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download (2)I was privileged last month to attend the Oslo Forum, an annual gathering of those engaged in mediation and conflict resolution. I had been invited, along with Mr Sumanthiran, to debate on whether it was correct to talk to extremists. The concept paper referred in some detail to recent developments in Nigeria and Afghanistan, but we were in fact the only participants in the debate from a country which had recently been in grave danger from extremists. We were able however to benefit during the Forum in general from informed inputs from several delegates from countries now suffering from extremism, such as Nigeria and Syria and Yemen.

Our own debate was chaired by Tim Sebastian, and though it was generally accepted that I came off well, I told him afterwards that I was glad my Hard Talk interview had been not with him, but with Stephen Sackur. Interestingly, that interview still raises hackles amongst those who seem stuck in an extremist agenda, so I presume they are grateful to our government for no longer using the services of anyone who can engage effectively in Hard Talk. In turn I am grateful to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Switzerland, which organizes the Oslo Forum, and more recently to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for giving me a forum in which to argue the case for what the Sri Lankan government has achieved. Contrariwise, those now with the mandate to represent us internationally seem busily engaged in undoing that achievement day by day.

But that discussion, grandly termed the Oslo Debate, was only part of a very interesting programme. Amongst the contributors were Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, and I felt particularly privileged to talk to the latter, still thoughtfully constructive at the age of almost 90. I look on him as the best President America has had in recent times, perhaps the only idealist of the 20th century apart from Woodrow Wilson – which is perhaps why their tenures ended in what seems failure. Certainly, as I asked him, his signal achievement in putting Human Rights at the centre of American Foreign Policy seems to have been perverted by his successors who have turned using it for strategic purposes into a fine art.

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I referred some weeks back to the games being played by various individuals and institutions in Colombo with regard to the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, the political foundation of the German Free Democratic Party. This is a member of Liberal International, though its Liberalism is generally more concerned with free market economics, and does not have the same commitment to social equity as say the British Liberal Party. Still, there are enough people in the FDP, and also in the FNS, who understand our commitment in Sri Lanka to a more Gladstonian version of Liberalism, though sadly they have been in comparative short supply in dealings with South Asia.

I suppose this is understandable in that South Asia tended, at the time the FNS established itself here, to be committed to social equity from a more socialist standpoint, and it was free markets that needed nurturing. However this led to at least some personnel neglecting other aspects of Liberalism, as with the official who said he saw nothing wrong with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s assertion that democracy could be delayed, as in South Korea and other East Asian countries, until development had reached a satisfactory level.

This mindset has contributed to a generally hostile attitude to the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, though there have been honourable exceptions, including the Regional Director who encouraged my conducting workshops on Liberalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sadly he was soon sent away from Delhi, though he has since contributed immeasurably to Liberalism in South East Asia, where the command model of an open economy held sway, and it was necessary for Liberal parties to argue for the restoration of democracy and social equity.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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