One area in which a government must ensure continuity is with regard to foreign relations. I do not mean by this that a new government must follow the policies of its predecessors. But it must understand them, and ensure that changes are made systematically, and without destroying anything that has been built up.
I wondered about the assertion in the manifesto that ‘Within hundred days all political appointments and appointments of relatives to the Foreign Service will be annulled and the entire Foreign Service will be reorganized using professional officials and personnel who have obtained professional qualifications’. But that last clause made me think that the annulling of what were termed political appointments would be, not in terms of a catch all phrase, but on a rational basis that understood the need for professionals with suitable qualifications and objectively justifiable capacity.
That is why I wrote at the time that ‘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.’ Though there are several obvious cases of inappropriate appointments to Head of Mission posts, what was infinitely worse was the manner in which individuals, related to opposition as well as government MPs, were sent to undertake vital responsibilities for which they were not trained at all. Outsiders of proven capacity are appointed by all countries to head Missions, and this has always been the case in Sri Lanka. It was the Jayewardene government that made several inappropriate appointments to junior positions, and this destructive practice was implemented in spades as it were by the last government.
Instead of concentrating on the work that was needed, and recalling all those incapable of working as required, this government in this one instance ran ahead of its pledge and recalled all Heads of Mission who were not from the career Foreign Service back within a month of taking office. The High Commissioner in India was kept on, which made sense given his unique capacity and understanding of that country, and also I suppose because of the several visits that took place in the last couple of months. In addition capable retired personnel from the Ministry were also kept on, in Washington and Berlin, which was a good thing given their experience and capacity, and another retiree with understanding of the international situation was nominated to go to New York.
But a lot of very capable people were brought back, and many of them have not as yet been replaced. This led to a whimsical think piece by one of them, which read as follows –
Now that there are not enough sufficiently experienced “career” diplomats… what options are there for the GOSL to continue the national responsibility of appointing suitable Ambassadors to these Foreign Missions? Options:
1. Appoint promising junior “career” officers even if it contravenes the Parliament approved Foreign Service Minute stipulations and may lead to be a laughing stock of the international DPL communities in these countries at DPL official and social functions?
2. Appoint non-career DPLs as done by the rest of the world and the previous government?
3. Call for applications from the senior staff officers of the SLAS for selection to fill the vacancies?
4. Suspend the functioning of some of these Foreign Missions temporarily until the next government thereby saving billions of Foreign Exchange to the SLn taxpayer? (See below for costs)
5. Leave it all as they are and hope for the best?!
6. Outsource the Ambassadorships on “acting” basis to the local Indian Embassy/Ambassadors? (The way our Foreign Policy is dictated to by India currently some Parliamentarians may even consider this as a feasible and cheaper option😳).
At present there are at least 26 “Ambassadors’ official residences” which are flying the flag but empty and each pays c. USD 7-10,000 per month equivalent to Rs 1-1.6 million per residence per month as rent charges alone. Add to this the costs of utilities like water, electricity, gas etc plus the salaries of the local service staff like the gardener, the service assistants, drivers etc. and the total cost to the SL taxpayer for the very upkeep of these unoccupied residences is a phenomenal waste. All this happened because the present government unfortunately neither did nor has a feasible plan on filling the vacancies. The hasty and nationally damaging act of immediate and sudden withdrawal of Heads of Missions for no other reason than that of being “appointed”, irrespective of the eminent service some of these appointed Ambassadors did is reprehensible. On the contrary, the government could have recalled all the appointed Ambassadors to special Interviews by the High Post Committee and subjected them individually to severe scrutiny through an independent appraisal of their achievements (and liabilities) to the GOSL w.r.t. Diplomatic relations, financial, security or other matters of relevance. Such a process may have sifted the wheat from the chaff. Such scrutiny would not have allowed any miscreants to evade future accusations as is apparently happening now. These wild stallions if any have bolted to the wilderness beyond recapture because the gates were bolted after chasing them away from the stable.
One of the reasons for this absurd situation is that we have no provision in our Parliamentary system for promoting continuity. Because of the absurd way in which our Consultative Committees function, opposition members hardly attend them, and no questions are asked about policy. I was astonished to find, as I have noted previously, that while the country was under threat in Geneva, hardly anything about this matter was brought up at the External Affairs Ministry Consultative Committee.
But leaving aside such mechanisms for developing a collegiate approach to foreign relations, we need too to think of setting up Shadow Cabinets, with provision in the case of vital policies for the sharing of ideas. Without taking away from the cut and thrust of party politics, in more advance democracies the opposition knows what the government is doing with regard to the world at large, and will not sabotage the interests of the country. We had an obvious example of this in the way Sushma Swaraj, as Leader of the Opposition, worked in terms of the basic approach of the Congress government when she visited Sri Lankan in 2012, after the fiasco in Geneva.
Had Mangala Samaraweera studied what was going on, he would have realized that some of our envoys were doing excellent work (though perhaps his boss would have not thought this was the case with those such as Thisara Samarasinghe who established a superb working relationship with the Australian government). He could then have kept those who were benefiting the country, if necessary after an interview process to ensure that they understood the priorities of the present government. But what we have now is a shambles, with the enormous waste that the note above details. And back home it seems Mangala has to rely on those officials, whom he doubtless thinks professional, who not just submitted to, but actively encouraged, the worst excesses of the last government.