ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 29, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 09
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Speaking in one voice or a Babel’s tower

By Neville de Silva

Early this month the secretary to the president informed heads of ministries that in principle all communications with foreign governments should be cleared through the foreign ministry. In his circular to ministry secretaries, Lalith Weeratunge cited Article 41 (2) which reads: “All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission of the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed.”

The intention was to draw the attention of all ministries – and therefore of ministers themselves – to the need to speak in “one voice” as a government on matters pertaining to relations and dealings with foreign governments and institutions. This was probably done at the insistence of President Rajapaksa who would have found that some of his ministers were traversing ground outside their remit and creating acutely embarrassing situations.

As the president meets foreign visitors more frequently – some might say too frequently and at levels that need to be avoided – than his predecessors such duality or multiplicity in government – speak could naturally be raised in discussion causing some distress. This column has on more than one occasion raised this issue urging that the government, whatever it has to say on a given subject, do so without creating confusion and uncertainty in foreign chanceries and international institutions that deal with or have an interest in Sri Lanka.

In doing so we cited instances where ministers and high officials have made statements or remarks that were not necessarily the government position. As though that itself was not bad enough such remarks have later been contradicted or clarified in a manner that was tantamount to denial. From the standpoint of an outsider – be it a Sri Lankan, a foreign diplomat or an official of an international organisation – who or what is that person to believe? Does he accept the last statement as the ultimate truth, an attempt at damage control, a ruse to sow confusion or simply ministerial loquacity aimed at grabbing some momentary media lime-light.

The result is that the government is seen to speak in more than one voice. We accuse western nations, the more powerful and influential ones at least, of adopting double standards on issues such as human rights and even corruption. But our own government, certainly representatives of it, speak with what an indigenous Indian tribal chief accused the white American of doing – speaking with a forked tongue. Except that our tongue appears to have more than one fork.

A serious consequence of such unguarded and unsubstantiated remarks is the burden that is then imposed on the diplomatic staff of our missions abroad of explaining to the foreign offices of the countries to which they are posted. This wholly untenable situation is compounded when a statement is later contradicted or explained in away as not representing the position of the government.

Besides this unnecessary and embarrassing task placed on our diplomats to try and explain the indiscretions of our politicians and the apparent contradictions in ministerial mutterings and utterances, what impression is created in the chanceries of foreign capitals? If foreigners conclude that the government machinery is run by a bunch of amateurs with wagging tongues, would they be far wrong?

But are these reminders of ministerial responsibility and admonitions to the bureaucracy taken seriously? Such circulars have been sent out in the name of the head of state or government before. President J.R. Jayewardene introduced a method to ensure that ministers, MPs of his party, heads of corporations and departments did not flock to diplomatic parties. He devised a scheme whereby one minister would attend national day receptions during a particular month and this was done in rotation.

Now the president’s secretary in his circular has reintroduced that system. Moreover he has said that ministers should not accept invitations for diplomatic receptions and lunch/dinner extended by diplomatic missions other than that by an ambassador or high commissioner. Though ‘JR’s early attempts to curb the eating/drinking habits ( we are eating, drinking people boasted media minister Anura Yapa at a press briefing recently) of his party and his bureaucracy were quite strictly observed, they were flouted in later years when MPs, secretaries to ministries and corporation heads could not resist the lure of a couple of duty-free whiskies.

One remembers quite distinctly even ministers attending cocktail parties of first secretaries and sometimes even second secretaries in breach of strict protocol.

Since similar circular letters from successive governments have done the rounds previously one could conclude that these instructions, after months of forced adherence, were subsequently followed more in the breach. But how does one explain the violation of the code of conduct, the call for the government to speak in one voice and to leave foreign affairs matters to the foreign ministry, happening within days of the presidential secretary’s letter?

The letter dated July 3 sent out to all ministries drew particular attention to previous “impasse” where the foreign ministry would have to step into try and resolve matters. The letter states that if such issues are not settled or allowed to escalate they would become “irritants” and adversely affect bilateral relations.

Despite such reminders on July 13 – ten days after the letter – the government’s chief whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle told the media that the government is considering appointing a parliamentary select committee to probe the conduct of the German Ambassador Juergen Weerth for having “overstepped” his duties and for making “several statements against our security forces and against government policy”.

Now this is an extremely serious remark especially since parliamentary select committee are not appointed lightly to examine, for instance, a drop in the price of wambottu. Then three days later foreign minister Bogollagama, then in Singapore, in reply to a question by the state-run Daily News says the government has no intention of “curbing the activities” of the German ambassador.

The foreign minister adds that the statement made by his colleague Fernandopulle “does not reflect the government position,” and goes on to credit the German diplomat with acting “to strengthen bilateral ties.” Take another instance. On May 31 defence spokesman and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told Reuters that the government may scrap the ceasefire agreement.

“The government may abrogate it……… It’s time that either you make certain amendments or abrogate it.” Then four days later Minister Bogollagama says in Singapore: “I categorically state that there is no decision to abrogate the CFA. It is not necessary to consider that,” he told Reuters.

These are serious issues. One concerns the conduct of a head of mission of an important European country. The other deals with a possible abrogation of an obligation under an agreement which could be done only by giving the required notice under it. Though it could be abrogated it means taking a serious step that would impinge on the whole peace process and a negotiated settlement the government says it is still committed to.

But it is not only ministers who seem to wade into waters that are too deep for them. Ministry secretaries and high ranking officials are also doing so. This seems to me because the bureaucracy has been increasingly politicised over the years and the kind of official reticence and discipline that was bred into public servants has all but evaporated and we are left with a loose tongued lot seeking the glare of publicity.

One paragraph in the letter which basically informs ministries to act through the foreign ministry, is intriguing. It says that in specialised areas such as defence, foreign funding etc, direct interaction by ministries/departments with foreign diplomatic missions and entities would be desirable taking into account special imperatives and circumstances.

Some will naturally wonder at this exception or deviation from the norm. Is it to be understood that in these circumstances there might not be a need for the foreign ministry to later do a rescue act to save us from embarrassment, if not the banishment of what little is left of our credibility?

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