By Jude Fernando –
Follies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: An Assessment of Foreign and Domestic Policy Nexus during the Rajapaksa Regime. (Part I)
Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us. -John F. Kennedy
Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home. -William E. Gladstone
The Rajapaksa regime was, perhaps, the darkest moment in Sri Lanka’s diplomatic history. It will go down as a regime that pursued an aggressive, expansive and ultimately self-defeating foreign policy, for which the country, and subsequently the regime itself, were punished domestically and internationally. The regime tasked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to internationally defend the ‘mini oligarchic state within the national state.’ It existed only to serve the nefarious interests of the higher echelons of the regime, at the expense of human rights, democratic freedoms, and justice for the majority of the country’s citizens. Its realipolitk lacked even a semblance of morality; Macheaivali and Kautilya (whose pragmatism preferred utility over morality in governance) would have winced.
Under these circumstances, even the remaining few highly skilled diplomats, with moral conscience, would have found it nearly impossible to improve their country’s international image and defend it against those who exploit human rights to serve their nefarious interests. By the end of the regime the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had arguably become Sri Lanka’s most politicized, wasteful, inefficiently run, and intellectually and pragmatically bankrupt ministry. The country has thus inherited a dysfunctional foreign policy establishment.
Hence, the decision of Mr. Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, to recall all political appointments is a welcome measure that would go a long way to restore the credibility and efficiency of the foreign services, if accompanied by a critical and comprehensive program to correct shortcomings. The Maithripala Sirisena regime should also seek to ensure that its foreign policies are in sync with domestic policies. Countries with foreign policies derived from domestic governance anchored on human rights, encompassing social, economic and environmental rights stand on higher moral ground and have a stronger bargaining position in the international arena.
Why did the foreign policy of the country degenerated into such deplorable state? How could the new regime rebuild a robust foreign policy establishment?
Staffing and Governance:
We all know that diplomacy requires unique and specialized knowledge, skills and training. One becomes a high-ranking diplomat through many years of practice and rising within the hierarchy. Being a diplomat is a tough business of negotiation among national interests, international treaties and obligations, and one’s personal values and career aspirations. This balancing act is particularly difficult for developing countries as the international foreign policy environment has also historically functioned as a smokescreen for powerful countries to further their own commercial and geopolitical interests. However, the culture of governance in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Rajapaksa regime nurtured made it impossible for the diplomats to effectively engage with such powerful countries and to create the best possible external relations for the country.
Mahinda Rajapaksa brazenly institutionalized nepotism as the primary reason for recruiting personal to foreign policies affairs. The foreign policy establishment was purged of qualified and trained personnel who were replaced with family members of the President, and academics, journalists, businessmen, ex-military offices and their kith and kin, whose only responsibility was to the nefarious interests of the regime. The Ministry was also flooded with totally inappropriate appoints of Development Officers, majority of whom are from Hambantota and are members of Namal Rajapaksa’s Nil Balakaya (LNW/28/01). Absolute loyalty to the regime above everything was the modus operandi of the Ministry’s culture of governance. The political appointees with the help of the state power completely changed the conventional standards, procedures, and protocols of managing external relations.
The administrative culture of the Ministry disempowered and marginalized the most capable and well-meaning diplomats. They were denied a flexible space for diplomacy to negotiate national and international interests so that they could create the best possible international environment for the country. In international forums, some diplomats and the former External Affairs Minister appeared as simply parroting scripted statements handed down to them by the regime, written by people who were ideologically and morally subservient to the regime. Even those from privileged positions in society who did not have to depend on an appointment to the External Affairs Ministry for their livelihood engaged in vigorous defense of the regime as in Geneva in 2009, even when the revelations HR violations were detrimental to the interests of the country and dangerous for regional security. The regime was not attentive to, and often, was even hostile to diplomatic advice that was politically unpopular and did not serve the interests of the regime. In fact, those who provided such advice were sometimes severely punished (e.g. to expedite the implementation of the 13th Amendment, LLRC etc.).
The Minister of Foreign Affairs had no autonomy as he was placed under the strict command of the Monitoring Minister of External Affairs, who directly represented the interest of the regime. The latter was a controversial businessman with no credentials in foreign affairs. The Foreign Minister did not seem to be bothered by, nor had the courage to challenge, his subordinate position in the Ministry. Bureaucratic infighting was endemic inside the Ministry and some overseas missions, and the work environment was contentious and unpleasant due to fear of regime-friendly employees spying on their colleagues. Less qualified officers who enjoyed the patronage of the regime often had no incentive to follow the orders of the more capable career diplomats. The allegations of gender-based discrimination and incidents of sexual harassment were never investigated and those accused still continue to serve in the diplomatic service.
In international forums, some Sri Lankan diplomats drafted in to defend the Rajapaksa Regime displayed an impressive command of the English language, but their verbose presentations lacked substance and logic. Others with poor command of English language were limited in their ability to articulate nuanced arguments and made a mockery of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic capabilities. Unfortunately, unlike diplomats of other countries, many Sri Lankans diplomats tend not to take pride in speaking in the vernacular languages with which they are comfortable and rely on interpreters. Those with BBC accents’, educated at prestigious schools, reinforce this inferiority complex intimidating those with Lankan accents that are stigmatized by the upper classes. This culture of governance created a feudal hierarchy and an unpleasant work environment within the Ministry and foreign missions. In addition, the culture also hamstrung the professional development and confidence of those young and promising officers in the current Foreign Service. .
Foreign Policy Only For the “Prince”
The impoverishment and decadence of the Ministry during the Rajapaksa regime was most evident in its responses to UNHCR resolutions regarding human rights abuses and accountability during and after the war. The Ministry’s defensive and offensive targets and strategies were often misconstrued and boomeranged, and they helped neither the country nor the Rajapaksa regime to win the election. Let’s examine a few examples.
Countering false propaganda against the country should be an important task of the Ministry and its diplomats. This was indeed a difficult task especially during and aftermath of the war between the government and the LTTE. During the deliberations regarding UNHCR resolutions in Geneva, however, these defensive efforts distracted the Sri Lankan delegation from effectively engaging with human rights concerns of the international community. Many in the Sri Lankan delegations often lacked the intellectual sophistication and diplomatic skills necessary to effectively engage with human rights issues in the 21st century. They often used sophistry to misguide the uninformed, but their arguments could not stand up to close theoretical, empirical, and pragmatic scrutiny. The strategy some of these “imported diplomats” as one critique termed them, resorted to deflect the censure over the Rajapaksa regime’s human rights record to hollow and hold-fashioned anti-western, post-colonial rhetoric that was unsuitable to current global realities. Often in these instances, post-colonial States violate the rights of their own citizens more egregiously than did imperial or colonial powers.
Stale, anti-western rhetoric was used to try to build random coalitions with a few countries from the global south with dubious HR records in order to stave off the US sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva, with little success. As we know from Plato’s debates with the Sophists (mouths for hire), their rhetorical arguments were mostly crafted to obfuscate, manipulate and distort the truth. Their aim, as Isocrates, a critique of the Sophists, argued, was to seek short-term gain from persuasive oratorical trickery than to advance democracy, virtue and justice. Meanwhile the regime was pleased with these diplomats as their sophistry fanned majoritarian nationalism within Sri Lanka.
In their defense, the Sri Lankan delegations argued that human rights violations in Western countries are far worse than in Sri Lanka, and therefore Western governments have no right to point fingers at Sri Lanka. But two wrongs do not made a right! While there is truth in these accusations and we should be vocal about them it does not mean that we can ignore our responsibilities. The issue here is that the regime exploited the hypocrisy of the accusers to deflect engagement in a rational and truthful discourse on human rights. The allegations of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka did not originate in the West but were raised by Sri Lankans belonging to all ethnic communities, who sought international mediation due to the erosion of their faith in their country’s justice system.
Often delegations to international forums appeared as drumbeaters of war euphoria, endlessly reminding the international community that Sri Lanka had defeated the world’s most ruthless terrorist group. Some government apologists went so far as to accuse Western countries of being jealous of Sri Lanka for defeating terrorism, and offered lessons on counter-terrorism. When the Ministry celebrated the defeat of the LTTE, they sounded like they believed the country had achieved parity with global superpowers in the “war against terror.” In return, the Ministry expected the international community to show leniency in its demand for accountability for human rights abuses allegedly meted out by the regime.
The Ministry sought to exploit both its victories and losses in Geneva to enhance its domestic legitimacy. A defeat of any UNHCR resolution was a demonstration of the international legitimacy of the regime. Conversely, its failure to defeat was evidence of international conspiracies against Sri Lanka. In short, the Ministry’s notion of victory was highly distorted and disingenuous: the defeat of international resolutions demanding accountability in human rights abuses was hailed as a victory by the regime, while being held accountable to victims of abuse, was not..
The regime was not concerned about the price the country would have to pay for short-term foreign policy victories used to delay its promises to the international community. Instead, the regime used the Ministry to actively promote a culture of paranoia, creating a debilitating fear psychosis among Sri Lankans keeping the country isolated from international bodies that demanded accountability. If the regime had taken a different course in response to these allegations, would the country be in a better position today, domestically and internationally? Be that as it may.
An important target of the Ministry’s defense against UNHCR resolutions was human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs). During this period, NGOs, including those not involved in human rights related activities, were placed under surveillance by the security establishment for simply being a foreign entity or having contact with any foreign country or donor agency. Surveillance per se, is not the issue here, but rather, the justification of surveillance of all human rights related activity as being complicit with terrorism and external conspiracies against the state. In order to silence human rights activists, the regime followed an insincere and myopic approach to keep alive the distinction between Western and the Non-Western countries.
It was a hypocritical and misleading ideological ploy to enhance the regime’s domestic legitimacy and to muster support from other anti-Western countries to defeat international resolutions on human rights abuses and war crimes. The regime paid billions for lobby firms in the US and UK to enhance the image of the country and concealed from the Sri Lankan public it’s dealing with the Western countries. In international forums, government delegations did not acknowledge the fact that the war against the LTTE had been supported by Western and non-Western countries as a part of their counter terrorism strategy and to advance their geopolitical interests. Recent allegations against the Rajapaksa regime’s dealings with the LTTE, during and after the war ended, have raised serious doubts about the regime’s purported commitment to fight terrorism.
Successive Sri Lankan delegations failed to recognize the distinction between defeating terrorism and allegations of human rights abuses, and lacked the sophistication to engage with influential human rights players. They often underplayed the fact that international allegations were made against both the government and the LTTE. Although the allegations were against a handful of individuals, they were presented to the Sri Lankan public as attempts to take punitive actions against the entire security establishment and the entire country. Such an approach insulted and brought disrepute to those who did not violate the rule of war and humanitarian laws, and restricted their international mobility.
By expending all their time and resources to protect those individual accused of human rights abuses from prosecution on grounds of protecting the country from external threats, foreign policy makers failed to chart a course of action to engage the international community in assisting Sri Lanka to come to terms with truth and justice issues, and facilitate reconciliation. They also failed to claim the moral high ground by not challenging the duplicities of the international community in the area of human rights. Finally, the regime lost power because it abused its political mandate to protect, by depriving its citizens of their democratic rights and freedoms, and by squandering the country’s resources.
Sri Lankan delegations completely failed draw support for their arguments from intellectually robust human rights and justice centered explanations about their government’s role in post-war reconciliation, rehabilitation and development efforts in Sri Lanka. Often highly exaggerated successes of these efforts were used to avoid discussing human rights violations resulting from nepotism, racism and economic exploitation in these efforts. Victims’ accounts of human rights abuses, an essential part of transitional justice, were completely ignored. Psychosocial and justice aspects of reconciliation as nonnegotiable prerequisites for transitional justice were simply considered as derivatives of development and rehabilitation. Whereas international actors drew support for their claims from more intellectually sound arguments, which regarded reconciliation with justice for victims as non-negotiable regardless of the country’s success in development and rehabilitation. The intellectual failures of Sri Lankan diplomacy, thus, opened space for desirable and undesirable external interventions in the country’s internal affairs. The regime, however, comfortably made use of the undesirable ones to enhance its domestic image and cultivate its highly questionable international relations.
Sri Lankan delegations treated the international community as ‘dumb’ and faulted it for depending on information outside of the state media. They also expected the international community to accept the argument that sources critical of human rights violations in Sri Lanka are unreliable and are entirely fabrications by the LTTE supporters. The Foreign Ministry’s statements to the international community were always contradicted by facts on the ground. While Sri Lankan delegates at international forums were busy defending the government’s human rights record, the disappearances, abductions, murder, attacks on journalists, and the discovery of alleged mass graves (in Tamil and Sinhala speaking areas) continued at home. None of these incidents were subjected to satisfactory investigations.
Furthermore, during the past Presidential elections, the entire world knew of the Election Commissioners’ apprehension over violence and abuse of state resources by the incumbent ruling party. Yet the Ministry response to United Nations’ concerns about the legitimacy of the elections was simply a statement that “Sri Lanka has a vibrant tradition of democratic practice since 1931 and has been conducting elections at regular intervals, in a peaceful and orderly manner, while the electorate has continued to cast their vote freely, in large numbers” (01/02/2015). At times, diplomats appeared to be embarrassingly misinformed and lacked basic intuition about the realities of the country. For example, a former Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington DC, a Rajapaksa relative, declared in the international forum that ‘there is no rape in Sri Lanka.’ (GV. Jan 6, 2012).
Furthermore, the former Human Rights Chief accused Sri Lankan delegates of “unacceptable levels of intimidation and harassment of UN officials, and NGO activists in Geneva, that included Sri Lankans. During an official visit to United Nation’s Conference in the US, the Supervising Minister of External Affairs assaulted the Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to England. Providing honest clarifications and making apologies for public diplomatic blunders seemed foreign concepts to the Ministry. For some in (jumbo!) delegations trips to Geneva were pleasure trips, and some were even alleged to have engaged in licentious acts. Thus the Ministry failed to create a positive international image of Sri Lanka, and ways in which it attempted to do so were arguably counter-productive to the wellbeing of the country and its international relations.
*To be continued..