March 12, 2023
Good morning. I am honored to address this distinguished group this morning as you open the Sri Lanka National Law Conference. As the voice of the legal profession in this country, the Bar Association is a vital part of the legal infrastructure. You have the respect of legal professionals and the public alike because you have demonstrated your commitment to the rule of law and the protection of human rights, both so imperative at this juncture for Sri Lanka.
This role could not be more critical as Sri Lanka navigates the current economic and political challenges. BASL will apply the law to guide the way to a brighter future. So, it is a particular honor to join you today. It is especially gratifying to address this gathering because it brings me back to a dream I had as a young person growing up in California. I wanted to become a lawyer, lured by the promise of a career pursuing causes for the greater good of society and supporting justice.
Ultimately, I chose a diplomatic career. However, when I face professional challenges, I return to those core values to remind me about what I want to achieve for myself, my family, my country, and the rest of the world.
In this, the 75th anniversary year of bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and the United States, the core values embodied in the legal profession are more important than ever. It’s about the people, partnership, and progress. Democracies are under strain across the globe and no democracy stands without the rule of law. You are the guardians of that precious rule.
Since the beginning, the relationship between our countries has been based on shared democratic principles, including the importance of an independent judiciary. The United States’ support for the rights of everyday Sri Lankans to voice their concerns peacefully and participate in their government is unwavering.
The country’s proud history of free elections underpins those rights, giving citizens the ability to advocate directly to the government in partnership with civil society organizations, and through qualified legal representation in an independent judiciary. That is why the local government elections we’ve been discussing are so critical.
Over the course of this conference, I encourage you to consider your own motivations for becoming lawyers.
What led you to apply to law school and face that arduous journey? Reflect for a moment on your feelings on that first day of law school, knowing the hard work of just surviving law school was only beginning. All the work had to be for a higher purpose, not just for a paycheck.
Over the last year, as we have seen the important impact that lawyers can have, that purpose has been tested.
During the protests last year, more than 300 of your members met the moment and appeared on behalf of people arrested to ensure the rule of law and due process were followed. At the same time, you encouraged discipline by making it clear you would deny pro-bono legal assistance to those engaging in violence or destruction of public property. Your actions were a stunning physical manifestation of defending the rule of law.
While these events were dramatic and important, they do not represent the breadth and depth of your entire association’s impact. Whether you practice criminal or civil law, your work is vital to the effective functioning of Sri Lankan society and the economy. Your daily work may not draw headlines, but it does draw the support of the United States and many others for the solid foundation it provides for democracy in Sri Lanka.
I want to underscore that commitment. Over the past several years, U.S. assistance to the justice sector has helped provide legal aid, raise awareness on important laws, and strengthen the performance of justice institutions and actors.
The breadth of the U.S. partnership in the justice sector in Sri Lanka, through today’s co-sponsor, the U.S. Agency for International Development and through the U.S. Departments of Justice and Commerce, reflects the priority of this work and our respect for Sri Lankan efforts to advance sustainable and inclusive development.
For example, USAID’s Efficient and Effective Justice program strengthens the Sri Lanka justice sector by improving administrative efficiency and increasing the capacity of justice sector personnel. Working with justice sector institutions, including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, USAID has offered continuing legal education in topics such as alternative dispute resolution, immigration, land laws, legal research, gender equality and social inclusion, and professional ethics.
USAID is also helping to tackle Sri Lanka’s massive backlog of more than half a million cases by implementing best practices and tools for case management. In addition, an experienced prosecutor from the U.S. Department of Justice based in Colombo works hand-in-hand with you and other lawyers to help improve Sri Lanka’s justice system.
The United States also supported Sri Lankan efforts to modernize court operations so that instead of focusing on the bureaucracy, you can focus on delivering justice to all.
And when I say all, I do mean all.
Inclusion is one of the U.S. government’s core principles – and it’s also a key tenet of the legal profession. At its foundation, the legal profession is based on fair, accountable, and equitable service provision and citizens rely on you to be inclusive in your representation and in your approach.
In the United States, we have learned along the way in our pursuit to live up to these core principles, though we have had our struggles as well.
Less than a hundred years ago, African Americans were barred from joining the U.S. Bar Association. Not until 1918 were women allowed to enter the U.S. Bar Association, and for decades afterward, women made up only a small number of practicing lawyers. Women now make up more than a third of practicing lawyers in the United States. In race and gender, we still have much work to do to close those representational gaps. We have learned, though, that our diversity represented in the practice of law delivers justice for all and strengthens our democracy.
As leaders of the legal profession in Sri Lanka, you have the responsibility to show the way – which you are doing! I heard an amazing statistic the other day. Out of 1,081 attorneys at law admitted by this Bar Association in 2022, more than 64 percent were women.
So I applaud you for your commitment to maintaining the rule of law, your willingness to continue your education, your openness to change, and your courage to give voice to the public’s concerns. I’m certain these leadership traits will help you advance diversity, realignment, and agility in the legal profession.
I encourage you to continue to seek out best practices and professional development as you shape the future of the legal profession and continue to seek – and deliver – equal access to justice. You embody that spirit of public service I so long ago dreamed of when choosing my career path.
I urge you to hold steady and walk straight along the path that leads Sri Lanka forward for justice for all.
In closing, I would like to thank the Bar Association of Sri Lanka again for inviting me to speak today, and for your leadership at the forefront of justice sector reforms. I want to also recognize Saliya Pieris, the Bar Association’s President, who will be finishing his term at the end of the month. We all know he has been a steadfast, courageous, and outspoken champion for the rule of law. Thank you, Saliya.
I would also like to thank the Ministry of Justice and other justice sector institutions for your commitment to strengthening and modernizing the justice sector. It has been an honor to collaborate with you on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the Sri Lankan justice system.
You all know your purpose, you all know your role at this moment in time. I hope you can look around this room and see the heroes among you. You know, my son and I watch a lot of movies about the Justice League heroes, including Wonder Woman, of which I’m wearing a brooch here today. One of their mottos is “You can’t save the world alone.” You all can do a lot together to persevere for the independence and integrity of the judiciary and rule of law. Thank you.