|Speech made by Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe, MP, Minister of Disaster Management & Human Rights|
|Tuesday, 11 November 2008|
Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe, MP, Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights during the debate on the second reading of the 2009 Budget Parliament of Sri Lanka, Sri Jayawardenepura-Kotte, Monday, 10 November 2009
Mr. Speaker, It is an honour and a privilege to address this House this morning on the occasion of the debate on the Budget proposals for 2009, presented four days ago by His Excellency the President in his capacity as the Hon Minister of Finance & Planning. The 4th consecutive Budget, presented by President Mahinda Rakapaksa, marks a significant milestone in the journey towards prosperity and a better tomorrow for all.
It is a journey envisioned in the “Mahinda Chinthana: A vision for a new Sri Lanka” and spelt out in more specific detail in the 10 year horizon development framework, 2006-2016. As His Excellency pointed out, Sri Lanka stands at a major crossroads in our modern history. He stated: “The humanitarian operation to relieve the country from the grips of terrorism has reached its final phase. A democratic environment for a political solution in which the power of all people will be amply strengthened is emerging. A revival of religions, cultural and moral values has taken place. We have reached a decisive juncture in our journey towards peace and development.”
This Budget, therefore Mr. Speaker, is an opportune time for reappraisal of the progress made towards the fundamental transformation in so many facets of our country’s fortunes that the present administration pledged to achieve in 2005. We have a solid base to build on. His Excellency outlined our strengths in terms of our consistent GDP growth since 2006 and rising per capita income. Our Government has ensured that our development priorities are capable of being met with five out of eight Millennium Development Goals and are being on track for achievement, and two more are being designated as achievable by 2015. The eighth does not depend on national factors alone. In terms of Human Development, we are ahead of all other countries in the South Asian sub-region.
The entire country is now aware of the emphasis placed by His Excellency on his policy of encouraging local producers and production in line with the “Mahinda Chinthana” with a view to empowering the rural economy. Other budgetary priorities focused on for 2009, relate to reducing the cost of living and to the utilization of foreign investments productively to enable us to produce all we can, within Sri Lanka. From a broader standpoint, whilst promoting local production, the proposals announced last Thursday are also aimed at providing relief that would benefit the majority of the society – not just a fortunate few. Noteworthy proposals include the reduction of fuel prices, transport fares, electricity and water tariffs, VAT and income tax, in addition to an enhanced cost of living allowance granted to public servants and pensioners. Special facilities are also to be extended to members of the armed forces that are striving so valiantly to preserve national unity and territorial integrity and to defeat the forces of terror.
It is not my intention to go over the several positive features of the many proposals highlighted by His Excellency – these are doubtless fresh in your mind as they are in the minds of my honourable colleagues in this august Assembly. Instead, I will attempt to deal with some critical policy issues that we, as a Government and as a nation, must grapple with if we are to face the future with confidence and the expectation of a better life for succeeding generations.
we live in uncertain times. There is a global financial crisis that is bringing the world’s biggest economies to their knees. Food shortages, the spread of HIV/AIDS and other fatal diseases, climate change, global terrorism and dwindling natural resources are challenges that all nations must contend with – big and small, rich and poor, developed and developing. In the face of all these challenges, the role of a national government is sometimes reduced to merely staving off the worst effects of global threats and to seek common approaches to dealing with such threats through regional and international alliances and collaborative efforts. I will deal with one such issue and demonstrate how our efforts, creativity and resolve can enable us to overcome potentially serious consequences for our people. It is generally acknowledged,
that there is an impending prospect of a global food shortage. The prices of food recently took a sharp upturn on global commodity markets. Our Government has taken definite and concrete measures to address just such a threat. His Excellency the President has provided astute leadership in committing Sri Lanka to a programme of renewal in agriculture through the “Api Wawamu – Rata Nagamu” strategy that will enable us to ensure a measure of food security in the face of global adversity. As was pointed out on Thursday, there are a host of ancillary matters that need to be addressed if such a strategy is to succeed. Fertilizer must be made available at a cost that ensures that farmers can affordably increase their productivity. Seeds must be made available. Financing and agricultural extension schemes must be readily accessible. The Budget proposals for 2009 provide for all these initiatives which are critical for the wellbeing of our people.
Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe, MP,
Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights
Furthermore, Mr. Speaker, I must point out that we are not alone in this effort to ensure food security for our people. With our elevation to the Chair of SAARC, we have collectively committed to establishing a food bank for the sub-region and this will prove an additional guarantee of security. As the Minister in charge of the subject of human rights, I am deeply conscious that our people do not merely have the guarantee of ‘freedom from hunger’. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – or ICESCR – to which Sri Lanka is a State Party, declares in Article 11 that the right to food is a basic human right. The right is realized when every man, woman, and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement. This implies the availability of food in a quantity, and of a quality, sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals. Moreover, food must be free from adverse substances, acceptable within a given culture and accessible in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights. It is manifestly clear that our Government is doing its utmost to fulfil not only the rights of our people to adequate levels of sustenance, but also to comply with our international obligations.
As Minister for disaster management, I am acutely aware that management of risk and risk reduction is a sine qua non of dealing successfully with a multiplicity of hazards. The mitigation, prevention, risk reduction, preparedness and management of natural and man-made disasters are dependent, therefore, on a realistic assessment of risk and planning and management of the response. Our Government has shown the foresight, character and resilience to face several economic shocks and the capability to manage our economy in a manner that has enabled us to avert disastrous consequences for our people. The price of crude oil that recently spiked at USD 147 per barrel and the global financial meltdown has caused many to rethink the merits of the dominant free-market policies that held sway in much of the global community. The President explicitly stated that it is his policy to distance Sri Lanka from the policies of neo-liberalism and unfettered global free-trade. Recent experience has shown that unthinking privatization, de-regulation and over reliance on the free play of market forces can have disastrous consequences for national economies several times the magnitude of Sri Lanka. Our Government,
Mr. Speaker, will not shun its responsibility of oversight, direction, regulation and supervision of critical segments of the national economy. We will enable our private sector, our SME sector and our services sector to thrive and flourish. However, where direct intervention is needed to ensure balanced development, social equity and justice and the strengthening of national capabilities and capacities in supporting economic growth, we will not shy away from our responsibility.
Commentators have characterized some of the fiscal measures announced last week as an attempt to impose prohibitive tariff barriers on imports and to revisit the era of import substitution which, we all recall, was a time of hardship and privation in the 1970s. On the contrary, our attempts, as the President pointed out, are to incentivize key sectors of production and to generate savings in foreign currency through increased national productivity. For instance, Mr. Speaker, the traditional occupation of dairy farming, which was widely engaged in throughout the South, East and other parts of this country for generations, should be reinvigorated and strengthened to develop the economies of those regions as well as to provide essential nutrition to the people of Sri Lanka. Our Budget proposals are carefully crafted to achieve this object. We are similarly committed, with the assistance of modern technology and innovation, to building capabilities in several agricultural, service and industrial sectors so as to renew the fortunes of entrepreneurs – large and small – who wish to contribute to national economic growth and prosperity in addition to merely gaining a return on their investment. The private sector has, by and large, acknowledged the growth-oriented approach of the budget proposals and we are confident, Mr. Speaker, that our Government’s aspirations for our people will be further advanced by this Budget.
I turn now to the vastly significant, if not the most important, subject occupying the agenda of the Government. I refer to the conflict and its consequences. Our current efforts to combat terror and ensure a safer, more secure future for all our people, are bearing fruit after years of protracted conflict. While we make gains militarily in combating terrorism, we are also reinvigorating democratic institutions and progressing speedily with economic development initiatives to lock-in the gains made so far. Concurrently, we are attempting to deal with a host of issues, problems and potential pitfalls arising from or related to the conflict. The problems posed by internally displaced persons, their resettlement and return, as well as the care and welfare of ordinary civilians affected by the conflict, remain foremost amongst these. Dealing with post-conflict social integration and the host of issues connected with ensuring sustainable futures for those involved in, and affected by, the conflict is another priority. Investment in rebuilding civilian administration, physical and social infrastructure and, ultimately, creating conditions of normality for all our people remains our long term goal. The Eastern Province bears ample testimony to our approach in dealing with the conflict.
As His Excellency pointed out, a vast majority of displaced people, numbering approximately 180,000, were resettled within nine months, in line with international standards. Basic facilities were reconstructed. The end of 2007 saw local authority elections conducted in the Batticaloa District. Earlier this year, Provincial Elections were held and a popularly elected administration was established in terms of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. All necessary measures were taken to bring about the re-establishment of democracy throughout the Eastern Province via a pluralistic political process and the restoration of civil administration to ensure access to the full gamut of governmental services available to the rest of the country. Up to now, Rs. 25 billion had been spent for development of the East including massive investment in infrastructure. As promised in the Mahinda Chintana, a reawakening of the East was made a reality. A similar strategy is being adopted vis-à-vis the North. We hope to ensure similar re-democratization of the entirety of the North in the coming months.
As His Excellency stated, a ‘Northern Spring’ awaits us – just over the horizon. Mr. Speaker, Our concern for the welfare of our people does not depend on us gaining military ascendancy over our adversary and control of territory. Successive Governments of Sri Lanka have, throughout the duration of the conflict, sent food, medicine, educational supplies and other essential items into areas not under its control. This commitment, over such a sustained period of conflict is, to my knowledge, unique. Our Government has continued this practice in spite of the knowledge that some of the humanitarian assistance may have been diverted to other uses and may not have reached the intended recipients. We have also established and strengthened capacities in Vavuniya – the humanitarian supplies and services hub – to cater to 200,000 displaced people who may wish to escape the theatre of conflict in uncleared parts of the Vanni. Sadly, these people appear unable to avail themselves of the care provided by the Government due to the denial of their freedom of movement. This, in my opinion, is the biggest human rights violation being perpetrated on the IDPs in those areas. Despite this, the Government has sent in approximately 3,000 MT of food supplies for displaced persons, with the assistance and cooperation of international agencies including the United Nations, into uncleared areas since the end of September. I must congratulate the relevant District Secretaries, the Commissioner-General of Essential Services and the personnel of the armed services and police who have all cooperated in delivering these supplies.
Additionally, we also send in regular consignments of consumer items and food supplies to cater to the needs of ordinary residents of the uncleared areas. The transport and delivery of supplies has been very effectively coordinated by Hon. Basil Rajapaksa with the help of my colleague, Hon. Rishad Bathiudeen, and has been executed, as mentioned earlier, through the Government Agents. Mr. Speaker, We welcome assistance from our international friends and partners in delivering humanitarian assistance and also in furthering development in Sri Lanka. It is through such friendly collaboration and cooperation that many of the wants of the people may be best fulfilled. Our efforts are targeted towards addressing humanitarian concerns as a result of the conflict.
It is my privilege to chair the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance which is a high level coordinating mechanism that brings together government and its international partners as well as civil society representatives to discuss and initiate policy formulation and implementation on all matters connected with humanitarian assistance. It is a unique model of a government-led cooperative and consultative body that is geared to addressing a range of challenges that arise in the context of an ongoing conflict. That being said, as the lawfully elected and constitutionally mandated governmental authority, we believe that it is our overarching responsibility and vision that should direct the flow and targeting of such assistance.
Any external assistance must be in consonance with the Government’s plans and policies and must be undertaken in close consultation with the Government. Our Government’s policy of open and constructive engagement with international interlocutors is already bearing fruit. Let me refer to one such example. Sri Lanka has a caseload of an estimated 300,000 persons displaced as a result of the conflict since before 2006. Some of these persons have been displaced for fifteen to twenty years. In cooperation with the UN System, we invited Professor Walter Kaelin, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, to visit Sri Lanka in late 2007.
My Ministry, in collaboration with several key Government institutions and agencies, facilitated his visit. He made certain recommendations and observations at the end of his visit – some of which dealt with the protracted caseload of IDPs. We invited him back two months ago to conduct a national consultation on the status of these persons. My Ministry, in coordination with UNHCR, organized the event. He assisted by sharing his knowledge of international best-practice and in identifying the initial steps necessary to formulate a comprehensive strategy of dealing with these persons. The Government is proceeding to develop an action plan to address the several issues relevant to this problem.
Professor Kaelin in a recent address to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly commended the approach of Sri Lankan Government in the following terms: “I was greatly encouraged that the Government expressed its firm commitment to finding durable solutions for those who have been displaced for many years, in particular displaced Muslims from the North. I hope for the development of concrete proposals and actions, and look forward to my continued dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka.” It is our expectation that we will be able to gain the cooperation and support of our international partners in addressing our many challenges through consistent adherence to this policy of engagement. Mr. Speaker, In keeping with His Excellency’s sentiments, I am confident that we are able to chart our own course through the troubled waters of the storms and upheavals of our time. Our commitment to a stronger democracy, social justice, equity for all our people and a brighter tomorrow is unshaken. The promotion and protection of human rights is a principal limb of this strategy.
My Ministry is proceeding in its efforts towards drafting of a new constitutional charter of rights that will enhance the guarantee of human rights of all Sri Lankan people in fulfilment of a pledge in the Mahinda Chintana manifesto. The charter will incorporate Sri Lanka’s commitments on the international plane in the sphere of human rights. It will complement and buttress the efforts of the All-Party Representative Committee to evolve a consensual political formula that will definitively address the wants and aspirations of the Sri Lankan people – whatever their ethnicity, religious, linguistic or cultural background.
This is our Government’s vision to ensure a sustainable peace concomitant with the defeat of forces of terrorism and violence. Concurrently, we are taking a proactive step to ensure sustained and consistent efforts to ensure that human rights are protected and advanced – building on the very real and tangible gains made in the past. In keeping with the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, we have taken initial steps to draft a National Plan of Action for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights. This plan will be drafted and adopted after wide consultation with all relevant actors in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Speaker, it is evident, therefore, that His Excellency, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration is fully apprised of its responsibilities and is capable of delivering on the many expectations arising from its ambitious programme – developmental, security-related, humanitarian and political – which it has placed before the people and which won their democratic endorsement at successive elections.
The 2009 Budget is but a means to the achievement of that larger end: a new Sri Lanka - which has, at its core, the acceptance and realization that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society and that everyone would strive towards protecting and nurturing this diversity in order that every person in this country would want to unite and strive towards achieving the targets of national reconstruction and development and, ultimately, a true Sri Lankan identity. Thank you.
|Last Updated ( Thursday, 23 July 2009 )|
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