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.

UN/Sri Lanka

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 life.

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.

US/Sri Lanka:

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 sides.

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 Sri Lanka.

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 Sri Lanka.

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.

Thank You.

 

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