Sunday Times Editorial –
And so, once again the President has had to cancel a scheduled speech in Britain. It is the second time in just seven months that it has happened to him. No official explanation has been forthcoming and the President’s media outfit has been forced to do some repair work to his image by deflecting the flak. The External Affairs Ministry, not surprisingly, went to the extent of calling the President’s visit to Britain a success. It is said the duty of a diplomat is to lie on behalf of his country abroad, but what the ministry said really went beyond the call of duty.
Like on the previous occasion at Oxford, the organisers of the London speech this week buckled under pressure from a vociferous minority. It begs two questions. Was this a set- up to embarrass the Sri Lankan President? What were those responsible for his itinerary doing?
Our Political Editor gives the details of what happened. It is not a pretty picture. The President goes on an invitation of the Commonwealth Secretary General for a formal lunch with the Queen and to attend a thanksgiving service in connection with her Diamond Jubilee. While in the city, he is billed to speak at a function organised by the Commonwealth Business Council with no guarantees that the speech will not be cancelled. He then gets to meet the Queen at the lunch, albeit with a ‘velvet glove’, but he does not get a separate appointment with the British Prime Minister, only a photo-opportunity on the sidelines.
If this is termed a successful visit by the standards of Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Ministry woe betide it.
The Queen is the head of the Commonwealth and the President is the host for the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held next year. If the ministry does not see the subtle message in the cold-shouldering it has to be blind. Or maybe it does, but has to keep up a front. Or even more, it needs to defend itself from the sheer ineptness now manifest in taking care of the country’s President when abroad, especially in the West with whom our relations are anything but rosy.
The logical issue that arises is about the consequences of hosting CHOGM next year. Will it be used to inflict even more of the same on the President and through him, the country? Already, the Government is announcing a competition for a CHOGM logo. Political cartoonists will have a field day if they applied. There seems to be a great desire to be seen with the Joneses, while at the same time using vituperative language to savage them in public. Some of these attacks may be justifiable, but there is a clear mismatch between aim and target.
Had the President not been the host of CHOGM 2013 he probably ought not to have gone to Britain, not until bilateral relations between the two countries improved. At best, relations are only ‘civil’ now. The only British Minister who visited Sri Lanka was then Defence Secretary Liam Fox to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture but that too after a fierce argument with his cabinet colleagues. No formal appointments are given to the President when he visits Britain. The External Affairs Minister is first asked to meet the British Deputy Minister in the Foreign Office, which he meekly does, and then is given an opportunity to pay a call on the minister. This is the kind of treatment meted out from that end.
We have filled these pages, month after month, with the miserable failures in recent times on the foreign policy front. Examples are many; from losing the GSP+ preferential duty concessions for Sri Lankan exports to the European Union to losing the US GSP; from the adoption of a series of anti-Sri Lanka amendments in the US Congress to the mishandling of the UN report on Human Rights to the fiasco at Oxford to the UN Human Rights vote against Sri Lanka in Geneva. This week the ministry was unable to stop the Sri Lanka diaspora from waving flags protesting the visit of the Sri Lankan President to Britain and succeeding in having his speech cancelled. Clearly, the tacit blessings of the British Government were there for these in what is called ‘reciprocity’ in bilateral relations.
Isn’t the country paying a heavy price for these diplomatic setbacks that are hemorrhaging on the nation’s wellbeing? There has been a brazen disregard and sidelining of efficient, trained career diplomats while putting serial bunglers and inexperienced novices with no known ability in the field in sensitive postings.
The Minister of External Affairs himself once submitted a special cabinet paper recommending the back door entry to the permanent diplomatic service of 24 persons, only to be stopped due to dissent by some brave souls who spoke up at this bastardisation of the foreign service.
Much of these setbacks stems from this factor. Unless the Government rights these wrongs, which it seems in no hurry to do, the situation is unlikely to get better, only worse. It is possibly too late in the day to pass the CHOGM summit to another country. The Government is also keen to host the event come hell or high-water or even a partial boycott. The cost-benefit to the people of this country is one thing. Take the IIFA Bollywood extravaganza that was held not long ago. Hotel bills to the tune of millions remain unpaid by the Government to date. No accounts have been given by the Tourist authorities. A snub of CHOGM by the ‘white Commonwealth’ is another.
The Commonwealth and its relevance is a matter that ought to have been addressed when we jumped and offered to host the event. Britain itself has drifted away from the grouping of the former British Empire and the Queen remains almost the last thread keeping the old outfit stitched together.
The 54-member club is almost one-fourth the UN membership and could have been a powerful force in world affairs had countries like Britain opted not to veer towards the United States and Europe instead in search of greener pastures throwing aside sentimentality on the way. Today, Britain selectively picks and chooses countries in the same club to browbeat and preach to, forgetting its former colonies are independent states now.
Sunday Times Editorial