Hanaa Singer advocates the cause of fostering inclusivity and national reconciliation  along with a strong sense of accountability

“Policy making for sustainable development needs to be an organic process bringing together the government and people,” said United Nations Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer at the launch of an innovative and inclusive platform for supporting policy development – UNLOCKED. She assumed duties in her present role a year ago. Singer echoes this sentiment in this exclusive interview with LMD while drawing from the experiences of the 10 plus countries in which she has served. A staunch advocate of fostering inclusivity and reconciliation, she emphasises the importance of ensuring universal access to quality healthcare and education for all. The chief UN representative in Sri Lanka asserts the role of women and youth in the context of the nation building process, and calls for the private sector to renew its commitment to this cause. Moreover, she draws attention to the growing phenomenon of climate change, which poses additional challenges to island nations such as Sri Lanka – as Singer notes, “stakeholders need to commit to bold collective action to build resilience in a climate constrained world.”


Q: How did you view the events of April when Sri Lankaís nearly decade long peace was shattered on Easter Sunday?

A: I was shocked, devastated and heartbroken because I knew that Sri Lankans had already suffered so much during the almost 30 year conflict.

During my time in Sri Lanka, everyone I’ve met has expressed a common hope: a country where everyone can live without fear or discrimination. This attack came as a blow to these aspirations and hopes.

Having worked in countries that have been afflicted by terrorism, I recognise that the damage extremists want to achieve is not only immediate destruction – their intention is to cause hate and division among communities. I’ve seen this over and over in Syria, Iraq and parts of Europe. I have personally witnessed the immeasurable pain and suffering that a small group of extremists can inflict on millions of innocent people.

I hope that Sri Lankans learn from the past and experiences of other countries that have undergone similar suffering.

It’s important that the people’s representatives, religious leaders, community leaders and all Sri Lankans speak out against such violence, and bring to justice those who instigated and carried out these attacks. The violence against the Muslim community in the weeks following the attacks plays into the hands of those who seek to cause division along the lines of race and religion.

Sri Lankans must take a stand and say: ‘No, we will not become victims or take forward the terrorists’ agenda by allowing their actions to cause division between our communities. We‘ll also bring to justice those who unleash violence against any community.’

Q: And is the nation regaining its composure at a satisfactory pace?

A: During my years in humanitarian work, I’ve witnessed conflicts in many parts of the world. It’s difficult to put a timeline or claim that there’s an international benchmark for recovering from violence – whether it is a terrorist attack, communal tensions or civil war. Every country, community and individual will recover at its own pace. We cannot quantify the suffering of any person or the recovery period.

Following the attacks, I spoke to many families, visited hospitals in Colombo and Batticaloa, and the affected churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. Every person’s story is different; their pain is personal and we must address that pain individually.

However, societies and countries do recover, often going through peace and reconciliation processes to deal with the past. But it requires leadership, role models and a collective will of the people who say: ‘We’re the people of this country and we all belong here.’

I have a significant memory that embodies the spirit of forgiveness and moving forward after suffering.

During a meeting with a group of victims in one of my previous postings, a man who was so overwhelmed by grief and suffering that he was weeping in agony wailed: ‘I can’t forget, I can’t forget.’ An elderly woman in the group stood up and with tears streaming down her face said: ‘My son, you can never forget but you can forgive – for the sake of your own soul to be able to provide new life for those you love most.’

This woman lost her husband and four children in the massacres that took place, yet found incredible strength to roam about the village looking for survivors. She was able to locate eight orphaned children who miraculously survived and took them under her wing; they became her means to survive the insanity.

Moving forward after a tragedy isn’t easy; it is very personal and takes great strength to forgive. But to build a different future, we must help create the conditions for those affected by violence to move forward. Forgiveness at an individual level must be supported by systems and structures that the state has to put in place, to assure accountability and punish those who have committed crimes. The state must also provide adequate reparations for victims to help them live a dignified life.

We must acknowledge that if Sri Lanka is to move forward from the horrible events of Easter Sunday and subsequent violence, there needs to be accountability. The state must take concrete and timely steps to provide justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks and subsequent communal violence. There needs to be a clear message from those in authority that the state will not tolerate hate speech or discrimination.

Most importantly, it is the responsibility of everyone to rebuild the security, trust and unity of communities. Every Sri Lankan must view it as their responsibility together with the state to stop the spread of hatred and discrimination; and we must make choices that promote peace, justice, understanding and compassion.

Q: How would you describe Sri Lankaís progress with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

A: When I arrived in Sri Lanka last September, I was impressed by the progress in the areas of reducing poverty, healthcare, education and decent work – despite having suffered through decades of conflict.

The UN, through its agencies, has been a partner of successive governments, helping them achieve progress. Ultimately however, these achievements are driven by Sri Lankans who have demonstrated that when they are determined and committed, they’re able to make a significant impact.

However, greater focus is required in reducing the impact of climate change on people and the environment, increasing access to clean energy, responsible production and consumption, strengthening institutions to be effective and inclusive, and achieving gender equality.

Looking at progress on the 17 SDGs, it’s important to account for the nexus between peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16), ending poverty (SDG 1) and reducing inequalities (SDG 10).

The International Labour Organization (ILO) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) support the government and stakeholders to tackle youth unemployment, low female labour participation rates and inequality, which need to be addressed quickly for Sri Lanka to reach its full potential.

Without ending poverty and addressing inequalities, you cannot fully achieve peace; meanwhile, peace and justice accessed through strong institutions lays the foundation for reaching other goals.

We must remember that the SDGs are about leaving no one behind, which is the purpose of inclusive and sustainable development. Achieving that requires everyone’s participation.

Q: You have in the past referred to healthcare as being a human right. In which areas could Sri Lanka look to improve in this regard?

A: As a humanitarian and development worker, it hurts to see people in pain because of disease and injury. People suffer needlessly, unable to access medical care for cancer, diabetes or kidney issues because they cannot afford it, which torments me. This is why I say that health is a fundamental right – it is not and should never be a privilege.

Universal health coverage ensures that people access the quality health services they need, when and where they need them, without facing financial hardship.

Sri Lanka has made remarkable progress in delivering health to its people – from eliminating malaria and measles to remarkable maternal, neonatal and infant mortality statistics. I’ve personally witnessed the well-functioning and resilient healthcare system in response to the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.

A key concern for Sri Lanka is noncommunicable diseases, which are expected to increase over the next decade. Sustainable development is about leaving no one behind – however, in Sri Lanka, many are not receiving treatment. At present, 21 percent of those diagnosed with diabetes and 42 percent of hypertensives are not receiving treatment.

I also wish to highlight what is sometimes viewed as a taboo subject in this part of the world. Over 50 percent of youth in Sri Lanka lack the knowledge required to make informed decisions about sexual and reproductive health. The choices young people make in this area have a cascading effect on their lives and in turn the development of the country.

The UN serves the people of Sri Lanka. UN agencies including the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are working with the government to achieve ‘Health for All.’ To this end, we need skilled health workers to provide quality and people centred care, policy makers committed to investing in primary healthcare that considers health in all policies and effective multi-sectoral approaches to address the determinants of health – ultimately, health is not only an outcome but also a driver of progress.

Q: Can Sri Lanka achieve genuine national reconciliation? And what are the prerequisites to get us there?

A: The people of this country are generous, compassionate and kind; and I sincerely believe that every Sri Lankan wants peace. No one wants to relive the pain and fear of conflict.

However, many are wounded by the past. These wounds need to heal to achieve genuine reconciliation. Wounds of the past cannot heal alone; there needs to be a collective decision to move towards a sustainable and inclusive future. This needs strong leadership at all levels of society.

The UN has been supporting the government in its peacebuilding efforts. However, it is vital that reconciliation efforts are driven and owned by the people of Sri Lanka.

Genuine reconciliation depends on several factors: access to justice, accountability for past violations, inclusion of all communities and respect for human rights, consideration for the role of women and young people, and effective and accountable institutions at all levels that sustain peace, protect human rights and foster a culture of respect for the rule of law.

Across the world, building and sustaining peace requires addressing the root causes of conflict that often lie in poverty, exclusion, inequality, discrimination and violation of human rights.

Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the international community agree that more needs to be done to achieve reconciliation. Peace is not only the absence of war – true and lasting peace can only be achieved within inclusive and just societies.

Diversity makes this country a beautiful mosaic. I grew up in Egypt hearing about the legends of Serendib – a place of serenity and beauty. It’s time to bring this legend to life.

Growing up, my parents were very politically conscious and often spoke about (the then) Ceylon as part of the Non-Aligned Movement. It was a beacon of hope for countries suffering across the world, and an inspiration that stood for a new form of free and dignified existence. Sri Lanka should remind itself of this heritage, take pride in it and reignite itself to its former self of being a symbol of hope.

Q: While Sri Lanka is ahead of the region where education and literacy are concerned, do you feel that our island nation lags behind its neighbours in any related attributes?

A: My mantra is always people. Investing in the people of a country will lead to genuine and lasting progress.

Education and literacy are one part of this equation, and Sri Lanka has much to be proud of in this area: near 100 percent universal participation in primary education, high levels of literacy nationwide, the highest literacy in South Asia and one of the highest in Asia.

However, how does this translate into the real word?

We need to consider if the education system creates citizens who have respect for diversity; a system that teaches empathy and tolerance, which is not segregated along ethnic and religious lines. This is the most critical challenge that the Sri Lankan government and communities need to address in their drive to strengthen social cohesion.

Integrating social cohesion into curricula and school activities creates room for children to embrace diversity, empathy, cooperation and active citizenship, which is critical to sustaining peaceful communities.

Furthermore, ensuring that adolescents are adequately prepared for the job market and future economy is vital to Sri Lanka achieving its aspirations of inclusive economic growth and prosperity. The country needs to harness the potential of its approximately 3.3 million adolescents who will enter the workforce as tomorrow’s leaders. Sri Lanka faces challenges in improving the quality of education and reducing the number of school dropouts during secondary education.

Q: Has Sri Lanka been able to win the trust of young people and enlist them as partners in development?

A: I would echo the words of the Secretary-General’s Youth Envoy Jayathma Wickramanayake: “Act now, speak up, and stand up for your rights and your ideas. Demand to have a seat at the table; don’t wait for an invitation.”

Sri Lankan youth have proved that they don’t need an invitation to thrive – they can take up their rightful places in society as drivers of change.

Look at Tharindu Dayaratne and Dulani Chamika, two talented and driven young people who designed and developed Sri Lanka’s first research satellite (Raavana 1); or Hasini Jayathilaka, who is a global researcher fighting cancer – three young men and women defining tomorrow. The V-Force Volunteers supported by the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) programme are also doing amazing work to help communities.

My team at the UN comprises mostly young people. They have enormous skills and talent comparable to the youth of any affluent nation. Young people today have access to immense opportunity because of the interconnectedness and availability of information that comes with technology.

It’s our collective responsibility to create a supportive environment that provides young people the stability to transform Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan leadership must be an example and show the youth that together, united, we can achieve more. Young people must learn that patriotism does not mean nationalism.

We must not fall into the trap of considering young people as a single homogenous group. There are groups of young people from differing economic circumstances, minority communities, with disabilities and varying sexual identities – everyone’s needs and rights must be considered to ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind in efforts towards development.

Young people have immense potential to be change agents, be it in addressing climate change, countering violent extremism or ensuring gender equality. They need to be given the opportunity to take a more active role in civic and political participation, and have a say in the decisions that will impact their future. Young people have the power to shape the world in which they want to live.

Q: Is the private sector playing its part in taking the nationís development agenda forward? And what more can it do?

A: Globally as well as locally, we cannot build the world we want without businesses playing a pivotal role to move from business as usual to transformative practices. Sri Lanka has a vibrant private sector that is increasingly demonstrating its commitment towards the SDGs and thereby, supporting national progress.

At the highest levels, the UN is encouraging close partnerships with the private sector across the SDG agenda. It views the private sector’s potential contribution as going far beyond economic growth.

Meanwhile at the country level, UN partnerships with entities such as the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce are realising these objectives. Such partnerships have been proactive in promoting the private sector’s role in sustaining peace with the chamber accessing UN technical support for training business leaders in conflict mediation.

There is a need for the private sector to further its collaboration with the government. This not only refers to aligning sustainability work with national development objectives but also playing an active role in formulating development policy and partnerships to enable more effective implementation and monitoring impact.

Amid extensive collaborations with the government on sustainable development issues over many decades, the UN is able to engage with the private sector on tripartite partnerships to advance Sri Lanka’s sustainable development goals.

The UN Global Compact (UNGC), the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative, also has a chapter in Sri Lanka comprising industry leaders across sectors. It works to align Sri Lanka’s business community towards its 10 principles on human rights, labour, environment and anticorruption, and taking strategic action through business innovation and collaboration to advance the SDGs.

Q: How do political instability, policy inconsistencies and corruption hinder a nationís development?

A: I think back to 25 years ago when we looked at Rwanda and thought ‘will this country ever recover?’ But look how far the country has come today.

From the brink of collapse, it has displayed an economic turnaround, reduced child mortality, reached near universal primary school enrolment, and boasts an efficient public transport system and high levels of female political participation. After the conflict, the people of Rwanda united behind their leadership with a passionate ambition to build a better future. They faced their demons, and accepted that forgiveness and unity were the only way forward.

Effective, accountable and inclusive institutions are at the core of development – they must function outside of political influence and remain consistent across levels of government.

These institutions are important because they ensure that each person has access to justice and protection from discrimination, which trickles down to every element of development. We cannot hope for sustainable development without peace, stability, respect for human rights and effective governance based on the rule of law.

Sri Lanka ranks 89th of 175 countries in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index. The people of Sri Lanka must unite to change this.

Q: Do you believe that Sri Lanka is doing enough to tackle climate change ñ especially as the nation is situated on the front line of its adverse impacts?

A: This country is so beautiful and blessed with natural wonders; however, with this blessing comes certain risks and vulnerabilities to climate change.

About 19 million people in Sri Lanka live in locations that would become moderate or severe climate hotspots by 2050. The country has faced continuous cycles of floods and drought, making it one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. In Sri Lanka, living standards can drop by five to seven percent because of climate related vulnerabilities.

Sri Lanka stands out amongst South Asian counterparts for its environmental stewardship. The country has taken great strides in enabling private and domestic sector investment in renewable energy, providing preferential taxes for electric and hybrid vehicles, and tapping – even at a high cost – the last vestiges of hydropower available to the country. However, its growing fossil fuel dependence and proposed expansion to coal based power will lead to increased air pollution.

We also cannot ignore the aspect of livelihoods. In tackling climate change, it is vital to aid communities to establish alternate and climate resilient livelihoods. Several UN agencies in Sri Lanka including UNDP, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Food Programme (WFP), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) support the government in this regard. Investments in development or climate resilience don’t have to be mutually exclusive but the two go hand in hand.

The UN Climate Action Summit takes place on 23 September, and the Secretary-General has called on leaders to come together with realistic plans to stop the increase of emissions by 2020 and dramatically reduce emissions to reach net zero by mid-century.

This requires not only mitigation but also transformation towards economies in line with the SDGs. Achieving this is too large a task for any single entity be it the government, UN or any other organisation. Businesses and citizens have an integral role to play, and stakeholders need to commit to bold collective action to build resilience in a climate constrained world.

Q: And finally, which of the other present and potential global headwinds should Sri Lanka be most wary of?

A: Diversity makes this fantastic mosaic called Sri Lanka. The individuality of every citizen and community should be treasured and nurtured. However, across the world, diversity is coming under threat; people are retreating into their communities in fear and politicians are exploiting identity for their own gains.

As Sri Lanka heads into an election cycle, we must be conscious of the rising global trend of narratives and electoral platforms that are polarised along the lines of ethnicity, religion and identity. Politicians and the public should not give into such narrow and divisive strategies; instead, they should seek to build consensus around inclusivity, non-discrimination and respect for diversity.

Across the world, the threat of international terror networks, illicit drugs and international crime is increasing. Sri Lanka needs to address these threats through coordinated efforts both globally and regionally. UN counterterrorism and crime prevention capabilities through the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and others are strongly engaged with the Sri Lankan government to provide support.

In the interests of lasting security, it is vital that when addressing the global threat of terrorism, security policies, strategies and measures are grounded firmly in respect for human rights and the rule of law. No community should be marginalised and neither should we move into an increasingly securitised state.

A growing concern is the use of new technologies to spread hatred and incite violence. Echoing the words of the UN Secretary-General, “hate is casting a shadow over our common humanity, hatred is a danger to everyone – and so fighting it must be a job for everyone.”

To address hate speech, we must look at enhancing efforts to address its root causes. We must also use education as a preventive tool that can raise awareness and bring about a shared sense of common purpose to address the seeds of hatred.

And we must respond effectively to the impact of hate speech – wherever it takes place – on societies. Laws, strategies and policies addressing hate speech must remain cognisant that the rights held by people offline must also be protected online, and states should continue to respect and protect the right to privacy in digital communication, as well as the right to freedom of expression.