Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Bernard Savage says the Sri Lankan government needs to carry out further efforts on the issue of accountability. He noted that there are issues such as disappearances, particularly the enforced disappearance along with a number of outstanding cases that need to be addressed. He explained that although the EU is not represented in the UNHRC, its member states that are present in the Council have made interventions at Sri Lanka’s UPR.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: What concerns does the EU have in relation to Sri Lanka’s post-war direction?
A:Firstly, we have made a number of statements. We have maintained those concerns that we have stated. Our primary objective as partners of Sri Lanka is to see a peaceful, stable, democratic Sri Lanka where all communities feel that they are a vital part of the country. Therefore, the concerns we voice from time to time should be taken in this overall context. We are not anti-Sri Lanka as some commentators have stated. We have voiced concerns on a number of issues notably on human rights. Sri Lanka is not unique in it, but it is part of the normal international discourse. We want to see a process of political reconciliation in Sri Lanka because the country has suffered a terrible 30 years of war. We not only want to see but support reconciliation and to deal with issues that arose during the course of the conflict. Our intention is to support a process where all concerned parties are involved.
Q: Sri Lanka’s UPR on human rights was on the 1st, do you feel the government’s report to the UNHRC has shown adequate progress since the previous review in 2008?
A: The EU is not represented in the UNHRC, but our member states are represented in it. It is not only seen by our members states, but also the UNHRC as a state to state process, so the EU does not formally have a position on submissions made to any of the periodic reviews. However, our member states have made interventions and they cover a number of subjects. The member states have also voiced concerns on certain issues, notably issues related to questions of missing persons and enforced disappearances, etc. These concerns are raised by our member states and also by a number of other members of the UNHRC. The experts of the mission who visited the country recently have also raised these issues.
Q: In which areas do you think Sri Lanka has shown progress in relation to addressing human rights concerns?
A: Not only in human rights concerns. It is fair to say that the resettlement of the internally displaced persons and the investments in the war ravaged areas have been commendable. The EU has supported these efforts. In terms of the humanitarian process, the EU has helped the resettlement and demining process. We haven’t left it that. We are involved in the housing sector as well. We have programmes which when concluded would give 20,000 permanent housing units in former conflict areas. That is one area where overall progress is commendable. We welcomed the lifting of the emergency regulations, but we have concerns regarding the effect of the remaining laws like the PTA and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. It is now three and a half years since the end of the conflict and the need for certain regulations in the legal system of the country to return to a state of normality. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the relevant laws. In the question of reconciliation, we know the government has had talks with the TNA and other communities. We like to see those efforts reinforced of course. We encourage the government to pursue the efforts. We welcome the LLRC report and the recommendations made by the Commission. We are now waiting to see the implementation of the recommendations and some of them have been included in the National Action Plan. We have noted the efforts and have on numerous occasions said we were ready to provide support if requested.
Q: What areas do you think the government has failed to address or needs to address more effectively?
A: On the issue of accountability, further efforts need to be made. Issues such as disappearances, particularly the enforced disappearance of journalists are a matter of concern. There are a number of outstanding cases. As far as The Sunday Leader is concerned, the case of the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge is still unresolved. It is one of the high profile cases. The others that are well known are the cases of the murder of the ACF workers and the university students in Trincomalee. These are issues that have not been properly resolved. There are other cases of disappearances that have not been satisfactorily addressed. It is an issue where more clarifications are needed and the culprits brought to book.
Q: Has Sri Lanka responded positively to the concerns and questions raised by 99 countries on the country’s UPR report? A: There were 99 countries; as I speak on Friday morning I have not had the opportunity to look at all the interventions and the responses. It would take some time to evaluate them. So I would not give a rapid reaction.
Q: Do you feel satisfied with the Sri Lankan government’s response at the UPR? A: Once again our member states have a number of outstanding concerns. We know that the government has come forward with a National Action Plan on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations and also on human rights. Those are two important documents. Of course we need to look at the implementation. We understand that the National Action Plans have been prepared during this budget year. We will see the extent of the finances that would be allocated for the implementation of the Action Plans in the next budget and the timelines. I should mention that the tri-lingual programme is a laudable effort and we are ready to provide support if required.
Q: Do you feel that the international community could help improve the human rights situation in Sri Lanka? How? A: It is important to underline that we have dialogues on human rights with all partners. We have quite intense dialogues with our member states. No country has a perfect record. What is inescapable is that human rights are a fundamental pillar of our relations. Human rights are a core area of our relations with Sri Lanka and discussions would remain central. We will continue our relations with Sri Lanka like with any other country. In the case of Sri Lanka we stand ready as the EU to support initiatives that seem positive by the Sri Lankan government. The government has the liberty to decide, but the offer is on the table. Human rights are important for national reconciliation. Sri Lanka should have a peaceful evolution to a prosperous state. Human rights and democracy are the building blocks for long-term prosperity.
The country can move towards being a higher middle income country and even further. In order to do that, human rights, democracy and reconciliation are the necessary conditions.
Q: How do you see Sri Lanka progressing in future on the human rights front? A: Our heartfelt aspiration is for Sri Lanka to move away from conflicts of the past. Apart from the war in the North, Sri Lanka had rebellions in the South as well. All these had an impact on the country’s economic development. This is a unique opportunity for the country. The country does not have an armed conflict for the first time in 30 years. It is time for the country to lay the foundation for a prosperous future. Sri Lanka is a country with enormous potential. There is no reason why Sri Lanka should not be a prosperous country with a thriving economy.
Q: How do you see the evolution of a political settlement in Sri Lanka? A: It is not for us to define or outline the context of any political solution. The assent of all communities in Sri Lanka is a must. It is a pre-requisite for everyone to feel a part of the country. We do not have any formula for it. Whatever the process, all parties must feel they have an equal status and voice in the future of Sri Lanka. (The Sunday Leader)