Foreign Policy and Domestic Stability     Follow

A True Test of Sovereignty

It is beyond dispute that Sri Lanka’s three decade conflict was externalised due to a combination of factors, ranging from the presence of an active expatriate community abroad; the involvement of foreign facilitators in the peace process; and the presence of foreign peacekeeping forces in 1987. By the end of the war, Sri Lanka was placed well within significant cynosure of the international radar. Such international attention has spilled over into the country’s post-war phase as well, but this time taking on a new meaning.

Despite the process of foreign policy formulation requiring multi-stakeholder input, it should necessarily be state-led, inviting the public to participate in the process, thus keeping the process open and transparent.

Conversely, citizens have a correlated duty to participate in the foreign policy discourse and decisions of their country. It is therefore essential that we have institutions that can help in this task. They should ideally be coordinated and used to develop a bipartisan foreign policy.

Institutions set up in the country especially for diplomatic training, international studies, provision of policy support and impetus in strategic thinking, namely the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute and the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies are well-placed to play a critical role in this regard.

Sri Lanka’s role in the world must be given further attention and study. We must take advantage of and capitalise on our strategic geo-political positioning to build sound and structured foreign policy strategies. Sri Lanka must look to balance its interests with both the Eastern and Western worlds, given that though there may be a slowing down of Western market growth the overall influence of the West is still significant.

To this end, Sri Lanka’s international positioning must be secured with immediate effect. Instituting a structured process of multi-track diplomacy will be useful.

Sri Lanka must begin to contribute in different sectors internationally. Such a system of engagement must be institutionalised and developed to achieve maximum results and increase the country’s image internationally. There must essentially be nine-tracks to such an approach.

Track 1 is the world of official diplomacy, policymaking, and peace-building as expressed through formal aspects of the governmental process.

Track 2 is the realm of professional nongovernmental action attempting to analyze, prevent, resolve, and manage international conflicts by non-state actors. Track 3 is the field of business and its actual and potential effects on peace-building through the provision of economic opportunities, international friendship and understanding, informal channels of communication, and support for other peacemaking activities.

Track 4 includes the various ways that individual citizens become involved in peace and development activities through citizen diplomacy, exchange programmes, private voluntary organisations, nongovernmental organisations, and special-interest groups.

Track 5 includes three related worlds: research, as it is connected to university programs, think tanks, and special-interest research centers; training programmes that seek to provide training in practitioner skills such as negotiation, mediation, conflict resolution, and third-party facilitation; and education, including kindergarten through PhD programmes.

Track 6 covers the field of peace and environmental activism on such issues as disarmament, human rights, social and economic justice, and advocacy of special-interest groups regarding specific governmental policies.

Track 7 examines the beliefs and peace-oriented actions of spiritual and religious communities and such morality-based movements.  Track 8 refers to the funding community-those foundations and individual philanthropists that provide the financial support for many of the activities undertaken by the other tracks. Track 9 is the realm of the voice of the people: how public opinion gets shaped and expressed by the media-print, film, video, radio, electronic systems, and the arts.

Particularly useful and conspicuously absent in the Sri Lankan foreign policy context are formal Track Two processes. It is an aspect which needs to be developed as it encourages new thinking and develops cadres of credible people who advocate new ideas for government to consider.

Track Two processes in different parts of the world have been highly active, with mixed results, from the Oslo process in the Middle East, to the informal talks which helped break the impasse in Northern Ireland, to the first contacts between the African National Congress and the former government of South Africa.

A key to successful Track Two is that the participants be able to transfer the ideas developed in such meetings into the official sphere. This is harder than it seems. Officials in any part of the world are instinctively wary of ideas coming from outside the bureaucracy, sometimes with good reason.

Thus, Track Two often enlists as participants people who have connections to the official world often retired senior officials. The objective is to have people at the table who have credibility in the official world and are familiar with how things are done there, but who have also the luxury of being able to think “outside the box” as they are no longer officials themselves.

Sri Lanka has eminent senior diplomats who have gained recognition both nationally and internationally, contributing immensely to the furtherance of Sri Lanka’s bilateral relationships in various regions of the world and also at multi-lateral settings such as the United Nations. These senior officials must be tapped in to for their expertise, foresight and wisdom in shaping and assisting the future direction of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations.

As it currently stands, Sri Lanka faces a number of challenges in its foreign relations. Five key challenges need to be addressed with priority.

First, distinction needs to be drawn between, on the one hand, voluntary participation in international mechanisms and the subsequent rules of procedure, obligations of implementation and reporting that come with it, and, on the other hand, an encroachment of a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that are not as a result of a nation’s undertaking.

The true test of our sovereignty will be to follow the nation’s interest, assume strong national positions and communicate such positions effectively to the local and international communities.

We must understand that the opportunity to justify our policies is an exercise of sovereignty, and not an encroachment of it.  Second, we live in an age of globalisation and unprecedented connectivity that is characteristic of the twenty first century. In an inter-dependent world the only way of maintaining sovereignty is not through hostility but through constructive engagement

Third, the impact that the members of the heterogeneous expatriate community have on the politics and electoral campaigns of host governments must be given serious consideration in our foreign policy discourse.

The best way to deal with it is to address the rights of minorities locally, both systematically and genuinely. Rights of minorities need to be coupled with assurances for the possibility of peaceful return and life in the country. This is once again illustrative of how domestic policy and foreign policy are inextricably linked.

Fourth, the fostering and maintenance of credibility of national positions should be the underlying objective of the conduct of our foreign relations.

This will require that there should be one interlocutor between the state and international community. The internal consensus will not only prevent confusion and contradiction but also help maintain credibility and reveal the strength of the establishment – this will be the true test of exercising sovereignty in the conduct of our foreign affairs.

Fifth, most of the country’s bilateral and multilateral engagements are haunted by a specter of reconciliation and human rights concerns. We must remember that human rights and inter-communal harmony are not alien to our country, the values of which are enshrined in our shared history, cultures and legal frameworks.

We need to capitalize and draw on these strengths to forge a robust system of governance that will be able to function with independence and credibility. Hence, for every allegation made, we will have the availability of structures and norms to deal with such allegations domestically.  In this regard, the implementation of the outcomes of the two national processes, namely the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the National Human Rights Action Plan will demonstrate that homegrown mechanisms can credibly provide solutions, while improving our foreign relations and prospects. Here once again is a demonstration of the link between domestic and foreign policy.

In the final analysis, it is the consolidation of peace, freedom, democracy and the domestic rule of law that will translate into the ability for us to project our nation as sovereign and credible in the international domain – the link between the protection of our national interests and international positioning cannot be clearer.
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