ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 13
Columns - Thoughts from London  

The world laughs not with us but at us

By Neville de Silva

Earlier this month a retired senior Sri Lankan diplomat wrote to the media chastising the foreign ministry-and by implication the government- for its amateurish approach to foreign relations and diplomacy. His comments basically charged the government with antagonising our international friends and losing their support as a result of ill-conceived policies and unguarded statements that inevitably caused ill-will.

Nanda Godage’s views are not new. They are widely shared by those acquainted with international affairs and are aware of the reactions of foreign governments and influential institutions to policies and remarks emanating from Colombo. This column has often enough drawn public attention to our foreign policy haps and mishaps and the unthinking and ad hoc ways of the mediocrities now in charge of policy making and implementing.

Godage’s strictures drew a response from somebody called Professor Laksiri Fernando obviously enamoured of the foreign ministry’s diplomatic efforts and the intellectual and professional quality of those making them. Laksiri Fernando castigates Godage for not providing “solid evidence” to justify the claim that Sri Lanka is making enemies of its friends.

There is no real need to go over old ground because not only this column but other writers and speakers in other fora have also provided sufficient proof to corroborate this conclusion. If one were to approach this with blinkers I suppose there is little likelihood that the piles of evidence publicly available will go unnoticed. As they say there are none so blind as those who will not see or do not wish to, for reasons not known to the public.

However, there are a couple of points in the Fernando rejoinder that need to be addressed. Having read Fernando’s defence of today’s diplomacy I am resurrecting the issue for two reasons at least. While I do not wish to waste time and space dealing with some of Fernando’s more simplistic and bookish assertions, I like to take him up on one of his statements that relate to the actions taken by foreign governments to curb LTTE activities.I raise this because even some in the Rajapaksa government have made the same or similar observations as though it was proof enough of the good relations we have with those countries with which Godage and others say our relations have soured.

The other reason is because of certain recent efforts by the foreign ministry that suggest it does not have its feet firmly planted on the ground and is more adept at airy-fairy decision-making or perhaps even vindictive ones. Let’s take Fernando’s claim first which he seems to think clinches the castigation of Godage about our friends and enemies.

Referring to Godage’s remark that some countries have recently cracked down on the LTTE, Fernando writes: “Since that is the case, that means Sri Lanka has not antagonized our friends in beating the LTTE abroad…… Both the Minister and the Secretary should be credited for that. There is a clear continuity from Kadirgamar to Bogollagama is this foreign policy thrust, exposing the LTTE, whatever the nuances in different times.”

My immediate concern is the conclusion that since some countries have acted against the LTTE we have not antagonised our friends.
If that is the kind of logic that drives the ‘thinkers’ in the foreign ministry and its over-zealous supporters then it is scant wonder we are in deep trouble. If some countries have cracked down on the LTTE-as they have- it is not because of any love for Sri Lanka or because we are as thick as thieves and never mind who the thieves are.

In each case the country concerned has acted in its self interest. It is because the LTTE has violated the laws of that country and because those countries are signatories to certain UN treaties and is obliged to act under them. When the United States laid a trap for some LTTE supporters with FBI agents passing off as agents for weapons suppliers, Washington was not acting because of pressure from Sri Lanka but because the LTTE, a banned terrorist organisation, was trying to purchase arms in violation of US law.

It is pertinent to ask why the UK waited so long to act against the LTTE when Sri Lanka had presented enough evidence to the British authorities on LTTE activities here that, prime facie, violated the law. The reason is that as long as LTTE activities did not interfere with life here or was not seen as a threat to British national interests or society in general, the UK did nothing.

But when the credit card scams at petrol stations affected Britons who lost financially the authorities cracked down as criminal offences were committed. The fact that LTTE involvement was suspected was peripheral to the issue. This was followed by court action against leading LTTE suspects as a warning to the Tigers for political reasons, not as a gesture of friendship to Colombo.

The same is true of Australia. Their actions might have shown a congruence of interests between those governments and Sri Lanka. But to conclude that is was done as a gesture of goodwill to Sri Lanka ignores the fact that those same countries have raised very serious concerns and even criticised us over perceived human rights violations and abuses. To mistake self interest as support for Sri Lanka is to display a dangerous naiveté. Unfortunately the same kind of naiveté persists in some of the more recent decisions of the foreign ministry.

For 25 years or more, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative (PR) to the UN in Geneva attended the UN General Assembly sessions in New York and headed the delegation to the First Committee that deals with international security and disarmament.This practice made very good sense as the UN disarmament conference is in Geneva and its meetings are attended by our PR in Geneva. That head of mission is the best acquainted with the subject and also ensures continuity.

Suddenly the foreign ministry in its infinite wisdom has decided to ask the PR in New York to attend the First Committee when he has not been dealing with the subject. That is not all. The foreign ministry is to hold an anti-terrorism conference in Colombo. It has obviously been hurriedly arranged and at the wrong time. The result is some of those most qualified to speak on the broader issues related to terrorism such as academics from universities abroad who could have made positive contributions are unavailable at this time. Nor have such prestigious institutions such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London with wide expertise been consulted or collaboration sought in setting up this conference though the IISS helped in establishing the Kadirgamar Institue that is running this conference.

Another silly innovation of the great minds in the foreign ministry is the proposed internship opportunities for Sri Lankans worldwide at our permanent mission in New York during the General Assembly sessions. Up till now these sessions were attended by probationers in the foreign service to give them exposure and some training at the UN by spending a month there.

Now it is being opened to Sri Lankans at home and abroad who can fend for themselves for one month and pay their way to New York.
One would need to have substantial financial resources to do so when living is expensive during the GA sessions. The result of this scatter-brained scheme is that only those who have money will be able to make use of it. So once again the rich and the powerful will benefit while career diplomats who need the experience and continue in the service will remain at home.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that those rich who are selected will ever join the foreign service or will make any contribution to Sri Lanka. So what is the real purpose of this innovation? Who will benefit? Equally these ‘outsiders’ could be privy to vital information in the way of prepared documents, vital messages passing between New York and the foreign ministry on voting instructions or policy matters that should remain confidential.

How does one prevent such information being leaked at some later stage when all is said and done? Is this another attempt to plant some people in the foreign service or our missions abroad just as the foreign ministry earlier sent persons of dubious value and qualifications to the Human Rights Council in Geneva as though more commendable individuals were lacking.

Top to the page

Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.