Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy and the man they call

Professor G L Peiris


By Maheen Senanayake

Almost three weeks ago when I visited Professor G L Peiris for an interview I had made the mistake of assuming there was no parking at the Ministry of External Affairs and ended up taking a very long walk beneath the cloudy skies of the morning. Prof Peiris was on time, arriving with his entourage. As I was ushered into his office seconds after his arrival, I was surprised to find not a single paper on his desk, bar the file stamped ‘urgent’ he was reading from. He went through and correcting two full pages of typescript while his aide fingered with what I presumed was a Samsung smart phone.

No sooner had he closed the file and given explicit instructions we began our conversation.

Could we start with an overview of our foreign policy please?

Yes. There are significant elements to it. One is a focus on economic diplomacy. The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China which is expected to be a reality before the end of the year has had a feasibility study about to be completed. This will give Sri Lankan exports access to the vast markets of China. We already have a FTA with India which was formulated in 1998 and came into operation in year 2000 which resulted in a seven fold increase in our exports to India. We are now in the process of identifying ways to strengthen that FTA focusing importantly on Non-Tariff Barriers.

Then we are opening up economic relations with other parts of the world which have been neglected. All this cynicism about our relations with Africa is actually snobbery. For instance there was a lot of criticism of the president’s visit to Tanzania and four days after President Rajapaksa left Tanzania President Obama went to Tanzania. All the critics were silenced. So that is snobbery. Hillary Clinton in her memoir ‘Hard Choices’ refers to Africa as a fast developing continent – economically and the interest of the United States in forging economic links with countries in Africa.

We have established resident missions in Uganda, Nigeria, in the Seychelles and so on. Seychelles is a small country but it is important to us from the point of view of giving access to East Africa and Southern Africa. That is why apart from the mission we have a branch of the Bank of Ceylon, we have a branch of the Insurance Corporation and then there is Sri Lankan business that is thriving in that country particularly in the construction industry and the power and energy sectors.

Connectivity, he says with a little punch. Economic diplomacy! This time it’s for emphasis. Then there are the formerly ignored countries. This is not at the extreme of other countries but foreign policy must evolve in keeping with contemporary priorities and requirements. We had earlier simply followed the lines of our diplomatic representations from the time we received independence from the British and hadn’t taken stock of the situation and made appropriate innovation. Our foreign policy is an extension of our domestic policy. Today, one of our main objectives is to protect the country against the onslaught on Sri Lanka in the post-conflict scenario. These entities now know we have defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam(LTTE) militarily but there are sections of the diaspora which have not given up on the ideal of Ealam.

Today there is tremendous pressure on Sri Lanka at the international level. The truth is that human rights are being used as a political tool. So we have to contend with that. And also what we have seen is that there is an economic onslaught on Sri Lanka to discourage tourism, to discourage investments, to try and decrease volumes of international trade with Sri Lanka to deal with that situation.

Yet another objective of our foreign policy is to take out there all that is so very much positive; basically branding of the country. Our critics, those who wish Sri Lanka ill, are trying to identify our country as a country that violates human rights and so on but nobody is talking about what we are doing to preserve the tranquility of the waters around us, how much we are doing to curtail people smuggling, narcotics, piracy all of that. And (he snorts – the first hint of relaxation ) he says with a little pause ‘had we not defeated terrorism, the situation would be entirely different in the subcontinent and it would have been very different from what it is.’

Then there is what we have achieved with regard to social equity accompanying economic development.

Social equity?

Yes. Social equity, meaning for us it is important to increase GDP – the Sri Lankan economy is growing by almost seven percent – but equally important is that the benefits are equally distributed (Well folks – that is social equity – text book style) he continues…that they reach the rural areas in terms of facilities in schools, improved health facilities, infrastructure; today there is a social renaissance, take the opportunities available to the rural child to compete on equal terms with students from the best schools in the urban areas – laboratories, computer facilities, sports facilities are coming (to the countryside). That is important and our achievements with regard to the environment are also being internationally recognized.

Some of our large companies in the apparel sector have won international awards, for what they are doing with cutting down consumption of electricity, water, our development of renewable sources of energy such as solar power, wind power, and along with our leadership in matters connected with youth are being internationally recognized. These are very positive features of Sri Lanka. which are being suppressed by those who wish to project a discerned or distorted image of the country - so to correct that is also one of the objectives of our foreign policy.

You mentioned some very interesting things in your explanation and I am very taken up by the use of the word ‘equity’. I have on more than a number of occasions overheard how difficult life is for most people. Since I am not in a position to debate the growth rate of 7.4% let us take is as a given. Having said that do you believe that foreign policy, being an extension of domestic policy, these efforts have in fact lessened the income disparity of our people?

Oh yes! ( there is no hesitation in his stride – Then he searches for a fraction of a second too long to qualify his response!)

That is verifiable as to whether this is factual. About eight to nine years ago the disparities in income that is the per capita income in the district of Colombo was seven times more that the per capita income of districts like Hambantota, Moneragala and Polonnaruwa. The disparity has been substantially reduced.

Isn’t district-wise per capita calculations tricky as we don’t really know where they came from – I mean the port is in Colombo as against Polonnaruwa, so immediately revenues would be apportioned to Colombo?

This per capita income target of US $ 4000 p.a is very elusive.

When you say that people are finding it difficult to make ends meet there is an explanation for this. Quality of life has improved. Today we have more mobile phones in the country than we have people so at the end of the month you will get a bill for your mobile phone. Sometimes there are two – three mobile phones owned by one individual. We often talk of provision of electricity and pipe borne water to the people, huge improvements have taken place in the last few years. At the end of the month now families are presented with a bill that they did not have earlier when they didn’t have those facilities.

According to the socio-economic data book by the Central Bank which quotes the Department of Census and Statistics the number of customers (households) provided pipe borne water by the National Water Supply and Drainage Board is 1.3 million. When you look at this from the fact that excluding the North and East the estimate of number of households is approximately 4.5 million households only one third of the population have access to pipe borne water. How would you respond to that?

The number of motorcycles have increased phenomenally, the number of three wheelers have increased. The basic point is that when this happens there is a cost attached to it. There is a cost attached to development.

Are you suggesting then therefore that this poverty is artificial because relatively household expenditure has increased?

Expenditure has increased, that is an inevitable consequence of development.

There is the issue raised on the appointment (to overseas diplomatic missions) of relations of the president and relations of friends of the president outside those appointed politically but with the approval of the Parliamentary Committee on High Posts. What is your response to Mr. Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s allegations in Parliament?

This is by no means the first time that this has happened. These are all criticisms that are being made when in previous governments these have not been issues and people accepted these. So the first point is that this is not something that is being done for the first time; and in those grades although they are appointments being made from the outside, that is not the majority.

Forty odd appointments out of a possible 50 odd doesn’t look good!

That is with regard to heads of missions.

If you take the total number of persons serving in missions, apart from heads of missions, the majority is in the other category and as far as the heads of missions are concerned these are all approved by the High Posts Committee.

But not those outside the heads of missions?

As far as those are concerned, like I said they are from the service. There is no doubt about it.

In the other category the members of the opposition sit on the high posts committee and these were never queried. There have been situations in the past when there have been objections and the appointments were not made and further consideration given to those proposals and so on. Members of the opposition have simply approved these appointments.

How difficult or easy has your task been with your current cadre of staff?

It is only fair to say that our foreign service in a challenging situation has given us their best in the service of their country. Of course, like in any sector not everyone is performing at the same level – some are better than others. Our people are putting their shoulder to the wheel and giving us their best. The forces pitted against us are formidable. Let’s not underestimate those forces.

For example simply to say that we have been defeated in the Human Rights Council is totally unfair because if you take the composition of the HRC it is plainly political and the UN system itself has acknowledged this. Because the HRC was brought into existence because the General Assembly was very dissatisfied with the manner in which its predecessor the ‘Human Rights Commission’ was performing its task. They were highly politicized. We wanted a different kind of body which will look at issues on their merits. That is certainly not happening. Nobody can maintain that that is happening.

One country which voted against us sent a very high dignitary from their cabinet to explain to us that they had "no choice because our security interests our economic interest are so linked to the powers that are proposing this resolution against Sri Lanka. We can’t possibly say no because it will damage us". So the decisions being made there are not based on the merits of the situation and political factors are the governing factors. In that situation to blame our mission is baseless.

As the subject minister, when you took up your portfolio, did you have a personal milestone with respect to foreign policy?

Yes! As I explained to you earlier we have achieved those objectives that I set out to achieve in our foreign policy. Sometimes when I travel, we did this in Abu Dhabi, we call the heads of missions in the area to do a review. In the Middle East, the Gulf areas are our interests as are the Sri Lankans who are employed there who are sending large amounts of monies to Sri Lanka. So their well-being and so on is looked at. Our economic relations – for instance oil, about one third of our import bill is oil. Then political relations, The vast majority of countries that have been supportive to us internationally have been the Gulf and Arab states – so strengthening those relations are of paramount importance to us.

Trade can certainly be improved and the opportunities are numerous. So we have been assessing the performance of our missions regionally also and they are required to send in reports every month. Of course we have to operate within constraints.

Many years ago there were Trade Commissioners, there were Tea Commissioners. Are they still around?

Most of our larger missions have a trade official who reports directly to the Minister of Trade and Commerce and the Export Development Board. Our missions in London, Brussels Washington are some of the missions with a trade official whose focus is entirely trade and economic matters.

Many speak nostalgically of a ‘prestigious Civil Service, Foreign Service’ etc. Where do you think we stand today?

All of that has a large component of snobbery. You are thinking of a different era, elitist and of people who speak perfect English and probably studied Latin in school etc. The world has changed, values have changed and it is very important to democratize. In fact this was one of my principal challenges as Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University. When I was a student in the faculty of law we had 17 students in our batch. (one seven, he says for emphasis) and Latin was a compulsory paper at the end of the first year. It was part of the examination of Roman law. There were not more than five schools in the country that taught Latin.

Such a system can deliver and produce people of very high quality. It is not a system that can survive or endure. Today there are about 250 students in a batch. So the challenge was to preserve quality while broadening the base. That is important and necessary because access to education and social mobility are interconnected – all that is important and at that time there was only one law faculty in the university system apart from the Open University. So if the university is admitting people and then examining them in Latin it’s not an equitable system. It is true of the foreign service, the inland revenue department, it is true of many other government departments. But I can tell you this: people who do not belong to that background are by no means lacking in intellectual sensitivity or perception. So if you say nostalgia, that is a hankering after something that belonged to a different age.

Are you enjoying your job?

Yes, very much. Often people ask me this question and I can sincerely say that no job is perfect. Every job has its challenges and its ups and down. I was in academic life for 26 years. At the time I left the University system I was Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo.

Do you miss it?

In an ideal situation I would like to deliver some visiting lectures. I have gone once or twice. As the pressure of work becomes less that is something I like to do from time to time.

There are lots of people waiting for revised editions of your work. No one has matched them,;do you have any plans to write again including the publisher who has told, me ‘I wish this man would revise these.’

Well, it’s difficult to do a sustained piece of work like that- like writing a book on the law of evidence or administrative law. Those books are still used but of course there have been many developments since, particularly in case law. The basic principles still remain the same, in the Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and the Evidence Ordinance and so on. The problems is that to write such a work would require an enormous amount of work; you would have to digest case law, to offer a critical analysis of it and it would not be possible to combine this with the work I am engaged in at present.

One particular work, ‘The law of unjust enrichment struck a chord.’ What is your interest in this subject?

That was my doctoral thesis, submitted to the University of Oxford. I have always been interested in the principles of the Roman Dutch law and its application in a modern context. I also came under the influence of one of the world’s greatest scholars, who was Regius Professor of Civil Law in the University of Oxford, who is still living, he is 93 and I visit him whenever I can and had lunch with him about three months ago. So he was probably the world’s leading exponent of this branch of the law and I worked with him. That is the work for which I was awarded the D.Phil, the doctorate in philosophy by the University of Oxford.

You have a foreign service cadre. What do you think their morale is like now?

It is not the case that people who are in line for promotion are denied those promotions. And in many of these services you do need a mix of people and sometimes cross pollination – fresh blood from outside works well. People from different backgrounds have made a contribution. Some people object to the appointment of those who have worked in the military but some of them are today doing yeomen service.

Some countries have appointed as their Governors Generals people with military backgrounds!

Sir, with due respect the Governors Generals were mostly military appointments.


Well western countries have done that. In the foreign service as in other services, the highest echelons of the judiciary, you have career judges coming and then you have people from the Attorney General’s department coming in. You have people from the private bar coming. So it’s a mix and that diversity of background is an enriching factor. Of course there must be a sense of balance.

My final question. What do you enjoy reading and what are you reading today?

It is useful to read memoirs of people who have been actively involved in contemporary affairs. At the moment I am reading Hillary Clinton’s book, ‘Hard Choices’ and I found Tony Blair’s book, ‘A Journey’ to be very interesting.

These are situations which have a fall out in our part of the world as well. The formative influences, the factors which influence policy. Clinton’s book give perspectives and insights. Lee KuanYew’s ‘One Man’s View of the World’ which was published on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday was interesting. So that is when I have time, but for lighter reading, I enjoy detective novels.

Any particular authors?

Agatha Christie is very amusing and I enjoy these very much though my time is very limited. Some times on a long flight I dip into a book like that.


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...