The foreign policy of any country is a vital and critical component of its national policies. Foreign missions of Sri Lanka, except the permanent missions to the UN in New York and Geneva, have only an insignificant role in foreign policy making or implementation. Sri Lanka had to pay a high price in these last [...]

Sunday Times 2

Re-thinking the role of Sri Lankan missions abroad


The foreign policy of any country is a vital and critical component of its national policies. Foreign missions of Sri Lanka, except the permanent missions to the UN in New York and Geneva, have only an insignificant role in foreign policy making or implementation. Sri Lanka had to pay a high price in these last 10 years for a foreign policy, which was framed only with partial interests in view, and not the national interest.

Foreign Ministry officials should specialise in areas which are of importance to Sri Lanka.

Foreign missions abroad hardly contributed anything of value to Sri Lanka in these last 10 years. A lethal combination of wrong policies and poor personnel, brought our foreign policy to a low ebb in the history of independent Sri Lanka. We had enjoyed the benefits of a non aligned foreign policy for long years. In the last 10 years, it was increasingly anti-Western and anti-Indian. The tilt away from the West occurred as the government ignored the vital concerns of a large part of the national and international community who are concerned with the rule of law, good governance and human rights. The Government felt more at ease with authoritarian governments. When we were non aligned in the 1970s, we had no problems with those issues, even when the Western world did not place much importance to them in those days in international relations. We had the rule of law at that time.

In the last one year, the government has made a radical change in the country’s foreign policy. Those decisions were made by the government in Colombo with the assistance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sri Lankan missions abroad had hardly any contribution to make in this regard. Even in the future one should not expect any worthwhile input towards foreign policy making from our bilateral missions. These missions of late and even in the future cannot expect to establish high level policy contacts in the countries to which they are assigned. Most of our ambassadors and high commissioners meet only desk officers in their foreign offices. Very few diplomats have written of their experiences abroad and one exception is D. Wijesinghe, the former cabinet secretary who was high commissioner to South Africa a few years ago. In his book he says that in over two years there, he only met the Foreign Minister of South Africa once, and that in the company of another about seven or eight ambassadors. It is clear from that book that our ambassador there was largely under employed. The story is not much different in many other countries. The work they are involved in is mainly of a consular nature, and establishing contacts with the Sri Lankan diaspora abroad.

Dr. Wickrama Weerasooriya, high commissioner in Australia in the 1980s and a distinguished academic and intellectual in his book “Links Between Sri Lanka & Australia” has made some pertinent remarks in this context:

“After nearly ten years experience as a public official in Sri Lanka and as a High Commissioner abroad for a short period, it is obvious that Foreign Governments rely more on the assessments and opinions expressed by their own diplomatic staff serving in the country concerned. The “Our man in Havana” principle applies to the extreme. The lesson to be learnt is that Sri Lanka, especially as a little Third-World Nation (out of 160 countries in the world today) should not rely too much or attach too great an importance to what our own diplomats can do in the thirty-seven Embassies we have abroad today (April ’87) but rather concentrate our efforts more on meeting, communicating with, responding to, being always accessible and if possible, shaping opinions of foreign diplomats based in Colombo.”

This feature can be clearly observed in the relationships between the government in Colombo and foreign diplomatic missions here. I would think that the four most important foreign missions here now are those of China, India, United Kingdom and the United States. It is their ambassadors here who have access at the highest levels of the government in Colombo. They also have close access to their own foreign policy makers in their own capitals. None of these countries will rely on our ambassadors in their capitals for any insights into our foreign policy. Even with other countries, it is their ambassadors here in Colombo that count as they have access to relevant foreign policy making units in their ministries. Moreover, high level officials from all these countries arrive in Colombo so often for top level discussions. The functions of our embassies abroad have little to do with the key issues in foreign policy which are Sri Lanka’s concerns.

What then is the role of the Foreign Ministry bureaucrats in foreign policy making? Going by this year’s experience, it is true to say that there is none, as the radical changes in foreign policy were brought about by politicians. However, there should be a role for the foreign office and the two permanent missions in New York and Geneva in foreign policy making in the future. And for this, high quality staff is essential. There has to be a core group of officials in the Foreign Ministry, specialising by subjects and areas which are of importance to Sri Lanka. Even without the political reporting from our missions, they can obtain all that is necessary, from having access to all kinds of research outputs from high quality organizations and institutions, from many parts of the world. That kind of information would be far superior to any political analysis done by our embassy staff in those countries. The British High Commission in Colombo recently advertised for a Political Officer for its mission here to be recruited locally for reporting and analyzing political developments in Sri Lanka. Our embassies abroad too might depend on local personnel there for this kind of function, as they have a better insight into local situations.

In current world politics and international relations and specially for small countries like Sri Lanka, the affairs of UN organisations are of much significance, as multilateral diplomacy is significant in shaping the direction of global affairs. Apart from occasional intervention, Sri Lanka has not played an active role in UN policy making and that need not be always so. In the 1970s, Sri Lanka was a little more active than otherwise in foreign policy making within a multilateral context, specially on economic and development issues. Once again, the foreign ministry needs to develop policy stances for productive interventions within the UN system, specially in the development field. To illustrate, one area in which Sri Lanka can lead within a non aligned context or otherwise is, the reform issues of the UN system and this is not confined to the reform of the UN Security Council. What this also means is that our missions in New York and Geneva should not only be expanded, but should be qualitatively improved. To offer one illustration, it is high time that our mission in Geneva has a special medical person to represent Sri Lanka at the WHO. Health is a key component in international relations, and a closer link with WHO at the level of headquarters can make some contribution to improving our health services. The WHO office in Colombo is not an adequate substitute in this regard.

In the new restructuring that is sought within the foreign office, there is some discussion on the role of the ministry and missions abroad in economic affairs, and specially in trade and investment. The reformers should take a practical view of what is feasible. International trade and investment patterns are highly complex, and one or two people in a mission are not in a position to guide any serious traders and investors. They have other channels to obtain guidance and information. If foreign missions are to be equipped with some capacity to handle these tasks, then they should be staffed with highly professional staff in these areas. There could be representatives from local chambers of commerce attached to some of these key missions.

Let us now look at the consular function which would appear to be the key area in most embassies. Even for trade and investment and tourism and remittances, the one important task which an embassy can provide is an efficient consular service. In the United Kingdom and in India within the foreign ministry are a specialized consular service (the E stream in the foreign office of the UK). Such a specialised service among foreign ministry personnel might be considered in any reorganisation. The consular function could also be more widely defined to include contacts with the many diaspora who live in these countries and in their cultural and social relationships. Whether foreign office personnel are better at this task or some outsiders should be brought in is a question that should be raised. In Canada for example, there is an argument that a high level political figure should be more at ease in negotiating these relationships.

In the Middle East where there are over a million Sri Lankans, there have to be officials who play the role of social service officers for these large numbers, particularly of women, who are relatively poor. Personnel from the department of social services might be better placed to handle the many humanitarian interventions that are required in these countries. Women officials might be particularly appropriate at levels below ambassadors. The remittances that these people bring to Sri Lanka have been a lifeline for the country and these migrants should be better served.

While appointment of suitable heads of diplomatic missions is important, it is equally vital that effective and efficient deputies and first, second and third secretaries are also placed in these missions. Even at this level, it might be more productive to bring in at least a few from outside the foreign service for tasks which they have specialised skills. When appointing ambassadors, there should also be an appropriate mix from the foreign service and from outside, including those who have achieved distinction in politics, trade and commerce and in intellectual life. The question to be asked is who will be most effective in a particular station. The foreign service should not be seen as having a monopoly of diplomatic jobs.

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