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CHOGM, the ideal forum to showcase success story

2013 Aug 15

By Manjula Fernando

"The world understands that there are no squeaky clean countries. It sympathises with those making an honest effort to improve and it takes time to achieve all our objectives.We must use the CHOGM to effectively showcase our strengths and explain any shortcomings and gain the confidence of our friends and well wishers" so said Sri Lanka's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, Dr.Palitha Kohona in an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer.

Q: Sri Lanka recently moved one step up to position itself among middle income earning states. The Government is on an accelerated path to development after ending a prolonged war with terrorism four years ago. What will be the tangible outcomes the CHOGM will bring in realising Sri Lanka's dreams?

A: The CHOGM will provide a unique opportunity for Sri Lanka and its people, not only to showcase its substantial achievements since the end of the terrorist instigated conflict but also its tremendous successes despite the constraints imposed by the 27 years of violence, the global financial crisis, the earlier food and energy crises and the disruptions caused in some of our traditional markets due to domestic upheavals.

Ambassador Palitha Kohona Lanka has already realised most of the UN Millennium Development Goals and is well on the way to realising or surpassing the rest. It has moved into middle income country status. These are not mean achievements for a developing country which had to confront the above daunting challenges. It will be evident to all that we have achieved much in a very short period compared to many other countries which had undergone similar violent experiences and have taken much longer to recover.

The visiting delegations and the media will also get a first hand view of our vibrant democracy that we fought so hard to protect. Most importantly, the visitors will experience the progress we have made in reconstruction and reconciliation, despite the politically motivated negative image painted by certain elements.

It will also be clear that our reconciliation effort is the result of a process that we have had to evolve on our own based on our own culture, history and experience, recognising that whatever lessons we take from external experiences must be modified to suit our circumstances.

It will also be a tremendous opportunity to highlight the historical inspirations that have influenced our culture and attitudes and will fashion our approaches to the future; the soothing influence of 2500 years of Buddhism, the culture of tolerance and coexistence which enabled other religions and minorities to prosper in Sri Lanka over the centuries despite the harrowing and destructive impact of foreign invasions and the years of colonial occupation which subjugated our economy to the needs of foreign masters. The CHOGAM will also provide a platform to develop and consolidate our political relations with a wide range of countries.

Q: For a country still grappling with a troubled past, building investor- confidence is of paramount importance to Sri Lanka, how will this event make a positive impact on this front?

A: Investor-confidence will develop over time. There is no quick fire method for generating such confidence. But the high level exposure of our potential that will result from the CHOGM will essentially contribute to consolidating this confidence. It will be our task to market Sri Lanka's remarkable potential, in natural resources, human resources and developed infrastructure, to the visitors, especially to the thousands of business executives.

Already we have witnessed the results of this improving confidence. FDI has exceeded one billion Dollars per capita. This compares very well with most developing countries, including some of the larger ones. Major hotel chains have already moved in, acquiring chunks of prime real estate.

With increased exposure, more investors, not only foreign but local as well, will become more aware of Sri Lanka's potential as a base for ICT, high-end manufacturing, marine, aviation and financial services and a host of other manufacturing and processing, with easy access to some of the largest markets in the world. For example, Sri Lanka could be a base for exploiting the boundless marine potential of the Indian Ocean. But we must showcase ourselves in a well organised professional manner.

Q: The Commonwealth consists of a host of other developing nations, you think the relations with these countries will help Sri Lanka to stand its ground at difficult UN forums, like the UNHRC?

A: International relations and influence essentially depend on making new friends and consolidating existing ones. The CHOGM gives us the opportunity to do exactly this. We must use the CHOGM to effectively showcase our strengths and explain any shortcomings and gain the confidence of our friends and well wishers. Confidence generated in our trustworthiness, and our reliability as a global partner, is crucial.

We have much in common with the developing world. Additionally we have also achieved tremendous successes under extremely difficult circumstances. Of course, we should not shy away from discussing any areas which require further improvement. The world understands that there are no perfect squeaky clean countries. It sympathises with those making an honest effort to improve and it takes time to achieve all our objectives.

Q: The Commonwealth provides a platform for countries to interact 'in the spirit of a helping hand' to quote its SG. Will it be a good forum for Sri Lanka to strengthen ties with certain (hostile) Western states ?

A: I am not sure of what you mean by the expression "hostile Western states". Every country is a potential friend and the challenge will be to further develop friendships. Every country has national interests to advance, including us. Our challenge is to explore and advance commonalities in national interests, not delve in to issues that saw discord.

Historically Sri Lanka was a tremendous practitioner of the art of making friends in the international arena. We did not permit ourselves to pose a threat to any one and, during the Cold War, as a leading and vocal member of the Non Aligned Movement, we made friends in both camps. During the late fifties and sixties, our development effort received substantial assistance from both the East and the West. Our challenge today is to further consolidate our existing friendships and develop other friendships.

Q: Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Britain, Dr. Chris Nonis was recently quoted in the media saying that the Board of Governors of the Commonwealth Secretariat comprising London-based Commonwealth High Commissioners always worked together in the spirit of unity and friendship. Why can't we maintain the same spirit of interaction within the other international bodies, like the UN?

A: Of course, here we are talking about two very different bodies and power structures. The UN which is representative of almost the entirety of the international community is a vastly different body to the Board of Governors of the Commonwealth Secretariat,

Having said that, we have also embarked on a process of expanding our network of relations, not only at the UN but also in the capitals. We have established diplomatic relations with a range of countries with which we did not have such relations before. Bilateral visits have been undertaken. More interaction must take place at different levels. All these help to secure the understanding of more and more countries.

In addition, the UN Secretariat performs functions which are substantially different to those performed by the Commonwealth Secretariat, and many such functions are intrinsically political in nature. Sometimes it may perform functions that may not necessarily accord with its mandate but result from pressures exerted by powerful global players. The UN also plays an enhanced political role these days. The challenge we face, as a small country is, to recognise these nuances and continuously work towards building a positive and comprehensive image of Sri Lanka in the thinking of the widest range of countries.

Q: 'Heads of Government agreed in 2011 that consideration be given to strengthening the role of CMAG, to enable the Group to deal with the full range of serious or persistent violations of the Harare Principle'. Is this a sign that the Commonwealth is deviating from its existing mandate?

A: The Commonwealth is a voluntary grouping of countries which must ensure that any changes to its mandate reflect the wishes of all its members, the big and the small, the rich and the not so rich, the developed and the developing. Any effort to impose changes to the organisation's mandate will not be taken lightly by the membership. It is also a mistake to focus excessively on certain elements of international relations to the exclusion of others. The Harare Declaration and the Singapore Declaration were rather comprehensive instruments which should not be applied selectively for cynical political advantage. We need to have a pragmatic balance in the way the Commonwealth approaches issues in a world confronting myriad diverse challenges.

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