The foreign affairs debate in this country has been enlivened by critical comments on the rise of foreign “neo-conservative” forces which are apparently bent on turning this country into a “vassal” state according to the words of Tamara Kunanayagam. We wondered whether this was the same Tamara, feisty champion of Tamil rights who was a [...]

Sunday Times 2

Theory and practice in foreign policy making


The foreign affairs debate in this country has been enlivened by critical comments on the rise of foreign “neo-conservative” forces which are apparently bent on turning this country into a “vassal” state according to the words of Tamara Kunanayagam. We wondered whether this was the same Tamara, feisty champion of Tamil rights who was a thorn in the side of the Sri Lanka delegation in Geneva in the 1980’s! Her criticism comes at a time when the neo-cons are arguing that their hard pressure tactics have succeeded in making DPRK take major steps in de-nuclearization and calling for President Trump to be awarded the Nobel Peace prize! However the key to the successful resolution of the DPRK question may lie in the quiet diplomacy and strategic cooperation of China behind the scenes ,so different to the strident US public pressure tactics.

How does academic opinion feed into the Foreign Ministry policy making machinery? In fact it competes with a host of other intelligence available to the Foreign Ministry, including the influence of powerful states and lobbying from different stakeholders in the country and abroad which take primacy when quick decisions are required.To give a practical example, given that regaining of the EU GSP+ concession was a major foreign policy goal for this government in order to boost flagging local exports and employment, it was then considered legitimate for the government to accept forward positions on human rights in keeping with the international conventions we have signed. Yet there is always recourse to explaining to the HRC when some element cannot be implemented due to public reluctance, as for example the resort to foreign judges.

Failure to understand this aspect of the Foreign Ministry’s role as a central arbiter has often led to power struggles between political appointees who prefer to lobby political leaders directly ending in the early recall of some appointees or worse, one or two recently being charged in courts with the issue of Interpol red letters for arrest. It is also true that acceptance of Foreign Ministry recommendations depends on its influence within the government which rose to a peak during the Kadirgarmar era and now seems to be at a low ebb as a result of the current domestic political woes.

How should the calls for transitional justice by international human rights activists be balanced with local sensitivities on the role of the armed forces who are considered war heroes? In the long term the best response may lie in structural changes within the military, for example, creating a credible legal backbone to advice on IHL aspects of ongoing operations. Cases involving military personnel can be expeditiously investigated and tried within the military court system, as is the practice in many other countries especially those whose forces are involved in active military duties. This legal office within the military should also have a public information role which for example would have brought to the fore the independent accounts of the last stages of the armed conflict by foreign military officers which amply counter the exaggerated casualty figures and assessments of the UN foreign human rights experts.

File photo: Family members of those who had disappeared during the 30-year war protest in Trincomalee. Pic by Amadooru Amarajeewa

Within the debate on how human rights should be handled in foreign policy- making, there is little doubt about the urgency for bipartisan approaches in Parliament and open public debate. Indeed, it was Foreign Minister Kadirgarmar who made the most progress in that area by inviting groups of parliamentarians from the opposition to come to the Foreign Ministry to have regular briefings from senior officials and hold frank exchanges of views on recent developments.

Key pieces of legislation such as the Missing Persons Office should have had broad support in Parliament if there had been wide consultations in the drafting stage . For those who live in this country, issues such as torture, detention, enforced disappearances are of very real concern and there is a crucial need for a robust legal framework. On disappearances, Sri Lanka had been commended by the international community for its actions after the Southern insurrection, to award compensation and death certificates which helped bring down the huge case load considerably. Yet there arose the question of how to deal with the pending cases which could not be accommodated under this scheme and several proposals were discussed at length with international experts. Consulting with international experts and the OHCHR is a mark of good faith and Sri Lanka has in the past sought and received useful technical cooperation from the OHCHR to strengthen national or domestic institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights.

What is important is not to give the impression that we seek in the Human Rights Council and other fora just to defend the government and to disparage opposing views but are seriously concerned with improving the overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka. To this effect, when I was in Geneva, the Sri Lanka delegation would sit together after the HRC sessions and analyse all the criticism leveled at us to see where constructive response was possible. One such recommendation was to remove corporal punishment from our statute books, which legislation was coming down from colonial times. In the Ministry we took our responsibilities seriously and endeavoured for example to respond promptly to queries from OHCHR experts and complete on time our reporting obligations under the various human rights international conventions. Once the American Ambassador gave us a list of so called “missing persons” – which was then processed through an inter-ministerial committee. The Police were given a deadline to complete their investigations and they performed well, accounting for most of the persons listed, which was a matter of satisfaction to all sides. These explanations are made because it is often difficult for crusaders of human rights to understand the slow working of government in Sri Lanka; they see only an inflexible government to accuse, but in truth there are many officials at different levels who are fighting for change. With regard to the current resolution on Sri Lanka before the HRC, it should be remembered that during the watch of the professional diplomats, the instructions had always been to keep a low profile and to prevent any mention of Sri Lanka in official records. To do this we may have had to swim with the sharks and dance with the wolves but this strategy enabled Sri Lanka to be elected and re-elected as a member of the HRC even during the years of the conflict. Since only members of the HRC carry a vote , this is key to being able to counter adversarial moves such as country resolutions and special sessions and keeping us safe from international sanctions. We were seen as a responsible member of the international community with friendship to all. That is until came the time when apparently a political decision was made to show the world our mettle and to summon all the forces towards a “victory” resolution at the HRC, somewhat like the Charge of the Light Brigade. From hard nosed preventive diplomacy, we moved to adversarial defensive diplomacy as a result of which we opened ourselves to retaliation by powerful players and seemingly endless monitoring by the OHCHR. But even this scrutiny can be overcome with genuine efforts within a framework of broad public acceptance such as the LLRC recommendations.

This historical recall is made at a time when appeals are being made for a return to the abrasive diplomacy which has brought us to the current phase of international attention. Fortunately, an affable and well qualified professional with solid experience in UN affairs, has now taken over as Permanent Representative in Geneva. We can therefore rely on a period of careful diplomacy led by the Foreign Ministry which for so many years strengthened Sri Lanka’s image abroad and its reputation characterized by Secretary General Koffi Annan in 2005 as a “constructive and engaged Member State of the UN”.

The question now is how to mobilize bipartisan support at home for a sustainable foreign policy including active positions on human rights at a time of domestic political crisis.

(The writer is a retired Foreign Service diplomat)

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