British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Sarah Hulton
- New High Commissioner for the United Kingdom Sarah Hulton O.B.E. is full of genuine enthusiasm to further strengthen mutually-beneficial bilateral cooperation
Sarah Hulton O.B.E. assumed duties as the United Kingdom’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka in August. Prior to that she served in London in several different roles; as the Head of Pacific Department, the Head of DPRK Department and the Head of Diversity and Inclusion Department. She was previously posted to Zimbabwe and the Philippines, working in political roles. Over the course of her career in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hulton has worked on counter terrorism, counter-proliferation, conflict prevention and consular human rights portfolios.
She holds a degree in Politics from the University of Bristol, part of which focused on South Asian politics. Incidentally Hulton is the second female UK High Commissioner to Sri Lanka after Linda Duffield. Hulton describes that being a High Commissioner and in diplomacy is a “dream job” and she brings with her a genuine sense of enthusiasm to boost bilateral ties. She says, “Given our strong people-to-people links, it is about going from ‘good’ to ‘great’.”
In the first-ever interview since assuming duties in Sri Lanka, Hulton shares with the Daily FT her first impressions, the status and importance of UK-Sri Lanka ties, future potential and plans as well key insights.
Following are excerpts:
By Nisthar Cassim
Q: What was your first reaction when you got the news that you would be the new High Commissioner to Sri Lanka?
I was absolutely delighted. It is a real honour and a privilege to be asked to lead a Mission anywhere, but I was particularly thrilled to be coming to Sri Lanka, where our Mission is growing. We appointed a Defence Advisor in January and we are growing on many fronts. We have a new person heading our prosperity relationship and also on communications. We are looking at regional interests as well.
I am also assuming duties at a time when the UK is opening a dedicated Mission in the Maldives as part of our ‘Global Britain’ uplift. Unlike many of my predecessors I won’t be overseeing the Maldives as well, which means I will be able to fully focus on Sri Lanka.
One of the first things that came to mind is the strong ‘people-to-people’ link between the UK and Sri Lanka. Before coming to Sri Lanka, I met the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in London and got some useful insights. I have visited Sri Lanka twice briefly in the past on holiday. I am looking forward to getting to know the country and its people in an official capacity as the UK’s High Commissioner. At university I studied South Asian politics and I told my team that I found one of my exam papers the other day, but unfortunately not the answers.
What is also exciting about taking up the position in Sri Lanka is meeting the fantastic team and to see the breadth of the bilateral ties and reflect on what areas we want to develop. Finding creative ways to further enhance the strong people-to-people links is top on the agenda. And I do want to get out and about in the country, and explore more of Sri Lanka to get a sense of the entire country and meet more people.
Q: Every High Commissioner has a unique character and contribution. What are you bringing to Sri Lanka?
I am bringing a genuine sense of enthusiasm for the role of High Commissioner and the country, and what we would like to achieve together. I have been in the Foreign Office for a while and worked on a range of subjects. All the roles I have had previously have given me something I can bring to this role. I have worked on counter terrorism, human resources and East Asia affairs, and my Deputy High Commissioner and I also worked together heading up the Pacific Department [in the Foreign Office]. So it is great to be working with new colleagues and old friends.
I hope that my passion for diplomacy will come out best, as it is a privilege to be here and enjoy everything the country has to offer, as well as further our mutually-beneficial ambitions. This is a dream job for me and I feel lucky that I now have a role to play in a country which I have studied many years ago. So I feel very humbled and look forward to my stint in Sri Lanka.
Q: How would you describe the current status of UK-Sri Lanka relations?
It is good and growing. Earlier I spoke of people-to-people links and it is a very exciting part of the relationship. I have been here only for about 10 weeks, during which time we have been lucky enough to have the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as well as the Foreign Office Minister for the Commonwealth, UN and South Asia, and the Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon. These two visits reinforced how important Sri Lanka is for the UK. The visits were also an opportunity to focus on some of the issues that we really share. They include a few hallmark ones, including the freedom of religion and belief, discussion and inter-faith issues.
Other areas which impressed me include the strong ties and engagement on education. I was delighted to visit the British Council and learn more about the excellent work it does here. We have 19 UK universities here in Sri Lanka which are offering world-class higher education opportunities for interested Sri Lankan students. This is a fantastic way to have access to a UK education. The UK is home for the four of the world’s best universities.
We also have our Chevening Scholarship Program, which allows post graduate students to spend a year in the UK. Applications are now open. One of the first things I did after arriving was meeting this year’s scholars as they were heading out. It is always inspiring to meet young people who have a passion for their subjects and who want to really go out there and get further experience and bring it back with them to Sri Lanka.
In addition, we recently announced a new Graduate Immigration Route for those choosing the UK for their higher education. Students who are pursuing education in the UK will have an opportunity to stay and work for two years. This scheme will also ensure transfer of knowledge and experience back to Sri Lanka, so this is a win-win opportunity for both countries.
I am a keen follower of cricket, and we had a great summer of cricket in the UK. It was great to hear that Kumar Sangakkara was becoming the President of the MCC and I am looking forward to the England team visiting Sri Lanka again next year.
Another area is the UK’s showcasing of innovation, for example the launch of Jaguar iPace in Sri Lanka that I have just attended. That is a great showcase of not only UK-Sri Lanka trade, but innovation in general, and how we are using technology to tackle global issues like climate change.
Our relationship is built on people-to-people links so in my role one of the things I am keen to do is to lift this up in line with the excellence that is already happening. The common themes for stronger bilateral ties include working together for the common prosperity of both nations, as well as enhancing trade and business opportunities, and addressing security issues
I hope that my passion for diplomacy will come out best, as it is a privilege to be here and enjoy everything the country has to offer, as well as further our mutually-beneficial ambitions. This is a dream job for me and I feel lucky that I now have a role to play in a country which I have studied many years ago. I feel very humbled and look forward to my stint in Sri Lanka
We highly value civil society engagement because that keeps us in touch with grass-root voices and gives us messaging and access, which helps understand what the communities want. That is the part of the foundation of good policymaking, understanding what matters to people, what works and where there might be challenges to good ideas
Sri Lanka’s potential is huge. We both have global challenges and we can work together to address those. Continuous focus on reconciliation is important. Another is realising Sri Lanka’s aspirations to become an economic hub in South Asia and I can see a lot of potential for joint efforts given our strong trade and business links. However, I must stress that the solid platform for future growth is peace, security and reconciliation. Improving the business environment, which is key to economic hub aspirations, is also vital
Q: Can you explain how important Sri Lanka is for the UK and why the UK is important for Sri Lanka?
There are huge areas of shared global challenges, such as climate change. As I’ve mentioned, our relationship is built on the links between people in both countries. I want to help build on that, to improve on the excellence that is already there. At the CIMA Awards it was pointed out to me that Sri Lanka has the second largest community of CIMA-qualified professionals in the world. That is fantastic and something we should celebrate.
The common themes for stronger bilateral ties include working together for the common prosperity of both nations, as well as enhancing trade and business opportunities, and addressing security issues. The UK has good dialogue across all political parties to find common ground, and to engage in constructive discussion where there are areas we disagree on. That is diplomacy. It is important to keep the discussion going.
Q: What will be your key focus areas during your tenure as the High Commissioner?
My priority is very much on continuing the work of my predecessor and further enhancing prosperity and security and building people-to-people links. Sri Lanka has set a great example in tackling the legacy of a 30-year conflict. We have helped in post-conflict reconciliation and are extending further funding support for long-term stability in Sri Lanka, including promoting peacebuilding and dialogue, supporting resettlement and livelihoods for displaced communities, and supporting the rule of law.
Overall we will further broaden and deepen our relationship with Sri Lanka. After the Easter Sunday tragedy, the then Minister for Security Ben Wallace MP (now Secretary of State for Defence) visited the country and offered support on the counter terrorism front. This is an area the UK is committed to help in, as extremism and terrorism is a global threat and we want to share our experiences.
We will also continue to promote greater education links and exchanges, support science and innovation via opportunities like the Newton Fund, helping Sri Lankan scientists to join and benefit from a global network, extending assistance to food safety and tackling climate change. We want to continue to promote Chevening scholarships, including the South Asian Journalism Program and Chevening Research and Innovation Program. Given our strong people-to-people links, it is about going from ‘good’ to ‘great’.
Q: How does the UK view Sri Lanka’s future potential? What are the challenges and how could the UK help Sri Lanka in addressing some of them?
Sri Lanka’s potential is huge. We both face the same global challenges, and we can work together to address those. A consistent focus on reconciliation is important. I must stress that the solid platform for future growth is peace, security and reconciliation.
I can see a lot of potential in joint efforts on trade and business, as Sri Lanka works to realise its ambition as an economic hub for South Asia. These are opportunities for Sri Lanka to build a strong foundation for the future. Improving the business environment is key to economic hub aspirations.
Other areas of focus for us are freedom of religion and belief, human rights, protecting the environment and media freedom. You may be aware that the UK and Canada, in partnership with UNESCO, have launched a Global Media Defence Fund to which UK is contributing £3 million to help further media freedom and the safety of journalists.
One other thing I have been struck by is how many of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic heads of mission overseas are women. This is brilliant. I want to play a positive role in further gender equality. Harassment of women on transportation is one important issue I have been hearing about. The UK has been helping to address the issue of gender-based violence and supporting the role of women in policing.
Q: In your view, what role can the private sector and civil society play in shaping Sri Lanka’s future?
We highly value civil society engagement because that keeps us in touch with grass-root voices, which in turn helps understand what communities want. That is the part of the foundation of good policymaking, understanding what matters to people, what works and where there might be challenges to good ideas. This is not unique to Sri Lanka but universal.
Civil society in Sri Lanka is an important voice in both the bilateral relationship and policymaking in general. We have strong links with civil society organisations with whom we have worked over the years, and this will continue. In terms of private sector and businesses, apart from being employment and development generators, they play an important part in our people-to-people links and trade relations. I am really struck when we meet businesses here how longstanding some of those relationships are, which is fantastic. Many of them also have impressive corporate social responsibility programs, giving back to their communities.
Q: What are the benchmarks or factors you would prefer to list that will reinforce that the High Commission has played its part when you complete your tenure?
I would be like to have a team of people who are happy in their work and able to deliver on their full potential. I would also be happy to see the already-strong bilateral relationship getting bigger and broader. Another is seeing Sri Lanka achieving its goals and ensuring the UK plays a role in helping to achieve that potential.
As part of my preparations before coming to Sri Lanka I was talking to the previous UK High Commissioners to Sri Lanka about their experiences of being here. They reinforced their fondness for Sri Lanka and the great pleasure they had taken in playing a role in building that friendship and partnership. On a lighter note, some also said to watch my waistline as they enjoyed the cuisine of this beautiful country. They were many who have fond memories of their time here and they spoke about it with great affection. They all want Sri Lanka and the UK to realise the full potential of this strong relationship.
Pix by Lasantha Kumara