ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 31
Columns - Thoughts from London  

New diplomacy or not Kabul throws them out

By Neville de Silva

The “new diplomacy” that the west advocates and expects us to respect does not seem to have penetrated the rugged terrain of Afghanistan. There the old battle against a foreign presence and political extremism continues. One would have thought that with US and British troops, among other NATO forces, present in appreciable numbers and the political and diplomatic influence exerted on the Kabul government by the west, President Hamid Karzai’s administration would have been more amenable to western thinking and political approaches.

But it seems there is a threshold of tolerance that even an appreciative government like that of President Karzai is not willing to cross despite all the assistance the west provides to keep him and his colleagues in office. Even a pro-western president-after all it was the west that helped him to power by stabilising a war torn Afghanistan sufficiently to clear the way for elections.

Last week the Afghanistan government decided to expel two senior western diplomats-acting head of the European Union and a UN Official-for having discussions with the Teleban, the extremist Islamic group that once ruled Afghanistan and has been continuing to battle the Kabul administration since its ouster from power. The decision to expel them from the country was made after the two diplomats had travelled to the town of Musa Qala in northern Helmand to meet supposedly with Taleban cadres.

The UN in Kabul insisted that they had not met Taleban leaders but had met tribal elders as part of a fact-finding mission to see about stabilisation in the area after a recent battle. Under a UN resolution UN officials are banned from meeting them though the world body is helping the Afghan government in its efforts at reconciliation and to persuade defections by Taleban leaders. Earlier some Afghan officials had reportedly claimed that the two diplomats- Michael Semple an EU official and Mervyn Patterson of the UN, both Irishmen, the latter from Northern Ireland- “had visited Taleban leaders, paid them and may even have been supporting the insurgency”, media reports said.

There are some important lessons here for Sri Lanka where over the years allegations have been made against UN officials and foreign diplomats about their roles in our own conflict. For the moment we could leave out the dubious activities of some of the NGOs and INGOs who have not distinguished themselves by their conduct except to say that many foreign governments now funnel their funds through such organisations no doubt in the hope that they will fulfill the agendas of these governments which prefer to be seen to remain out of the picture. The most recent case was that of Philippe Duamelle the current head of Unicef in Sri Lanka, who was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for a ticking- off after he visited Kilinochchi and met with LTTE leaders, among others.

Duamelle’s explanation that he did not know the foreign ministry guidelines about visits to areas under LTTE control sounded not only flimsy but childish and would not have fooled even a junior foreign ministry official. He is said to have assumed duties as the new head of Unicef in Colombo in September this year. He visited Kilinochchi and met with the LTTE’s political head B Nadesan somewhere around December 12.Is Duamelle claiming that during that time he had not acquainted himself with the requirements for a visit to rebel-held areas? Surely one of his tasks would be overseeing and being responsible for Unicef activities in this country.

The rebel-held areas are a part of this country and as admitted by the organisation itself it has projects in those areas as well. If he had not been briefed by his headquarters on these key matters before assuming duties here then he should have acquainted himself with whatever rules and regulations the host country has introduced with regard to such visits once he arrived here. If Duamelle claimed ignorance of the need to seek clearance from the foreign ministry, then he has been derelict in his duty and shown an incompetence that is surprising in a head of a UN agency operating in a country that is in the throes of a conflict. Also derelict is the officer who has been running the office until Duamelle’s arrival here who should have briefed him. Moreover when Duamelle evinced an interest in or intention to visit Kilinochchi surely those who prepared for the visit in his office should have enlightened him on the host government’s requirements.

When Duamelle reportedly claimed during his interview at the foreign ministry that he was not aware of the need to have clearance from the foreign ministry and had sought permission from the defence ministry, he is admitting that there is a serious lack of communication within his own office. Surely he cannot be ignorant of the fact that UN agencies operating in Sri Lanka and indeed anywhere else, must work through the foreign ministries of the host countries unless otherwise specifically stated. The foreign ministry is and should be the first port of call. So to feign ignorance is either an admission of a serious lapse or an arrogance that some of these diplomats and international civil servants consciously assume when they come to a “Third World” country or one they think they could cow with their presence and their ‘assistance’.

In recent years Unicef in Sri Lanka, much like some other international bodies as the World Bank under Harrold, has conducted itself in a manner that borders on the arrogance that some of its officials assume as though they are not only beyond reproach but also that they are untouchables. For instance, the participation of some Unicef officers, both foreign and local, in an anti-government demonstration should never have been tolerated. Apparently this happened several months ago. Somehow-and there’s the rub-it took considerable time for this to reach the public domain. At least the government should have been alerted to this early and prompt action taken to tell these foreign nationals that Sri Lanka is not a play ground for their antics. Had prompt action been taken then, not excluding their immediate expulsion from the country for activities not consistent with their official position here, an early lesson would have been taught to such persons to stay away from affairs that do not fall within the remit of their official duties.

Very much earlier there were justifiable criticisms about a foreign employee of Unicef-a woman- who had been posted to the northeast and who was kept there much longer than such employees are usually kept on contract. Her activities had also aroused concern in official circles but nothing concrete appeared to have been done in this case. The more a country tolerates such indiscretions and the arrogance of foreign officials the more they seem to believe that they are beyond the reach of the local government and could continue to behave in their fashion because of the backing of their organisations or home governments.

The Afghanistan government has shown that such arrogance and a breach of accepted diplomatic conduct will not be tolerated. One could understand the criticism of a host government, as comment sometimes becomes necessary. But when foreign officials posted to a country begin to engage in pursuits that are patently against the interests of that country and its administration, especially consorting with those who are trying to oust democratically-elected governments or propagate secession through armed violence, then such officials must be shown the door immediately, irrespective of who they represent or from where they come.

It is high time that the government read the riot act to diplomats and representatives of international organisations. Follow the rules or get the hell out.

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