Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy and concerned with the protection of fundamental national interests. It is globally accepted that the only way to achieve this objective is through a dedicated, educated, well trained, professional Foreign Service with a ‘sprinkling’ of the great and the good from outside the service. This is all [...]


One good reason for failure abroad


Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy and concerned with the protection of fundamental national interests. It is globally accepted that the only way to achieve this objective is through a dedicated, educated, well trained, professional Foreign Service with a ‘sprinkling’ of the great and the good from outside the service. This is all the more important for Sri Lanka, with the formidable inventory of external challenges faced today.

What, then, does this Government go and do? Defying logic it foists upon the international community a motley array of Sri Lankan ‘diplomats’ whose competency to conduct foreign policy is measured predominantly by their personal relationships and connections to the rulers. Professional qualifications are not the yardstick.

Political IOUs are not uncommon for the top job. But they are regularly insulated by officers from the service, trained in the fine art of diplomacy. Nowadays, political appointees do not sit the Foreign Service’s open competitive examination and, as has been repeatedly proven, do not always have to be competent.

There is no age limit. Students on one side of the spectrum, octogenarian and septuagenarian pensioners on the other have landed key missions overseas. It is ‘ask and you shall receive’. A candidate indicates the country of choice and desired rank. Loyalty to the regime is the only criterion; and they are the ones now faced with the Himalayan challenge of defending this nation against formidable odds overseas.

From the people’s point of view, national interest and the interests of the Government to which you are blindly devoted can sometimes be-and, in Sri Lanka’s case, often is-mutually exclusive.  Take the case of Washington DC from where emanates a resolution against Sri Lanka at the forthcoming United Nations Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. The Presidential Secretary has to fly out to plead Sri Lanka’s case which a fully-fledged embassy with 100 per cent political appointees and two public relations outfits– one retained by the embassy, one by the Central Bank–are unable to argue.

Certainly, the selection of some outsiders to the diplomatic corps of a country is not a new concept anywhere in the world. In the early years, some eminent men and women were handpicked from the public service and other spheres to serve Sri Lanka abroad, their names still invoked in the corridors of the Ministry of External Affairs with the respect they deserve.

Successive governments gradually started abusing the privilege. Soon, there were brothers-in-law and family friends of Presidents employed at High Commissions and Embassies. Drivers, gardeners, clerks, household help and others started filing into foreign missions on the strength of their political backing and, sometimes, their electorate. The irony reached epic proportions when a Sri Lankan ambassador in a foreign capital had to drive the official vehicle with his chauffeur in the back seat because the man, who had been sent, could neither read the street names and signboards nor drive the Mercedes. He only knew to read the local language and to drive a lorry.

Last week’s Sunday Times Insight investigation into the Ministry of External Affairs appointments abroad showed how this political interference has now hit the nadir. It revealed that several key missions-including those in Washington, The Hague, Ankara and Pretoria -have no professional diplomatic officers.
Sri Lanka has diplomatic representations in 48 countries. Of these, 35 Heads of Mission or Heads of Post slots have gone to non-Foreign Service political appointees. In some of the most sensitive cities, such as New York, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Rome, London, Pretoria and Brasilia, both Head of Mission and Deputy Chief of Mission are political appointees.

Professional diplomats are hence repeatedly side-lined and openly maligned if they do not toe the political line. They dare not speak up for fear of sneakers who whisper in the ‘big man’s’ ear. Moreover, senior career officers are dumped in relatively unimportant capitals while junior officers lack exposure resulting in sinking standards and competence as the large swathe of stooges in the ‘diplomatic corps’ rules the roost.

When outsiders appointed on someone’s whims and fancies are deployed to missions at senior level and assigned tasks that SLFS officers are professionally trained to do, frustration sets in. On the other hand, some career diplomats in senior positions, including Additional Secretaries and those in the Ministry’s Overseas Administration Division, have started acquiescing to this rampant politicization. They actively contribute to it, expecting favours in return. All this has had a negative impact on the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy.

The Minister-in-charge has failed to protect his turf and the integrity of the Foreign Service. The onerous duty cast upon him to defend this service has been surrendered for a mess of pottage – that of unlimited foreign travel for himself – and to hell with the cadres in his care.

It is true that overseas diplomatic postings are much sought after because of the perks they entail, including allowances, the most coveted of which are educational fees for offspring and health cover. But political interference is a malaise that afflicts more than just the Foreign Service. Under this Administration, no autonomous institution is safe-far from it.

Last week, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President called for transparency in appointments and promotions of appellate judges. The powers of appointment ought not to be vested solely in the appointing authority, he said, referring to the over-looking of career judges for promotions and stressing that an independent, impartial, honest and competent judiciary was integral to upholding the Rule of Law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice.
What is happening in Sri Lanka today is making a mockery of governance and the institutions that are the pillars of a functioning, efficient democracy. This pervasive political littering of the Public Service, the Foreign Service – and the Judiciary with deferential pawns might serve President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s interests in the short term. But it destroys institutions- institutions that must serve the country long after he is gone.

The citizens of this country would do well to wake from their stupor and take cognizance of this. The Foreign Service does not exist to give someone a free ride abroad. It was created for a serious and noble cause, one that is fast being sacrificed at the altar of personal expediency. And it is nobody’s private domain, to do with it what he or she wishes.

Had President Rajapaksa read our Insight story-or should someone have had the courage to show it to him-we are confident that even he would have been taken aback at the amount of interference he has indulged in.

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