Refuting claims that Sri Lanka should exploit the situation created by the sudden departure of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council, to take the country off HRC agenda, Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said,it was easier said than done.
” We cannot escape the resolution..we have undertaken certain commitments and we should deliver on those commitments.. there will be follow up,” he said. As the former Human Rights Minister the subject of UN HRC was under his purview for many years.
In reference to the 2020 Presidential election, Minister Samarasinghe who is also the Senior Vice President of the SLFP said, ‘fielding another Rajapaksa would be suicidal to Sri Lanka given the developments in the Geneva Human Rights Council.’
He added the SLFP Central Committee is yet to formally decide on a presidential candidate but the party prefers President Maithripala Sirisena to run for a second term.
Q. In 2019, there will be a presidential election. Has the SLFP decided on a presidential candidate?
A. Well ,we have not formally taken a decision at the Central Committee. The SLFP preference is to see the current President going for another term, we believe he is the best candidate for another presidential term, because of his ability to be a leader of all communities. He is proven to be a leader who puts the country first. He is very passionate about national interests and he can be trusted. He is not looking at ensuring his children a political future at the cost of the country. Neither is he obsessed with power nor is he dictatorial. He believes Sri Lanka has to get on with everyone in the international community, as against the stance taken by the previous Government. These policies will serve Sri Lanka best. We are hopeful that he will consider going for another term and there is no doubt, that he will win.
Q. Is there a possibility for the SLFP and the SLPP to get together before the next Presidential election?
A. We have left our doors open for any SLFPer to come back to the SLFP-proper. These are people who got selected to Parliament under the SLFP ticket. I’m not talking about the other parties in the Alliance, but certainly for the SLFP members we have not closed the door, we would welcome them anytime because we want to strengthen our party. Whether they come or not is up to them. As for the new parties that are being formed, they hardly last the test of time. The best example is the party formed by the breakaway Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanyake group. Although they were highly acclaimed strong politicians, they could not break the UNP. The stakes are very high. These are lessons in history.
The only attraction towards SLPP is the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But he will have to retire ultimately, besides constitutionally he cannot run for a third term. The way I see it, there is nowhere for us to go, we are in the SLFP proper. We will remain there. The others who walked out will have to come back. There is nothing for us to be excited about, new parties will come and go but the traditional parties will have to hold the fort despite temporary setbacks.
After the 1977 election, SLFP was reduced to nothing but it bounced back and now it has been in power since 1994.
Q. There are calls for different members of the Rajapaksa family, former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa as well as Basil and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to enter the fray as the SLPP’s Presidential candidate in 2020. What is your response?
A. People must ask, isn’t there anyone other than a Rajapaksa? There is internal democracy within the SLFP. President Maithripala Sirisena is not working towards making his son or daughter or any other family member the next President of Sri Lanka. I don’t know what the SLPP will decide, but it seems like this issue will either make or break the SLPP. I think people must look at the larger picture. My personal view is that supporting a Rajapaksa to contest the Presidency is going to be suicidal for Sri Lanka. President Mahinda Rjapaksa advanced the election in 2015 by two years, because he knew if he waited till March 2015, the Geneva Human Rights Council would have tabled a very harsh report on Sri Lanka. Certain countries were waiting to put economic embargoes and it would have been suicide to go for elections after that. It was President Sirisena who ensured that the report did not come to the Human Rights Council in the form that it was intended to come. The report was delayed by one year and eventually when it was tabled, it was a softer version of the original.
Today, we are getting the support of all the countries represented in the Human Rights Council because we have shown political commitment to engage with then and towards comprehensive reconciliation. If a Rajapaksa is to be elected once again, the political agendas will be played against the country, also because of the family’s reliance on a few individual countries to develop Sri Lanka.
Q. The principal sponsor of the UN Human Rights Council resolutions against Sri Lanka 30/1 and 34/1, the United States has left the UN Human Rights Council over Israel. In this back drop, it has been said that Sri Lanka should exploit this situation to get the country off the HRC Agenda as this process could eventually lead to economic sanctions and that is detrimental to the country. Is that really a possibility?
A. No not at all, US is just one country that sponsored the resolution. We cannot escape that resolution. There is no question about the delivery on the substance of the resolution, there will be a follow up. We have been delivering but there is more to be done. In the last resolution, we have undertaken certain commitments and we have to deliver on those commitments. We have to travel that distance to ensure comprehensive reconciliation.
Q. Critics say’ intelligence and strategic possibilities were part of the negotiations’ with China in finalising the Hambantota Port lease agreement. How would you respond?
A. Obviously, the Hambantota location is excellent given that it is located on a main sea lane. This is one of the reasons why China, wanted to invest such a huge amount of money in this project. They will obviously try to take advantage of the location and expedite the development project. As far as the strategic importance is concerned we have made our position clear right at the very outset. We have maintained that the lease agreement is purely a commercial transaction, and nothing else. The agreement clearly says that the Sri Lanka Navy will continue to be inside the port, and carry out their mandate. And the port cannot be used for any military activity.
Q. The final payment of the Hambantota Port lease was completed recently. What will be the impact of this on the overall project?
A. This project by China Merchant Port is the largest foreign direct investment (FDI), in the history of Sri Lanka. It signifies a huge amount of money being pumped up to the Treasury which in turn will stabilise the rupee, boost international reserves and enhance our investment climate, etc. Out of the US $ 1.12 billion, we had US $ 974 million coming straight into the Treasury coffers. And another US $ 146 million is coming in another one month as a FDI to be invested in the Hambantota Port.
The China Merchant Port has also expressed willingness to invest a further US$ 400m – US $ 600m to complete the third phase of the Hambantota Port. To fully operationalise the port we need to go to the third phase. These funds too will come as a FDI, not a loan.
We will be in a better footing to meet our public debt obligations. The rupee has stabilised during the past few days. The challenge we have as a country, is to meet our debt obligations starting from 2019. By 2019, we must begin to settle all the loans the previous regime has borrowed. Sri Lanka’s debt service ratio is going to increase. We need to have the financial muscle and financial capacity to meet them.
Q. Have you completed paying compensation for owners of the acquired lands in Hambantota?
A. There is no issue there. That has been settled.
Q. When is the East Terminal Project of Colombo Port going to commence ?
A. We recently got approval from the National Economic Council (NEC) headed by President to submit a Cabinet paper on the East Terminal. The NEC endorsed our request for a Cabinet paper to be submitted seeking formal approval for the SLPA to go ahead with the operationalisation of the East Terminal.
It was on the grounds that the long term survival and the sustainability of the SLPA depends on the East Terminal being operationlised and run by the SLPA.
The East Terminal is the only deep water harbour facility that we have in Colombo. The Jeya Container Terminal cannot bring in ships beyond a certain size. The larger ships need much more depth, now there is a trend internationally for shipping companies to acquire larger ships.
Currently, bigger ships can only be accommodated in one terminal in the Colombo port. That is the CICT, run by China Merchant Port with SLPA holding only 15% equity. As a result of only one terminal being able to accommodate these larger ships, we have found that there is congestion building up. Once it is operationalised the SLPA will have two profit making terminals.
Q. Colombo port is ranked 23 in the world in terms of container handling.
A. Yes, but in terms of connectivity, the Colombo Port is ranked 13.
We have surpassed 6 million TEUs with a 21 million population, whereas, India is still at the level of 14 million TUs with a population of 1.2 billion. It also underscores the fact that we are in fact the trans shipment hub in South Asia. The above project will only consolidate that position further boosting our efficiency and connectivity possibilities.
Q. Are we contemplating the building of a passenger terminal to attract cruise liners to Port of Colombo?
A. We are now in the process of calling for Expressions of Interest ( EOIs) for an international maritime centre concept which will involve the state of the art infrastructure facilities to attract cruise liners. Because proper infrastructure facilities in the Colombo Port are lacking, a lot of the cruise liners are simply bypassing Sri Lanka. There are cruise liners calling at Colombo, but the facilities are not at all attractive enough, so we have decided to fast track the development of Queen Elizabeth Quay.
We will be able to go in for PPP, with an internationally reputed operator who can add value. We are not eyeing any particular company. There will be a tender process. Then, there will be a Technical Evaluation Committee and a Cabinet appointed negotiation committee. We want to make sure that we offer a level playing field to everyone.
Q. What is the progress of the proposed automated container tracking and logging system of Colombo Port?
A. The SLPA is in the process of upgrading their systems and with that we are looking at automated systems, to increase productivity and efficiency but it will not be done at the cost of existing human labor. Shipping companies are demanding for more efficient loading and unloading procedures. We have 9600 workers in the port, their job security is of paramount importance to us. We are looking for an arrangement that will balance these two requirements.
Q. What are the plans to develop Trincomalee Harbour?
A. We want to fast track the development of the Trinco Harbour also. Trincomalee is a another strategically located port. It is one of the finest deep water harbours in the world. It can be developed into something very much bigger. We also have 85,000 acres of land that belongs to the Trinco Harbour and hence SLPA . The idea is to develop that land and tap industry, to facilitate our exporters and importers.
We were waiting for the Trincomalee district master plan, prepared by a Singaporean company. From what I understand the plan now has been finalised and handed over. The development has to be coordinated with the master plan. We are now in the process of studying the plan. We will have to work hand in hand with other government agencies to realise the Harbor’s full potential.
Q. Will there be foreign involvement in developing the Trinco Harbour ?
A. We have not decided yet. SLPA does not depend on Treasury handouts to develop its ports, we are a profit earning state agency. We made a record profit of Rs. 13.3 billion. We have the financial muscle to do the development, but of course if there are strategic partners who could add value to what we hope to do there, that is an option the Cabinet of Ministers may consider in the future. We are now in the process of identifying exactly the way forward. If we are to set up factories, we need to identify the industries and invite private sectors partners, foreign as well as local.