Ayesha Zuhair Interviews Outgoing Canadian High Commissioner Bruce Levy
Q: What are your views on the Action Plan to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)? Do you feel that it adequately demonstrates the government’s commitment towards peace, justice, and reconciliation?
A: We welcome the action plan just as we have welcomed other statements of intent. Such statements do not by themselves demonstrate commitment, however. Only concrete action can do that and therefore it is ultimately on the basis of its actions that the government will be judged by the Sri Lankan people and international stakeholders.
Q: Do you think that enough is being done on the ground to ensure that there is no relapse into armed conflict?
A: When I arrived, the most important change had already taken place and that was, of course, the end of the violent conflict. The relief of the general population, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation was, and still is, palpable.
There is no magic formula to “ensure” an end to violence. But I leave Sri Lanka with a nagging sense that there is not sufficient urgency on the part of various players to take the difficult steps needed to address underlying grievances that could fuel a resurgence of radicalism. “Winning the peace” is not just a slogan. Making Sri Lanka a stable and prosperous home to all of its citizen groups will require magnanimity and far sightedness from those holding the levers of power.
Q: Canada has expressed concerns intermittently that Sri Lanka is not living up to her international obligations with Prime Minister Stephen Harper even warning last year that he will not attend the 2013 Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Colombo if there is no progress in terms of human rights. What is your assessment of the human rights situation in the country? Does accountability for alleged war crimes continue to be of concern to Canada?
A: There are general human rights issues and also specific ones arising from the closing months of the war. On the general, we empathize with many Sri Lankans who feel that there has been erosion in standards previously held dear. Too many crimes occur that seem to go unpunished, undermining the people’s faith in their institutions. If a culture of impunity takes hold, if journalists simply disappear without a trace, it becomes a slippery slope.
Where the alleged war crimes are concerned, Canada naturally supports bringing perpetrators to account. Indeed, Sri Lanka supports the same principle or it would not be signatory to international human rights covenants, nor would it belong to organisations like the Commonwealth.
But while Canada believes in and will continue to press for accountability, it would be best for Sri Lankans themselves to design internationally credible mechanisms to bring all criminals to justice.
Q: What are your views on the freedom of expression, minority rights and women’s rights in Sri Lanka?
A: I referred to a certain erosion in an earlier response and will stick to that. There are many countries in the world with worse records than Sri Lanka but where human rights are concerned, on-going vigilance and the strengthening of the responsible institutions must be a constant.
Q: A recent travel advisory issued by the UK Foreign Office has warned British citizens of an upsurge in nationalism, sexual offences and anti-Western rhetoric in the country. I understand that as a diplomat you may not wish to directly comment on travel advisories issued by other countries, but in general, do you see a rise in nationalism, sexual offences, and anti-Western rhetoric? Also, what is Canada’s position on travel to Sri Lanka?
A: I will not try to quantify problems in any of the areas that you list but will acknowledge that we receive very troubling, frequently tragic reports. Anti-western rhetoric is not new (I am sure that this interview will invite more!) but what should be of concern is when it is used as an excuse to avoid tackling basic societal ills that have nothing to do with the West.
On travel, we continue to encourage Canadians to come to Sri Lanka as long as they exercise appropriate caution where warranted.
Q: Canada is host to the largest Sri Lankan community overseas and as the country’s top diplomat to Sri Lanka you have had numerous opportunities to interact with the influential Sri Lankan Diaspora in Canada. What do they tell you, and what do you think their role is in the country’s reconstruction and reconciliation process?
A: I have made no secret of my desire to see the diaspora become more constructively involved in Sri Lanka. The responsibility goes both ways, however. I know that some in the diaspora are put off by hearing themselves routinely described here as “pro LTTE”. If that is how the Sri Lankan government sees them, they say, then probably anything they try to do here by way of serious investment will be met with suspicion. I do not happen to agree with that reaction but recognise that it is a reality that will take time to change
Q: How do you view the trade and investment environment in Sri Lanka?
A: It is a mixed bag. The world economy is going through a pretty tough period and Sri Lanka is not immune. Experts would say that its best course of action is to strengthen its fundamentals so that when the world economy starts to rebound, it can take advantage. Some of those fundamentals – inflation, deficit, etc – are in reasonable shape but there is still work to be done to improve transparency, to be the kind of place that would-be investors see as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
Q: On a more personal note, what do you consider to be your key achievements for your country during your term here, and what memories of Sri Lanka do you take back with you?
A: I will leave any comment on my achievements (or lack of same) to others given that I am not running for office! The chief memory I take away is of the warmth of the Sri Lankan people, regardless of background or social standing. We were made to feel very welcome all the time. Well, perhaps with one exception – the opening match (Sri Lanka vs Canada) of the 2011 World Cricket Cup!
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: My wife, Ingrid Knutson, and I decided some time ago that our posting in Sri Lanka would be a nice way to cap 30 years each of government service. We will spend the next few months in Canada, including our first snowy Christmas in eight years, but after that hope to move to Spain and manage a small bed and breakfast. Special discounts for Sri Lankan friends! Courtesy: Daily Mirror