Moragoda goes to India as High Commissioner, but New Delhi refuses to accept his ‘cabinet-rank’ status New York mission chief Mohan Peiris not present at important August sessions of UNSC where India presided and took up key issues of concern for Sri Lanka Emergency declared to provide essential food items at affordable prices, but traders [...]


As public discontent mounts, bungling in diplomatic issues


  • Moragoda goes to India as High Commissioner, but New Delhi refuses to accept his ‘cabinet-rank’ status
  • New York mission chief Mohan Peiris not present at important August sessions of UNSC where India presided and took up key issues of concern for Sri Lanka
  • Emergency declared to provide essential food items at affordable prices, but traders claim string of raids by new CGES will only worsen situation; Al-Jazeera says Lanka under food emergency
  • Despite new foreign minister taking over, Afghanistan statement exposes lack of foresight
Milinda Moragoda, Sri Lanka’s envoy designate to India, arrived in New Delhi this week, almost a year after he was confirmed by the Parliamentary High Posts Committee, to be the country’s High Commissioner. However, there appears to be still a delay before he is accepted by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The reason — he had submitted an ‘updated’ agrément (or a set of credentials) where he has referred to himself as High Commissioner holding “Cabinet rank,” despite an earlier rejection by New Delhi. India’s External Affairs Ministry has said the documents in that format cannot be forwarded to the President’s Office. Hence, it has asked for a fresh set of documents with no reference to “Cabinet rank” status. It is the Indian President who receives credentials of envoys to India.

In fact, when Moragoda’s original agrément was sent by the Foreign Ministry in Colombo to the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi, it was sought to identify Moragoda as a High Commissioner enjoying “Cabinet rank.” Other than such a reference, even Foreign Ministry officials were unable to explain what that title meant except to point out that at least one envoy in New Delhi enjoying such a status vis-à-vis the envoy’s home country. A direct meaning would have been an implied request that he be treated by the host country with the courtesies afforded to that of a cabinet minister.  Sri Lanka’s constitution makes no provision for such an appointment.

This Wattala godown was one of the stores that were raided this week

The Indian External Affairs Ministry informed Colombo that his credentials to serve as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in New Delhi had been accepted without that proviso. A diplomatic source said the decision was made at the highest levels. In other words, New Delhi made clear the diplomatic posting was without a so-called cabinet rank whatever that meant. Since then, Moragoda’s appointment was embroiled in a controversy with questions over whether he would proceed to New Delhi. Indications emerged in the recent months due to a splurge of media publicity in the local media, not mostly in New Delhi, about what he proposed to do in the Indian capital. He also put out a 27-page document titled “Independent Country Strategy for Sri Lanka diplomatic missions,” his ‘policy statement’ of sorts as Sri Lanka’s envoy. The culmination of the ‘policy statement’ brought out the politician in Moragoda as it seems to be his manifesto in the newly formed career path of diplomacy. That the Foreign Ministry together with its overseas missions annually works out an Action Plan with key progress indicators is known. However, one wonders whether this statement seeks to re-invent the wheel? Furthermore, generally diplomacy-related action is not played out in the media willy-nilly unless there is an imperative need for it.

Further for the conduct of successful diplomacy, it also required the co-ordination of all Sri Lanka missions abroad with the Foreign Ministry. Such practice facilitates drawing the best results including goodwill with the related partner country or countries. However, Sri Lanka seems to have failed in this respect in New York, as our Permanent Mission to the United Nations seems to have sat in silence vis-à-vis discussions at the Security Council through August if one goes by the mission’s website. It was none other than India which held the presidency of the UN Security Council for August. Areas of priority identified by the Council were maritime security, ongoing UN peacekeeping missions and counter terrorism. India began its presidency with a high-level signature event on maritime security. It was presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and followed by two other similar events including a briefing on ISIL/Daesh chaired by Foreign Minister,Jeyaram Jaishanker, a veteran in foreign affairs.

From all reports, the outcome of India’s UNSC presidency was substantive. A resolution on peacekeeping focused on ensuring accountability for crime against peacekeepers, with 80 sponsors including all Security Council members. Additionally, the Council issued a statement re-iterating condemnation in the strongest terms all instances of terrorism and voted with concern that ISIL could regain the ability to launch or orchestrate international terrorist threats. A Council president’s statement on maritime security was also issued. It included UNCLOS (UN Commission for Law of the Sea), freedom of navigation, terrorism, trafficking in arms, drugs and humans, places of regional and sub-regional organisations in this context and piracy.

Finally, a strong resolution on the situation in Afghanistan, this being the first, was adopted. It demanded that the Afghan territory should not be used to threaten or attack any country or shelter or train terrorists or to finance terrorist acts.

It is abundantly clear that the declared priority areas for discussion in the Security Council in August were extremely relevant to Sri Lanka. However, Sri Lanka seems to have chosen to be mute in the open debate or the meetings which would have been positive opportunities for the country to be heard on these important subjects. Did this position of silence come about because Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative Mohan Peiris was in Sri Lanka from the end of July for about a month? This could be no excuse as he needs to ensure that the work of the New York mission continues even in his absence. Is it not a slight to India that Sri Lanka did not actively participate in the work of the Security Council under its presidency? At least Sri Lanka should have supported to the extent possible the two resolutions which were adopted in the SC last month. The new Foreign Minister, G.L. Peiris, should seek ways and means to better monitor the work of the missions, be they be headed by political appointees or foreign service diplomats.

Clearly in this instance in New York matters could have been covered if there was more attention paid on the work of the UN agenda, particularly the UNSC, which is the only organ with legal teeth. With India what could have been secured with proactive interaction was also frittered away on this occasion.  If this demonstrates the weakness of one of Sri Lanka’s India representations abroad, the home front, in terms of the Foreign Ministry seems no better. Undoubtedly it is the onus of the bureaucrats of the Ministry to advice its political leadership, who together would make a considered final decision on issues. Now, did this process take place in letter and spirit when the original statement on developments in Afghanistan tan was issued or did the political leadership wake up to draw back in the unprofessional draft statement which was criticised by politicians, media, and academia?

In the first place, whose bright idea was it to issue a statement of this nature, where there may have not even been a formalised government in office in Kabul following the Taliban takeover? It led to the government of Sri Lanka, through the statement, sermonising to the Taliban, which refer to themselves as the rulers of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Some others interpreted this statement as a de facto recognition of the Taliban, particularly stating, “now that the Taliban is in power.” Undoubtedly Sri Lanka, would soon, need to seek ways and means of communicating with the new rulers once a government is in place because Afghanistan is a fellow SAARC member. But this must be worked out over a period. Adding insult to injury, the statement expresses concern on the possibility of mass migration, enhanced illegal narcotics trade and extremist religious elements attempting to find haven and their devastating effect. Further, the Government has thought it fit to request the Taliban for the law-and-order situation to be stabilised and the safety, security and dignity of the people of Afghanistan be safeguarded.

Is this lofty position to be taken at this juncture without watching the developments and then reaching a decision in a professional manner? It makes one wonder why there was stoic silence from the Foreign Ministry over the devastating bombing outside the Kabul airport. This was deemed to be a terrorist act. After all, Sri Lanka has faced a near three-decade-long separatist insurgency. More recently, an Islamic terror group wreaked havoc here with the Easter Sunday massacres in 2019.

Plans are afoot for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to take part in the UN General Assembly’s 76th sessions which begin on September 14. He is due to lead a six-member delegation if the prevailing situation in the country permits. Just a day ahead, the United Nations Human Rights Council will meet in Geneva. It is due to take up for discussion the implementation of the Resolution adopted in March this year.

When it is time for the UNHRC to be convened, it has become virtual tradition for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to trigger a flurry of activities. The lack of planning and a strategic foreign policy framework gets exposed. In the past two weeks, the new Foreign Minister, Prof G L Pereis, has gone public in challenging the concept of missing persons by referring to most as persons who have travelled overseas under disguises with fake names. Earlier, in July this year, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took to his twitter handle and made an unexpected tweet: “We are committed to work with the @UN to ensure accountability & human dev. to achieve lasting peace & reconciliation. We are dedicated to resolving the issues within the democratic & legal frame to ensure justice & reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms.”

Pre-emptive diplomatic move

Since 2020, the pendulum has swung from flat denial of any breaches of international law, withdrawal from co-sponsorship of the previously adopted resolutions at the UNHRC, to rejection of the content of the new resolution as politically motivated with unsubstantiated evidence.

This time the Government, in what seems a bid to pre-empt heavy criticism, circulated among different countries what it calls a ‘briefing note’ dated August 31 with pointed reference to the forthcoming 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council. This ‘briefing note’, a 13 pages status report, was hurriedly despatched by special courier service on Wednesday/Thursday of last week to all the resident missions in Colombo. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative Ambassador C.A. Chandraprema too circulated the same to missions in Geneva.

The Sunday Times has seen a copy.  Foreign Minister Peiris met the United Nations Resident Coordinator (UNRC) Hanaa Singer-Hamdy on Thursday, September 2, at the Ministry and handed over a copy. It is clearly an effort to dispute the latest Report by Fabián Salvioli, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. The 48th session of UNHRC will be held between September 13 and October 6, 2021 predominantly virtually, through remote access and with limited physical presence at the Council Chambers in Geneva.

The sessions will begin at 10am on Monday, 13/09/21 with an oral update by the High Commissioner Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria, under ITEM 2 — report on Venezuela, oral updates on Nicaragua and Sri Lanka. This oral update on Sri Lanka was mandated by the country specific Resolution A/HRC/RES/46/1 that was adopted in Feb 2021. In Geneva, diplomatic sources believe that her oral update will reinforce her conclusions in her report on Feb 21.

This update will follow with general debate under ITEM 2 for the next two full days. Although overall focus of the Council will be on the situation in Afghanistan, Myanmar and COVID-19, it is believed the core-group of countries headed by Britain is keen that the pressure should be maintained on the current government considering, in their view, the further deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka with the latest actions of declaring emergency rule, some of the recent controversial presidential pardoning of convicted murderers, further appointments of military personnel to run civilian responsibilities etc.

Armed with emergency powers, officials raid a storage facility in Kundasale

The Sri Lanka document, in anticipation of the issues that would come up at the UNHRC, gives answers to the Government’s official position. For example, the Special Rapporteur has said that the accountability issues have not been implemented. However, the Foreign Ministry has said that a Presidential Commission of Inquiry would carry out a review.

Food crisis

On the domestic front, amidst growing fears of deep shortfalls in agricultural crops, the result of the ban on import of chemical fertiliser, the Government was beset with another worrying issue – the shortage of rice, sugar and dhal. A key Government player, who is keeping himself away from the media spotlight, unlike in the past, has been sounding out several local business personalities on the prospect of obtaining large quantities of food stocks on unusually extended terms, say, by over a year.  This is by using their personal foreign contacts with assurances that payment would be guaranteed. The move, so far, has not met with success.

The shortage, particularly of rice, flour and sugar sending local prices to steep levels, prompted the Government to take the unusual step of declaring a state of emergency. The move sent shockwaves locally but also around the world. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based international satellite television channel, reported that a food emergency had been declared in Sri Lanka. Like the knee-jerk reaction in December last year over the declaration of the port and health services as “essential services,” the declaration of a state of emergency appears to be a similar one. It is pertinent to note that the essential service order did not have a significant impact and the turnout of the workforce showed no substantial change. It came only after the different trade unions decided that their members should return to work.

The decision to declare a state of emergency came after last Monday’s weekly Cabinet meeting. An official statement from the Presidential Secretariat said, “As per the powers vested in terms of the section 2 of the Public Security Ordinance, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared emergency regulations formulated as per the section 5 on essential food supply, with effect from midnight today, by enforcing directives under the section ii of the Ordinance.

“The authorised officers will be able to take steps to provide essential food items at concessionary rate to the public by purchasing stocks of essential food items including paddy, rice and sugar, at government guaranteed prices or based on the Customs value on imported goods to prevent market irregularities which are causing inconvenience to consumers due to concealing of stocks of essential food items including paddy, rice and sugar and to prevent selling them at higher prices. This will be implemented in such a way that the loans granted to purchase stocks from the State Banks could be recovered from the borrowers.

“Major General M.D.S.P. Niwunhella has been appointed as the Commissioner General of Essential Services to coordinate the supply of paddy, rice, sugar and other consumer goods that are essential to maintain the livelihood of the people.”

The Gazette notification explains that “The objective of these regulations is to prevent the activities such as hiding, interrupting the distribution, charging high prices of essential food bulks including rice and sugar and causing market irregularities which cause inconvenience to the consumers and the welfare of the people.” It adds: “Therefore, authorised officers or authorities shall cause to buy the bulks of essential food including paddy, rice, sugar based on the guaranteed price or the imported prices at the customs and, supply to the public at a reasonable price and the State banks shall take measures to recover the loans borrowed from such banks to buy such bulks from the creditors.”

The seven page notification primarily deals with the following aspects: (1) Where any premises is alleged to have been used for the commission of an offence or in connection with the commission of an offence under these regulations, the Superintendent of Police of the relevant area shall take such premises which has been used to store essential food stocks, including paddy, rice and sugar, into his possession and remove any person found or residing therein and shall prevent and protect such premises from unauthorised entry by any person:

“Provided that, any person who claims to have owned such building, premises or place shall be entitled to make an application to the Court of Appeal to obtain an order to release such building or premises from such possession. Where the Court of Appeal is satisfied, after the expiration of a period of two weeks of issuing any such order, that such building or premises has been used without his knowledge or in contravention of his instructions, the Court of Appeal may release such building or premises:

“Provided further, where an action has not been filed within a period of six months after taking into possession of such premises or building, the Court of Appeal shall order such building or the premises to be returned to such owner.

“(2) Where any person has been convicted of an offence under this regulation and where the court is satisfied that such premises has been used, or used in connection with, the commission of an offence under this regulation, the Court of Appeal may make an order to confiscate such building or premises, in addition to any punishment imposed by the Court of Appeal in respect of such offence.

“(1) Where a competent authority deems it necessary to seize any essential food items including paddy, rice and any vehicle transporting such items for the purpose of providing essential supplies and services to the public, such competent authority may seize such food items including paddy and rice and any vehicle transporting such commodities. Taking into possession of buildings and premises used for the commission of an offence, etc. Seizure of purchases and transportation.

“(2) Where the competent authority seizes essential food items including paddy and rice under paragraph (1) for the purpose of maintaining public order and for providing essential supplies and services to the public, such competent authority shall, taking into account the state certified prices or custom specified prices under the instruction of the Commissioner General of Essential supplies, take steps to provide them to the consumers for a fair price or may be authorized to do so.

“(3) Where the competent authority is of the opinion that it is required to do so, for the purpose of exercising the powers vested in him under paragraph (1), he may make an Order, in relation to the entirety of Sri Lanka or in relation to any part thereof, directing any person who has in his possession or control a vehicle in an area in respect of which the Order relates, to not to remove or caused to be removed such vehicle, until the person or authority specified in the Order permits to remove the same.

“(4) Where any person, requests for assistant from any police officer or other public officer, in exercising the powers vested in him by the preceding provisions of this regulation, such police officer or public officer shall provide such assistance so requested. (5) For the purpose of this regulation, the “competent authority” means the Chairman of the Consumer Affairs Authority, Inspector General of Police, or a District Secretary of any District. 13. (1) The President may direct or authorise one or more authorities or officers determined in that behalf to direct any person by warrant under his hand to do any work in aid of or in respect of the maintenance of an essential service or to provide any personal service.

“(2) A person who contravenes any Order made under these regulations or fails to comply with such Order commits an offence and shall on conviction after a trial before a Magistrate, in addition to any penalty imposed therefor– (a) be liable for forfeiture of all his property, immovable or movable, free of any encumbrance attached thereto.  (b) Any transfer or disposition of property by such person after the effective date of these regulations shall be deemed to be null and void.”

Appointed as Commissioner General of Essential Services was Major General M.D.S.P. Nuwunhella, who was earlier responsible for President Gotabaya’s personal security contingent from the Army. With the full blare of television cameras, his teams have been raiding warehouses and godowns where sugar was stored. There was little doubt that some stocks were hoarded. However, the exercise also brought to question other serious issues. In some place, what was found was industrial-grade sugar meant for confectioners and soft drinks makers. In one other instance, as the raid was under way, the legal officer of a bank turned up to point out that the sugar was the bank’s property. It had been seized from the importer after he had not paid dues. He was, however, unable to claim the stocks and was told to make such claims from a state trading institution. Others complained they were compelled to obtain US dollars in the black market paying Rs 248 to a US dollar. Traders claim that the string of raids will only worsen the severe shortage – a viewpoint shared in confidence by at least two Cabinet ministers and a state minister.

Last Friday, officials of the office of the Commissioner General of Essential Services (CGES) met sugar importers. CGES officials were embarrassed when it was pointed out to them that some of the stocks of sugar were for industrial use. They urged the importers to remove them. Some of the stocks, they pointed out, would be given to the Co-operative Wholesale Establishment to be sold at lower prices.

With a continued extension of the curfew as COVID-19 spread wildly, the Government seems to be enmeshed in many an international issue. Propaganda videos are being churned out for distribution. How much it would work remains to be seen as public discontent mounts.

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