Business Times

Missiles over Sri Lanka

Seven years ago (in 2003), the local heads of the world’s biggest multilateral agencies made an interesting observation at the annual sessions of the Sri Lanka Economic Association. World Bank’s Peter Harrold, ADB’s John Cooney and IMF’s Jeremy Carter in separate presentations arrived at a common consensus (whether by design or being just a coincidence, one never knows), saying: ‘Sri Lankan officials lack good negotiating skills and tact in dealing with multilateral agencies when negotiating soft loans or grants.”

The point was that officials should be able to object, oppose or give good reasons for doing so when not in favour of proposals brought by these agencies. The three officials used this forum to drive home this point due to public agitation at that time that these agencies were imposing their will on Sri Lanka. “Don’t point fingers at us: Develop good negotating skills and oppose when needed instead of agreeing to everything we say,” was the point made.

The need for skillful negotiations and finesse in international diplomacy comes to the fore once again in the latest, three-pronged crisis that Sri Lanka is facing at the moment. On Thursday, July 1 the deadline ended for sending a written undertaking to the European Union agreeing to a host of conditions including continuation of the now-stalled independent commissions, in lieu of winning a 6-month extension of the GSP+ facility. However EU Ambassador in Colombo Bernard Savage said the deadline was for administrative purposes and a response from the government in the next few days was still welcome.

The EU appears to be flexible. But is Sri Lanka flexible? Minister G.L.Peiris has categorically said no further dialogue would be held on this issue while the President has also dismissed the ‘demands’, and made a similar response to the appointment of a UN Panel on Human Rights.

Add to the melting pot, the United States on the same day, Thursday issued a statement saying it has accepted a petition from a US labour group seeking a probe on worker rights in Sri Lanka before sanctioning another round of GSP trade concessions. For many years now Sri Lanka has received reduced duty concessions on a number of exports to the US excluding however garments which – unlike in the EU case – doesn’t fall into this category.

In another missile on Thursday, Catherine Ashton - High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy - issuing a statement welcomed the UN Panel and urged the government to fully cooperate. Adding fuel to the fire, firebrand Minister Wimal Weerawansa called on the public to gherao (surround) the UN office in Colombo, a comment which quickly forced the government to say that his statement was that of a private nature and not of the government. In a fast response, Opposition legislator Ravi Karunanayake asked: “So if that is the case, what if all the 40 ministers make private comments on an important nature – is there a government?”

With all kinds of ‘verbal’ missiles converging on Sri Lanka, is the President and his cabinet giving a measured and rationale response or is it a knee-jerk reaction? The latest developments – GSP+ deadline from the EU, US probe on Sri Lankan worker rights and EU support for the UN panel – all happened after a recent flurry of high-powered visits to Sri Lanka by UN officials.

Rather than the art of persuasion and diplomacy in tackling sensitive issues with the international community, our Ministers are running round throwing googlies and doosras, hoping that one would work. Only the IMF is buying these, but – at a price to the government. Like it or not, it’s the West that brings more benefits to Sri Lanka in terms of trade and commerce than India, China, Iran, Libya, Ukraine and the new friends that Sri Lanka has.

Sri Lanka’s main exports are to Europe and the US; there are more tourists coming from Europe than any other region, and most of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Direct Investment comes from the West.
There is no escaping the fact that we need the West more than it needs us. So why annoy and rile the West for nationalistic pride? Why not develop the (late Foreign Minister) Lakshman Kadirgamar doctrine of hitting the West in a powerful but effectively presented manner and also continue friendship and relationships.

The Minister, killed by an LTTE gunman, did a great job using the same tactic that the present government is resorting to but delivering in it a more effective and non-confrontational manner. He also made sure our commercial attaches and political officers in Sri Lankan missions overseas were competent unlike most of the mid-and junior officers who are catchers and political hangers-on appointed during Rohitha Bogollagama’s tenure.

It’s time someone knocks some sense into the government, not to resort to a verbal fire-fight with the international community. We need to have a set of competent negotiators – a kind of fire-fighting unit – who would douse the flames instead of fuelling the fire as it is now. Ultimately any fallout with the EU, the UN and the US would be Sri Lanka’s loss, and an economically, painful one.

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