It is one thing for an assortment of UN Special Rapporteurs to fly in and out of Sri Lanka and make homilies on what is happening here, but the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the European Union and the United States State Department have taken a step further the West’s favourite pastime of whipping [...]




It is one thing for an assortment of UN Special Rapporteurs to fly in and out of Sri Lanka and make homilies on what is happening here, but the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), the European Union and the United States State Department have taken a step further the West’s favourite pastime of whipping this country into shape by issuing statements on who should, or should not be appointed Sri Lanka’s Army (SLA) chief.

That the UNP Foreign Ministry defended the SLFP President, notwithstanding the chronic bickering within the cohabitation government is creditable. These UN visits and ultra-dependence on foreign aid, loans and grants tend to give governments and their envoys the cockiness to exceed diplomatic niceties and the provisions of the golden book of protocol.

The Chinese envoy the other day balked at a government ban on cigarettes and tour guides from that country. The US ambassador issued her government’s statement from Colombo questioning the appointment of the new Army commander. These concerns must be addressed to the host nation through the Foreign Ministry, not through statements or at public fora. The US envoy’s statement warranted not just a rebuttal, but a summons to the Foreign Ministry, or a demarche lodged in Washington, or both, but that would be too much to expect from a government perceived as weak-kneed when dealing with the West and thus offering itself to be kicked in its rear from time to time.

The US ambassador has tried to clarify matters by stating the obvious; that the decision is finally that of the Sri Lanka government (unless Washington wants a seat in the future in Sri Lanka’s Constitutional Council as well to vet appointments of senior officials). The envoy’s bosses have come forward to defend the statement and hint that future military training programmes are at peril, while the UNHRC talks, with what mandate one wonders, of future UN peacekeeping roles for the SLA.

There is, no doubt, some debate over the appointment of the new Army commander as our Diplomatic Political Editor explains on our front page today. But there can be no question – not just about the President’s right, but it is his prerogative to appoint and retain an Army chief at his “whim and pleasure”. The President, as commander-in-chief and head of state, takes the consequences for this appointment.

There are domestic issues over the new appointment and the President ought to have taken notice of them. These are relevant, especially in view of the upcoming Presidential election, given the commander’s credentials, and the candidates involved while considering the role of the Army in maintaining security. Though the emergency was allowed to lapse, the President issued a gazette notification, calling upon the armed forces to maintain public order.

Some foreign envoys past and present tend to forget, others ignore, the protocols they must abide by. There was an Indian envoy who was once termed the ‘Viceroy of India’ for mistakenly trying to run Sri Lanka like another state of the Union of India and there was a British envoy who was declared persona non grata for entering a polling booth during a local government election. There was a US political adviser ordered to leave the country for talking flippantly about the 1982 referendum at a cocktail party. None of them seems to have read ‘Guide to Diplomatic Practice’ by Ernest Sathow, the ‘big book’ on protocol.

It is not that foreign countries do not poke their noses into the administration of other countries elsewhere. The boot has even been on the other foot for the USA. A US state attorney Preet Bharara, the man who prosecuted Sri Lankan-born insider dealer Raj Rajaratnam in his recent book “Doing Justice’ says how the Indian government threatened retaliation when one of its diplomats was arrested for a visa fraud relating to a domestic worker, and how a dual citizen of Iran and Turkey nabbed for money laundering and breaking US sanctions got a ‘Get out of Jail’ card from the Turkish President, who telephoned President Barack Obama and personally met Vice President Joe Biden in Washington on the man’s behalf. He had even asked the US state attorney be fired.

As far as the US is concerned, the approach of its envoy may be aggravated by the same attitude displayed by the White House. This week, the US became the laughing stock of the world when its President offered to buy the semi-autonomous country of Greenland and was rebuffed. When the Danish Prime Minister politely turned down the offer, he cancelled his meeting with her.  But the US State Department, the White House and the Defence Department are not always in sync. For decades, the US has had an awkward forked tongued foreign policy. The former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez identified the problem while addressing the UN General Assembly; he referred to the then US President Obama as Obama1 and Obama 2 — a reference to the duplicitous nature of US foreign policy where the State Department talks of human rights and the Pentagon bombs the daylights out of innocent civilians around the world. The situation is worse confounded now with insubordinate subordinates in the State Department.

At least this US President is not hypocritical when it comes to human rights. He sheds no crocodile tears at home on the subject and withdrew from the UNHRC calling it, hypocritical.

A classic case of the State Department being wrong-footed is when it refused to give Gujarat’s then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, a visa to visit the US in 2009 accusing him of complicity in anti-Muslim riots in the Indian state. The Indian-Muslim Diaspora had lobbied the ‘bleeding hearts’ at the State Department. An unused law was invoked for the refusal. But once the US saw Mr. Modi ascend the political ladder in India, and in 2014 on the cusp of becoming its Prime Minister, it gladly reversed its decision and welcomed him with open arms. The Indian Muslim Diaspora was dumped by the wayside; the Indian PM was welcomed to the White House in Washington and given a rock star reception at Madison Square Gardens in New York. The Gujarat issue was thrown into the ‘dustbin of history’ and today, the US has no better ally in this part of the world than Modi’s India. Likewise, the vagaries of political winds, especially in the Indian Ocean can change, and the new Army commander can very well turn out to be America’s next best friend as the Chinese ‘Belt and Road’ initiative gathers momentum in this part of the world.

Already, the US State Department, notwithstanding its public grandstanding on alleged war crimes, war crimes tribunals and war criminals of Sri Lanka following the crushing of the violent northern separatist uprising in 2009, has sought and obtained private meetings with those who gave the orders to the current Army commander and his fellow top brass to defeat that violent uprising viz., former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and former President and Commander-in-chief of the Sri Lanka Armed Forces, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

What with this being the eve of Presidential elections here; there are no permanent friends or enemies, after all. Only permanent interests.


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