Mr. President, Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen.
It is an honour to be invited as the Chief Guest to the 17th Annual Session of the Organization of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka and to share the podium with two outstanding citizens of our country who have made such a valuable contribution to leaven our national life.
Following my return to Sri Lanka last year, I have been kindly invited as Chief Guest to many functions, not all of which could I have possibly accepted. Public speaking on such occasions is not a cabaret performance. Respect for your audiences requires careful preparation and serious reflection, all of which is time consuming. One invitation I had no hesitation in accepting was yours Mr. President, because of my long standing admiration for the work of the OPA and its genuine, objective and fearless efforts to make a difference through policy-oriented opinion formation on the key national issues of the day. I did so even though the honoured and indispensable profession of diplomacy, which I have been proud to belong to, remains, sadly, un-represented in your organization.
Your invitation was extended and accepted before I assumed my current functions in the Peace Secretariat of our country. Needless to say therefore the views I express this evening are entirely my own as a concerned citizen of Sri Lanka and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of the Government.
This year, your theme is extremely relevant, coming as it does in the wake of national and provincial council elections and in the context of the unresolved problem of converting a fragile Cease-fire Agreement into a permanent and secure peace settlement - while problems regarding poverty, health, education, crime, rising intolerance, and other development issues continue to engage our urgent attention collectively. We frequently tend to wallow in self-denigration and regard ourselves as a hopelessly fractious society working through a politically divisive system. While this is not entirely untrue, it is also true of some other countries. The key to the problem is to maintain the strong links between civil society and the Government of the day, so that in the governance of the country there is always a response to the felt needs of civil society. Engaging with civil society is not an option for democratic Governments. It is a necessity. The 'social contract' famously espoused by Jean Jacques Rousseau needs to be regularly reaffirmed and renewed. The holding of elections from time to time in a Parliamentary democracy is one of the great liberties we have cherished since 1931, even before we became independent. However, it is wrong to assume that with the mandate given to a Government, the people abdicate all their rights to participate in governance until the next election. The assessment and the implementation of national interests is nobody’s sole monopoly. It is a shared responsibility, which must be a continuous process. Some countries like Switzerland use referenda as a reality check on popular sentiment on special issues before formulating national policy. Others have public hearings on issues. A wide variety of measures or best practices are available in the exercise of governance for the views of civil society to be ascertained to ensure responsive governance.
There is, unfortunately, frequent confusion between civil society and Non-Governmental Organizations. Non-Governmental Organizations or NGOs are a part of civil society which embraces many other bodies and groups and individuals who represent a silent majority of our nation. The very concept of civil society has been criticized as an undesirable foreign import from Western political theory and from the politics and economic life of developed countries. The fact that many civil society groups in the South generally, and in Sri Lanka in particular, are financed by their counterparts or Governments in the North, is itself controversial and taints these groups as promoting a Northern agenda. It is true that some of this criticism - as with foreign aid in general - is misplaced and disguises a xenophobic intolerance of foreign, that is Western, views. It is also true that it reveals an alarming rejection of a basic staple of democratic society - that honest men and women can disagree. But there is also an element of truth in the kind of self-promoting and self-serving agenda of some NGOs totally dependent on foreign financing of their project proposals. While NGOs have their own responsibilities to civil society, they must also realize that they do not always have the ‘Devas’ on their side. They must also guard against institutionalized punditry! A transparent humility of approach, rather than self-righteous preaching and posturing, may help their agenda and may persuade their audiences to listen and act. Throughout my career as a diplomat I have been bemused by the inconsistency of all Governments on the participation of NGOs in the work of the United Nations. Western industrialized Governments who assiduously encourage NGOs in the field of human rights actively discourage them working in disarmament and global trade issues. Non aligned countries who strenuously support NGOs in development and nuclear disarmament fora become very defensive and adversarial with NGOs working in the human rights and small arms fields. A rigorously consistent policy of providing space for a constructive dialogue with NGOs representing international civil society is needed in all international bodies while in domestic politics Governments must ensure that NGO participation does not depend on the whim and fancy of individual bureaucrats.
At best civil society is not a threat to the legitimacy of democratically elected governments. It is an actual partner in assisting governments to achieve possible goals, functioning as a bank of the nation’s values and conscience. When groups in civil society pursue goals that benefit the long-term interests of the community at large, rather than their own particular interests, this partnership has enormous potential to improve the stability and effectiveness of democracies. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has often described civil society as “the new super power”, thereby reminding us that it is the people who remain the ultimate sovereign in all public life.
It should come as no surprise that a term like “civil society” should be used as a slogan for a variety of political purposes. The concept of the ruler governing in harmony with his people is an ancient one. Transparency, inclusiveness and good governance are more than fashionable buzz words imported from the lexicon of international discourse like 'paradigm shift' and 'stakeholders'. They represent basic concepts that have existed in traditional societies and practised to a greater or lesser degree through the transitions from feudalism through capitalism and socialism. It is among the teachings of the Buddha as the 'Ten Duties of the King" or " Dasa Raja Dhamma" which include 'avirodha'. Whether the mandate was from heaven as in ancient China or from God as in Tudor England the need to work in consonance with the people was always borne in mind. The term 'civil society' was used after the French Revolution as part of the efforts of Hegel and other political theorists of his time to come to grips with the relationship between society and the state. After World War II, the term once again grew in popularity, as social scientists and national leaders sought to identify the preconditions for the growth of democracy – civil society became, in a sense, the antidote for autocracy. The term has also undergone somewhat of a renaissance after then end of the Cold War, as political leaders have increasingly used the term to promote democracy and human rights internationally.
Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience (Satyagraha) against the British Raj in India and the people’s power that toppled the Marcos regime in the Philippines were examples of civil society acting collectively for a political cause. They were efforts to change unjust laws and bad governance without actually rejecting the rule of law. A quintessential aspect of such civil society action was their non-violent character.
Not all groups in society, of course, are focused on serving the broader public good. There is, first of all, a collection of individuals and organized groups in society that perversely engage in terrorism, drug-trafficking, the exploitation of children, the conduct of ethnic cleansing, and the proliferation of deadly arms. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called them elements of “uncivil society” and has cited them as part of the negative aspects of the broader process of globalization with which every country must cope. Other groups seek less to advance the common good than to promote their own special economic or ideological interests, being accountable to no one except their own members and perhaps not at all representative of society at large. Leaders everywhere know that the long-term public interest of a people is more – much more – than simply the sum of the particular interests of organized groups.
And last of all, we must also consider the multitude of people who do not belong to political or economic groups at all. Though “globalization” has now become a popular slogan, let us not forget that about half of the world’s population of six billion has neither made nor received a telephone call – and that half of the world continues to exist on less than two US dollars or about two hundred rupees per day.
Civil society is, therefore, perhaps best seen as an evolving concept rather than a concrete phenomenon. At its best, it can offer increased prospects for political stability, balanced growth, the defense of human rights, the protection of the environment, and hopes for domestic and international peace and security. At its worst, civil society risks degenerating into little more than a multitude of special interests competing in a never-ending battle for society’s increasingly scarce resources, with little consideration of the common good. Elements of civil society can rally against nuclear weapons, for example, yet we have also seen here in South Asia how the mass public can also rally on behalf of them. Civil society is not a panacea for all the world’s ills, but when it works in combination with the efforts of governments in the collective interest, it can then achieve its full potential as an instrument of both peace and prosperity. In a democracy, it can serve as a custodian of the public interest in-between electoral processes. Civil society can contribute ideas, vision, energy and a capacity to mobilize societal action for a common cause. As Kofi Annan once said - "A strong civil society promotes responsible citizenship and makes democratic forms of government work. A weak civil society supports authoritarian rule, which keeps society weak."
Let me turn to two examples of how nations and civil society can contribute to governance on a global and national scale. A panel of eminent persons led by the former President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, reported in June of this year on the access and participation of civil society organizations in UN deliberations and processes. They made a number of useful proposals especially to increase the participation of civil society representatives from developing countries expanding on Secretary General Kofi Annan's unique focus on the opening lines of the UN Charter "We the peoples of the United Nations". Greater democratic accountability in international organizations, a growing trend towards participatory democracy through globally linked interest groups and civil society initiated global action such as the e-mail driven groundswell that led to the 1997 Mine Ban Convention through Jody Williams' International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) are among the features highlighted in the report. Encouraging a plurality of constituencies, greater civil society participation in the General Assembly and Security Council and a closer two-way connection between the local and the global are among the objectives advocated. While many of the proposals relate to strengthening the UN and multilateralism, I was struck by the emphasis placed on engagement at the country level to enhancing the contributions of civil society and others to national strategies for achieving the Millenium Development Goals endorsed by the leaders of the world at the UN in the year 2000.
On a national scale it is well known that we have entered a new chapter in the peace process of our country. It is important that we learn the lessons of previous chapters in a seamless process of continuity and change so that we may succeed in restoring peace and stability in the country and achieving prosperity for all our citizens. In her address to the nation on 12 June of this year President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga announced the establishment of several new structures in the peace process in an attempt to provide greater transparency and inclusivity. One such body is the National Advisory Council on Peace and Reconciliation which is intended to provide a forum where not only political parties but also civil society groups and religious groups can contribute ideas and proposals for a political settlement and work collectively towards reconciliation. A continuing dialogue is anticipated through this body. The tasks as defined by the President are to serve as a forum "explaining to the country the Government's efforts to bring peace, briefing the country on the progress of peace negotiations, obtaining the views of all concerned parties and groups and promoting reconciliation and understanding among different communities'. This represents an unique opportunity for civil society and I would hope that the OPA and other civil society groups will seize this to make their views known on what is undoubtedly the most critical issue facing our land.
Mr. President, Ladies & Gentlemen, it is time I conclude. Before I do so may I pay a tribute to all professions - those that are represented in your umbrella organization and those that are not. Let me also do so in the words of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who lived and worked in Sri Lanka and whose birth centennial was recently marked by the planting of a tree in Vihara Maha Devi Park by the Mayor of Colombo in the presence of the OPA President and myself. The last stanza of his poem 'Guilty' reads as follows:-
"It's too late to deny
I had the time
Yet the hands were lacking,
So how could I aim
If I was never able
Not even one?"