Remarks by Ambassador Atul Keshap – Right to Information (RTI) Interactive Dialogue Launch – May 16, 2016 – Water’s Edge Hotel, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Honorable Minister, Members of Parliament, ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honor to address this gathering as you discuss the creation of a Right to Information bill designed to enhance citizens’ access to transparency and insight about their government.
Any democracy requires that government officials be accountable to the citizens who elected them, and that accountability requires transparency. Your discussions today reflect a growing consensus in the global community – as reflected in the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals – for countries to “ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms.”
This year, ladies and gentlemen, the United States will celebrate the 50-year anniversary of our own Freedom of Information Act, set up to ensure our citizens have the right to monitor what their government does. Its passage was not easy. First championed by a lawmaker from California in 1955, he could not find enough support until years later, in 1966. And even upon enactment, it was opposed by every U.S. federal agency and department.
But what we have learned over these years is that transparency leads to better governance, a government more truly by the people and for the people, as enshrined in our constitution. And our version of the Right to Information has continued to evolve with amendments and improvements to better reflect our unique national circumstances and changes in communications technologies.
The bottom line is that we understand information maintained by the federal government is a national asset that needs to be readily accessible by the public. As President Obama stated on his first day on the job, “In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
Just as President Obama made government transparency one of his first priorities, I am also encouraged by similar pledges from President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and other top government officials in Sri Lanka. Certainly, the last elections have shown that Sri Lanka’s voters consider government transparency a priority.
As Secretary Kerry promised during his visit a year ago, the United States will “stand by your side” as you make progress on these important good governance reforms and human rights commitments.
As reflected in our increased cooperation over the past 16 months, our diplomatic relations are at an all-time high. Our development cooperation in 2015 and 2016 totaled almost $40 million per annum, and the administration has requested a similar amount in fiscal year 2017. As a result of your commitment to good governance and ruling justly, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is working with Sri Lanka to design a threshold program that can potentially unlock millions in additional assistance to boost economic growth.
In February, our governments launched the U.S.-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue, which expands and reinforces our whole-of-government cooperation in development, governance, energy, trade, and security. We also had our first ship visit to Colombo in eleven years in March.
Through our increasingly close partnership, we are exploring new avenues to strengthen Sri Lanka’s economy. In April, we hosted the U.S.-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) Council Meeting in Washington, which will further intensify our trade and business relations. We have launched programs to train Sri Lankan business leaders and government officials in best practices for the tourism industry, a sector with great promise for expansion. Experience has shown that businesses and investors – both foreign and domestic – prefer governance systems that are transparent and where officials are held accountable for their decisions and actions. We are finalizing efforts to lend expertise on public financial management reforms over the next two years.
Our initiatives are also helping to establish a stable post-conflict society across Sri Lanka. U.S. Agency for International Development-supported projects help strengthen the rule of law, build a robust civil society, and strengthen democracy and prosperity. At the request of your government, we are now supporting reforms through assistance focused on public financial management, the Elections Commission, and the Parliament.
All of these build upon the decades of steadfast U.S. support designed to help create jobs and prosperity, ensure food security and access to clean water, support women’s livelihoods and well-being, and help citizens recover from natural disasters.
The task of strengthening good governance anywhere in the world is never easy, but enshrining citizens’ Right to Information in legislation will be an important step in the right direction. Such legislation will give Sri Lankans the tools to make their country a better place, and prevent any return to an era of secrecy and a lack of accountability.
These are the promises your government made to its voters before the elections last year. You understood that a preponderant majority of well-meaning Sri Lankans want to transition to an era of reconciliation, unity, peace, democracy, and rule of law. I applaud your resolve to help Sri Lanka restore its standing in the international community, including, notably, through historic co-sponsorship of the UN Resolution that pledges Sri Lanka to tread the difficult but essential path toward reconciliation, truth, justice, and non-recurrence of conflict for all.
There are other important decisions before you, the leaders of your people, including some that will require principled leadership and determination in order to set this country firmly on a path towards greater and lasting peace and prosperity. The effort to make the Constitution more fair and inclusive, to reflect and celebrate the diversity of Sri Lanka, to ensure equal rights and opportunity for all Sri Lankans, to empower citizens to achieve their full potential, reflects a courageous, positive, and principled vision.
As you, acting as your citizens’ elected representatives, seize this rare and historic moment to effect lasting and positive change, please know that the people and government of the United States stand with you and will walk by your side as friends.
Some of these needed reforms are not easy, but the new atmosphere of peace and democracy in Sri Lanka affords you a precious opportunity to effect needed change. Replacing the outdated Prevention of Terrorism Act with a new national security legal architecture can help not only prevent future abuses, but also ensure stronger defenses against modern threats to Sri Lanka, and to it democracy and citizens’ rights.
All of you understand the heart-breaking need to create a credible and effective institution to bring truth, resolution, and justice to those families who lost loved ones on both sides of the war, and to foster a lasting climate of reconciliation and brotherhood after so many years of conflict.
Your government has launched a discussion with ordinary citizens and civil society to determine the best way forward, and we look forward to steady progress toward healing these wounds, including the establishment of an Office of Missing Persons, and other helpful steps.
As you proceed with your discussions on the Right to Information, your work will send clear signals of Sri Lanka’s commitment to reform and good governance. You are truly fortunate to serve your citizenry at a historic and golden moment when the vast majority of Sri Lankans want a better and more positive future, free of war and racism, and marked by mutual respect, harmony, democracy, transparency, and prosperity.
It is also your good luck to enjoy an opportunity after many decades of strife to send a powerful message to the international community that Sri Lanka is truly back on the global stage, a model democracy with innovative solutions to post-conflict transitions, and dedicated to fulfilling its UN commitments.
Thank you once again for inviting me to speak before you. The United States looks forward to opportunities to provide more support, bring more resources, and share more expertise in your efforts to restore Sri Lanka’s rightful place as a leader in the international community, one that contributes to the global economy; promotes human rights, accountability, transitional justice, and democracy; and that helps to uphold international law.
I wish you the best of luck for a meaningful dialogue today, and the successful passage of this important legislation, a key element on the path towards good governance.
Thank you very much.