National Interests and Foreign Relations


by Shanie

"Nobody bought a cabinet,

whatever you may hear,

and all of them were honest men,

and all were in the clear.

Nobody did a secret deal,

nobody was for sale,

nobody bent the rules at all,

and nobody went to jail.

And all of them were honest men,

as white as driven snow,

and all lived on a higher plane,

and shat on those below."

Roger Woddis (1917-1993)

A cartoon this week in one of our newspapers said it all. A tall gaunt man with his head held erect walks into a room in Geneva saying, ‘I think we can, I think we can.’ The same man is then seen coming out of the door in Geneva, head bent down with a distraught face and almost bent in two, saying, ’I thought we could, I thought we could.’ Last year, one of our professionals always seeking the limelight headed a mammoth delegation to bid for Sri Lanka hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2018. He thought we had the bid in the bag until the actual voting took place. This year, another professional, doubling up as an advisor to the cabinet, and going again to Geneva as a member of the huge delegation to the just concluded sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council pompously declared that there were sufficient votes to defeat the resolution on Sri Lanka. But alas! A decisive majority voted in favour of the resolution. As expected, both have blamed others for what went wrong.

The Geneva fiasco was a clear case of our failure to maintain pragmatic forward-looking international relations. Megaphone diplomacy and public vilification of countries and of senior officials of foreign countries by persons who seemingly seem to enjoy the confidence of the President, only helps in losing necessary friends and winning unnecessary enemies in the international arena. Our foreign relations and the formulation of foreign policy must be guided by professional diplomats who are trained for this purpose. Politicians and those who aspire to political positions who disregard this, will do so only at their own peril, but more importantly, at a tremendous cost to the national interests of our country.

Sirimavo’s Legacy in Foreign Relations

Among our political leaders, it was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who perhaps had the best record in maintaining consistent and good foreign relations. Under the old constitution, the Prime Minister was also the Minister of Defence and External Affairs. For instance, by signing the Sirima-Shasthri Pact in 1964 she practically resolved the vexed problem of nearly one million plantation Tamils who had categorised as stateless. A small residue of such ‘stateless’ persons remained which she again resolved ten years later. It must be emphasised that this issue was not handled in a unilateral manner. Before signing the Sirima-Shasthi Pact, Bandaranaike telephoned Dudley Senanayake, then the leader of the UNP and Leader of the Opposition, and obtained his concurrence to the terms of the Pact. It was statespersonship on all sides which helped resolve this long standing problem. It must also be recognised that Sri Lanka earned international respect and goodwill when she assumed a leadership role among non-aligned nations and for the manner in which she handled foreign policy issues like the request from Pakistan for landing rights in Colombo during the Bangladesh war of independence. All this was successfully done because she had the benefit of guidance of senior officials in our Foreign Service and also because she maintained cordial relations with all countries, without compromising on the dignity and integrity of our country. She maintained a robust foreign policy based on the national interest, while keeping at bay jokers and pompous talkers from meddling on issues of foreign relations.

This was in stark contrast to the state of play today. It is now a free for all. Ministers, governing coalition parliamentarians, pro-government journalists - in fact, anyone associated with the government find themselves free to make insulting comments using intemperate language on foreign governments and on their leaders. The spokesperson for the Government makes the incredible claim that statements made by various persons, including the Minister for External Affairs, are their personal opinions and do not reflect government policy. Even the President has not sought to disassociate himself from such remarks. Neither has he sought to curb language of hate directed at these foreign leaders. This is not something that happened only yesterday after the vote in the United Nations Human Rights Council went against the government’s hope and expectations. This has been going on over the past few years with individuals who perhaps thought they were being clever making insulting comments about foreign leaders through the local media, print and electronic. These self-opinionated individuals were no doubt unable to comprehend the enormous damage they were doing to the country’s image.

Formulation of Foreign Policy

H M G S Palihakkara and Jayantha Dhanapala have been two of Sri Lanka’s outstanding diplomats of recent times. Early last year, Palihakkara delivered the J E Jayasuriya Memorial Lecture. We need to safeguard, he said in that lecture, Sri Lanka’s national interests, the aspirations of her people of all communities and our image and reputation as a long standing democracy. To do that, we have to work with all countries, especially those that disagree with us on certain issues, in order that we project ourselves as a nation at peace. To those who voice concern on accountability issues, the government needs to show in its action that it is serious about addressing them. To the victims of the conflict, whether of LTTE terrorism or of military operations, the government needs to show, again in its actions, that it is serious in tackling both conflict-related grievances as well as the root causes of the conflict. It is only in this manner that the challenges being thrown at the Government of Sri Lanka can be met, not by hurling abuses at our critics. Diplomacy, he said, was all about dealing with people with whom you disagree or agree to disagree. ‘Diplomacy is not a zero-sum game at cultivating one set of friends at the expense of another. Diplomacy is also about seeking common ground where none seems to exist.’

Dhanapala delivered the keynote address at an International Conference held at the University of Peradeniya late last year. In words that proved prophetic, he said that the permanent solution to the criticism of Sri Lanka’s human rights record lay within Sri Lanka, as also a political solution to our ethnic problem. ‘Otherwise we will remain vulnerable to attacks and hostile resolutions multilaterally while bilaterally we may risk economic sanctions. There is a limit to what professional diplomacy can do to counter this and we must therefore formulate domestic policies that ensure ethnic harmony and the respect of the human rights of all our citizens. Western democracies - who remain our significant aid donors, trade partners and sources for our tourism - as well as other countries are increasingly basing their foreign policies on human rights criteria. The practice of human rights domestically and the upholding of the rule of law within our borders will inevitably affect our image in international forums. Our allies do not welcome having to oppose other countries all the time in order to defeat resolutions adverse to our interests. There may come a time when their interests may be served by abstaining on anti-Sri Lanka resolutions or even supporting them if we remain stubborn in our resistance of a political solution and failing to address the post conflict rule of law issues.’

Both Palihakkara and Dhanapala were advocating action to eliminate the root causes of the conflict, and the huge rule of law issues that have emerged in Sri Lanka. We need to engage with all countries; abusing our critics will take us nowhere. Among the Directive Principles of State Policy in our own Constitution is a clause which states: ‘The State shall promote international peace, security and co-operation, and the establishment of a just and equitable international economic and social order, and shall endeavour to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in dealings among nations.’ Promoting a respect and adherence to international law within a country is not an infringement on the sovereignty of that country. Indeed, as Palihakkara stressed in the JEJ lecture sovereignty could be safeguarded only to the extent that we learn to live with other countries in an inter-dependent way, not in an adversarial way.

Tolerance of Dissent

Creating a favourable image for our country has also to mean being able to disagree with our domestic critics in an agreeable way. Three of the human rights defenders in our country who have been critical of the government’s record on human rights have been singled out by name and subject to vilification and abuse both by the state media and by prominent government ministers. The language of hate used was an incitement to violence against these critics. These three individuals, who were present in Geneva during the recent session of the UNHRC, were constrained to issue a public statement, inter alia, where they stated: ‘It is indeed regrettable that at a time in the history of our country when we have the opportunity to transform our society, to move from a post-war to a post-conflict phase, and to enjoy the support of the international community to rebuild a just, humane and prosperous Sri Lanka in which all its citizens can live together with peace and dignity, the government and its media have seen it necessary to launch into an unprecedented and utterly personalized attack against the three of us. There is no attempt to challenge us substantively on any point. None of the comments attributed to us, were actually ever made by any one of us; there are many who were present at the side events where we have spoken who can testify to that.....As human rights defenders working to defeat impunity in Sri Lanka and to build a strong system of justice and accountability for human rights violations, whether committed in the past or in the present, we remain committed to our ideals and to our goals. For us, whether there is a Resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human rights Council or not, our work to defend human rights in Sri Lanka must, and will, go on.’

A government minister is on record as having stated that he would break the limbs of such critics. The same minister has also made the claim, idle boast or not, that he was responsible for the violence against journalists including Poddala Jayantha. The silence of the government on these outrageous statements gives rise to the suspicion that they have the stamp of official approval. Is it any wonder that Sri Lanka has to face hostile resolutions at international forums on issues of human rights and the rule of law? The government can and must do better for the people of this country.   

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