Over the last few weeks, it has become clear that our international relations need improvement. Some elements in the West seem annoyed with us and determined to criticise us. Various reasons are offered for this, though one of the most preposterous that floated around in the past is now dead. This is that the West was really very fond of us but Dayan Jayatilleka engaged in megaphone diplomacy in Geneva and alienated them.

How that theory developed is well worth studying, and that may help us in working out what a sensible foreign policy should include. Equally important is the study of how exactly our Mission in Geneva dealt with the threat presented over several sessions of the Human Rights Council. The manner in which Dayan built up a coalition of principle, encompassing almost all countries in Asia, and most of those in the Middle East, Africa and South America, must be an example to all those involved in multilateral relations in the future.

One of the canards spread about Dayan was that he was hostile to the West. Compared to many individuals in the Foreign Ministry at the time, this was true, because he was not subservient to the West. In one sense one can understand, if not approve of, such subservience at a time when Western hegemony seemed assured. But, since that no longer obtains, the West is more nervous than it used to be, and is therefore inclined to engage in more adventurism than it thought essential a few years back.

What many of those who claim to understand foreign relations ignored completely is the fact that in foreign relations, self-interest is all. While pretences of morality are often proffered, these must necessarily be subordinated to national interest. Unfortunately, in the last couple of decades, that national interest also includes indulgence, as far as many Western countries are concerned, to the demands of an extremely sophisticated and well-endowed Tamil diaspora that had adopted the position that the LTTE was the only answer to Tamil problems.

The philosophy Dayan adopted, which is both practical and moral, is to accept that there were Tamil problems, which required resolution. This has been criticised by some, not only on chauvinist grounds (which are obviously destructive of attempts to win hearts and minds abroad, and hence of the country), but also on the less narrow but equally foolish principle that admitting to a fault is conclusively damning. On the contrary, acknowledging errors, particularly the errors that led to there being such a large and bitter Diaspora, is the only way to ensure that the more sensible elements among them will refrain from relentless opposition.

Secondly, Dayan tried to understand the roots of the hostility towards us on the part of several countries. Where it was based on prejudice, he had no qualms about exposing this. But he also realised that in many instances it was based on misconceptions. He therefore ensured regular interactions so that information could be conveyed and queries answered. He also engaged actively with all countries and all regional groupings, whereas many of our traditional diplomats confine themselves to intellectual discourse, where they are able to engage in this, only with what they see as influential countries.

Thirdly, he was prompt and sharp about deliberate distortions. This came home to me when a member of his team in Geneva, long lost to us unfortunately, asked why so many days had passed without Navi Pillay’s recent harsh critique of Sri Lanka being answered. He reminded us of how forcefully we had dealt with Louise Arbour when she exceeded her brief, and it struck me that it was most regrettable that there had not been a prompt response to Ms. Pillay as Dayan would have ensured. It is simply not good enough to claim that we should ignore her, because what Ms. Pillay says is taken seriously, and can be used against us if not promptly rebutted.

The type of delay we see now has occurred in other areas too. When Dayan was in Geneva we replied promptly to queries from UN Special Procedures, and this was registered positively in their Reports. In the last couple of years replies have not been sent at all. For instance I believe Philip Alston’s last misleading report on what his experts found was not countered, except in a press conference. This is a pity, because what is said to the press may satisfy our own predilections, but is no substitute for solid argument.   Being incapable of presenting solid arguments is no reason to keep quiet, because it is always possible to call in assistance to deal with unfair attacks.

Another area in which the Foreign Ministry has proved weak is its failure to object formally to improprieties.  I saw a sad example of this when the former Canadian High Commissioner interfered outrageously with our internal problems. Despite requests, the Foreign Ministry failed to call in the lady to question her about her conduct. Similarly, they ought now to check on what UN officials were doing in advocating a War Crimes Tribunal at a meeting organised by the American ambassador. But even if they do it, it will be done so late that possible adverse effects will not be easily averted.

In the earlier case, it was clear to me that the Foreign Ministry failed to study the situation, and work out what was going on. This is symptomatic of a dispensation that believes simply responding to crises is adequate, and that does not engage in research and informed discussion to identify trends, use them if possible and combat them if necessary.

 It also fails to engage in monitoring of the ground situation in areas for which it is responsible. A few years back for instance, I found the Foreign Ministry had no idea as to the Projects being engaged in by an NGO with whom they had a Memorandum of Understanding. They started by being cross with me for intervening, but soon granted that they had done no monitoring at all.

One problem in dealing with such issues is the absence of a culture of responsibility in most ministries in the country. Young staff – of whom there are several very bright examples in the Ministry – are inhibited from exercising initiative. In this regard I have long advocated solid training for staff, not only in understanding the world as it is now, but in reading and understanding reports, and reflecting on possible motives and possible results with regard to external input into Sri Lanka.

 We cannot blame the Ministry alone for this lack of training, since institutions that should be the cutting edge in such exercises, do not engage in research or sustained analysis. Lakshman Kadirgamar tried to revive the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, but after his death it reverted to being simply a small scale educational institute, while the less said about the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute the better, given that it seems to have done hardly anything useful ever (except for providing premises for the LLRC, which is a welcome initiative but has nothing to do with the LKIIS).

The point is, the Ministry must now realise the need for greater professionalism, greater understanding of the world, and greater skills in argument and analysis and presentation, if we are to achieve our goals as conclusively as Dayan did, way back in 2009 in Geneva. The new Secretary has shown himself active and decisive, which says much for the essential calibre of our officials, when they are not fulfilling what they think is the agenda of more powerful countries. With luck this will be the prelude to the reforms we so sorely need.

Sunday Leader 8 May 2011