Federal Councillor and head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) Didier Burkhalter met representatives of the new Sri Lankan government in Colombo today. In his talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, who took office in January 2015, the focus was on strengthening bilateral relations between Switzerland and Sri Lanka. Mr Burkhalter expressed his appreciation for the peaceful elections in Sri Lanka and for the reforms the new government has introduced. These reforms are based on a clear political commitment to equal treatment of all ethnic groups and will include an investigation into allegations of war crimes. Open and comprehensive dialogue between all parties concerned was an essential prerequisite for building trust, said Mr Burkhalter. He also welcomed the Sri Lankan government's willingness to work more closely with the international community and the UN to investigate and punish human rights violations.
Concerning bilateral relations, Mr Burkhalter said that a "new era" could be starting between Switzerland and Sri Lanka, in terms of economic ties and cooperation in other areas. Since 2003, there has been a human security adviser at the Swiss embassy in Colombo, working on human rights and peace policy issues as well as humanitarian policy matters. Switzerland has also supported various projects aimed at better documenting and analysing human rights violations and ensuring better protection for human rights activists. Switzerland is heavily involved in other areas as well, including vocational education and training and support for migrant workers. To improve the situation of these workers, Switzerland supports projects under the Global Programme Migration and Development, together with national and local authorities, the International Labour Organisation and non-governmental organisations.
At today's meeting with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who is also responsible for economic affairs in the Sri Lankan government, Mr Burkhalter discussed options for expanding trade and economic relations. The trade volume between Switzerland and Sri Lanka is currently around CHF 300 million per year. Many Swiss companies are present in Sri Lanka, and Mr Burkhalter met representatives from several of them while in Colombo today.
Following the talks with President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Mr Burkhalter also met representatives of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). With the leader of the main Tamil party, Rajavarothiam Sampathan, and the Member of Parliament Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, Mr Burkhalter discussed the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, which seeks to forge closer ties between Tamils and Sinhalese.
On the second day of his trip to Sri Lanka (18 March), Mr Burkhalter will visit the Akkarai project village in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka. Switzerland supported its reconstruction following the civil war, as part of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation's (SDC) humanitarian reconstruction programme. In total, Switzerland is helping some 5,000 families to build houses, 20% of them are households headed by women. Thirty-five of the supported families live in the Akkarai project village.
In Jaffna, Mr Burkhalter will also meet the Chief Minister of Northern Province, C.V. Vigneswaran, and the Governor of Northern Province, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, for talks.
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