Hardly has the country finished celebrating its 67th year of Independence from the yoke of four centuries of foreign rule, than her Foreign Minister jets off to Britain and then the United States of America, brief in hand, to plead the country’s case to be treated as a respectable member of the comity of nations. [...]

Editorial

New Govt. reshaping foreign policy

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Hardly has the country finished celebrating its 67th year of Independence from the yoke of four centuries of foreign rule, than her Foreign Minister jets off to Britain and then the United States of America, brief in hand, to plead the country’s case to be treated as a respectable member of the comity of nations.

Sri Lanka’s more recent foreign policy initiatives have been a total disaster. Towards the end of his term, even the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, while proclaiming his achievements on many fronts, conceded that there were shortcomings in the running of his foreign policy. This was an understatement, and he was to blame for it himself as he interfered directly in appointments to the Foreign Service and allowed a nonplussed Minister and a freelance ‘Monitor’ to run the Foreign Office to the ground. On foreign policy per se, they veered away from Non-alignment, made enemies with the West, and angered India with their overtly pro-China stance.

This Government is now on a repair mission and the new Minister (though not new to the post) has a major task at hand. Having made his initial working visits to India and the European Union (EU), he proceeds to London and then to Washington where he will meet his counterpart. His final stop will be the United Nations where he is slotted to meet the Secretary General. His predecessor in the job was afraid of visiting the US capital or New York and engaging the Americans and the UN. Used only to lecturing he could not listen to them, nor did he have the capacity to engage and counsel his interlocutors.

It was he who completely misread diplomatic signals and gave his president the ‘dead rope’ that the US would not sponsor a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) in Geneva.┬áThis resolution calling for a probe into allegations of war crimes targeted the country’s political leaders and its Armed Forces. Foolishly trying to play hardball with the West, we lost vote after vote, pinning our hopes on China and Russia. We also adopted a crazy ‘Look Africa’ policy purely to win votes in Geneva. Today, that resolution is still on the table at the UNHRC calling for a ‘credible investigation’ on the last stages of the military campaign against the LTTE in 2009. A tentative effort no sooner this Government came to office to ‘dump the resolution’ was baulked at, and appears to have made no headway.

The new Government has rightly pledged to ensure the protection of those members of the Armed Forces who fought a blood-thirsty terrorist organisation, overcame it, and brought peace to this country.

This ‘war against terror’ was fought amidst Western pressure, lobbied heavily by the Sri Lankan Diaspora to stop the fighting and give a lifeline to the LTTE leaders. To former President Rajapaksa must go the credit for resisting that pressure and seeing to the end of that reign of terror. His successor, President Maithripala Sirisena, speaking at the Independence Day celebrations on Tuesday, paid a tribute to his predecessor for completing that onerous task. But ill-advised as he was, the former President adopted a wrongheaded policy to continue rubbing the West on the wrong side after the battlefield victory.

The country faced the consequence of the West’s wrath. In the US the Leahy Amendment of 2010 for the first time restricted aid to Sri Lanka tying it to good behavior on the human rights front. The EU sent 15 demands (which were ignored) prior to stopping GSP+ trade concessions to Sri Lanka. By offering a trade-off, the new Government has promised a “credible domestic investigation”. This was what the then Government ought to have initiated straightaway, but dragged its feet instead to bring the situation to where it is now. This promise will now have to be kept. Merely because the US Assistant Secretary of State visited Colombo this week and pledged to work together with the new Government, or the Minister of Foreign Affairs is visiting Washington next week to mend fences, the UNHRC resolution will not melt away so easily. But the moves will, hopefully help ease the tension between the West and Sri Lanka and a reasonable compromise would be to give the new Government time to get its act together, thus getting a postponement from the UNHRC sessions in March going deeper into the resolution.

The resolution can be laid by till September this year when the UNHRC meets again. By which time it is hoped, the heavy hand of the West/US will be taken off, reconciliation between the North and the Government in the South would be in better shape, and the country can move on from the bitter memories of the virtual ‘civil war’ of yesteryear.
In Washington next week, the Minister will have more on his plate to deal with than mending fences and dealing with the UNHRC resolution. Full engagement in the diplomatic, political, economic, trade and investment spheres will need to be discussed.

It is an open secret that the former US Ambassador in Colombo reached out to the Opposition, especially the then Leader of the Opposition and thus moved away from an exclusive engagement with the former President in the belief that they (the Opposition) would somehow want to build up the relationship with the US if elected to office. The Rajapaksa Presidency saw this coming, but rather than defuse the moves and engage the US constructively, it jumped headlong into a policy of US bashing, accusing NGOs of being instrumental in ‘regime change’ measures and misreading the growing Indo-US axis. The US was in no doubt, it seems, that their Sri Lanka policy required to rebalance the outreach away from the Rajapaksa Administration.

While in Washington, the Minister might also want to study the expenses incurred in managing the embassy there over the years, and the cavalier way it was run. This mission at one stage did not have a single career diplomat in service. The transactions over the mission building were covered in scandal. US-based public relations firms were recruited to write even press releases, so pathetic was its capability. Lobbying firms were paid for by the Central Bank and from private addresses in Colombo. This newspaper has already catalogued these shady deals as they happened then.

But whatever the Foreign Minister agrees to in Washington, he will need to deliver in Sri Lanka. He cannot be seen to have capitulated in the face of Western pressure and sacrifice the Sri Lankan Armed Forces at the altar of diplomatic expediency. There is also the political cost factor; another election is due. Those who lost the recent elections are baying from the sidelines that a ‘sell-out’ is imminent. It would not be in the interest of the West to give that anti-West lobby the whip hand either. In New York, the Minister is also scheduled meet the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Powers. It is a good move because her clout with the US President on the Sri Lanka issue is not to be under-estimated.

Sixty seven years ago, on the eve of Independence, the first Prime Minister of Lanka, D.S. Senanayake said in his Call to the Nation ; “Freedom carries with it grave responsibilities. Our acts and omissions henceforth are our own. No longer can we lay the blame for defects and errors in our administration on others”.
That is the price of freedom. With freedom comes responsibilities.

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