By Nisthar Cassim
UK’s High Commissioner James Dauris last week completed his four-year tenure in Sri Lanka, a country he emphasises is resilient and full of promise provided there is true reconciliation. He also strongly advocates Sri Lanka must open up with greater liberalisation and the private sector be facilitated to create economic growth and employment opportunities. In a farewell interview with the Daily FT, James recalled some key developments and initiatives during his tenure to foster ties between UK and Sri Lanka. From a personal point of view James insists the warmth of Sri Lankans will always stick with him and Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places he has been to. Following are excerpts:
Q: Can you briefly recap the status of UK-Sri Lanka bilateral relations, especially during and by the end of your stint in Colombo?
I have focused on developing relationships that workfor both countries based on mutual interests. Sri Lanka and UK enjoy a sheer breadth of links. It is a mix of history, language, sports and trade and investments, education, etc. Bilateral relations today are in a more active state than in 2015 when I took office. In part that is due to the consequence of change of Government in 2015 as the period 2000 and 2014 was complicated, not only for the UK but a number of other longstanding friendly nations of Sri Lanka. So in the past four years the ties have strengthened as manifested by the number of British companies exploring investment opportunities. One example is the London Stock Exchange Group and most of the people it employs in Sri Lanka are highly educated, skilled and young. This is an example of what Sri Lanka can do and how well it can do in a highly-competitive high-tech international industry. In terms of bilateral trade the growth momentum continues, with balance of trade favouring Sri Lanka.
Q: Can you share a few initiatives undertaken during your tenure which in your opinion helped to further strengthen bilateral ties?
Throughout my four years in Sri Lanka I had a special focus on reconciliation. Given the UK’s own experience in the Northern Island, we have learnt how important reconciliation is in terms of bringing people together and how much work is needed over a sustained period to achieve true reconciliation. The UK has been a leading member of the Core Group on the Geneva Resolution. The Sri Lankan Government during my tenure can be particularly proud of having had the confidence to re-co-sponsor the Resolution. The latter isn’t about anything being imposed on a country but as I see it, it is about the Sri Lankan Government making a strong commitment on the belief that taking the required steps is good for the country and its people.
Free trade benefits individual countries and the world. Countries can have safeguards and regulations to protect national interest but greater free trade and liberalisation are always beneficial. Some industries or companies may be in privileged positions of control which may serve their interest but don’t serve either their customers’ or the nation’s interest.
Our support to ongoing and new projects was also significant. We have continued our assistance to the multi-stakeholder supported de-mining project to make Sri Lanka landmine free by next year or 2021, which will be a tremendous achievement.
We have also assisted the Sri Lanka Police by bringing experts from Scotland to share our successful experience in community policing. The US is also supporting the setting up of Women and Children Desks at Police stations and providing expertise to handle sensitive cases.
I am also pleased by the UK support extended to the expansion of the District Inter-Religious Committees (DIRC). As the High Commissioner I have always held the firm view that religious leaders have an important part to play in promoting inter-faith dialogue and understanding and harmony. I have seen some good examples at the Committees, which numberover 20 at present, with the UK supporting around four, including in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Puttalam.
I also re-established the Defence Section in Colombo. The relationship between the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and the UK goes back a long way and for a number of years it had been less active. We haven’t had a Defence Advisor since 2009 but now we do in the High Commission in Colombo to help us develop this important relationship, especially at a time when we are seeing the geostrategic importance of the Indian Ocean on the rise.
James Dauris previously served as the Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Peru.
He was schooled at Haileybury. He graduated from the University of Cambridge with a degree in Law After university he trained to be a Solicitor and worked for Ashurst Morris Crisp from 1991.
Dauris changed careers and joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1995. For his first overseas posting he was First Secretary (Commercial) at the British Embassy in Moscow. He served as a Deputy Head of Mission in Colombia from 2005 to 2009. He then served as Ambassador to Peru between 2010 and 2014 and moved to Sri Lanka and served as the High Commissioner between April 2015 and July 2019.
Q: Going forward, where would you like UK-Sri Lanka bilateral ties to be?
The two countries need to have a relationship that is working well and delivering for both nations, the people, and businesses. Sri Lanka is heading for an election cycle and I hope it will foster an environment in which we can realise a continued strong relationship.
Q: In your perspective, what are Sri Lanka’s key challenges?
Reconciliation is foremost. Whoever wins the next elections, I do hope they continue to give real focus to steps needed to draw people together. This, not only through material investments in the right places and ways which is important too, to stimulate economic growth, but also more importantly in giving priority and investing in hearts-and-minds reconciliation.
In my previous postings in Columbia and Peru as well given UK’s Northern Ireland experience, sustained investment is needed over a period on hearts-and-minds reconciliation. Sri Lanka’s greatest guarantee for the future and prosperity for everybody rest on bringing people together. I have heard people see a risk that in the upcoming elections campaign, some will say things which will be divisive. If it turns out to be so, then it will not be helpful for Sri Lanka to achieve its longer-term goals of true reconciliation.
Whoever wins the next elections, I do hope they continue to give real focus to steps needed to draw people together. This, not only through material investments in the right places and ways which is important too, to stimulate economic growth, but also more importantly in giving priority and investing in hearts-and-minds reconciliation
Politicians need to be mindful whether what you say is why you are seeking to appeal to a particular electorate and whether you are promising something which they can legitimately welcome and what you are suggesting is reasonably perceived as a threat by another community. It is of concern that people in positions of responsibility have said things which have not been helpful in building ethnic harmony. More people should condemn such statements if they are keen to build a united Sri Lanka. On the economic front, there is a need to open up and pursue further liberalisation.
Q: Globally there is a wave for more protectionism and Sri Lanka is no exception. Given your call for more liberalisation, how can Sri Lanka get the balance right?
Free trade benefits individual countries and the world. It brings prosperity. Countries can have safeguards and regulations to protect national interest but greater free trade and liberalisation are always beneficial. Some industries or companies may be in privileged positions of control which may serve their interest but don’t serve either their customers’ or the nation’s interest. There has been a lobby for further liberalisation in the shipping sector and if not pursued I do see a risk of Colombo’s hub status and leading position coming under threat as others are keen on winning a share of Sri Lanka’s market and diverting the business to their own ports. So the question is about what Sri Lanka needs to do to stay ahead of the game or move as fast as it is needed to maintain its lead.
One of the challenges for Sri Lanka is English, which is the biggest key to unlock opportunity for people and their potential
The challenge for Sri Lanka is deciding how to reduce the many barriers to competition. Sri Lanka is ranked at the bottom half of the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which is not where it should be or where it wants to be. Market liberalisation and reforms would help inspire investor confidence and move Sri Lanka up. Opening doors for competition is a tough call because people are worried about losing market share, having grown comfortably in a protected environment. However, I also know there are lot of good companies in Sri Lanka which are also globally competitive. A case in point is the apparel companies,which have been expanding globally. So opening up more is an important opportunity.
During my speech at the launch of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, I stressed on the issue of enforceability of contracts, in which Sri Lanka scores lowest in the Ease of Doing Business Ranking. I regularly hear about the seriousness of this issue from businesses with a long time taken when it comes to litigation. I believe with a bit of administrative reforms, you can make the Courts more efficient, which will be in everybody’s interest. Customs reforms, changes to punitive tax systems, and land reformsare some of the other issues.
Business leaders and groups have a strong sense of what is right and what is needed, what makes things tick. They have to speak up often and more consistently for what they believe as right in the nation’s real interest. This would help the entire country to be developed. Debates or policy arguments sometimes can be difficult but must be pursued with to get the best solution.
Q: The UK is a key tourism source market for Sri Lanka. How can Sri Lanka develop tourism on a sustainable basis and recover quicker especially post the Easter Sunday setback?
Over the years Sri Lanka has been commendably successful in attracting British tourists to enjoy its great diversity and beauty. Global experience has been that recovery period post a terrorist incident is never a shorter one, as many would like to be. With confidence building efforts and greater destination marketing, the recovery will happen.
To me, sustainability in tourism is more important for the long term. Sri Lanka needs to focus on revenue than merely rushing to increase the numbers, with Bhutan and Botswana being good examples. National wildlife parks must be managed on a sustainable manner, if not Sri Lanka may lose a key appeal. A suggestion I like to make is to allow debit or credit card payments for purchase of tickets to these parks which will improve convenience as well as reduce cash handling. There is also a general view that entry fees must be reduced as well.
Q: What memory of your tenure in Sri Lanka will remain with you forever?
I told my team at the High Commission that what really makes a difference in whether my posting is fun or not, is the people. When I mean people, it is wide – havinghad great colleagues to work with at the High Commission, political party leaders who are happy to talk to you, etc. Sri Lanka is a country which has given me and my familya warm reception, including by people in the furthest corners of the country as we travelled widely. So this warmth will always stick with us. I am a keen bird watcher and champion of conservation, hence Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places I have been to.
Business leaders and groups have a strong sense of what is right and what is needed, what makes things tick. They have to speak up often and more consistently for what they believe as right in the nation’s real interest. This would help the entire country to be developed. Debates or policy arguments sometimes can be difficult but must be pursued with to get the best solution
Q: You spoke of people having made a difference during your stint. Sri Lanka also faces a massive human capital challenge in terms of skills and ready availability. So people is both a strength and a challenge for Sri Lanka. The UK is also key destination for higher education. What lessons can Sri Lanka learn from the UK?
I have seen a lot of thought being given to this issue and how to fix it. One of the challenges for Sri Lanka is English, which is the biggest key to unlock opportunity for people and their potential. I have been to good universities in Sri Lanka where I only have been able to talk with some of the undergraduates using an interpreter. This is very sad for them because they may be brilliant but without the level of English that good employers are probably looking for, they are going to find it hard to realise that talent and it would be frustrating to them.
I have spoken to many Vice Chancellors about this challenge, who recognise that raising English standards needs to be an important focus. It is a tough challenge for them when undergraduates enter university with a low level of English competency from school. This reinforces the need to focus on developing English language skills at a much younger age starting from early primary. It is always a challenge to build this capacity but with modern IT and online tools making learning language fun, it is possible. For this, all schools would require Wi-Fi and digital tools.
Rather than creating State jobs, the Government needs to create the correct environment for graduates to find employment in the private sector. This is key. There has been lot of discussions on the value of degrees the universities are giving undergraduates and there is room for improvement in this aspect too.
Q: In a tweet following a courtesy call on Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, you had welcomed the openness to dialogue in Sri Lanka. Can you expand?
As the British High Commissioner, I am privileged by the access that lots of people both in the Government and outside, business leaders, civil society leaders, etc. have given me and their willingness to spend time talking with me. This may not be the same everywhere. So having worked in Sri Lanka is special.
Q: How would you regard the freedom of the press and free speech during your tenure in Sri Lanka?
When I arrived in 2015 I remember travelling to north and seeing the sense of relief among people who no longer felt the same sense of threat from State actors when expressing their thoughts on many issues. I doubt this was the case previously, hence this freedom must be appreciated and safeguarded. I must stress that a strong government can live with free speech.
Strong governments should not have reasons to fear a free press. It is healthy to have people asking questions which may be uncomfortable, because it is an important part of democratic balance. So a positive change I saw during my tenure is the press and the civil society found it is a lot safer for them to express and ask questions.
I must stress that a strong government can live with free speech. Strong governments should not have reasons to fear a free press. It is healthy to have people asking questions which may be uncomfortable, because it is an important part of democratic balance
Q: There has been progress on political and constitutional reforms post 2015, though today there is renewed debate about the way forward. Any thoughts?
I am always wary about commenting on constitutional issues of a country. We have been supporting work by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy with the Sri Lankan Parliament, sharing our experience in Westminster on how Parliament and MPs can develop the best role Parliament can play. One of the areas is cross party select committees to ask questions of the Executive and holding the Executive accountable on decisions made or on policy.
Committees comprising MPs from the Government and the Opposition examining the nation’s finances or health policy, etc. are good in the national interest rather than tribal loyalty to one’s own party. As a progressive nation it is important for Sri Lanka to get constitutional reforms right and part of that is getting everyone committed to get the system to work well.
Q: How can countries like Sri Lanka tackle extremism?
Sri Lanka isn’t unique – this issue is faced globally, be it religious or political extremism. Greater dialogue is key to overcoming this challenge, especially within communities, when it comes to religious extremism. They need to be honest about what needs to be changed or reformed. For example, there has been healthy dialogue over the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. Religious leaders can play an important role in allaying concerns among the people of their own community about processes taking place in a different community and help explain that process and support it. I understand this is always challenging as some of the issues are concerning their faith, principles and values. This is best achieved through society wanting to collaborate in making everyone’s journey peaceful instead of attacking.