘golden thread’ of development, and worries expressed by others in Sri Lanka about what is threatening those opportunities. It is essential that a country is responsible for its own direction and that, people within the country feel ownership of the changes they make. There is absolutely no contradiction between friends expressing concern and the country deciding to move in a similar direction, because it’s the right thing for them to do.

Even on the face of it, the impeachment of the CJ violated Latimer House Principles. Can your government continue to engage with Sri Lanka as a member of the Commonwealth, when some of the cardinal principles of the Commonwealth have been violated?

Engagement is of huge importance. If there’s no engagement, then there’s no opportunity to bend an ear, to express an opinion, to give people a chance to move. The importance of engagement is that, even when times are very difficult, you do all you can to keep contact. No, absolutely, I think that the Commonwealth is an important forum for these issues to be discussed.

Alistair Burt is seen with the book “Democracy, Sovereignty and Terror: Lakshman Kadirgamar on the Foundations of International Order” at his office in London recently.

The significance of the impeachment was the reaction from so many, not only from international observers and jurists, but from people here as well. It’s one of those things that gave people a sense that there’s something genuinely to be concerned about in terms of independence of the judiciary. So, yes, we will continue to engage, because we think that it is important to remind people of the principles on which the Commonwealth and other organisations work. And (we will) do our utmost to see that Sri Lanka is able to recognise these and take the right course.

You mentioned that the UK has not yet decided on the level of any attendance at CHOGM, and that, you would look to Sri Lanka to demonstrate its commitment to upholding Commonwealth values. Firstly, what are the options available to the UK, when you say level of attendance? Secondly, what can the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) do before November, to ensure that it demonstrates a commitment to the values you described?

It’s simply about the level of ministerial attendance, who may attend a meeting. The Canadians have already expressed their opinion about it. So it’s those sorts of considerations that will come up for consideration and determination. In terms of what may change, I think the important thing is recognition within Sri Lanka of its own commitment to those Commonwealth values, and it demonstrating through what it’s doing, that those values are strong. So no one from outside is going around with a checklist or anything like that. The important thing is that, these values are in the interests of all of us, of all of our States. A country that adheres to them will be doing its own people a favour, and the right thing by its own people. Sri Lanka will make those judgments as the months go on. And we will all see how that looks as the months progress.

But closer to November, the UK will have to consider whether or not it attends the CHOGM in Sri Lanka, won’t it?

At some stage, absolutely. The UK has to make a decision, but has not made it yet.

There was a raft of international pressure over the impeachment of the CJ. The Government used that pressure to drum up support among the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Do you see any disadvantage to the Government in continuing to employ that strategy?

A party strategy, a government strategy, is a matter for them. I wouldn’t venture to discuss that. The importance of what we’re talking about here is a State or country doing things for their own people, for all their own people. The reason why we hold these values is that, experience over the years has demonstrated to us that this is what helps all of us, as a Commonwealth family. Democratic principles, rule of law, accountability, human rights adherence, are what has enabled our States to be able to get through a whole series of difficulties and conflicts. These are not outside values being pressed upon Sri Lanka with a sense of “do this”. But through engagement and explanation, these are the things that have helped us all… and made sure people stay safe in the future, which is the important thing. There must be a terrible fear, once you’ve been through the awful experiences of civil war, conflict and terrorism… that it will return. The way that it’s prevented is a whole series of things, not just security, but a political settlement, which the LLRC recognised as dealing with the underlying causes of conflict. This is about Sri Lanka recognising what is in its self interest—as a State, as a government and, crucially, in the interests of the people of Sri Lanka.

Do you believe there should be an extraordinary meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) to discuss recent events in Sri Lanka, particularly the impeachment of the CJ? Do you think Sri Lanka should be on the CMAG’s informal or formal agenda?

It’s fair to say that, clearly, we’re not a member of CMAG. We are aware of the concerns. I think it (the call for an extraordinary meeting of CMAG) demonstrates to the UK government, the degree of seriousness with which this is being taken. And whether or not a decision is taken to move this (meeting) forward, I’m sure the GoSL will acknowledge the strength of feeling about it, and recognise the risk that is being taken with the perception of the independence of the judiciary in Sri Lanka.

You have repeatedly stressed on the importance of implementing the LLRC recommendations. Does this mean you feel the implementation process is lacking? 

Yes. Timescales that the Action Plan set have been recalculated, reset. On some of the things, there has been no demonstrable action. Detainee lists, for example, are not fully available yet. The progress on investigations to look at some of the issues at the end of the conflict, which is very important, which the LLRC said themselves have to be looked at further, Government responded saying this should be done through investigations. I’m not sure if the evidence is there that this is being done. This is the Government’s own response, its own Action Plan. This isn’t somebody else from outside saying, “Do this”. Then, there is the political settlement, the work between political representatives and the Government. Again, there is no evidence of serious engagement, but that does require both sides to be genuine in engaging in this for the future.

How satisfied are you with the extent to which Tamil aspirations are being met in postwar Sri Lanka?

That goes to the heart of what we’ve been saying. Concerns that have been expressed to ensure proper reconciliation have involved identification of the missing, the return of people and a political process which recognises and represents feelings of those involved. There has been some progress. Again, it would be wrong and, clearly, I have no intention of suggesting there hasn’t been progress. People have been returned, (there is) de-mining. But still there are things that make things very difficult out there, from military control as opposed to civil administration, to the failure to get moving on these other things.

The international refrain on the need for accountability is rather muted now. You have placed greater emphasis on implementation of the LLRC recommendations, rather than on accountability. Does this mean it is less important now? If the LLRC recommendations are implemented, will the GoSL be excused? 

No, because, remember our public statement about the LLRC said that, there were some areas the LLRC had not addressed fully, and accountability was one of those. But even so, it was still mentioned that there would be investigations of the like. I think the international community does expect there is some response in relation to this. It has certainly not slipped down the UK’s agenda. But equally, it was important to make sure it’s not all about that. It’s all about the package of things that helps reconciliation.

Khuram Shaikh, a British Red Cross worker, was murdered in Tangalle, in December 2011. The accused are out on bail and the case is not moving. Is the British government concerned? 

We are extremely worried. Of course, the suggestion is that, because of the connections of the accused, due process is not being followed. We do worry about that. We have a very strong British interest, and there are repeated assurances that the process will be followed. We will continue to watch for this. But it is being cited by others as an example of deficiencies in the legal process here that affect all in Sri Lanka.

How do you strike the balance between being regarded as prescriptive and non-prescriptive?

I think the balance is struck because, you get accused by both sides, that, whatever you say is damned as prescriptive by the one that it’s orientated towards, and told it’s not enough by others. What we have to do is keep doing what we believe to be right.

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