Donor duplicity and
free-for-all foreign policy
This week, one of our many Cabinet Ministers proclaimed to the world that no economic sanctions should be imposed on a democracy such as Sri Lanka.
Shortly after, the Foreign Secretary said that aid cuts will hit Sri Lanka's poor.
It seems that realisation had finally dawned on those at the helm of the country's political establishment that Sri Lanka's main aid donors were getting serious about using the aid stick to bring the Government in line with their thinking.
It was not too long ago that the Defence Secretary had told foreign correspondents that the country can do very well, thank you, without foreign aid and that there were "friendly countries" to come to its assistance should the West tighten the screws.
But in this week's plea from faraway Washington, International Trade Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris goes on record saying it would be a "tragic error" if Western donor nations cut aid due to alleged human rights abuses linked mainly to the country's long standing separatist insurgency. Economic sanctions are the usual weapon used by the richer countries to punish countries for following policies they disapprove of. Often they work, sometimes they don't.
After much agitation, the West was forced to place embargoes on the apartheid regime of South Africa. It indeed hit the black poor first, but created widespread unrest, riots and blood-letting that led to the eventual dismantling of that evil system of governance. But there is a lot of hypocrisy involved in this practice and Western countries are master exponents of it. In 1998, the US and Japan imposed economic sanctions on India following its second round of nuclear tests. This was followed by slapping a boycott on Pakistan when a military coup ousted the democratically-elected government. Today the West and both India and Pakistan are great trading partners.
To say that Sri Lanka's trading partners and aid donors have reached that level of intolerance may be to overstate the current position. But there's no gainsaying that the initial protests have now graduated to actual implementation of aid cuts.
It is the continuing contradictory statements that are making matters worse for the President.
For instance, Norwegian peace negotiator Jon Hanssen Bauer is told he can visit Kilinochchi anytime to meet the LTTE, but the Information Minister says nobody invited him to do so. Then, Highways Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle trying his hand at foreign affairs, something very foreign to him, attacks the US over some statement they've issued. This is the same Minister who, when he was in charge of Trade, went pleading to Washington for extra garment quotas.
As our Political Editor says on this same page, it's a "free-for-all". Yet the President seems to permit this kind of freedom of expression with caution thrown to the winds on collective responsibility. Usually, only the President or the Foreign Minister would speak on foreign affairs. Clearly, the Foreign Minister is not up to the task and the President is exasperated.
There are Ministers who tell the President that they can go to Washington and sort things out with the Americans. There are Ministers who say they can do so with the Indians; with the Brits, the EU, and the Norwegians. The President gives all of them the go-ahead, but these are just joy-rides on state expense with no meaningful results accruing.
The Minister Peiris led garment delegation to Washington for example was a total flop. They had pleaded for extra quotas with the theme "Garments without guilt". But US congressmen were not interested in a "Government with guilt"
Meanwhile, there are disturbing reports that the country's human rights record has resulted in the military having to face severe restrictions on arms supplies. The Korean Government has just blocked a contract, the European Union is exerting pressure on member-countries and recently a new EU entrant, Bulgaria blocked a shipment of arms to Sri Lanka, wilting under such pressure.
The result is that arms procurements are now channelled mainly via Russia and Ukraine where questionable tenders have been highlighted in the recent months. If the Government is pursuing a military option for the liberation of the North and the East from the clutches of the LTTE, it will find it increasingly difficult to keep the Armed Forces adequately supplied if this kind of obstructionist policies are adopted by the masters of duplicity -- the aid donor countries.
As we have kept saying, the President needs to settle down to a coherent and uniform foreign policy, not a laissez-faire foreign policy.