REMARKS OF H.E. DEVINDA R. SUBASINGHE,
AMBASSADOR OF SRI LANKA TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
TO THE UNITED NATIONS ASSOCIATION OF THE NATIONAL CAPITAL AREA,
APRIL 22, 2004
Today we are assailed with constant images of the global war
on terrorism. For Sri Lanka this is a reminder of the type of
violence, death and destruction that had been Sri Lanka’s
experience for over 20 years. To put it into perspective, this
protracted and tragic ethnic conflict has taken the lives of over
64, 000 Sri Lankans and displaced more then 1.5 million from their
homes. Sri Lanka society has also been victim to more instances
of Suicide bombings than in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
However, two years ago, the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and
the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE) signed a Ceasefire
Agreement. This has brought about a peace and a stability to Sri
Lanka that has not been present for a generation. We are now on
the long and challenging task of negotiating a peace settlement
that addresses the root causes of this conflict. This is not the
first attempt at making peace but thus far, it has been the most
hopeful and concrete. This is greatly due to the consistently
expressed popular mandate for peace within the country and due
to the vital assistance from the international community, most
notably the institutions of the United Nations and the Government
of the United States of America.
Sri Lanka has been a member of the United Nations since 1955
and shares in its universal values of Human Rights and Democracy.
In fact, the United Nations Association of Sri Lanka was founded
5 years before we became members of the U.N. Membership in the
U.N. had been the ambition of Sri Lanka as a symbol of the nation’s
new independent status. However, Sri Lanka was caught in the Cold
War politics of the time and given these compulsions our ascension
was blocked by the former Soviet Union. The reason for the delay
was that at the time, the Soviet Union viewed Sri Lanka as too
close to its former colonial power Great Britain and the West.
Sri Lanka finally gained membership in the U.N. when a deal was
reached allowing for a balance of “pro-Western” and
“pro-Soviet” nations to enter the UN.
From the beginning of its membership, Sri Lanka’s leaders
across both parties envisioned us as a “Neutral Switzerland
of the East”. Every Government in Sri Lanka adhered to this
principle at the time. An example of this policy at play was during
Sri Lanka’s brief term on the Security Council in 1961.
This was Sri Lanka’s attempt to stay neutral while still
playing a role in world affairs. While on the Council, Sri Lanka
helped mediate between the major powers during the Congo Crisis.
We also played a role towards effecting a settlement between Turkey
and Greece over Cyprus and, after leaving the Council, in easing
the crisis between Malaysia and Indonesia in 1963.
The policy of neutrality manifested itself more fully when Sri
Lanka became a founding member of the Non- Aligned Movement (NAM),
in 1961. Sri Lanka assumed Chairmanship of the NAM from 1976-79.
Membership in the NAM meant that Sri Lanka would not seek to be
a member of the Security Council. For a country dependant on foreign
aid, Non- Alignment during the Cold War proved to be a delicate
endeavour and a heroic one. However, from 1964-1974 Sri Lanka
received an almost equal amount of foreign aid from both the Western
and Eastern Blocs. This tested the parameters of how much of neutrality
Sri Lanka could maintain. In the early 1960’s and 1970’s,
the then incumbent Governments moved from socialist agendas to
those that were more pro-market oriented. In the Post-Cold War
period, successive Governments have integrated Sri Lanka more
with the international community and with the process of globalization
consistent with the country’s democratic traditions and
its economic policies. More often than not, Sri Lanka’s
active involvement at the United Nations was superseded by more
pressing events in the domestic sphere. As the 1980s began, Sri
Lanka began to confront a violent and long conflict which further
distracted the political establishments from pursuing an active
role in the U.N.
In the beginning of this new Millennium, the U.N. has played
an active role in the Peace Process. Secretary General Kofi Annan
has pledged his support and approval of the Norwegian role as
facilitator between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the
Liberation Tamil Tigers of Elam (LTTE). This support also includes
various UN Agencies that are on the ground, enhancing the quality
of lives of our people. Currently, UN agencies are operating on
a long term basis in some of the most war ravaged areas of Sri
Lanka including in the LTTE controlled areas.
Most notable of these agencies are the United Nations Children’s
Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
Both organizations have taken on the daily challenges of rehabilitation
and reconstruction. Most recently, UNICEF has facilitated the
release of 209 child soldiers who were forcibly conscripted by
the LTTE. The lives of most child soldiers are confined to a rifle
and a cyanide capsule around their necks. The United Nations Children’s
Fund operates a center in the North West that provides rehabilitation
services to the child soldiers reunited with their families. It
is estimated that there are some 2,000-child soldiers still amongst
the LTTE. UNICEF has helped over 400 children regain a normal
The Children’s Fund also plays a significant role in educating
returning refugees and internally displaced persons about the
dangers of land mines. This includes printing 200,000 mine awareness
posters, brochures, leaflets, and distributing 100,000 mine prevention
school books. This type of education has helped prevent deaths
and injury from these silent killers.
The United Nations Development Program is helping to create the
crucial links between peace and tangible economic development.
This includes coordinating the Needs Assessment
which was the crucial estimate for reconstruction and rehabilitation.
The amount totaled $4.5 billion over the next 3 years and was
agreed to at the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development
of Sri Lanka in June of 2003. The UNDP will also continue
to implement projects in conflict affected areas through its Transition
Program. This program is guided by the priorities of
the Needs Assessment and overall goals of the Government of Sri
Lanka in reconstructing and rehabilitating the North, East, and
Southern regions. The program will focus on key areas that include
economic recovery, capacity building/training, support planning
at the local level whilst also promoting peace and reconciliation.
The UNDP maintains excellent rapport with the local communities
and their activities aim to alleviate pressing and immediate needs
of conflict affected people. An example of this is the Jaffna
Disability Assistance Project, which provides comprehensive livelihood
support including vocational training, business training, and
microfinance for people with disabilities caused by malnutrition,
landmine injury, or disease.
The Government of Sri Lanka is also working closely with the
United Nations High Commission for Refuges (UNHCR) to help refugees
and internally displaced persons to return to their homes. Last
year their offices assisted in a similar Needs Assessment for
refuges returning to post- conflict areas. Since the signing of
the cease-fire, 375,000 people have returned home.
Our relationship with the U.N. is not solely confined to rehabilitation
and reconstruction efforts. Sri Lanka is an excellent example
of how developing nations can still progress while protecting
its natural heritage. We derive a great deal of pride from and
wealth from our rich natural and historical splendour. This includes
a UNESCO World Heritage site at Polonnaruwa which has some of
the world’s largest and oldest statues of the Buddha. Protection
of the environment is enshrined in our Constitution and Sri Lanka
has also ratified 21 United Nations environmental conventions
and treaties including: The Bio Diversity Convention, Kyoto Protocol
on Climate Change, and Basel Conventions.
In 1997 Sri Lanka was elected as a member of ECOSOC and the U.N.
Commission on Human Rights. During that same year we were Vice
Chair of the UN Ad Hoc Committee on Terrorism, playing an important
role in drafting the Convention on the Suppression of Terrorist
Bombings. Sri Lanka is also a signatory to 11 of the 12 international
Conventions on combating terrorism.
The other important relationship I came here today to discuss
is the one between Sri Lanka and the United States. Informal relations
with America dates back to the 1790’s when New England sailors
stopped at our Ports in the southern city of Galle. Since then
Sri Lanka has been host to a wide variety of Americans including
fortune seekers, missionaries, anthropologists and even the famous
novelist Mark Twain. This period also marked the beginnings of
a trade relationship which included trade in tea, rubber, graphite
and spices in exchange for imports such as ice. Following independence,
in 1948, an American Embassy was set up in Colombo to formalize
diplomatic relations and to further develop these friendly links
between the two countries that share the same values of democracy
and market principles. During the Cold War our diplomatic ties
where constant but the level of engagement varied greatly on both
One of the low points in the relationship occurred in the early
1950’s. Sri Lanka has the dubious distinction of being the
only country to have been sanctioned under the Battle Act, also
known as the “Trading with the Enemy Act”. This occurred
after trade talks with the United States over rice for rubber
broke down. Sri Lanka turned to China and signed the Rubber/Rice
pact at the height of the Korean War. This relationship was once
again strained in the 1960’s when the Petroleum sector was
nationalized and Sri Lanka was sanctioned under the Hickenlopper
Amendment. In both cases the sanctions on trade and foreign assistance
where lifted fairly quickly. Although it did strain the relationship,
the U.S. was still supportive of Sri Lanka’s membership
in the U.N. and, Sri Lanka never took a hostile stance towards
the United States.
The policy of neutrality translated into a limited growth of
the US-Sri Lanka relationship. An example of this was with regard
to Defense cooperation. The use of Sri Lanka's Ports in the East
and its air fields proved very attractive strategic points for
the United States. On an Ad hoc basis, the US Navy would stop
in Sri Lankan Ports and the U.S. Air Force was allowed to stop
and refuel in Sri Lanka while transporting French troops to Indo-
China during the 1950’s. However, the Defense relationship
was never cultivated on a long term basis.
During the late 1970s, Sri Lanka embarked on a course of economic
reforms towards establishing an open market economy. Sri Lanka
was the pioneer in free market economic reforms in the South Asian
region, offering the most liberal business environment in the
region since 1977.This was a full 12 years before any other South
Asian nation envisaged such measures. The government at the time
was also looking for closer ties with the United States. In 1984,
President J.R. Jayawardene made a State visit to the White House.
The visit, by itself was a success and President Jayawardene and
President Regan had established good rapport and converged on
views regarding many issues such as economic reform and trade
liberalization. President Jayawardene, in a gesture of good will
and friendship, also gifted a baby elephant to the Washington
DC Woodley National Zoo.
However, Sri Lanka was caught in the Cold War political dynamics
of the Washington /New Delhi relationship. Sri Lanka, therefore,
did not come into sharper US focus, even as Sri Lanka experienced
two violent insurgencies and its democratic polity became increasingly
under strain. At the time, US foreign policy was mainly focused
on the Middle East, Europe and Central America. The roots of our
conflict were very localized in ethnic politics and were not tied
to the Cold War issues of the time. The U.S. also did not wish
to heavily engage itself by providing military support, to avoid
being dragged into a war that did not pose immediate threats to
its national security interests. The growing internal conflict
stifled economic growth and destabilized the country. Sri Lanka
became more isolated in its greatest hour of need. India invariably
was left the only major nation to intervene in this conflict.
The Indian Government sent the Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri
Lanka from 1987-1990.
In the early 1990's, the amount of US aid to Sri Lanka decreased
as other countries such as the Philippines, Columbia and the Middle
East took greater priority in the post- Cold War era. During this
time, President Premadasa of Sri Lanka was keen to revive and
improve relations with the West. This was manifest in offering
the Coalition Forces access to Sri Lanka as a refueling point
during the First Gulf War. The South Asian region remained a low
priority for the US even after the assassinations of Indian Prime
Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Premadasa. However,
US South Asia policy began to change in the mid -1990’s
due to the tensions between India and Pakistan. The United States
began to focus greater attention on the South Asian region including
The turning point in US policy towards South Asia occurred following
the tragic events of September 11th. Earlier that same year in
June of 2001 Sri Lanka had suffered its last major terrorist attack
– the attack on the Bandaranaike International Airport.
An LTTE team destroyed six jumbo jet airliners on the ground at
the International Airport. The impact of the attack on the economy
was very severe indeed and tourist arrivals plummeted significantly.
In the “Post 9-11” world, the US found greater empathy
with countries fighting protracted conflicts such as Sri Lanka.
The subsequent, Global War on Terrorism and imposition of stringent
restrictions on funding from Tamil expatriates in the US and the
West brought pressure on the LTTE leadership to move towards the
negotiating table. Equally important, a new Sri Lankan Government
was willing to negotiate a ceasefire. The Sri Lankan Government
felt strengthened by a new and dynamic relationship between the
United States and India which led to a closer relationship between
the United States and Sri Lanka.
I am pleased to say that our relationship with the United States
has never been stronger. During my Credentials ceremony last February
with President Bush, he said, “Your country is going
to be challenged as it goes forward…you should let your
leadership know that we the United States stands behind you”.
These words have translated into tangible action on the part of
the US. The US has invested politically, diplomatically and financially
in the Sri Lanka relationship. The President designated Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage as the lead official on Sri
Lanka within the Bush Administration. The US also has agreed to
serve as one of the Donor Co-Chairs and has been in the forefront
of mobilizing the support of the international community for the
peace process and economic development of the country. The US
has pledged over $54 million over the next two years as a part
of the donor funds for reconstruction, that were agreed upon in
Tokyo last year. This is a substantial increase in assistance;
in comparison Sri Lanka received only $3 million in 1997. The
US has also kept the pressure on the LTTE by re-designating them
on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (one of the many
reasons for this renewal, was the continual recruitment of Child
Soldiers). This approach has helped push the LTTE to resolve issues
politically and sent a clear signal that change must be made in
word and deed. The US is also committed to a solution of the conflict
that maintains the sovereignty and national integrity of a unified
The US continues to be our biggest trading partner and over the
last 20 years it has been Sri Lanka’s largest export market.
Last year alone, close to $1.9 billion worth of goods were exported
to the U.S. accounting for 41% of Sri Lanka’s exports. This
includes textiles and apparel which make up 78% of exports and
other major products include: rubber, ceramics, gems, and tea.
There has been a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA)
signed in July of 2002 that will expand economic relations between
our two nations and further accelerate economic reforms in Sri
Lanka. Along with the TIFA, we have signed an Avoidance of Double
Taxation and Open Skies agreements. These are the first steps
towards deepening our very important trade relationship.
The Defense relationship between the two countries has also been
strengthened. A sign of this is the addition of a Defence Attaché
to the staff of the Embassy here in Washington. In June of this
year, our Navy will take possession of a United States Cost Guard
Cutter. There are now regular visits and exchanges with the Sri
Lanka Armed Forces and the U.S. Pacific Command. Also, Sri Lanka
has adopted the Container Security Initiative to protect our ports
from becoming transit points for terrorist activity.
The US State Department along with NGOs and civil society has
been helping Sri Lanka in Humanitarian De-Mining activities. Today
it is estimated that Sri Lanka has around 1.5 Million landmines
in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Since 1995, around 4,000
Sri Lanka’s have fallen victim to landmines. The presence
of these severely restricts economic development and hampers the
daily lives of people in these areas. The Marshall Legacy Institute
helped Sri Lanka raise funds to send 6 mine detection dogs to
clear areas of the North and East. This was done in an extraordinarily
short period of time. The funds for these dogs were raised by
civil society and private companies who have invested in Sri Lanka
and the remaining were matched by the US State Department.
In conclusion, Sri Lankan makes an interesting case for how the
international community working in concert could help lift a Nation
from the ravages of conflict. Each partner in peace brings different
strengths and unique abilities to this process. In the end, we
can only look to ourselves to save Sri Lanka from future conflict.
However, support from both the UN and the US will be vital in
moving forward towards peace and prosperity.