Friday, May 28, 2010

Sri Lanka Should Pay Attention to International Conventions

The newly appointed Sri Lankan foreign minister said recently that our foreign policy should be amended while placing the economic development of the country in its place of primacy. The objective of this interview is to discuss what changes should be made to instill a positive outlook about our country in the minds of the international community. Following are the views presented by Kalyananda Godage, former additional secretary of the Foreign Ministry.

Senanayake: It is the foreign policy of a country that conveys to the global community the thinking of the government in power. Has our foreign policy succeeded in creating a positive picture of the country in the global community?

Godage: The foreign policy of a country is nothing but a signal emitted by a country to the world to remind it of its presence in the global community. There are various other signals of a similar nature. But the world community forms an opinion of a country only upon a certain set of factors such as its respect for human rights, its compliance with international conventions etc. A foreign policy with regard to its imports and exports is also essential for a country in its development objectives. Presently, the attention of the world community is focused on how a country reacts to the concept of honoring human rights, especially in connection with its minorities. The World War II was ignited because Hitler began the annihilation of a minority.

Our country too is a signatory to various international conventions on human rights and is committed to safeguarding those rights. In effect, we proclaim to the world that we will forge an alliance with foreign nations committed to these precepts. Of course, they too will constantly monitor us to ascertain our bona fides. However, it cannot be honestly said that our foreign policies have succeeded in creating a positive image of Sri Lanka among the comity of nations.

There was a huge wave of discontent in foreign governments about the direction in which Sri Lanka was headed ever since the incumbent government came into power. They were unhappy that the rights of the ethnic groups were seriously negated, especially during the prosecution of the war. We could not change their mindset because a systematic and well organized propaganda campaign had been launched worldwide, that irrespective of what the government claimed, it an egocentric Sinhalese country and that no one would ever get any rights here except the Sinhalese.

However, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) never dreamed that Mahinda Rajapaksa's government would be able to defeat them. That is why, during the previous presidential election, they blocked the votes intended for Ranil and let Mahinda win the election. But Mahinda formed a good team and with ample aid from China, Russia and Pakistan, ultimately won the war. But our foreign policies have not succeeded in creating a positive attitude towards Sri Lanka among the global community.

Senanayake: It is currently being widely debated that our foreign policy should be subjected to some kind of change especially since we need the cooperation of other countries to develop our country. What sorts of changes should be made in our foreign policy to meet this need.

Godage: Our foreign policy is a guide to how we will conduct relations with the international community and through it we articulate our own perceptions of the rest of the world. The world at large expects to hear us clearly spelling out our intentions of how we will deal with ethnic minorities in the country. We have to make it transparent to our foreign friends that we mean business when we say that we intend safeguarding the rights of our minority communities. We should also prove to the world that we will honor the accords that we have subscribed to. There is no point in changing foreign policies without showing substantive proof of our intentions to abide by those international conventions. It is true that the war is over. But the Tamil organizations operating in foreign countries are now preparing to proclaim a phantom Tamil state. As long as there is an unfinished issue of the Tamils to deal with, they will have something to complain about. Therefore, what we have to do now is to solve this problem.

Senanayake: Our country has lost the Generalized System of Preference (GSP) Plus exports tax concession. Evidently, the EU opinion about Sri Lanka is far from positive. What kind of diplomatic strategy should be launched to win back their confidence?

Godage: I served as ambassador for Europe from 1984 to 1987 and then again from 1991 to 1994. During that period, various European parliaments passed resolutions condemning actions in Colombo on not less than 18 times! All of those resolutions were related to allegations against Sri Lanka that we were ignoring the rights of the minorities. A British ambassador said to me that they did not have any kind of economic interest in Sri Lanka from the day the estates in the island were nationalized. He said the Britain does not care for Sri Lanka and it is not interested in advocating for the island on any of its issues. But he said that the Britain was attentive to the claims made by various organizations that the ethnic communities were being oppressed here. We enjoyed the GSP Plus all the while that these allegations were being made.

But then five youths were murdered in Trincomalee and 15 activists of an aid agency were killed and the government did not do anything to bring the culprits to face justice. Appointing commissions will not solve this kind of problem. These two incidents too could have heavily weighed in the EU's decision to withdraw the GSP Plus from us.

Not only that. When UN representative John Holmes visited Sri Lanka, he was harshly criticized. It accused him of talking in return for LTTE money. This is not how a country should nurture and maintain diplomatic relations and this was not how Kadirgamar acted. He always resorted to dialog to solve problems. Most of our agricultural products are exported to these countries. Can we expect any economic growth by antagonizing these counties?

The biggest challenge our foreign office has is to work out how to secure the support of the nations which are currently disenchanted with us. They do not simply listen to what we tell them. The foreign embassies in our country too report to their respective governments about what really goes on here. Those countries also talk with Tamil people living here. And they listen to other political parties of our country. Therefore, it is difficult to win the goodwill of the global community without solving the issues of the minorities living here and without abiding by international accords to which we are signatories.

Senanayake: The new Foreign Minister G.L. Pieris said recently that Sri Lanka will not agree to conditions unfavorable to the country just for the sake of securing the tax facility or to retain the goodwill of the global community. Will we not be able win them over and solve this issue while preserving our independence?

Godage: When the economy of Greece collapses, we are affected by it. Then how can we be independent? In the present context of the word, it is not possible to hang on to archaic presumptions of what is denoted by the terms "independence", "sovereignty" etc. The Chernobyl nuclear incident in Russia affected various countries around the globe. When a nuclear reactor in the Indian sub-continent melts down, we cannot be indifferent to it, claiming that we are an independent state. The world today has shrunken into a small village. Therefore, the concept of independence is not fully applicable as an exclusive concept in the present global context. In the meantime, as far as I know, no unfair conditions have been stipulated by the European Union as prerequisites to restore the GSP Plus. What the EU insists on is that we should implement the human rights commitment to which we have been signatories.

Meanwhile, we cannot say that other countries look upon the killing of the persons who came to surrender with white flags in their hands, as a grave issue. International laws have yet to clarify what nature of response is to be extended to potential suicide killers. The suicide attack strategy introduced by the LTTE has now become very popular among militants all over the world. Any suicide killer can approach you waving a white flag at you.
Can killing such a person be considered a human rights violation in its truest sense? Therefore, the world too would need to look afresh at this issue and come to a logical conclusion about how this phenomenon needs to be dealt with by international law. Today a computer buff can cripple the world by playing havoc with a crucial computer program and without firing a single shot. New international laws have to be created to fight other potential menaces as well.

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