By Harsha de Silva –
I wish to make some observations on the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It seems that the Government is confused about its foreign policy. It does not look like its “sound-bite diplomacy” is working.
At times they call it “neutral”. At other times they call it “non-aligned”. Then they call it “India first”. At other times it is “Sri Lanka first” with a focus on Asia.
This morning the Hon Minister said it is now called “Kalyaana Mitra policy”.
Does the government know that each of these phrases mean something? Does it know that the world is listening to what is being said? Does it know that diplomacy and foreign policy is not about just words but words being followed through with actions?
To start off, the government has an “Admiral” as the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry. I wonder if it is appropriate to use this tag while he holds the position of Chief Accounting Officer of this civilian institution.
But today, I noticed the Hon Minister did not refer to him as “Admiral”, the only time he mentioned him at the closing of his speech.
Is it because some want to openly indicate that the country’s foreign policy is in the hands of the military now…while the Minister wants none if it?
Words matter in diplomacy as much as actions do. And the world is watching. I say this with my own experience as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs during September 2015 to June 2017.
Mr Speaker, even the Ministry’s name is constantly being changed.
In November 2019 after the Presidential Election the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs” became the “Ministry of Foreign Relations”. After the General Election in August 2020, now it has become the “Foreign Ministry”.
Actually, the Ministry certainly seem Foreign now.
It is an alien entity that is out of sync with reality; out of sync with international law and out of sync with the norms on which the current international system is based.
Mr. Speaker, Diplomacy is about sincerity, honesty, speaking and acting with civility and responsibility towards one’s own people as well as the world, and engagement with international partners with confidence, respect, and dignity.
The way your own citizens are treated locally, matters when dealing with the world because that speaks volumes about the nature of your government as well as Sri Lanka; our nation.
Today, the Foreign Ministry, as an Institution, is, pardon me for saying this, is in tatters.
So is the Foreign Service. Servility seem to be the gold standard by which competence is measured. It is quite evident that servility has replaced meritocracy and the capacity.
I want to emphasize to the Hon Minister that many honorable men and women are being sidelined and discarded at the Foreign Ministry. We must not let this institution be discredited in the eyes of the world.
Let us consider some of the recent Ambassadorial appointments to most important capitals
I don’t wish to mention individuals by name, but it is imperative that the right persons are sent to the key capitals of the world to represent us. I will take a few important examples to make the general point.
A certain senior officer known to have worked with the media to misinform the public on government policy and cause harm to Sri Lanka’s relations with international partners during the former government is being sent to an important capital. His services for the SLPP at elections certainly helped you win, but what is the message that is sent by such action to other civil servants and younger Foreign Service officers?
Ambassador A L A Azzez, one of the finest and experienced professionals in the Foreign Service who was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva was suddenly recalled.
Now you are sending a complete outsider there. Will he be able to win the confidence of the UN Human Rights Council caucus for the plan proposed by your government?
Let me quote the Hon Minister from his speech this morning. He said the proposal is to, I quote… “justifiably seek closure of matters related to Resolution 30/1 when it comes up for review in March 2021.”
He said he promised in February 2020 in Geneva, to “appoint a Commission of Inquiry headed by a Justice of the Supreme Court, to review the reports of previous Sri Lankan COIs which investigated alleged violations of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, to assess the status of implementation of their recommendations and to propose deliverable measures to implement them keeping in line with the new Government’s policy.”
I wonder what progress has been made? Has this COI been established? He didn’t mention. However, State Minister Hon Tharaka Balasuriya replying Hon Sumanthiran said the government will keep to its commitment.
A person who worked for an Investment Group of a particular country and peddled fabrications on its pay to mislead the public about another country’s grant assistance to Sri Lanka, is being sent as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the country for which he worked for! Think about the messaging here. Should you actually do this?
A person who openly insulted a particularly friendly nation has been sent as High Commissioner to that same country.
I am making an exception taking the liberty to mention the name of my classmate Mr Asoka Moragoda, whom I have known for 50 years.
Yes, I agree he possess the diplomatic skills and the correct temperament to represent Sri Lanka, but it is shocking to see a government that says that it adopts an “India First” policy keep the High Commissioner post in India vacant for almost a year.
It is equally surprising to see the High Commissioner-designate, even after receiving confirmation of his appointment to India, still associates himself with his Pathfinder Foundation and tweets with great delight about the signing of a MoU between his Pathfinder and a controversial Chinese company Huawei to collaborate in so-called “cutting-edge ICT technologies in all spheres in Sri Lanka.”
I will reserve further comment on this most unusual ‘diplomatic’ situation.
Is this the way the government’s foreign policy Tsars treat our neighbouring countries? It looks more like a game of pitting one-against-another.
Mr Speaker let’s look at the Government’s “Economic Diplomacy” drive
I am glad that the Ministry is adding emphasis to the Economic Diplomacy drive that I started as Deputy Minister during Minister Samaraweera’s time.
I am encouraged by the fact that the very able State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya has been entrusted with the task of, I quote from the Performance Report of the Foreign Ministry “expanding the existing trading, investment and labour markets whilst looking for new opportunities with Asian and African countries to cultivate economic ties, to diversify export baskets.” I wish him the very best in his endeavor.
I encourage him to restart the 18 week online Economic Diplomacy program I started with the Centre for International Development at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
This was a first for the university and it for us. It was really successful with some 40 plus senior diplomats participating in the rigorous course to sharpen the skills needed for successful economic diplomacy.
I like to table the Agreement we signed in March 2017.
But I wish to make an important note, that ED efforts shouldn’t be restricted just to Asia and Africa as mention. The State Minister is capable; give him a greater challenge.
Having said that, I wish to make a few rather disturbing observations.
“Economic Diplomacy”, in contrast to what is being very strongly defined as distinct from something that is called “political diplomacy” at the FM, is not mutually exclusive. This is incorrect. The political and the economic spheres are intertwined.
Why are we making this blunder? I hope the government and the officials at ministry realize this soon. If not, the entire exercise will fail.
Does the government know that just asking countries to come and invest will not make credible private companies of stature come here in droves? Just talking about a “strategic location” will not make Sri Lanka a hub for anything.
Saying “we want to be friends with all” and that we are “non-aligned” or “neutral” means nothing if those words are not matched by action?
The government must realise that Sri Lanka can only benefit from its geographic location if we work with honesty, skill, dignity, transparency, pragmatism, and wisdom, to partner with all nations.
Look at Singapore. Singapore is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement too. But look at the maturity, pragmatism, and wisdom with which Singapore manages its relationships with the international community. Look at Vietnam which is also a member of the Non-aligned Movement. See how that country works with all partners.
Both countries just last week become members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership; the world’s largest Trade Agreement counting more than 30% of global GDP.
While we are raising our barbed-wire protected walls, they are widening their six-lane bridges!
Being truly non-aligned in the post-Cold War context is to work honestly and with confidence with all partners without being defensive, protectionist, and arrogant.
To be successful, the government must also demonstrate that it places democracy, rule of law, independent institutions, and credible and transparent governance, above individual self-interest and in our case, above the interest of one family.
In case the Foreign Ministry is not aware, Economic Diplomacy cannot be conducted in a vacuum. Economic diplomacy is not a one-way street. The Economy is linked to the political and the governance realms.
Is it sound or sensible economic diplomacy to kick Sri Lanka’s long-standing development partner, Japan, in its face by cancelling the light rail project with JICA funding? Does the government expect Japanese investors to invest in this country in this backdrop?
We understand our Embassy staff met with the new Head of JICA in Tokyo this week. And what had he said?
That Sri Lanka is losing its credibility among Japanese officials, business and industry leaders. And that will lead to many disadvantages in the medium to long term.
By the way? Has the American gentleman from California still not taken up the position as Colombo’s ambassador in Tokyo?
One of the government’s key development platforms is Colombo Port City and the proposed Financial City therein.
As a person who was involved in preparing the “Special Economic Zone” legal and financial incentive framework for the Port City as the Chairman of the Steering Committee during the last year of the previous government I know it is absolutely essential for Sri Lanka to be above board on money laundering allegations to attract the right kind of investor.
I am sure the government remembers that Sri Lanka was placed in the blacklist by the Financial Action Task Force in 2011 and categorized as a dangerous country in 2012?
Most people don’t know that it was finally in 2016 and 2017 through hard work by the Central Bank, the Finance Ministry, and the Foreign Ministry that Sri Lanka managed to be recognized as a cooperating state in 2016 to be placed on a Grey List and work its way out of the Grey List in 2019?
Following the lead of the FATF, the European Union Commission had also placed Sri Lanka on the blacklist at the time. Through diligent work, Sri Lanka enhanced its Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Financing of Terrorism Standards to improve compliance and elevate Sri Lanka’s standing, and get Sri Lanka out of the EU Blacklist.
This too is Economic Diplomacy, and this kind of work requires hard, painstaking, diligent and honest work.
Throwing words around or cutting a deal or issuing press releases threatening or criticizing international institutions and demonizing certain countries will not help Sri Lanka become a hub for anything.
That will not get this country anywhere except isolate Sri Lanka on the international stage, reducing its stature, and weakening the country’s economy.
The government’s present action, particularly providing the opportunity for racketeers to bring, I quote the PM’s budget speech, “funds hidden locally internationally…” by paying just 1 percent tax on the entire booty risks Sri Lanka being placed on a Grey or Blacklist once again, eroding the credibility of Sri Lanka’s banking and financial system.
That will put an end to the planned Financial City.
On a separate matter take the ongoing fraud case of Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to the US, Mr Jaliya Wickramasuriya, where the Government had informed the US Government that he cannot be investigated for allegations of money laundering continued to enjoy diplomatic immunity.
But the Sunday Times last week on its front page that US had dismissed the immunity reinstated by the new government.
Does the Foreign Ministry expect this kind of conduct will create confidence in investors or lending agencies? Is this what the Foreign Ministry calls sound Economic Diplomacy?
Economic Diplomacy will fail if we demonize certain countries and international organisations in the eyes of the Sri Lankan public and lie to the Sri Lankan public about the motivations of some countries and international organisations just to win their votes.
This is what the SLPP did, sadly aided and abetted by some senior Foreign Service Officials in respect of Sri Lanka’s relations with the US MCC Compact.
This is what they did with respect to the East Container Terminal Agreement involving India and Japan as well. Same with the Light Rail Transit with Japan.
Sadly, the government and the people have trapped themselves now in a bind.
Who are the losers in the long run? The people of this country; both present and future generations for decades to come.
Why is the government so afraid of working with democratic nations and international organisations that calls for measures that will help Sri Lanka establish credentials to attract sound investment and enhance trade?
Does the government not know that global standards of free trade and a fair investment climate will benefit business and help attract credible and high-quality investments into the country?
The President, Prime Minister and Ministers talk of Asia being given priority focus.
“Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” mention the development of a strong trade relationship with Asian countries.
But obviously these are only just words because the Sri Lanka – Singapore FTA remains unimplemented, while key Asian economies have concluded a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership better known as RCEP, just over a week ago.
This kind of talk and action that does not match its words makes observers wonder whether for the government, Asia means just China and the world also means just China and China alone.
For a moment I am not devaluing the partnership with China. China has been and will continue to be an important partner in our future.
Just a bit of history Mr Speaker, in fact, it was during the period of Dudley Senanayake the Ceylon-China Trade Agreement, better known as the Rubber-Rice Pact was signed, in 1952 to overcome the severe impact of crashing commodity prices and our Terms of Trade falling by close to 30 percent and our people unable to obtain sufficient rice.
As Hon Kiriella mentioned this morning it was China who came to our aid and negotiated the exchange of rice for rubber when the US didn’t agree to our request for a USD 50m loan.
Mr Speaker, parroting the words ‘friendship with all, enmity with none’ is not enough. Saying we are following a “Kalyana Mitra” policy is not enough. Actions must prove it.
We must engage with the world. We must leverage on our comparative advantages. Trade is good, not evil. In fact, our success depends on how best we utilize our hugely important geographic position to become a hub for regional and global trade.
The only sure way to strengthen our domestic economy, to create global companies and brands, to foster entrepreneurship, to get our farm produce in the supermarket shelves of Europe is to expand our markets.
As I have said many a time before we need to build bridges that connect our domestic economy with the world; not build a wall around this island to block that expansion.
Just last week, the European Union Delegation and the EU Ambassadors issued a public Statement in Colombo reminding the government and the people of Sri Lanka that trade is not a one-way street. They mentioned that a prolonged import ban is not in line with WTO regulations.
I would like to urge the exporters in this country to pay careful heed to the statement by the European Union and be ready for a situation where, heaven forbid, Sri Lanka would lose preferential access to the EU market once again if the government sticks to its current confused brand of economic diplomacy that is completely out of sync with reality, and lacks pragmatism and wisdom.
The Foreign Ministry seems to think that issuing Press Releases in response, would settle all matters, including reinstating and reinforcing Sri Lanka’s credentials as the oldest democracy in Asia while all democratic features, practices, and norms are in reality eroded more and more, day by day.
The European Union as well as the UK had drawn attention to Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council resolutions on transitional justice and reconciliation while announcing the government’s commitment to a domestic mechanism for reconciliation and accountability.
If anyone in the Foreign Ministry or government cared to read the resolution carefully, they would have understood that what the government committed to do in October 2015, was exactly that; to set up domestic mechanisms. I am Tabling the Resolution.
At a time when the pre-January 2015 government had compelled the Human Rights Council to set up an international investigation on Sri Lanka which was called the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), through resolution 25/1, the government that was formed post January 2015 reasserted its sovereign responsibility towards her own citizens by undertaking to do it ourselves, locally, with foreign participation to be decided by us in the mechanisms that we design locally.
This government has gone back to the past, back to the pre-January 2015 play book destroying credibility and abandoning her own people and institutions and eroding dignity and respect for Sri Lanka internationally.
I would like to remind the Foreign Ministry mandarins that the political and economic realms are intertwined and that the pandemic will not change the fundamental globalised nature of the world.
You cannot extricate and isolate the political from the economic.
At least at this late stage, when the economy is on the brink of collapse, get your act together.
You owe it to your fellow citizen and generations to come. Work with all partners in a credible and dignified manner to find solutions. Be accountable to the people of this country. Place the country’s real interests before self.
Before I end, while appreciating the efforts of the Ministry to repatriate our citizens stuck overseas die to the pandemic I urge you to pay special attention to the tens of thousands of our poor laborers stranded in the Middle east.
I wish both the Hon Minister and the Hon State minister well. As a responsible Opposition, we remain ready to help. Thank you.
*Dr Harsha de Silva’s speech today in parliament on the Min of Foreign Affairs