By Easwaran Rutnam
With election fever taking its hold on Sri Lanka, human rights seem to have taken a backseat. However, the international community is keeping its eye on Sri Lanka and its commitments on the human rights issue.
The German Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jörn Rohde, speaking to The Sunday Morning, said that Sri Lanka had made considerable progress on the human rights issue since 2015 and Germany hopes the process moves forward.
He also said that Germany will work with any Government and added that there needs to be political stability to ensure the country moves forward.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Germany has been among the countries which raised concerns on Sri Lanka’s human rights. This was raised in Geneva and even outside. How do you see the progress that has been made by the current administration on the human rights issue?
Germany welcomed Sri Lanka’s commitment in 2015 to address human rights concerns. The co-sponsorship of the human rights resolution in Geneva is a commitment by the Sri Lankan Government for Sri Lanka to improve democratic rights, democratic reform, to establish independent institutions and accountability.
We, like other countries, are in constant dialogue with Sri Lanka. Sometimes as good friends, we say this could be faster, but there have been clear achievements – the establishment of independent institutions like the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations. It could happen faster, because for all the concerned persons, their grievances need to be met. But the direction has been very positive since 2015. And one clear example that this is being appreciated is the re-granting of the GSP Plus concession by the European Union (EU) which we fully supported. That means you do something and then you get a unilateral trade concession. Sri Lanka is greatly profiting from it.
The rise in exports from Sri Lanka, not only to Germany but to the whole EU, is in double digits. And that’s the concrete outcome of commitments which benefit and strengthen democracy in Sri Lanka and would benefit the economy.
But there has also been a concern that Sri Lanka is not keeping up to the pace that was expected by the international community while the recent appointment of the new Army Commander was seen as turning a deaf ear to some of the concerns. Would there be some sort of repercussions if Sri Lanka does not fulfil its commitments?
On the appointment of the new Army Commander, everything has been said and I don’t want to repeat it.
It is clear what was said, not only by the UN (United Nations), EU, and Germany but other countries as well. On the GSP Plus topic, recently, an EU delegation visited Sri Lanka and both sides fully engaged monitoring implementation and are also satisfied with the results achieved in the process so far. And I hope that any government that comes in will continue to follow up on these commitments, whether it’s on the trade sector or the human rights front because these are commitments not for Germany or the EU, they were given by the Sri Lankan Government to Sri Lankans.
I believe you visited the North recently. What was your understanding of the ground situation during that visit?
The economic situation in the North is still a challenge. I visited demining projects. The Sri Lankan Government’s aim is to make it mine-free in 2020. We fully support that. When you have cleared everything, displaced persons can come back and economic activity can resume in these areas. But clearly, there is a great gap between realised economic potential, let’s say in the Western Province, around Colombo, and in the North and East. There are disparities. Also, investment which was supposed to come has not been realised. The Government knows that. It just has to happen.
What you also need is political stability.
How do you see the tourism industry in Sri Lanka following the Easter attacks? Are the conditions conducive for German tourists to visit Sri Lanka?
I think we are the number four source country, but there will be a dip in tourism clearly this year. German tourist arrivals increased from 70,000 in 2014 to almost 160,000 last year. This year, all the numbers will be lower.
I have suggested to the Government – and the Government has announced it – to build up sustainable structures in the source countries and set up tourism promotion offices. That hasn’t happened yet. I think that should happen.
There has been a concern about LTTE elements trying to regroup in western countries and there have been reports that these elements may even be using Germany to regroup and maybe set up operations once again in Sri Lanka.
The war itself has been over for 10 years. The recent terror attacks suggest there should be a focus on religious extremism. I haven’t heard anything about the LTTE regrouping, to be frank. But recently, there was an arrest in Germany and there will be a court case, and that’s it. You can see if we have evidence like any other country, we will pursue it. But frankly, I think the focus now should be to find a sustainable political solution to the national issue in Sri Lanka.
How do you see the upcoming election?
I always answer saying elections are the ultimate celebration of democracy. You have a choice. And people can decide. There are a lot of countries in the world where you can never vote in your life even once. Democracy is the most reliable form and transparent form of government we can think of. With this record number of candidates contesting the election, I think democracy is alive and kicking.
Is there a concern that in the event there is a change of government after the upcoming election that there would also be a change of policy which would affect investors?
I feel all political parties want to lure more foreign investors, but the proof is in the pudding. You need to walk the talk and that’s not always the case. Germany works with any government. We are both democracies and we have changes in government all the time. That’s one of the, let’s say, constants of democracy – that you have changes in government, which is a natural thing.
What is your take on the relationship between Germany and Sri Lanka at the moment?
I would say it is excellent. We completed 66 years of official relations this year. Of course, Germans always lived in Sri Lanka. The Colombo Zoo was founded by a German – John Hagenbeck. His brother Carl founded the zoo in Hamburg. It’s still called the Hagenbeck Zoo.
Since 2015, we supported the incumbent Government in its agenda for democratic reform, economic development, and reconciliation. And this has not only been limited to words. There have been practical implications. For example, in 2015, a vocational training institute in Kilinochchi was set up under a German loan and grant, which meant practical reconciliation to provide upskilling for people in the North and East.
We will soon start with a second vocational training institute in Matara in the South, and together with the long-established German Tech (Ceylon-German Technical Training Institute) in Moratuwa, they will be under one roof directly under the Ministry and will act as state-of-the-art vocational training centres, because we think education is the key to success in the 21st Century.
On the economic front, we support the opening up of the economy. Sri Lanka wants to become the hub of South Asia. To be a hub is by definition to be an open economy. So we support the ease of doing business and not the un-ease of doing business.
We invested in a professional German Chamber of Commerce last year. I think so far, it is the only professional Chamber of Commerce in Sri Lanka and not a mere business club. They have a staff and assist Sri Lankan companies in setting up businesses in Germany or the other way around. This year alone they had six trade delegations from Sri Lanka visiting German trade fairs.
You mentioned the ease of doing business. What are the issues that you see which are preventing German investors from maybe getting more involved in Sri Lanka?
One thing is you need to open transparent tenders. If investors see that tenders don’t hit the benchmark, it’s difficult to convince them to come back. Sri Lanka is a small market. In India, you might sometimes have similar challenges, but India has a lot of tenders. Here, you’ll have one tender and if it’s flawed it’s not a blessing. So that’s one factor in the un-ease of doing business.
The second one is reliability of a tax and excise system. Investors need to be able to plan long term. If the rules of the game change over time, that’s difficult for investors.
An open economy by definition does not have trade barriers, a lot of red tape, or generally high import duties. I think Sri Lanka has one of the highest import duties in the region. I think the Government is trying to make it more effective. Sri Lanka’s “ease of doing business” has improved.
Plus, we have a regular and quite effective investor dialogue with the Sri Lankan Trade Ministry where German and EU companies are able to voice grievances with the Sri Lankan side. But as a small economy, you need to be like Singapore – way ahead of the rest in your region. And that has not yet happened. There have been steps taken, but the great leap forward has not yet happened. (Courtesy The Sunday Morning)