Colombo Telegraph

Undiplomatic Diplomats In Colombo

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

Rajeewa Jayaweera

A new trend seems to be emerging in the public statements and behavior of some foreign diplomats accredited to Sri Lanka. Such talk and behavior would have been unthinkable in the past. A onetime British High Commissioner in Colombo in late 1980s was almost declared Persona no grata due to some unacceptable remarks made by him. The only exception was during the tenure of onetime Indian High Commissioner JN Dixit during the turbulent days of 1985 to 1989. He was referred to as ‘Viceroy’ by some locals and local media.

The current Indian High Commissioner has been periodically commenting on matters not involving Indo – Sri Lanka relations. Whereas he cannot be found fault for promoting Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) which is part of his duties, he was totally out of order when he publicly criticized the Joint Opposition and other opponents of ETCA. He further stated, “I do not think we should let naysayers take all the public space on this issue without anyone else trying to put the facts”. It is not the remit of a foreign envoy to criticize Opposition groups, especially those in Parliament, in the country of his accreditation. He recently stated, former External Affairs Minister Prof. GL Peiris should not have taken to politics but should have remained an academic. As I predicted in these columns on March 31, 2016 he has been well rewarded by his government. He is due to proceed to London as India’s next High Commissioner to the Court of St.James.

As of late, the current US Ambassador has begun stuttering around Colombo, Jaffna and Trincomalee lecturing all and sundry on issues such as human rights, reconciliation, the need to abide by the Geneva Resolution which he never tires of reminding was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka etc. The Ambassador recently commented the “dark chapter of Sri Lanka’s decades old war could not be closed by its government walking alone”. In other words, it is the US contention it must hold hands and walk with Sri Lanka to ensure closure is as per US format for countries in which it has had no direct involvement (a totally different format is applicable for countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan in which US has / had direct involvement). He was the first to congratulate Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, immediately after the passage of the Office of Missing Persons Bill in Parliament, a totally unwarranted public display of arrogance and one-upmanship.

The latest would appear to be the outgoing European Union Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives. He has stated, unless what happened recently during the last stages of the war between the military under the watch of previous Rajapaksa government and the LTTE was investigated independently and credibly, it would continue to haunt the country. One does wonder of the bias for investigating the ‘last stages of the war’ rather than from the beginning of the conflict. He has further stated, “history tells us that such issues do not go away, but rather return in some form or other later. The allegation of war crimes against both sides need to be tested against the truth”.

Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Optional Protocols state; ‘Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State’.

Such acts as publicly challenging and criticizing opponents of a proposed agreement, the public display of support for controversial local issues etc. does not fall within the ambit of ambassadorial duties. There is a tendency among the local polity to view with extreme suspicion, anything and everything with an Indian, US or Western European involvement. Such public utterances, besides being arrogant and undiplomatic also makes the task of the Sri Lankan government in winning the support of locals on contentious issues, doubly difficult.

It is relevant to question if any Sri Lankan Ambassador accredited to Delhi, Washington or any of the EU member state capitals making similar statements would be tolerated. Sri Lanka’s onetime High Commissioner to India was thrice summoned to the Indian External Affairs Ministry and upbraided for some remarks made in public even though they were not as half as undiplomatic as those of his counterpart in Colombo. One would also wonder of the outcome if our Ambassador in Washington was to make a public statement of the need to investigate civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan due to US drone strikes.

The main reason for this state of affairs is the appeasement at any cost policy followed by GoSL and the Foreign Ministry since January 2015. It remains silent in a docile and servile manner despite the undiplomatic remarks and unacceptable behaviour by some Colombo based diplomats. A few months ago, the Foreign Ministry lost no time in summoning the Acting British High Commissioner for the ridiculous reason of demanding an explanation for the rejection of visa applications by a group of friends accompanying President Sirisena’s offspring. The friends, not being holders of diplomatic or official passports, the British government is not obliged to provide any explanation for the rejection of their visa applications. On the other hand, the Foreign Ministry does not see it fit to seek explanation from foreign envoys for their acts and remarks which brazenly violate globally accepted diplomatic practices.

Our Foreign Office could learn a lesson from a recent development in Iraq. Despite its virtually destroyed economy and dependency on foreign aid, Iraq requested Saudi Arabia to replace its ambassador in Baghdad for what it called ‘stoking sectarianism’.

Countries such as Sri Lanka undoubtedly cannot behave as super powers or even regional powers. That said, it should not allow nations and its envoys in Colombo to exceed boundaries of accepted diplomatic protocols which require countries to treat each other with mutual respect.

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