by Prof. G.L.Peiris
(Keynote Address delivered by External Affairs Minister Professor G L Peiris, at the symposium organized jointly by the Centre for Security Analysis, Chennai and the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Sri Lanka in Colombo on October 26, 2010)
I am very happy to associate myself with your discussion of a topic which I believe to be particularly relevant and important at this time. I recall with pleasure, my visits to Chennai and New Delhi at the invitation of the Centre for Security Analysis. This was a couple of years ago and I am glad that the Centre has collaborated with the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies to organize this exceedingly opportune and productive discussion.
What strikes me immediately, as General Raghavan stated in his remarks is that you are putting the focus this time on consequences rather than causes. I think that is very desirable. There has already been copious discussion about causes, about origins, about the trajectory of evolution and in order to complete the analysis, I think it is very fitting that we should now, in a forum such as this, address our minds to the consequences, internal and external, of conflicts of this nature.
I think the world has given inadequate recognition to what Sri Lanka has been able to achieve in terms of controlling negative consequences. The conflict was with a terrorist organization which was described by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States as the most feared and ruthless terrorist organization in the world.
The conflict spans the greater part of three decades, in various forms. And yet, when the conflict came to an end, a small country, with very limited resources, was able to handle an extremely complex situation in such a way as to contain and control the fallout of the conflict within the island as well as on the world at large.
I would like to give you some concrete illustrations of this. It has often been the empirical experience of nations that, when a conflict of this kind comes to an end, there is considerable instability in the region arising from a variety of causes, not least of which is the proliferation of small arms. It was particularly the case in the aftermath of the conflict in Cambodia, for example. It was a very serious problem.
It took years to come to grips with it. In the meantime, there was turbulence of very considerable magnitude within an extensive geographical region, with the proliferation of weapons, lawlessness, guns and ammunition. This did not happen at the end of the conflict here. Neither within Sri Lanka nor in neighbouring countries has that phenomenon manifested itself.
That was not fortuitous. It did not happen coincidentally. It happened because of perceptive and properly structured policies which had been formulated and implemented. I will have something to say about these polices later on and about the manner in which we dealt with the rehabilitation of persons who were directly affected by the conflict, the ability of the Sri Lankan Government, within a matter of 15 months, to reduce the numbers of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from 297,000 to about 18,000, of whom about 11, 000 are moving in and out, they are visiting their friends and relatives and coming back to the camps where basic facilities are provided.
There is also the way we dealt with ex-combatants. We began with a number of about 11,700 and now about 5,700 are being rehabilitated vigorously. They are being prepared for reintegration into the community and it is only a hardcore, about 1,400 who are being held, with a view to the institution of criminal proceedings against those among them who have been involved in serious criminal activities.
There was, as well, a whole cluster of initiatives connected with the resuscitation of the economy of those parts of the country that have been ravaged by the conflict. Enormous effort went into it, as well as the commitment of very substantial resources. Sri Lankan Government acknowledges with appreciation the support we received from foreign Governments, particularly the Indian Government.
On our recent visit to New Delhi, we had detailed discussions on these matters, especially the meeting with Sri Chithambaram, where we discussed in great detail, the logistics of this, the 50,000 houses for internally displaced persons being constructed at a cost of approximately 250 million US Dollars, the cost being borne by the Indian Government. We have worked these things out in great detail. One thousand houses are to be immediately constructed on State land, 32,000 houses are being constructed by the owners with the wherewithal to be provided.
Provincial Council elections
And 17,000 houses are to be repaired, they are capable of being repaired, so that is being undertaken. All this is being undertaken with great vigour and enthusiasm. We also have the focus on elections being held in the Eastern Province at the grass roots levels, elections could not be held for a long period, we began the process there, we graduated to the holding of Provincial Council elections in the Eastern Province, in the Northern Province we have already held elections to two Local Government institutions in Jaffna and Vavuniya.
We propose to hold elections to the other local government bodies in the North and then, as we did successfully in the East, in due course, sooner rather than later, to hold the Provincial Council elections in the Northern Province.
It is a multi-faceted strategy, beginning with the identification of priorities, undoubtedly the humanitarian considerations revolving around the people who have been displaced and then ensuring that these efforts are reinforced by the economic and political initiatives that would complete the strategy that is being embarked upon by the Sri Lankan Government.
Another familiar consequence of conflicts of this nature is the high degree of collaboration among insurgent groups in the region. It has been a matter of practical experience that they do not operate in isolation. There are links and synergies. They work together, there is exchange of information, money laundering, movement of weapons, movement of people, particularly training and other issues of that kind.
South Asian region
We have seen to it that did not happen. If you take the Waziristan area in Pakistan, the Swat Valley, the Northeastern region of India, the current situation in Nepal, there is clear evidence of collaboration among insurgent groups. But this has not happened. When I was asked in New Delhi a few days ago, about the suggestion that was made soon after the Pune bakery blast whether any of these persons had been trained in Sri Lanka, I was able to state categorically, that there is no evidence whatsoever of this.
The allegation was taken seriously, it was investigated by the Sri Lankan Government and we came to the conclusion that there is no reason to believe that this has happened. Again we have contained the consequences. We have ensured that they did not spill over and there was no collaboration among insurgent groups within the South Asian region.
Take the whole question of refugees. You are talking about the consequences of conflicts of this nature. One of the most prominent consequences would be problems connected with refugees. In that area, we have been actually commended by Foreign Governments for the steps we have taken to prevent that problem from escalating and assuming serious proportions.
About four months ago, when I attended the Shangri - La deliberations in Singapore, on the sidelines of that conference, I had a very fruitful meeting with the then Australian Defence Minister, Senator John Faulkner, who thanked the Sri Lankan Government profusely for action which we had taken that resulted in their own problem, with regard to the influx of refugees into Australian territory, being substantially mitigated.
The Government of Australia was appreciative of action taken by the Sri Lankan Government to extenuate the problems that Australia would have had to deal with on Christmas Island and elsewhere, with regard to refugees.
When I accompanied President Mahinda Rajapaksa to New York for the General Assembly sessions, on the sidelines of that, I had a meeting with the Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon.
I discussed with him the manner in which we had handled this with the Australians and told him that the Australian Government, in recognition of the very useful action being taken by Sri Lanka, made a policy decision to suspend the processing of applications for refugee status from Sri Lanka for a period of one year.
They have reason to be satisfied that there is nothing happening in the country which people need to run away from and this was supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees who said that there is absolutely no evidence of systemic discrimination against a group of people in Sri Lanka and there was no reason for people to flee the country, claiming that they feared for their lives or their safety.
That is why I stated to a leading Canadian Newspaper The Toronto Star that these people are really economic refugees, they were going to improve their lot in life, we don’t have any quarrel with that, but we object to a fictitious basis being constructed for these ambitions. The international community clearly recognized at that time, as was explicitly articulated by the Australian Government, that there was no refugee problem here.
Another consequence has to do with the security of sea lanes. We are familiar with rather serious problems in that regard in various part of the world. But as far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, we have done everything we possibly can and those attempts have been attended by considerable success and the resulting position is that there are no serious problems with regard to security of the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean.
About seven weeks ago we had some very useful discussions in the Southern port of Galle, it was called the Galle Dialogue, and we had high-level representatives of more than 23 Navies from around the world participating in that Dialogue.
The Commander of the Indian Navy Nirmal Varma, visited us just before that and spent almost a week in Sri Lanka. There is very active collaboration in this field between India and Sri Lanka.
Matters connected with the safety of sea lanes, piracy, gun running, trafficking, we have dealt with all these issues in a systematic way and the results are there for all the world to see.
In all these areas, whether you are talking of proliferation of small arms, collaboration among insurgent groups in the region, influx of refugees into other countries which create serious problems there, we have dealt with all these issues in a constructive way. If there were a large numbers of refugees going into Tamil Nadu Gen Raghavan spoke of the importance of Tamil Nadu in the overall political equation in Delhi, this would obviously cause serious problems. That has been very effectively addressed.
All these are matters in respect of which, I think, there has been inadequate acknowledgment of the quality and the magnitude of the Sri Lankan achievement. It was not just a question of achieving a military victory against a very dangerous insurgent group, difficult as it was, and contrary to the expectations of almost the whole world, but winning the peace, as Gen Raghavan pointed out, is just as daunting as the challenge of winning a war and the post conflict phase has to be handled with finesse and sensitivity in order to prevent the exacerbation of the problems I have briefly outlined to you.
However, in the overall setting of consequences emanating from a conflict of this nature, we need to be perennially conscious of potential danger. Let us not forget that, although the military action is over and there is no likelihood whatsoever of the LTTE having the strength to re-arm and re-group and preparing for hostilities of an armed nature, nevertheless an insurgent group like that, even after the active conflict has come to an end, continues to have certain assets.
In this case, there are two major assets. One is very large financial resources which they have accumulated over almost a quarter of a century.
The other is the highly sophisticated communications network which they have built up and consolidated.
If you survey some of the developments now taking place in North America and Western Europe, you will see that it would be very unreal to regard all issues connected with this conflict as completely at an end. Certainly, the military action is over. It is not going to raise its ugly head again. But there are other ramifications that call for active attention and appropriate action.
Take, for example, the matters connected with the so-called Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE). In that connection purported elections were held in different parts of the world. The Canadian constituency, as it was called, for example, was supposed to have elected 25 persons. There is a person actively associated with the LTTE who claims to have been elected to the position of Prime Minister in the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam.
It has gone as far as that, although of course no Government has recognized it and when I discussed this matter with the Canadian Foreign Minister, the Lawrence Cannon, he said not only do we not recognize it, we are doing everything consistent with the laws of Canada to deal with it. That is on that side of the Atlantic.
In the United Kingdom there is the Tamil Global Forum which is equally active. These are organizations that are putting constant pressure on politicians, their aides and getting involved in electoral politics to make themselves useful to the powers that be.
Even more visible than the wings of these movements, in North America and in the United Kingdom, is the activity that has been undertaken by some groups in Norway.
An illustration of some of these problems is provided by the arrival of the ship, the ‘Ocean Lady’ in Canada. That was the situation where about 87 people were on board this vessel when the ship reached Canada.
Among the 87 were persons against whom very serious charges including murder were proffered and they are wanted in this country.
The time has come to take a fresh look at the orthodox conceptions and assumptions of international law. In principle, when a group of people arrive on the shores of a country claiming refugee status, the receiving country is discouraged from having contact of any kind with the government of the country from which the voyage of the refugees originated. The application of this principle to the Canadian situation brought about immensely unsatisfactory consequences. The upshot of it all was that all of these people have the potential of being released into Canadian society. What is the consequence of that? If this were to happen, there will inevitably be considerable social disorder in that community.
Many of these people will find themselves on the dole. They would be supported by the taxpayers of these countries. They would generally have no fixed abode, no fixed employment and the natural and inevitable consequence of that situation would be proliferation of crime. That, of course, is accompanied by other equally distressing developments, to do with gun running, narcotics, people smuggling, fraud connected with passports and visas, all of which would be the natural result of a situation of that kind. These are matters which the international community needs to be conscious of.
There is certainly at least a moral obligation devolving on them to respond appropriately in order to contain consequences of that nature which emanate from conflict at the stage when the conflict itself has physically come to an end.
I spoke of the need to take a fresh look at the principles of international law governing the reception of refugees, but I think the problem is broader and deeper. It is my view that the traditional corpus of international law does not work and does not adequately serve the international community at this time.
I read the speech by Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, two days ago, where he made some very relevant remarks on the subject of the role of force in defence strategy. The Prime Minister of India implied that today insurgents and terrorists are able to derive a very considerable advantage from the manner in which International Law is structured and he said we must make it very clear that we have the resolve to combat terror and we have the means at our disposal to accomplish that object. There must be no equivocality or ambiguity on that point at all. This must be a message that must go out loud and clear to insurgents wherever they may be active, in any part of the world.
The backdrop to this is something that we need to reflect upon. The principles of International Law were developed in a particular context. That is true with regard to the formulation of legal principles in any field. The orthodox setting in which these principles received expression and were subsequently refined and developed was in the context of conflict between and among sovereign states.
Today the problem has a totally different dimension. Today the most dangerous conflicts in South Asia are not conflicts between or among states but situations where the legitimate authority of the established state is being challenged and jeopardized by insurgency. That is the familiar pattern.
The most striking characteristic of that situation is asymmetry. There is no reciprocity or uniformity. There is a sovereign state and in opposition to it, an insurgent group.
The insurgent group is at a decisive advantage. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom made a very perceptive remark soon after her life was attempted. I am referring to the Brighton bombing. Thatcher was able to save her life only by a whisker. The bomb exploded five minutes after she left the room where it had been placed. She reacted the next morning when she addressed the media. She said, we must remember what a decisive advantage the terrorist has against the lawful Government and her words were, the terrorist chooses the time, the place and the opportunity.
How do you protect every temple, church, bus halt, railway station in the whole country; it is they and they alone who know where the next bomb is going to go off. The response of the IRA to Margaret Thatcher was even more interesting. They said, Madam, we have to be lucky only once; you have to be lucky, every time. That is true.
I am saying this to illustrate to you the obvious reality that, in a conflict of this nature, the terrorist is at an overwhelming advantage.
The principles of International Law which are evolved to deal with that situation must obviously take that reality into account. This underlines the need to look at particular segments of the established corpus of law, for example, the right to preemptive action. We don't believe in preemptive action outside our territorial borders but certainly the right of self- defence in national law does not arise only after you have been attacked.
The substantive criminal laws of India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, all these countries recognize the right of self-defence when there is reasonable apprehension of danger. That, certainly, is a principle that needs to be developed and applied in situations involving conflicts between the State and insurgent groups.
There is the argument that is very powerfully and emotionally developed in various quarters that, whatever is done in the aftermath, if it is to be credible and effective, has to be at the international level. There are very influential INGOs espousing this cause with a vengeance, but internationalization brings in its wake very formidable problems. I think right now, the clearest example of that, is Nepal. When I became Foreign Minister in April, soon after that, the first visit overseas was to Thimphu, where, one of the interesting discussions we had was with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister of Nepal.
We realized how serious the situation there is. The situation on the ground is that the elected government of Nepal does not have full authority to deal with problems connected with arms and ammunition, because the final authority with regard to many of these matters is the United Nations.
So you have, in many of these critical situations a certain condition of atrophy. The Government finds its hands tied and that immeasurably strengthens and emboldens the terrorist groups.
That degree of internalization is a disincentive to effective action by the State and a source of tremendous strength, no doubt unwittingly, to the terrorist groups. We believe that the international order today must be constructed on the premise that countries must be encouraged to deal with their own problems. That is very essential.
Gone are the days of the colonial mentality, when the doctrine was preached that the emerging nations do not have the resources, pecuniary, intellectual and in terms of empirical experience, to deal with matters of this nature. They have to be done for them, by others.
That is a wholly condescending and patronizing attitude which is very much out of line with the mores of the contemporary world. Therefore, we believe, in keeping with the spirit pervading the charter of the United Nations and the values which lie at the core of the United Nations, as an instrument, that the central endeavour must be, to give every encouragement to countries to work out solutions in keeping with their own historical antecedents, their social traditions, their cultural values, all of which change significantly from country to country. There is no size that fits everybody.
That is why, when we were contemplating the legislation and the structures of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), we were certainly happy to benefit from useful experience elsewhere.
In particular, we looked at the experience of South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was headed by Alex Borie and where a very active role was played by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
We also looked at the Chilcott Committee in the United Kingdom. But we took care to ensure that experience was suitably adapted to suit the combination of circumstances in our own country; that is absolutely essential, if it is going to work on the ground, it must be in harmony with local circumstances and priorities and any attempt to impose a straight jacket on countries such as Sri Lanka is bound to be futile and counterproductive.
Sri Lanka, in the aftermath of the conflict, has been deeply conscious of the need to address itself to potential consequences and to put in place viable strategies and mechanisms to extenuate the gravity of the consequences.
We have put in place, in order to achieve that objective, a multi-pronged strategy. Most of all, we believe that economic revival is absolutely crucial and we also believe that there is an intimate correlation between economic resuscitation and political innovation.
Political developments, especially when they mean swimming against the current, when you are doing things which people are not really familiar with or accustomed to, success is much more likely to attend your effort if those attempts are being made in an environment that is pervaded by some degree of economic contentment and well-being; and that means access to incomes, livelihoods which is a sine qua non for achieving success in respect of political innovation.
This has required collaboration with the private sector. Sri Lankan Government has been able to persuade the private sector to go to Jaffna, to go to Kilinochchi, to go to those areas and to open factories where today, Tamil speaking girls have become the breadwinners in their families. They are reviving fisheries, agriculture, adding value. All of that has brought about an economic revival in those parts of the country. The first prong has been the economy.
The second has been the concern with the emotional side of it. The scars in the minds of the people; the need to remove pain and anguish and to encourage people to put these negative experiences behind them and to face the future with courage and fortitude. More than anything else, it is a time of healing.
We are experiencing reunification. Reunification requires rapprochement. And the Reconciliation Commission of Sri Lanka is the principal instrument that we have put in place to accomplish that task of rapprochement.
General Ragavan referred to the Diaspora. That is another very crucial element. Whether we like it or not, the Diaspora has an indispensable role to play. When I was in Washington, in May this year, to meet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, she told me, I am not advising you, but I am just telling you about our own experience, she said that the Clinton administration invested very considerable effort, time and money in reaching out to the Diaspora, the Americans who were associated in one form or another with the developments in Northern Ireland.
She said that although it took a great deal of time, it was well worth it, the results were commensurate with the energy that was expended on that task. The idea is to soften, to chasten attitudes. That is exactly what we have set out to do.
It is not the intention by any means of Sri Lankan Government to isolate the Diaspora, much less to demonize them. We want to reach out to them. Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has been talking to them, and so have I; and the Defence and External Affairs Ministries are working very closely with regard to it.
The central message that we are sending out to the Diaspora is this. We want you to be involved. While the conflict was on, you did several things that were not very helpful, but that is water under the bridge. There is no need to dwell on that. Today we have a new situation. Would you not really derive a deep sense of satisfaction from seeing the economic conditions of the people in the North and the East substantially improved?
That is where we are now. Look at the enormous effort that is being made with regard to the development of infrastructure, highways, irrigation systems, schools and hospitals, all of this.
Why don't you associate yourself with those initiatives? Would it not be deeply satisfying? I am happy to be able to tell you that for the most part, the responses have been very encouraging. In External Affairs Ministry, I met a group of about 20 people; very influential in the respective countries in which they reside.
Professionals and intellectuals
We are working closely with them and many of them are coming back; look at the passenger manifests of Sri Lankan Airlines. You will find a lot of Tamil names.
They are coming back. I am not suggesting that they are coming back to settle down. They haven't made final and irrevocable decisions but they certainly are coming back to the country with their families to see for themselves what conditions are like. There is no substitute for first hand observation, so they are doing that.
I consider this to be a situation that is very sanguine. It is full of hope for the future. So General Raghavan, we are at a very critical juncture in the history of our country. In order to formulate policies, there has to be deep analysis.
We must make certain that there are no lacunae, there are no significant factors which we have unwittingly excluded. That is why an initiative of this nature is especially opportune at this time.
The Sri Lankan Government is addressing in earnest all the different ramification of this problem and we would like to work with academics, professionals and intellectuals. I said two days ago when I addressed the National Law Conference that this is unique, for the first time in Sri Lanka's contemporary history, lawyers from all parts of the country are able to participate in these deliberations.
That is a unique achievement which must not be underestimated. In the new environment, there is really scope for all academics and professionals to participate fully.
The President often tells me why don't you ask your Tamil friends in the Universities, in the professions, to come actively into politics. Let them contest elections.
We would be happy to give them nomination from the ruling party.
Now, until the conflict came to an end this was simply not possible because of the LTTE's claim to exclusivity.
Any Tamil speaking person who contested elections was not going to live for long. Today that situation has changed.
There is no longer that fear, that intimidation. Consequently, we are celebrating emancipation from terror and that must receive practical expression, in the form of a much more vigorous contribution by cerebral, reflecting people, academics and professionals with whom this country is abundantly blessed.
So my plea to you, as we embark on these deliberations, is that you make use of this opportunity to focus deeply on all the issues that have a bearing on the situation in which we find ourselves today.