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Democracy, economics, & Palestine – Sri Lankan foreign minister’s address to the UN

Speaking before the UN General Assembly during its 77th session, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Ali Sabry gave a wide-ranging address touching on issues of democracy, economics, and defending Palestinian’s right to self-determination.          


Within the confines of the law


Addressing the UN assembly, Sabry insisted that Sri Lanka recognised “that one has a fundamental right to freedom of expression”. However, he argued that such freedom “must be within the constitutional order and must be exercised having regard to one’s fundamental duty to express oneself within the confines of the law”.

The statement follows growing international concern over the Sri Lankan state’s crackdown on peaceful demonstrators and the exploitative use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The latest report from the former UN High Commissioner for human rights highlights continued “reports of surveillance, intimidation, harassment of journalists, human rights defenders, families of the disappeared and persons involved in memorialization initiatives, by intelligence services, military, and police, particularly in the North and East”.

The report adds:

“Families of the disappeared face surveillance, questioning, intimidation and unannounced visits by intelligence officers and the police, especially when they are actively involved in protests or memorialization”.

Sri Lanka’s constitution further limits free speech by criminalising appeals to secession or the establishment of a separate state.

During his address, Sabry maintained the need for legislation to “counter radical ideologies leading to violent extremism and to curb the terrorists’ use and abuse of the internet and social media platforms”.

In the past, the Rajapaksa administration has attempted to impose bans on social media platforms to prevention to the dissemination of critical reporting. Currently, a range of Tamil and Muslim organisations remain under proscription by the Sri Lankan government.

Read more here: How Sri Lanka’s CID tried to take down Tamil Guardian’s Twitter

Democratic reforms

Speaking on proposed legislative and constitutional reforms, Sabry maintains that:

“Democratic governance will be reinforced with independent oversight institutions as well as with enhanced public scrutiny. Legal and administrative frameworks are being strengthened to ensure transparency, integrity, accountability and inclusivity in providing access to justice”.

It comes amidst growing concerns of militarisation with the appointment of military officials implicated in egregious war crimes appointed to top government positions. A trend continued by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.


Sri Lankan ‘peacekeepers’

Speaking on Sri Lanka’s continued engagement with UN Peacekeeping Operations, Sabry maintained that the country’s officers are “are trained and equipped with theoretical and practical knowledge of all necessary functions of peacekeeping, including the promotion and protection of human rights”.

His statement follows growing calls to suspend the Sri Lankan military’s engagement with UN peacekeeping operations. In February 2021, then UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, “publicly announced a decision to suspend all Sri Lanka’s Army peacekeeping deployments, except where they would expose United Nations operations to serious operational risk". She went on to call on member states to "keep under review Sri Lanka’s contributions to UN peacekeeping operations and screening systems for Sri Lanka personnel".

The continued deployment of Sri Lankan forces also comes despite grievous human rights abuses during peacekeeping missions. In 2007, over 100 Sri Lankan peacekeepers were implicated in a child sex ring in Haiti. Sri Lankan troops were accused of exchanging food and money for sex with girls and boys as young as 12. While most of the accused were repatriated, none have been criminally prosecuted.

Yasmin Sooka, Executive Director of the International Truth and Justice Project, notes;

"For Sri Lanka, sending its soldiers abroad as United Nations peacekeepers is a matter of prestige and international recognition, as well as a source of revenue. But this is an army with a history of entrenched impunity for sexual exploitation and abuse by its peacekeepers, as well as for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity at home."


Pandemic amnesia

Commenting on the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sabry trumpeted the Sri Lanka’s success which he claims was the result of a “proactive and non-discriminatory measures by the government”. He omits the anti-Muslim legislation which saw a ban on burial rites in violation of the religious freedoms of Muslims and Christians.

It was a measure widely condemned by the international community and organisations within Sri Lanka.


‘We must not forget Palestine’

Speaking on Palestine, Sabry maintained that Sri Lanka continues to recognise “that the Palestinian people have a legitimate and inalienable right to the natural resources in their territory and to statehood”.

Under the helm of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka fostered close ties with Palestinian Liberation Organisation whilst simultaneously continuing a genocidal war against Eelam Tamils.  In 2007 on Rajapaksa’s 62nd birthday, a road in Ramallah was named in Rajapaksa’s honour. In 2014, Rajapaksa was granted awarded the ‘Star of Palestine’, the highest honour award by the Palestinian state.

Eelam Tamils continue to struggle for self-determination and the occupation of Sri Lanka’s military.

Sabry continued noting that Sri Lanka recognised “the legitimate security concerns of both the Palestinian and Israeli people” but urged for a resolution “on the attainment of the two-state solution”.


Economic recovery

Speaking on the prospect of an economic recovery Sabry noted that a staff-level agreement has been reached with the International Monetary Fund and that the government would “put in place measures to protect the vulnerable segments of society”.

He further added that:

“Sri Lanka supports sustainable transformation of agriculture to a modernized sector and encourages enhanced food production to ensure food security. Sri Lanka has initiated the national food security programme with the dual objectives of ensuring that no citizen should suffer for the want of food and no child should be a victim of malnutrition”.

Sri Lanka’s military has taken an increasing role in civilian functions such as agriculture. This has seen devastating results in the Tamil North-East, where Tamils have been barred from accessing land, they once used to cultivate crops. The military has furthered undermined local businesses by selling these crops below market prices.

Read the full speech here

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