By Namini Wijedasa
How would you characterize EU-Sri Lanka relations at present?
We have broad of areas of cooperation including humanitarian and development assistance. We have in Colombo an office of the humanitarian organization, ECHO. We also have the second largest bilateral programme with Sri Lanka, entirely composed of grants, not loans. The focus of that assistance is essentially in areas with conflict-affected people. For instance, in the Northern Province we will shortly launch a programme of roughly 60 million euros of assistance. We will have built over 20,000 houses in conflict-affected areas. This follows on from our humanitarian support. In the initial stage, we supported those displaced by the conflict when they were in IDP camps but we also focused on the return process through temporary shelter, de-mining and livelihood support. Our development aid programme would come in behind that for more medium to long term assistance, particularly in areas of housing, social infrastructure, livelihoods, and small and medium enterprises. The European Union is Sri Lanka’s largest trade partner and number one market for exports. We have areas of cooperation such as fisheries. We recently signed a civil aviation agreement. We are developing cooperation in education. We are developing research and development cooperation. There are many areas of cooperation with Sri Lanka. Of course, in the political sphere, there are times when our opinions differ.
There was a time when Europe was politically close to Sri Lanka but it doesn’t seem that way now. When did this reversal start?
I think on different issues there can be differences of opinion. I wouldn’t categorize the entire nature of the relationship as up and down. That’s not an easy question to answer. There are differences, obviously, on certain aspects. Those are widely known. But what’s important to understand is that our relationship with Sri Lanka is a long-term relationship. It’s not one that’s dependent on governments or individuals. We have relations with Sri Lanka. You can’t simply slice it at one point in time and say that will necessarily have a negative or positive impact on the long-term relationship we have with Sri Lanka.
What are the differences?
It’s very difficult to list differences. And it’s not particularly constructive to sit down and list areas where there are differences. If we take the most recent manifestation of a difference of views, which would be within the Human Rights Council–we don’t see the resolution that was passed on Friday as being hostile to Sri Lanka. We have reacted to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report and we have acted in a positive manner noting, in particular, where the recommendations are positive. We believe that the implementation of the recommendations go a long way in promoting the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. As our High Representative Catherine Ashton has said, we believe more should be done on the question of accountability. We have been clear on that. We have noted that the LLRC report itself asks for additional investigation. Obviously, choices are made as regards how you spin the approach to certain topics. I can only note with regret that it has been perceived as being hostile. The promoters of that resolution, the United States, have said on a number of occasions that the resolution was not meant to be hostile towards Sri Lanka. That is a view with which we agree and with which the government disagrees.
Do you see a worsening of Europe’s relationship with Sri Lanka as a result of the resolution?
Not from our side. You’d have to ask the Government of Sri Lanka for its views.
Sri Lankans have been rallying around the government these past three weeks, in view of the resolution. There is much anger against the West. If the majority in a country support the actions of their government, what business does the West have to go against that?
We don’t accept the premise of the question, i.e., the West is somehow hostile to Sri Lanka. As regards human rights and other issues, all states that are members of the United Nations commit to international conventions and international agreements on many aspects, not just human rights. These then become commitments to the rest of the international community. It’s the very idea, the genesis, of the United Nations system and multilateralism in general. Therefore, no country can say it’s nobody’s business but ours.
How would you want the government to approach the EU now?
To continue dialogue, that’s the most important thing, and to continue cooperation. On areas where we have agreement, it’s much easier. On areas where we have differences of appreciation of different situations, then we hope that we would pursue dialogue.
Some analysts feel that the passing of the resolution will cause a hardening of the Sri Lankan position; a defiance of greater proportions against what they see as Western meddling. How do you view this?
I think the most important thing is that the reconciliation process starts to bear fruit in Sri Lanka. I don’t think there is a difference in objectives. There are clearly differences in perception and views on a number of issues. But I think all parties agree that the objective for everybody has to be a sustainable, long-term peace which addresses issues and grievances that give rise to the conflict, which deal with the consequences of the conflict and ensures that the conflict doesn’t happen again.
You don’t think the resolution will be counterproductive?
No, otherwise we wouldn’t have taken the positions we did.
Going back a little, the European Commission made helpful recommendations on improving governance in Sri Lanka–in exchange for retaining GSP+ benefits–but these were seen as imposing the European Union’s will on Sri Lanka. Do you think things started to go downhill from that point?
It was perceived in that way by certain parties to the issue–a perception which, I must say, we don’t share. And we can only regret that the outturn of that particular process was a withdrawal of trade preferences. As far as the EU is concerned, we would have preferred to avoid that outcome. And on a number of occasions, above and beyond those that are stipulated in the rules managing that particular trade facility, the EU made an outreach effort to the Government of Sri Lanka which decided not to cooperate in that way. The end result was a withdrawal of GSP+. I think there was a difference of perception as to the nature of what the EU was going to do.
Aren’t relations so bad because Europe is cracking the whip and Sri Lanka is rightfully rejecting such sanctimonious, supercilious preaching?
I don’t think it’s a perception that reflects reality. It’s very difficult to respond to a polemic of that nature because you pose it in a polemical way and I don’t intend to reply in a polemical way. To get involved in polemics doesn’t seem to me to be a constructive way forward.
When Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP government was in power, you had very cordial relations with Sri Lanka. Why is that? Did Europe feel more comfortable with their policy alignments or their political inclinations?
No, neither policy alignments nor political inclinations or tickets are determining factors in dealing with, not only Sri Lanka, but any country throughout the world. We have relations with countries, not with political parties.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected, Europe–particularly European media–considered him to be “hawkish” even before he had a chance to govern. Was this fair?
I wasn’t here at the time so I’m not aware of the respective positions either of European media or, indeed, of individual diplomats that were here at the time. That is a question for historians. That is an adjective I’ve never used. It’s not one that springs to mind when we’re looking at how we actually conduct relations.
Is the EU annoyed that Sri Lanka is shifting away from the West?
You use a word indicative of an emotional state. It is an issue ruled by emotions here. I can say with all frankness that Europe does not conduct its foreign relations on the basis of emotions.
Why doesn’t the EU respect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty?
That’s a question you have to ask from those who are making the allegations. We do not take the view that we don’t respect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. We respect Sri Lanka’s sovereignty in exactly the same way as we do any other country in the world.
The government often says that power is shifting from the West to the East, thereby making Europe less politically relevant than before. Do you agree?
No. I don’t particularly agree with that. I don’t think we are becoming marginalized on the basis of one particular issue in one particular country. I think there are many other issues in the world. Europe doesn’t aim for hegemony but it’s an important player in the world. We are the largest single market, the largest single economy in the world, with a population of over 500 million across 27 countries. I don’t think we are irrelevant.
The government seems willing to let relations with the West deteriorate. They have more confidence in their other allies. Why does Sri Lanka need Europe at all?
We live in an interdependent world as we mentioned earlier. Sri Lanka has close economic ties with Europe. But obviously, if you look at the relative sizes of the economy, Europe is a more important market to Sri Lanka than Sri Lanka is to Europe. All countries need each other. And for some European companies, particularly smaller or medium-sized ones, in a number of our member states, Sri Lanka is an important market. So they need Sri Lanka. All actors in the international stage need each other.
When wars are conducted, especially against brutal terrorist organizations, violations of human rights and humanitarian law occur. The US knows that. Europe knows that. Did the EU expect this war to be conducted without any such violations? Or was the EU against the war per se, even when it was evident that the LTTE did not wish to negotiate and was provoking the government beyond reason?
You’re right. In war, violations occur. We take that as a given, that in all situations there can be violations of international humanitarian law and war crimes. The important thing is that these are investigated. It’s certainly not a question of expecting a conflict to be totally free of violations of rules of war and international humanitarian legislation. I think nobody expects that. However, all countries have committed to investigating the violations in a credible way and bringing the culprits to book. There without prejudging issues… there are issues of accountability, accusations have been made and the European Union’s view is that these need to be further investigated in such a way that justice is not only done but seen to be done.
Do you see calls for accountability ever going away? Will Europe’s attention shift elsewhere if Sri Lanka keeps buying time?
The question of accountability is important, will remain an issue. Recent events have shown that.
Is there funding or appetite for an international war crimes tribunal on Sri Lanka?
That issue, although it’s been mentioned in the press, has never been the subject of any formal initiative. We are not there yet. The question is not on the table.
The government accuses the West of wanting regime change here, such as in Egypt, Libya, now Syria and so on. Is this belief justified?
We can say with all ease and all frankness, clearly, that regime change or overthrowing of governments is not a foreign policy objective of the European Union. In the cases you mentioned, in Libya and Egypt, there were popular uprisings. That is what led to change in the Arab world. That’s a separate subject. I don’t see the parallels. The situation in the Arab world is quite specific. The social movement started in Egypt and spread to other Arab countries. It’s a phenomenon of the Arab world. It’s not a parallel we draw. And I don’t see objectively any direct parallels with Sri Lanka or, indeed, any reason to assume that conditions in the Arab world in 2011 have any direct relevance to Sri Lanka.
What is the West’s problem with Sri Lanka?
We have relations throughout the world. And every country perhaps sees itself as the centre of the world. But we try to apply our foreign policy consistently. It’s not picking on any individual. Although I’m sure many people would disagree, we do have a principled basis of conducting our foreign policy. At the heart of it are core UN conventions, human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of media. When we feel there are threats to these, we make those views known. Our attitude is not specific to Sri Lanka. We have relations throughout the world and we discuss areas of mutual concern with all those countries.