In an exclusive interview, UN Chief Ban Ki Moon talks to Thalif Deen at the United Nations, ahead of his visit to Sri Lanka on Wednesday
NEW YORK—UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will be on an official three-day visit beginning Wednesday, singled out the “ tremendous progress” made by Sri Lanka in overcoming development challenges, including in the health and development sectors. “Successive Governments have promoted strong growth policies that have reduced poverty and increased living standards throughout the country,” he noted. In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Times, Ban spoke of the peaks and valleys in the UN’s politically-fluctuating relationship with Sri Lanka, while at the same time, lamenting the slow movement towards implementing “transitional justice and reconciliation.”
Speaking on the eve of his departure to Colombo, the Secretary-General said it is important for Sri Lankan society and the country’s future to finally undertake a credible and impartial investigation into past human rights abuses, uncover the truth and hold perpetrators of the vicious crimes accountable.Asked if the UN would go along with President Sirisena’s insistence that investigations into charges against the country’s armed forces will not involve the participation of foreign judges or jurists, he was diplomatically non-committal. “Sri Lankans are currently engaged in an important debate on the design of the transitional justice mechanisms, including the judicial components, and I do not want to pre-judge those outcomes,” he declared.
Still, “victims and affected communities believe that international participation can ensure a credible process that will finally deliver justice,” said Ban who will step down as Secretary-General when his two-term, 10-year tenure ends December 31. There is widespread rumour – which he has neither confirmed nor denied — that he plans to run for the presidency of South Korea, a country with whom Sri Lanka bartered its Asian Group endorsement for a rotating non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council back in 1995, in return for increased aid, investments and jobs. As a result, South Korea was elected unopposed for a Security Council seat for 1996-1997 facilitated by Sri Lanka’s voluntary withdrawal.
Excerpts from the interview:
Since your days as Foreign Minister of South Korea, you always claimed to be a friend of Sri Lanka. Still, Sri Lankans complain that you uniquely appointed a panel to advise you on the applicable law on human rights violations in the last stages of Sri Lanka’s conflict while you did not appoint any such a panel with regard to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Yemen despite well documented cases of human rights abuses and civilian killings. Is the UN using different yardsticks to measure human rights violations by big powers and smaller nations?
UNSG: The UN’s call for accountability in Sri Lanka is not unique. In fact, accountability for international crimes and gross human rights violations constitutes a central plank of the UN’s human rights agenda. It is a call that we make in all countries in all regions of the world where violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have occurred Accountability in the cases that you mention has been dealt with by the Security Council and, in some cases, through human rights investigations conducted pursuant to a Human Rights Council mandate. I created the “Panel of Experts on accountability in Sri Lanka” in 2010 on the basis of commitments made in my joint statement with former President Rajapaksa in 2009, which underlined the importance of an accountability process. As for myself, I have always been a friend of Sri Lanka and its people, and I will remain so. I am very much looking forward to this visit.
President Sirisena has repeatedly said that any investigations into “war crimes” charges against the country’s armed forces will not involve the participation of foreign judges and jurists — and will essentially be conducted by “national independent judicial mechanisms.”? Is this acceptable to the UN?
UNSG: Sri Lankans are currently engaged in an important debate on the design of the transitional justice mechanisms, including the judicial components, and I do not want to pre-judge those outcomes. Due to the delays in the pursuit of an effective accountability process, ongoing concerns over the independence of judicial and law enforcement institutions in Sri Lanka, and due to the magnitude and complexity of the alleged crimes, victims and affected communities believe that international participation can ensure a credible process that will finally deliver justice. This is why the report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council, as well as the Council’s resolution 30/1, affirmed the importance of international participation, precisely because it would enhance the credibility, independence and impartiality of the process in the eyes of the victims.
I, therefore, hope that the Sri Lankan Government will remain committed to the Human Rights Council resolution and fully implements it. The Human Rights Council resolution presents a comprehensive transitional justice agenda, which, aside from a judicial mechanism, also includes truth-seeking, reparations, and non-recurrence dimensions. It is important to recognise the broad-based nature of the Council’s resolution, and I hope that the discussion regarding international participation will not overshadow a larger debate that must include the other critical elements The UN remains ready to support the Government’s efforts in establishing an accountability mechanism that suits the needs of Sri Lankan society at large and meets international standards.
Has there been any significant or dramatic changes in your relationship with Sri Lanka after President Sirisena took office in January 2015 compared to your on-again, off-again rocky relationship with the previous government of President Rajapaksa?
UNSG: During my last visit to Sri Lanka in 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the conflict, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and I met to discuss the post-conflict challenges, such as the tragic humanitarian situation, resettlement needs and the recovery of the conflict affected areas. In our Joint Statement at the time, we also agreed to work towards a lasting political solution to achieve a durable peace, including through socio-economic development, the implementation of the 13th Amendment and dialogue with all the parties. The Joint Statement also underlined the importance of an accountability process to address the violations of international humanitarian and human rights law with a view of achieving reconciliation. Sri Lanka has made significant progress with regard to restoring and redeveloping war torn areas, and the Northern and Eastern Provinces have witnessed rapid economic development.
What has been the ongoing relationship between the UN and Sri Lanka?
UNSG: Over the years, the Government and the UN have worked in close partnership to resettle hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, and we continue to do so. In this regard, the recent adoption of a national policy on durable solutions for conflict-affected displacement demonstrates the current Government’s continued commitment to further support and reduce the remaining IDPs. Despite this, efforts to address ongoing grievances, including the continued militarisation of civilian life, the replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the implementation of a comprehensive transitional justice agenda that encompasses truth-seeking, reparations, accountability and institutional reforms, as well as a political settlement, have yet to fully materialise. I am, therefore, encouraged to see that the current Government led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has taken tentative steps to resolve many of these outstanding issues. I am hopeful that the Government will continue on this path and accelerate the implementation of proposed reforms.
As part of a policy of long-term stability following its 26-year long civil war with Tamil separatists, Sri Lanka has announced four “reconciliation mechanisms”, including an Office of Missing Persons (OMP), a Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence Commission, a Judicial Mechanism and an Office of Reparations. Is post-war Sri Lanka moving in the right direction? What can the UN offer to strengthen the new government’s moves towards reconciliation, accountability and economic recovery?
UNSG: The current Government has set Sri Lanka on a very positive trajectory, as evidenced by its commitments to implement a comprehensive and broad-based transitional justice agenda and dedicated efforts to promote harmonious relations among the communities. Aside from the national consultations and the establishment of the OMP, the Government has worked to develop an institutional framework to implement this complex agenda through the establishment of the Office on National Unity and Reconciliation and the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, both of which receive support from the UN. This institutional framework should contribute to a smooth, efficient and coordinated approach to transitional justice and reconciliation initiatives.
It will be important for the Government to further develop and adopt an overarching strategy to roll out the transitional justice mechanisms and undertake a concerted information campaign to inform the Sri Lankan public and garner broad-based support. I have made available financial resources under the Peacebuilding Fund and committed technical expertise to support these processes. I am hopeful that the UN’s support, combined with bilateral assistance from the international community, will enable the Government to implement transitional justice and reconciliation. I would like to underline that these processes are fully owned and led by the unity Government. The UN’s support is catalytic in nature, serves to complement the Government’s own efforts and provides assistance where the Government senses it could benefit from our expertise. I am hopeful that the UN’s support will galvanize the international community to make additional financial commitments in support of the Government.
It is important to emphasize the Government’s broader reform agenda, which aims to promote good governance, strengthen democratic values, restore the rule of law, and combat corruption and abuse of power. The adoption of the 19th Amendment, the restoration of the Constitutional Council, the strengthening of the independence of the Human Rights Commission and the passage of a Right to Information Act will improve transparency and provide the people of Sri Lanka with important avenues to hold their Government institutions to account. Constitutional reform will hopefully address many of the existing grievances among all Sri Lankans, including minority communities, and help deliver a long overdue political settlement. The Government’s embrace of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will further mobilise efforts to promote an inclusive, peaceful and just society, and the UN remains ready to support.
Whenever you make an official visit to a member state, you single out some of its major successes and key contributions the country has made to the United Nations. How would you characterize some of Sri Lanka’s achievements over its 60 years existence at the UN?
UNSG: Over the last 60 years, Sri Lanka has made tremendous contributions to the UN system. Many Sri Lankans have worked with great dedication and passion for the Organisation and we have had numerous high level Sri Lankan officials, including Under Secretaries-General. Most recently, Sri Lanka has supported landmark agreements such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Sri Lankan soldiers, police officers and civilians have furthermore served with distinction in hazardous peacekeeping operations and contributed to peace and security across the globe.
Sri Lanka has made tremendous progress in overcoming development challenges, including in the health and education sectors. Successive Governments have promoted strong growth policies that have reduced poverty and increased living standards throughout the country. We cannot ignore, however, the decades-long conflict and instability that caused so much pain, grief and tragedy among the many communities in Sri Lanka, and was a period marked by gross violations of human rights perpetrated by all sides.
And, on the flip side, what are its shortcomings?
UNSG: Although the conflict ended in 2009, Sri Lanka has yet to come to terms with its past: as the many victims’ families remain uncertain about the fate of their loves ones. They seek the truth, they seek support and they seek justice. And there are many other victims. Those that were forcibly conscripted, including children who were deprived of a carefree youth, a quality education and dreams to aspire to; men and women who were sexually abused and raped; families whose sons and daughters were sent to die in combat or returned with permanent injuries and disabilities. It is important for Sri Lankan society and the country’s future to finally undertake a credible and impartial investigation into past human rights abuses, uncover the truth and hold perpetrators of the vicious crimes accountable.
This is not only an obligation to the victims and their families, but it would also signal that the country is ready to overcome past grievances and move towards greater harmony between the communities so that it will never happen again. The unity Government took an important step when it presented its plans to establish a range of transitional justice mechanisms, including on truth-seeking, accountability, reparations, and non-recurrence and decided to co-sponsor the Human Rights Council resolution in October 2015. The Government has since proceeded by facilitating national consultations on the design of such mechanisms, as well as by establishing the Office of Missing Persons. I am hopeful that the Government will continue to make progress and take concrete steps to establish the full range of transitional justice mechanisms. I would like to reiterate the UN’s commitment and unwavering support to these processes.
Do you plan to visit the war-affected Northern Province to see the extent of progress made in post-conflict rebuilding and rehabilitation. And do you plan to meet with representatives of Tamils and Muslims, the latter coming under attacks by right wing religious groups under the former administration?
UNSG: Yes, I plan to travel to the South and the North of the Island and to meet with civil society representatives of both communities, including youth. I look forward to discussing with them how the United Nations can best support Sri Lanka on the path to sustainable development and lasting peace.