20 February 2007
Britain has long been a friend of Sri Lanka. That friendship is built on a wide range of shared interests and contacts, not least the large number of people of Sri Lankan origin who have made Britain their home.
Today's British government has no greater wish for Sri Lanka than that it should find a peaceful solution to its conflict.
This should be a solution with which all the people and communities in Sri Lanka feel comfortable and which enables them to develop their full potential, becoming a more prosperous, healthier and more highly skilled society.
On the other hand, if things continue as they are the current escalation of the conflict and its impact will hold back Sri Lanka's development, corrode the quality of its democracy and tarnish its image in the international arena.
Only Sri Lankans can ultimately resolve the conflict in their country. But Britain and others in the international community can help.
Many countries, international agencies and non-governmental organisations are already working with Sri Lankans to help create the conditions needed for peace and long-term development. I believe their work is invaluable to the people of Sri Lanka.
As part of this, the British government's political and development efforts in Sri Lanka have a single aim. To help create the conditions in which a lasting peace can be achieved.
We in Britain have some experience of resolving conflict, in Northern Ireland. That province is now at peace. It took about 30 years to get to that point.
We learned the hard way that security measures will only get you so far and eventually you must – if you wish to move towards a lasting peace – be willing to address the underlying causes of the conflict.
Last year the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, offered to share this experience with President Mahinda Rajapakse and his government.
Accordingly, the Rt Hon Paul Murphy, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, visited Sri Lanka in November.
One of the most important things we learned in Northern Ireland is that peace won't happen until the parties to the conflict understand that nothing can be gained by continuing violence.
It is worth stating the obvious: a military victory for one side is very unlikely to produce a lasting political solution. Our experience tells us that a 'war for peace' approach inevitably means more war, rather than peace.
And violence comes with too high a price. It is the people who suffer, as human rights are eroded, the humanitarian situation deteriorates and mistrust between communities increases. This, in turn, damages Sri Lanka’s image in the eyes of the world.
Similarly, we learned that there had to be a working cease-fire in force in order for meaningful peace talks to be possible. Politicians cannot be expected to make the compromises necessary for peace against a backdrop of violence and the public outrage this causes.
The Norwegian-facilitated cease-fire of 2002 offered breathing space from the effects of the conflict. If adhered to, it would offer a good base from which to launch a new peace initiative.
The parties to the conflict need to develop a degree of confidence in one another in order to be able to move forward to reach a common understanding of their shared future. That confidence can't be built in an atmosphere where violence and fear flourishes.
A broad political consensus for peace is essential. We hope that the new coalition government will be able to enable the parties to work together for the common good of the country.
I am looking forward to my time in Sri Lanka. It will be my second visit to this country. My fervent wish is that my visit may contribute to bringing the island's tragic conflict to an end.
Dr Kim Howells MP is the British Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. This leading article was distributed by his office prior to his official visit to Sri Lanka in February 2007.