The revolting diplomat

“You will recall that my instructions were to be in Geneva on time to handle the 18th Session of the Council in September 2011. However, vital information on a US initiative calling for an interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka was withheld from me. It was only fortuitously, and only 5 weeks before the Session opened, that I discovered that this information had been communicated, as early as June 2011, to the private email address of my predecessor in Geneva by the US Ambassador. After that, an email exchange had taken place on the subject, unknown to the Ministry of External Affairs. Had this information remained a secret, we would not have had the time to counter the initiative and a resolution against Sri Lanka would have been inevitable, placing the country on the Council’s agenda for me to deal with, along with its fail out, from almost Day One of my assuming duties in Geneva. In preparation for that 18th Session, no instructions were received by me nor guidelines provided on the strategy to be adopted, and no response was forthcoming on my own proposal. My urgent request for authorization to travel to Colombo for consultations on the matter was first verbally approved by you and then denied by the Ministry of External Affairs, leaving me with no other option but to travel without authorization, given the gravity. The question of strategy, however, remained unanswered and l had to wade my way through that Session. Similar strategies seemed to have been adopted once more at the 19th Session in an attempt to withhold information on crucial matters and to isolate me from my own staff at the Mission…. What was true for the 18th and 19th Sessions of the Council continues to be true for preparations for the forthcoming Session, and Sri Lanka’s UPR in November 2012.” – Excerpts from letter to Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, G.L. Peiris by Tamara Kunanayakam. Emphasis mine.

The primary reason I picked up LMD every month when in school was to read the Roving Diplomat, a column penned by Deshamanya Vernon Mendis. It is unnecessary to exalt the calibre of Dr. Mendis, who passed away in 2010.  As one of Sri Lanka’s most distinguished living diplomats Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala noted at the Service of Remembrance for Dr. Mendis, he “created traditions which others followed. In 1970 Vernon devised a training programme for the 1970 intake of Foreign Service recruits. It was so comprehensive and thorough that the Commonwealth Secretariat adopted it for implementation throughout the Commonwealth.”

With this in mind, I quoted Ambassador Kunanayakam at length to demonstrate the remarkable degree professionalism in our diplomatic corps has diminished. The most distressing internal incoherence and partisan politicking within the Foreign Ministry are now played out in full public view. Braggadocio and creative mathematics were employed to scoff and underplay the UN resolution in Geneva. Our curious idea of sovereignty today is geared to protect and celebrate rank violence, bigotry and nepotism. Mindlessly railing against the West, and calling for the boycott of all Western products is the natural telos of this asinine patriotism, around which our foreign policy – if it can be called such – revolves.

Imagine a student, at an impressionable age, reading about Sri Lanka’s foreign service today. Who is 2012’s Vernon? Who can speak about the importance of public diplomacy, soft power and a deep appreciation of Western culture that informs a critical appraisal of the West’s own human rights record? If Ambassadors themselves are clueless about foreign policy decisions taken by government, what does this say about Sri Lanka’s ability to constructively engage growing international scrutiny over the crimson stained timbre of governance? This government calls many of us in civil society unpatriotic, servile puppets of the West. But who really are those openly defiling and shaming Sri Lanka? Read the full text of Ambassador Kunanayakam’s letter for a damning critique of the regime, from within it.

From the august and inspirational Dr. Mendis, we now have a foreign minister who doesn’t know the difference between Israel and Palestine, a young man sporting a mullet haircut included in official, high-level delegations and no discernable foreign policy.

The circus is in town, but I sincerely hope, not for long.

###

Published in the print edition of The Nation, 13 May 2012.

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