A case for quiet diplomacy

Thursday, 17 June 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

There is no argument that the public of this country has a right to be informed of the dealings of the Foreign Ministry and the diplomatic conduct of its elected Government. Public diplomacy is an integral part of modern diplomacy. However, recent events suggest that it is possible Sri Lanka’s current diplomacy is conducted only in the public domain, and exclusively for public consumption. As a result, the primary goal of diplomacy which is to further national interests often appear to get shunted aside.

In this respect, two events in the recent past are of particular concern. Last week Sri Lanka suffered another devastating diplomatic blow when the European Parliament voted 628-15 to adopt a resolution calling on the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, to suspend the GSP plus preferential trade concession granted to over 7,000 products from our country. 

At the crux of the resolution is Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record but particular concern is drawn to the continuous use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The European Parliament resolution notes the disproportionate use of the PTA against minorities and government critics. It would appear that the Resolution caught the Government of Sri Lanka was completely unawares, because in the same week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa signed a gazette establishing new centres to incarcerate PTA detainees.

The Foreign Ministry issuing a statement makes several arguments in response to the European Parliament action. None of these help Sri Lanka’s cause by mitigating the adverse impact of this resolution. The main thrust of the Government response to the EU Parliament Resolution is that it is compelled to use the PTA in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks. On the discriminatory use of the PTA, the Foreign Ministry cites article 12(1) of the Constitution that guarantees equality to all citizens. 

The PTA was enacted in 1979 and has been around for over four decades, long before the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings. During this period over 60,000 persons have been either arbitrarily detained, disappeared or extra-judicially executed, with agents of the state often using the PTA to either commit or cover-up the atrocities. Pontificating on the selective use of the PTA or demonstratively ineffective constitutional guarantees are no match for the ground realities. At a minimum, acceptance of the problems with the PTA, problems that in all fairness, are not a creation of the incumbent administration, would have been a good starting point.  Such an approach would have demonstrated the seriousness of the Sri Lankan government to engage in a meaningful dialogue that can bring about significant reform to archaic and draconian legislation.  

The Resolution taking shape in the US Congress is not very different. Resolution H.Res.413 presented by Congresswoman Deborah Ross and four others to the House Foreign Affairs Committee notes the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka. These congresspersons have for many years held similar views on Sri Lanka and our diplomats have mostly succeeded in keeping them at bay, through quiet, constructive, and effective diplomacy.  Having failed to do so this time around, the Foreign Ministry did the State of Sri Lanka a disservice, by issuing a combative media statement which claimed, among other things, that the resolution “appears to be one influenced by a coterie of sympathisers of the LTTE in the US Congress, to carry forward the separatist agenda of the LTTE”.

Such provocative, undiplomatic and completely unproductive statements might endear certain officials to the political authority, and perhaps serve their personal career prospects, but only erodes the credibility and interests of the country. The US is Sri Lanka’s largest individual export market and the world’s oldest continuous democracy. Members of Congress, on either side of the aisle, will not look favourably upon a foreign government that calls out elected US representatives as sympathisers of a terrorist organisation still proscribed in America. These knee-jerk reactions in diplomacy do not serve Sri Lanka’s interests. 

It is past time for the Foreign Ministry to learn the basic tools of its trade. While public diplomacy and even propaganda have a certain place in modern conduct of international relations, they cannot replace the constructive, sincere and quiet diplomacy that has served Sri Lanka in the past.