In a candid interview with a local newspaper, State Minister Vasantha Senanayake laid bare the lack of clarity and cohesion in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and the obvious shortcomings in its operation by the institution responsible for it — the Foreign Ministry. Vasantha Senanayake is the Minister of State of the Foreign Ministry and should [...]


Rethink this shambolic foreign policy


In a candid interview with a local newspaper, State Minister Vasantha Senanayake laid bare the lack of clarity and cohesion in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and the obvious shortcomings in its operation by the institution responsible for it — the Foreign Ministry.

Vasantha Senanayake is the Minister of State of the Foreign Ministry and should have a better knowledge of how that ministry works than most of us who see it from the outside.

Even attempts to extract information through the Right to Information (RTI) law for which one must be thankful to this Government, especially Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, is as painful as having a tooth extracted sans anaesthetic.

As one who has been subject to these attempts at bureaucratic bamboozling and prevarication by those mandated to provide information often guarded like personal ‘boothalays’ one can quite understand the frustrations of its own State Minister after experiencing the working of that sanctum sanctorum.

The most fundamental question is who really runs that ministry, who dictates policy and the ministry’s approach to important international issues and responses to external developments that impinge on Sri Lanka?

Here is what State Minister Senanayake said in that interview: “The heart of the matter is that different people at different levels of our echelons of power have different ideas on what are foreign policy should be. What is needed is a clear-cut foreign policy with a clear-cut chain of command which has to be carried out and implemented.”

State Minister Vasantha Senanayake

He added that the “people in the Foreign Ministry should also have a clear-cut understanding as to the thinking of the political leadership and the Government.”
Then came what one might call a knock-out blow in the way of a home truth that many outsiders have long suspected.

“There are too many people who declare foreign policy and too many cooks in the implementation.” State Minister Senanayake is only articulating a saying we learnt in our school days about too many cooks spoiling the soup.

Those interested in the formulation of Sri Lankan foreign policy and the country’s reactions to international developments and its relations with other countries might well wonder who actually dictates policy, who effects changes to policy and who decides on the Government’s response to international developments or bilateral issues.

One begins to doubt that Minister Tilak Marapana plays any significant role in this. Yes he might meet visiting counterparts or foreign dignitaries and Colombo based diplomats. He might participate in relevant (and sometimes not so relevant some might say) conferences here and abroad and address them.

But is he the driving force behind foreign policy thinking and making or is he having a loose hold on the tiller for the moment while political figures outside the immediate environs of the foreign policy portfolio dictate the direction in which Sri Lanka should be heading.

One of the problems in the workings of the ministry seems to be a lack of political leadership and the absence of a division of duties so that one knows where responsibility falls. Whether the bureaucratic chain of command as it is today is effective and whether it is equipped intellectually to produce, say, regular well-thought-out and impartial analyses to keep the political leadership abreast of international and regional developments and trends and their possible consequences instead of pandering to the ideological beliefs of politicians, is questionable.

Asked about the highly controversial UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 of October 2015 which roasted Sri Lanka for its conduct of the war against the LTTE and human rights and other alleged violations which Sri Lanka strangely co-sponsored, the State Minister is obviously shocked by the yahapalana government’s intent at the time.

Says Vasantha Senanayake: “I don’t know what made the Government accept all these conditions. They were virtually thrust on us. There was no necessity whatsoever to accept those conditions in that way. There was enough room for negotiations. There was enough room for us to negotiate for less imposing conditions. Whatever the reasons are, we are committed to certain actions now. It is time that we renegotiate these terms as some of them are very difficult to do politically. Some have to be phased out. It is not that there is no political will to implement them.”

What made the Government do so is not difficult to fathom. Under yahapalana Government, the UNP had taken over foreign affairs and the conduct of foreign policy.Historically, the UNP had been aligned with the west and often faithfully followed western foreign policy thinking. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera who held the foreign affairs portfolio, were determined to continue their servitude to the west, especially the US.

They were keen to rebuild the relationship with the US-led west which had been badly ruptured by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. It had refused to bow to the dictates of western powers especially during the last phase of the war.

Samaraweera’s regular visits to Washington and the pooja he paid even to middling US diplomats visiting Colombo seemed a ritual that denigrated Sri Lanka’s image and position in the global south particularly among those that considered this country a pillar of non-alignment.

It was against this background that Sri Lanka caved in and decided to co-sponsor the resolution hoping that its blandishments to the US will help it reestablish itself as a faithful ally.

Now the US has pulled out of the UNHRC. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley in a scathing attack on the UN’s human rights body called it a “cesspool”. If it is a cesspool then the US cannot absolve itself of making it so. The way it acted against Sri Lanka because its efforts at making the country accept its plans to save the terrorist leaders were spurned by the Rajapaksa government is proof enough that this same America was wallowing in what it now calls a cesspool.
Having humiliated and prepared the noose with which to hang Sri Lanka and continuing to tighten the knot, the US now promises to help Colombo hang itself.

In a parting gift to Sri Lanka the departing US ambassador Atul Keshap promised that America will continue to help our country meet its commitments to the US-engineered resolution we co-sponsored.

Atul Keshap who somehow reminds one of Indian high commissioner to Colombo Mani Dixit but with an American passport, is hardly a friend. He, like Dixit, is a big power bully, who seems to live by the principle that America’s word is law.

Having pushed Sri Lanka into the cesspool with the help of our masochistic pro-western political leaders, it now wants to see us drown. That is why accepting all these promises of help from Atul Keshap would be a diplomatic mishap.

US President Trump’s conduct and thinking are clear indications of how much the country that he lords over today cares for human rights at home or abroad.

His most recent policy to separate the children of illegal immigrations from their parents is a classic example of how much he cares for internationally respected human rights and the humane treatment of people in distress.

Thankfully, some of family members have a greater concern for human life than this billionaire businessman who is dragging the United States away from the very principles of democracy and the egalitarian values fostered by America’s founding fathers.

Would it not be more sincere if the US practises at home what it preaches to the rest of the world? Obama as president promised to close down the detention and torture centre called Guantanamo Bay in which the US has illegally held individuals for years often without charge. If Nikki Haley really wishes to see cesspools, why, she is free to take a look.

It seems that Trump who says he has a long memory should use it to store some of the human rights abuses the US has committed round the world. The Trump administration’s grouse with the UNHRC is that some of its members have no respect for human rights and are among the world’s worst abusers.

The composition of the UNHRC is in a way a microcosm of the UN membership of some 192 states. So why then does the US not withdraw from the UN? In fact why not withdraw from the Security Council because it has at least two members the US believes do not respect human rights –Russia and China.

It is bad enough that Trump is taking on traditional enemies. He is also antagonising traditional allies across the globe. So when Atul Keshap promises help, it is better to run for the nearest exit. The Greeks gifted the Trojans a wooden horse. We might end up with a live ass as though we do not have enough of our own.

Writing to the Brookings publication Ted Piccone, senior fellow, foreign policy wrote that the Trump administration’s goal is to “Weaken institutions not to its liking, abandon them if they do not comply with its demands, pick fights with democratic allies while cutting deals with autocrats, and go it alone with little regard of the costs to U.S. interests. It also has the added benefit, in administration officials’ minds, of absolving the administration from pretending to lead by its own example on human rights.”

If Trump could do this to America’s long time allies what would his administration not do to us?

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