The unflattering publicity Sri Lanka has received internationally in the lead up to and after the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva in March 2013, and the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting in London in April, is indicative of a significant failure of the Sri Lanka Government to exploit the opportunities of peace and reconciliation opened up by the end of the conflict. This failure is exacerbated by the deficiencies of its current foreign policy. Direction, depth, consistency and coherence are conspicuously absent in a series of ad-hoc decisions implemented by a staff riddled with mediocre political appointees at all levels.
"November is some distance away and many developments are possible especially with domestic developments in Sri Lanka focusing on a fresh debate over the 13th Amendment, campaigns against minorities, suppression of dissent with lethal violence and a deteriorating law and order situation"
In the globalized multi-polar world we now live in, we are called upon to interact pragmatically with other states, international organizations and non-state actors. In order to maximize the benefits of such an interaction, we do need to pursue a foreign policy that is balanced, principled and based on enlightened self interest.
It was, by and large, such a balanced, pragmatic and sagacious foreign policy that enabled Sri Lanka in the first three decades of post- Independence history, to exert an influence in the international arena disproportionate to her size despite a pro-Western tilt in the early stages and other inadequacies.
The environment with regard to foreign policy formulation and implementation changed dramatically during the 1980s largely on account of the long, festering and brutalizing conflict between the state and the separatist terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the consequent deterioration of our foreign policy mechanisms into a defensive mode. Four years after the military victory of the Government over the LTTE we remain in that defensive mode failing to take advantage of the vast opportunities of peace and reconciliation accompanied by an intelligently conceived foreign policy conducted professionally.
"While our armed forces and police were being trained abroad and strengthened to deal with the domestic upheavals, our diplomats were able to defeat or dilute resolutions at the UN in Geneva and at the European Parliament in Strasbourg because a democratically elected Government was being attacked by a terrorist group"
Sri Lanka is scheduled to host the Commonwealth Summit in November. Canada’s Prime Minister is on record that he will not attend. The Canadian Government attempted to persuade the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) that met in London in April to evaluate the Sri Lanka Government's human rights record on account of alleged transgressions of the Latimer House rules. Although diplomatic deals appear for the moment to have helped ward off an embarrassing change of CHOGM venue, the ultimate decision in this regard rests with the Commonwealth Heads of Government. November is some distance away and many developments are possible especially with domestic developments in Sri Lanka focusing on a fresh debate over the 13th Amendment, campaigns against minorities, suppression of dissent with lethal violence and a deteriorating law and order situation. At the same time we must beware of window-dressing before the Summit.
In light of these developments it is pertinent to review our official foreign policy. Clause 15 of the Directive Principles of our Constitution states:
“The State shall promote international peace, security and co-operation and the establishment of a just and equitable international and social order, and shall endeavour to foster respect for international law and treaty obligations in dealings among nations.”
The political guidance of the Government in office is provided by the Manifesto of President Mahinda Rajapaksa , the ‘Mahinda
Chinthanaya’ which states:-
“I will follow a Non- Aligned, free and progressive foreign policy. Priority will be given in the political, defence, economic, trade and cultural spheres to the cordial and friendly relationships that we already have with countries in the Asian region including India, Japan, China and Pakistan. It is my intention to strongly implement international treaties, declarations on anti- corruption (sic). This will enable us to act under international law against those found guilty of corruption when engaging in trade with foreign countries or foreign institutions.”
Both constitutional directives and the political philosophy of the incumbent Government highlight respect for international law and treaties. In other words the rule of law must apply within the country and respect for international treaties, conventions and agreements observed scrupulously.
Being a responsible member of the international community, Sri Lanka has both rights and obligations. Among the latter are the implementation of the core conventions on international human rights instruments in times of peace and war to which Sri Lanka has subscribed. International Humanitarian Law has also been applicable during almost three decades of civil conflict and extends beyond the cessation of hostilities. This is a modification of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states. Sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries are basic principles found in the Charter of the United Nations. As Paul Sieghart has stated - "Today, for the first time in history, how a sovereign state treats its own citizens is no longer a matter for its own exclusive determination, but a matter of legitimate concern for all other states, and for their inhabitants." Acceding to international treaties, covenants, conventions and protocols enhances the sovereignty and human security of the people of a country whilst voluntarily diminishing the sovereignty of a state.
Our national interests are ultimately the interests of our people which we pursue in the international arena to their benefit. Our trade relations, the sources of our economic aid and tourism, our cultural relations, historical and religious ties and relations, countries providing foreign employment to our nationals and, most importantly, our South Asian neighbours, especially India, form the community with which we must nurture strong friendships for mutual benefit. Focusing on hitherto neglected areas of our international relations such as Africa and Latin America must not be driven by a short-term desire to secure votes in the Human Rights Council but by long-term benefits in the national interest.
A lasting solution to the international criticisms of Sri Lanka’s human rights record lies ultimately within Sri Lanka and the evolution of a political solution to our ethnic problem. So long as we fail to seek and implement such a politically acceptable solution, we will remain vulnerable to attacks and hostile resolutions multilaterally while bilaterally we may risk economic sanctions. There is a limit to what foreign policy and professional diplomacy can do to counter this fallout and therefore we must formulate domestic policies that ensure ethnic harmony and respect for the human rights of all our citizens. Western democracies as well as other countries are increasingly basing their foreign policies on human rights criteria. Respect for the practice of human rights and upholding the rule of law within the country will remain important considerations for western countries as well as for India.
The international community came to our assistance when we were faced with insurgencies in 1971 and again in 1989. Our first line of defence then was - and should now remain - our foreign policy. While our armed forces and police were being trained abroad and strengthened to deal with the domestic upheavals, our diplomats were able to defeat or dilute resolutions at the UN in Geneva and at the European Parliament in Strasbourg because a democratically elected Government was being attacked by a terrorist group. It was our foreign policy that enabled Sri Lanka to engage the LTTE in peace negotiations while ensuring that they were proscribed as a terrorist organization, interdicting their arms supplies and funding. Through active membership of the Non-Aligned Movement we maintained a balanced relationship between the US and the USSR during the Cold War. More recently we have endeavoured to balance our friendships with China and India. It must be borne in mind that however close our relations with China may be, we lie within India’s security perimeter and must not allow any misperceptions to arise and linger.
It is imperative that our foreign policy should be bi-partisan. Sri Lanka’s political leaders should avoid being stampeded into hasty decisions and instead base their policies and decisions ultimately on our national interest. Thus policy formulation and decision-making should take place after widespread civil society consultation and careful scrutiny of long-term implications of all relevant issues involved so as not to alienate our international partners. Institutions must be established that will provide the state with impartial and well-considered advice in which experts, stake-holders and professionals evaluate the probable consequences of a policy or decision prior to action. We must avoid at all cost the verbal abuse of international leaders and respected international organizations. Our recent predisposition to precipitate action in place of measured responses of all institutions stems, inter alia, from a lack of inter-ministerial co-ordination. That the Central Bank has involved itself in hiring a public relations firm to improve our image in the USA is a telling example of this ill considered rush to action.
Two years ago the Lessons Learned & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), submitted its report to the President and an Action Plan was announced. The 2012 and 2013 Resolutions in the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva called for the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC. If allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights are investigated impartially and the violators punished as recommended by the LLRC, Sri Lankan state can put an end to allegations of impunity directed against it. That achievement can then be successfully projected abroad through a restructured foreign policy establishment staffed by trained and experienced career diplomats. This resuscitated foreign policy , whilst enabling a return to the prominent role we played in the United Nations, NAM and other international and regional forums must, include a return to traditional areas of diplomacy such as our contribution to international forums on development, trade, climate change, health, labour especially migration, international law, disarmament and humanitarian affairs. Our failure to accomplish these goals through a return to a balanced and pragmatic foreign policy will result in the conflict with the LTTE, four years after the Government's military victory, proving to be as much a milestone around the neck of our foreign policy as when the conflict raged for three decades.
The formulation and implementation of the foreign policy of independent nations, especially those of the Global South who have suffered the experience of colonialism, cannot be outsourced to public relations firms or lobbyists of the Industrialized North however slick and well connected they may be. National liberation struggles such as those witnessed in India and South Africa were not won by foreign mercenaries but by brave fighters from those countries dedicated to freedom and independence.
The urgent challenge before us today is the preservation, consolidation and development of democratic freedoms and the unity and independence of Sri Lanka reinforced by a well conceived foreign policy based on our long-term national interests and international responsibilities. Such a foreign policy must be implemented by trained and disciplined professionals. The path ahead of us is clear. What is required is the necessary political will to set us on this path to national regeneration and a dynamic role in international affairs.