President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself is of the view that our Ministry of External Affairs is a mess. His offer to Mangala Samaraweera to make him Foreign Minister indicates his realization that his greatest blunder is the hash the troika that runs the Ministry has made of our international relations. And he confirmed this to Vasantha Senanayake, when Basil accused him of criticizing the Foreign Minister openly.
He had assured Mangala that he would not inflict Sajin Vas Gunawardena on him as a Monitor, which suggests he realizes what a disaster that particular appointment has been. When it was made, he claimed that at least now letters were being answered. That was a necessity, but the power Sajin exercised led to the Minister then abdicating all authority and handing over decision making to his Monitor.
Despite that the crucial letter sent by the Indian Prime Minister before the vote in Geneva in 2012 lay unanswered. In fairness though, that factor is true of our administration in general, and the requirement that letters be answered in three days has been interpreted to mean that at least three days must lapse before a reply is even thought of. One reason I had high regard for Maithripala Sirisena previously, and said so often in my discussions of my work in the North and East as Advisor on Reconciliation, is that his Ministry usually responded to my transmission of complaints from the public. But most Ministries kept silent, though occasionally there were flurries of activity after I had brought the matter up in COPE.
The prevailing lethargy is bad enough, but with regard to foreign relations it is worse, given that we need to engage actively with all stakeholders, and in particular those who have the capacity to do us harm. In order to do this, however, we need to have clear guidelines available to all government officials as well as our Missions with regard to foreign policy priorities. Officials could then take their own decisions as to how to react to correspondence, instead of waiting for instructions on all issues. Certainly, when there was a Ministry of Human Rights, we dealt promptly with any queries from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and this led to commendation of Sri Lanka’s engagement with that Office, in the reports for instance of the Working Committee on Disappearances. But after the Ministry was abolished, there were no responses as all for several years, and it is only in the last year, following the harsh criticism in resolutions, that we began to engage.
- Amongst the principles we should adopt then is ensuring regular engagement with all countries and in particular with the United Nations. Whilst safeguarding our sovereignty, we should respond to concerns with understanding of the issues involved, and should fulfil any commitments we enter into. If this is impossible, we should explain constraints and ensure that our actions and attitudes are understood.
- But responses must be based on clear policy guidelines, and these should be laid out. The most important of the guidelines we should follow, given geo-political realities, is ensuring good relations with India. This cannot govern domestic policies, but there should be good and reliable communication with India as regards such policies, with the understanding that any commitments cannot be violated.
- Within this framework, or rather a broader framework that also lays down the need for promoting multilateralism, there should be flexibility. Thus we should have regular consultative meetings of senior level Foreign Ministry officials. If these happen each week, there should also be provision, perhaps on a monthly basis, for consultation of officials of relevant Ministries such as Finance and Defence and Trade. Such meetings should be minuted, and decisions / action points notified to relevant officials with provision for feedback.
- We also need to build up collegiality within the Ministry. Whilst there are good reasons sometimes for appointment of non-career individuals to Head of Mission posts, all other posts should be reserved for members of the Diplomatic Service. These officials should be required to submit brief regular reports on their activities, which should be based on targets identified by the Ministry, with consultation of the Head of Mission.
- But there is also need of a wider professionalism. For this purpose Government should establish at least two high level think tanks. The existing government managed institutions could be upgraded, but they should function independently and have research staff who could produce position papers and suggest responses to international developments. In addition, these think tanks should have a training wing, which develops communication skills in addition to the capacity to analyse. They should also publish journals to which diplomats are expected to contribute.