Sixteen months ago I welcomed Tamil representatives from communities here in Britain to Downing St to discuss how we could work together to address the issues of Sri Lanka’s past and put the country on the path to a brighter, peaceful and prosperous future.
Since then, a UN led investigation into alleged war crimes by all sides in the conflict has got underway. And the people of Sri Lanka have elected a new President who has made clear that he is fully committed to reconciliation and reform.
Ever since my visit to Sri Lanka in 2013 one thing has remained constant - my unwavering commitment to stand up for all those affected by what happened. I remain determined to ensure that there is accountability for the past and respect for human rights today. And that will be my message to President Sirisena when I meet with him in Downing Street today.
The new Sri Lankan government has a real opportunity to unlock Sri Lanka’s enormous potential through economic, political and social reform, and by fairly and transparently addressing the issues of the past.
And they have taken encouraging steps already - the release of some military land, the appointment of civilian governors for the North and East and the President’s visit to the North of Sri Lanka to discuss Tamil issues.
In response to this open and progressive stance by President Sirisena, which is a dramatic contrast to that of his predecessor Mr Rajapaksa, we supported the proposal from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to extend the timetable of his report by six months.
I know this decision has not been welcomed by everyone who has an interest in Sri Lanka’s future. And, let me assure you, we did not do this lightly. But we did it because we want to see genuine reconciliation in Sri Lanka. And we believe that the extra time enables the new Sri Lankan government to engage with the UN investigation, as it has committed to do, and to establish its own credible accountability processes.
I will encourage President Sirisena to seize this window of opportunity. The Sri Lankan government must keep up the pace on reform. Building trust by demilitarising the North, handing more land back from the military to local communities and releasing detainees held without charge.
And I will urge President Sirisena to deliver on his commitments to tackle the challenges that are holding Sri Lanka back. Strengthening respect for human rights, eradicating corruption, improving political accountability and ensuring the freedom of the press. These are all essential elements of a democratic, fair and functioning state. If President Sirisena can achieve his ambitious programme of reform then I truly believe he can help to heal the deep wounds of war and rebuild this beautiful country.
I will never forget the faces of those I met in Jaffna over a year ago. Their stories of unbearable suffering and loss will stay with me forever and continue to drive me in pushing for change. What I saw and heard also underlined why I went there in the first place: to shine a light on the lack of progress and to help bring about international pressure for reform.
We owe it to victims and survivors across Sri Lanka to ensure that those responsible are held to account. And we will not forget them. That’s why we, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have made clear that the report must be published and discussed by September 2015 and we will stick to that.
In six months time the spotlight will be back on Sri Lanka. Let it shine on a nation that is prepared to address its past, reconcile its differences and reform its political structures so it can secure a bright future for all its peoples. And let it shine on a renewed and growing partnership between the UK and Sri Lanka.