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Sri Lankan Foreign Service must put its own house in order before anything else

Feb 20, 2011 4:31:29 PM- transcurrents.com

by Kalana Senaratne

The message from Sri Lanka is a serious one; a call to be defensive (or offensive? or both?).

The Prime Minister had the following to say, in Parliament: that the government has been informed that plans are being made by certain LTTE sympathizers and other elements in the Tamil diaspora in Europe to raise ‘war-crimes’ allegations, again, at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

This, I believe, is not news to anyone. Such plans will be hatched, until those against whom allegations are being levelled pass away. There is then a need to wake up, to realize, that such allegations even if they are dropped by States, will be made by various organizations, for years, if not decades.

How then are the diplomats going to reach out and defend the country and its leaders, at the UNHRC or elsewhere? This question seems to cause a lot of concern, naturally. Member of Parliament Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha informs us that the regular meetings in Geneva will commence soon. There is some hope, since Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe is back. He together with the current External Affairs Minister will be a "tremendous force", says Prof. Wijesinha (see ‘The Usual Suspects Threaten the Galle Literary Festival)

One question, however, is whether there is enough progress made especially on the human rights front. Much of the investigations which began years ago have not been completed. There are attacks directed at media institutions. The final report of the LLRC will be out only later, after it completes its sittings. Legislation stuck in Parliament (the Draft Witness and Victim Protection Bill, for instance) has not come out. There are disturbing reports from the Northern and Eastern parts of the country, about killings and disappearances. This is why I tend to think that the task at the UNHRC is not going to be an easy one.

As raised in these columns before, and as Mr. HMGS Palihakkara (a former Foreign Secretary) put it more eloquently in his ‘Prof JE Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture’ recently: "governance and foreign policy are functionally linked. So are the attendant challenges … when you get your governance act together, getting your foreign policy act together will be less of a problem."

In sharp contrast, there are others who seem to paint a ‘rosy’ picture of the situation in Sri Lanka, and furthermore, about diplomacy. Ms. Sarala Fernando, a former diplomat argues that much work has been done in the areas of resettlement and demining (which may be true, especially as regards the issue of resettlement, as acknowledged even by the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka).

But then she argues that there has been a statistical decline in the allegations of human rights violations, that there are only a few cases of disappearances remaining, and comes up with a fantastic suggestion: "Is it not time for all the good news to be collated and disseminated through a credible website? How else to combat the endless propaganda churned out by the diaspora?" And then comes this: "such a site should not be ‘propagandist’ but represent creative diplomacy, using your assets to ‘attract’ attention and sending out a positive message."

Is it that easy? Will that kind of diplomacy (what can we call it, ‘dot com’ or ‘dot lk’ diplomacy?) work, given the kind of challenges confronting Sri Lanka’s human rights record? What will this website say about the W/V Protection draft legislation, for instance (‘stuck in parliament, thanks for visiting the website’)?

What will it say about the killings and abductions of journalists, which have not yet been investigated thoroughly?

In any case, doesn’t the government have enough websites already which disseminate information about issues pertaining to resettlement, demining, etc.?

And how can such a site, Ms. Fernando’s site, be creative, and not ‘propagandist’?

‘Creative diplomacy’: as in creative with different types and sizes of fonts, or with nice colours, shades and patterns? Or creative, perhaps, with numbers, figures and facts?

Why then this focus on ‘dot lk’ diplomacy?

It is because a case is being made for ‘quiet’ or ‘traditional’ diplomacy; which had to be made, given what Prof. Wijesinha had to say: "… to ensure maximum impact [at the UNHRC in Geneva], they will need to involve Dayan [Jayatilleka] again in their deliberations, as well as their activities, though that should not be too difficult since he is now resident in Paris as our Ambassador."

Now, I hesitate to endorse Prof. Wijesinha’s argument, because Ambassador Jayatilleka is not a ‘solution’ today, in that solutions need to come from Sri Lanka in the form of a significant improvement of human rights protection and the activities of the HR Commission, the passing of necessary legislation, the implementation of certain human rights action plans, etc. (issues on which Prof. Wijesinha is better able to answer as he is working on those areas back home).

And since Ambassador Jayatilleka is not in Geneva, one cannot and should not expect a diplomat based elsewhere to do what other diplomats are supposed to do (unless of course a precedent has been set, since one saw, in some video clips, Ambassador Kshenuka Seneviratne in London during President Rajapaksa’s ill-planned ‘Oxford trip’!)

But interestingly, it is not this line of critique that some former diplomats, or ‘professional’ diplomats, have adopted. The approach adopted, rather strangely, is to show that Ambassador Jayatilleka’s brand of diplomacy was responsible for the emergence of the Special Session and that the success Sri Lanka achieved during that Special Session is, in any case, of marginal or very little importance.

So determined is Ms. Fernando to prove so, that her determination comes out in the form of an amateurish argument. She claims that the sympathy and goodwill gained due to the tsunami disaster was such that: "supported by quiet diplomacy, that goodwill extended over a period of years, such that when I left Geneva in early 2007, a Special Session on Sri Lanka would have been unthinkable." That, sadly, is an unthinkable statement, a misreading of the kind of pressure exerted on certain States by elements of the diaspora, which, along with the accusations raised by other human rights organizations, made such a Special Session necessary and inevitable in the eyes of the Western powers. A Special Session would have been unthinkable if only the armed conflict had ended in 2007!

But more seriously, it turns out that she was, at the time of leaving Geneva, well aware of a "highly critical draft EU resolution on Sri Lanka on the HRC agenda from 2006", as pointed out by her successor, Ambassador Jayatilleka (in ‘The Geneva Consensus: Setting the Record Straight’). Ms. Fernando has not yet responded adequately to this serious charge.

While the pros and cons of ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘megaphone diplomacy’ need to be examined in a separate column, what is unfortunate is this attempt made to belittle the success gained in Geneva. Unfortunately, even Mr. Palihakkara seems to be reluctant to accept this when he argues that the most formidable challenge Sri Lanka faced was not in Geneva but in New York, because it is only the UN Security Council that could (rightly) issue a legally binding directive, and that: "Since such a decree would be legally binding, it would be qualitatively different from other similar calls, including a resolution in the Human Rights Council in Geneva which can be only recommendatory in nature and thus not legally binding."

Firstly, what is unfortunate here is the inability or unwillingness to appreciate the seriousness of what could have happened had the UNHRC passed a resolution calling for an international investigation.

Secondly, and this is the most startling of all, this belittling of the success achieved in Geneva comes, not from LTTE-sympathizers or elements in the diaspora (because for them, the Geneva outcome was a serious and damning blow). This success is being belittled by our own diplomats, who served the country, together, during that challenging period! This, to me, is the greatest tragedy of all.

Mr. Jayantha Dhanapala, in his recent speech on the importance of civil society, quotes a passage from Judge CG Weeramantry’s book titled ‘A Call for National Reawakening’. Reading that, I was reminded of another passage contained in Judge Weeramantry’s book, wherein the author refers to one of Sri Lanka’s national weaknesses: ‘Envy at the success of others.’

This is what Judge Weeramantry wrote: "It seems to be almost a national trait that much envy is shown towards those who achieve a measure of success above one’s own. This has been the subject of many wry jokes such as the story of the pits in hell, allocated to different nationalities, each of which had guards placed above it to prevent unauthorized escapes. The Sri Lankan pit alone had no guards and when a visitor inquired why this was so he was told that for Sri Lanka it was not wanted, as the inmates themselves would pull down any one who was about to escape and improve his condition… So long as this national failing continues this will be a great impediment to the rise of Sri Lanka as a nation that will gain international recognition" (p. 19-20).

Now, let us ask ourselves the question: doesn’t that sum up quite neatly the tragedy of the Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service? Some think that ‘Geneva’ was more important than anything else, some others think it was New York. Some think ‘Geneva’ could have been easily avoided. No wonder then that we have to spend millions on, or to put it less diplomatically, ‘go behind’, the Bell Pottingers to build an image! No wonder then that the LTTE sympathizers and such elements in the diaspora succeeded in their efforts overseas, for so long.

This paralysis is further aggravated by the fact that the problem is not only between the ‘professional diplomats’ and the ‘political appointees’, as some might try to show. As newspaper reports suggest, it is a problem that exists between ‘professional diplomats’ too. In such an overarching context, then, there is, of course, a need for politicians to get serious about issues of governance, including human rights protection etc. to make the task of the diplomat a less troublesome one. But of course one misses an important point here: the foreign or diplomatic service should, I believe, put its own house in order before anything else