ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 14
Columns - Thoughts from London  

On the flight path to diplomatic lunacy

By Neville de Silva

It is comforting when one's views on matters of people and politics get a nod from readers. It is even more gratifying when such endorsement comes from persons not only knowledgeable in areas of our concern but have also been, in a manner of speaking, in the frontline as policies were made and played out on the international stage.

So when a former ambassador and a person of considerable experience in other disciplines too, wrote that our remarks last Sunday made "eminent sense" he was referring to two key issues we had raised in this column. They related to the Foreign Ministry's curious decision, if an understatement might be excused, to leave out our Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva from the UN General Assembly sessions in New York starting this month and the prevailing view that it is Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama's lobbying against the LTTE, following in the footteps of Lakshman Kadirgamar, that prompted several countries to crack down on the Tigers in their countries.

Just as apologists for the Foreign Ministry would like to claim credit for the actions of some foreign governments, there are individuals and their hoorah boys who are equally vociferous about their role in achieving this. Perhaps the motive is to justify their lobbying for diplomatic jobs or to participate in international forums at state expense but not be bound by the quiet and nuanced diplomacy that is deemed necessary in the current context.

As we mentioned last week, for a quarter of a century or more, Sri Lanka's PR to the UN in Geneva attended the First Committee at the UNGA sessions. This committee deals with international security and disarmament issues. The PR would also participate in the Third Committee that is devoted to humanitarian, social and cultural issues. Human rights matters are also thrashed out here.

The bigwigs of the Foreign Ministry cannot be unaware of the fact that UN Human Rights Commission which was established 60 years ago shortly after the birth of the UN, worked out of Geneva as does its successor body, the Human Rights Council. A former ambassador who wrote to this column put the issue succinctly: "Not 'showcasing' the PR in Geneva as the country's point-person on human rights weakness his stature and therefore his potential effectiveness in the capital in which human rights discussions are centred."

That is just the point. It is in Geneva that the human rights issues are dealt with on a continuing basis and that is one of the principal reasons why we have had a representative accredited to the UN posted to Geneva. If the person whose task it is to attend those meetings and deal with human rights issues of concern to Sri Lanka as they arise (and they are likely to arise with greater frequency as foreign governments and non-governmental organisations increasingly focus their attention on Sri Lanka) is excluded from the vital sessions of the UN in New York, we are, to use a weathered phrase that might make some sense to the mandarins in the Foreign Ministry, trying to cut off our nose to spite our face.

Talking of spite, one naturally wonders who in the Foreign Ministry made this decision that borders on diplomatic lunacy. Perhaps this is a fallout from what seems like war for space, or as someone called it, a turf war, between the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights.

With the latter ministry mandated with the task of promoting human rights and coordination with the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and other international human rights bodies, the foreign ministry seems to be annoyed that another ministry is encroaching on what it sees as its area.

This peevish approach to foreign relations can only hurt Sri Lanka's larger interests at a time when there needs to be a coordinated effort to meet international concerns over our own record at home. To meet what some see as a crisis situation in our foreign relations, whether it be in our bilateral relations with other nations or with multilateral and non-governmental agencies, Sri Lanka needs to take a good hard look at what needs to be done and how best to do so.

It requires an intelligent and well conceived approach which could take time to thaw the outer edges of the political frost that now appears to surround us. But that needs to be done through quiet diplomacy, by the espousal of moderate views, not by despatching angry bulls to the Geneva china shop to smash up the cheap crockery along with the Ming vases.

But what the foreign ministry appears to be promoting is not considered, cautious diplomacy but jingoistic babble masquerading as nationalistic steadfastness. While mediocre mandarins engage in self conscious vanity by undermining the Human Rights ministry, new and unexpected burdens are cast on the shoulders of our Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. He is now called upon to participate in the First Committee and, however competent he might be, he could not been following every development in Geneva in the area of human rights with the careful attention deserved, as he had to fulfil his other tasks. This is like asking a person qualified in agriculture to look after culture.

With the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louis Arbour due to visit Colombo this month one hopes that arrangements would be made for her to meet and discuss matters of concern with President Rajapaksa. Nobody should stand in the way of such a meeting.
Unfortunately we have seen low level officials and junior members of NGOs who should not be allowed near the gates of Temple Trees, holding meetings with the president thus devaluing not just the president but also the presidency.

On the other hand we should make certain that important UN officials such as Louis Arbour who is an under-secretary general in the UN system, has access to the president. In fact, there are two important upcoming world events that President Rajapaksa should not miss because they afford him the opportunity to meet with world leaders and not some Charu Lata Hogg from an NGO.

The two opportunities are the General Assembly sessions and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kampala, Uganda in November. If I was President Rajapaksa, I would not leave it to the foreign ministry to make the arrangements. Ministry bigwigs are too busy accumulating air miles or playing petty games that only demean us still further.

Last week we pointed out how the ministry in its wisdom has decided to deny foreign service probationers who in previous years attended the UNGA sessions to gain valuable experience that would stand them in good stead in their diplomatic career. Instead the three-month session is being opened to Sri Lankans who could afford to spend for their travel and stay in New York to work as interns.

One hopes that the names, occupations and other details of those selected would be made public. One could almost bet the last dollar that friends and relatives of government politicians or key officials would be in that final list of selectees. As somebody reminded me the other day this is what one of our former editors at Lake House Tarzie Vitachchi called "relative merit". Perhaps we should call it the Sri Lankan theory of relativity.

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