Nero Is Fiddling in Milan: Sri Lanka’s Neglected Crisis of Diplomatic Representation – Part Two

This is the second in a series of two articles. Please click here for Part One.

Viewpoint by ALA Azeez

ROME (IDN) — In a further measure aimed to reduce the pressure on the declining foreign reserves, the foreign ministry announced over the past months, plans to close down some of Sri Lanka’s missions abroad. It is not clear what criteria was applied and if any other missions have been identified for possible closure.

Further, there are no indications from the foreign ministry as to whether it has considered scrapping non-ambassadorial diplomatic positions held by political appointees as a clear and pragmatic measure of cost- saving for the dollar- strapped nation.

It is against this dismal backdrop that the news of political appointment to the Consulate General of Sri Lanka, came as a shock to most Sri Lankans reeling from multiple crises. In a vain attempt to stave off public criticism, foreign minister Peiris was quick to issue a clarification indicating it was only a proposal and not an appointment. One may wonder how many such proposals have been made regarding political appointment to diplomatic positions in the manner minister Peiris has mentioned.

Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, in his wisdom, appears to have thought that calling it a proposal, not an appointment, would cool public tempers. It is bizarre that he seems to believe that making a proposal for political appointment was ordinarily acceptable, and especially so at this time of economic emergency. Quite the contrary: the current economic crisis calls for dispensing with the practice of making proposals for political appointments in the first place.

It is pertinent to note that especially since 2019, owing to the overweening nature of the executive presidency, the practice of proposing or making political appointments to diplomatic missions has become an entrenched culture. This has weakened the professional foreign service with a lack of sustained, substantive exposure to a wide range of diplomatic activity which their colleagues in the foreign services of South Asia and in other regions routinely receive. Serious capacity constraints have ensued within the foreign service, risking the effective pursuit of foreign policy priories and objectives, owing mainly to political meddling.

The foreign service itself is to be partly blamed for its own predicament. It has long tolerated a handful of its members actively seeking, at the expense of more deserving officers, political patronage for out-of-turn postings, cross-postings and ambassadorial positions. A few seniors even aided and abetted bad decision making including on economic matters because they believed in the ‘proximity-to-power’ principle.

Politicization has the effect of squeezing out the professional core of a foreign office. A foreign service, weakened from within and outside, is a fertile ground for external manipulation and exploitation. Vested interests only creep in where the professional core of a foreign service is eroded.

The crisis of credibility in Sri Lanka’s diplomatic representation that a combination of unchecked politicization, distorted use of foreign policy constructs, rhetoric and lack of coherent planning and scenario-mapping has brought about is a neglected crisis domestically. The international community, however, is all too aware of it because it can see how it plays out in the external theatre with far reaching implications for Sri Lanka.

The protesting public at the Galle Face and in the other parts of the country are demanding peacefully for a radical transformation of Sri Lanka’s political culture and its governance structures. The main focus of this growing people’s movement remains on the abolition of the executive presidency. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and diplomatic mechanisms are part and parcel of these governance structures currently under public stricture.

It is common knowledge that the power of presidency to appoint ambassadors and other diplomatic agents, as well as secretaries to ministries has so far escaped any constitutional ‘checks and balances’. Neither the 17th amendment nor the 19th amendment to the constitution dealt with this all-important matter, thereby leaving it entirely in the hands of the executive to make appointments without any objective criteria or scrutiny.

The committee on high posts of Sri Lanka’s parliament which routinely rubber-stamps appointments of ambassadors and secretaries to ministries has lost even the semblance of oversight authority it had, following the adoption of the 20th amendment to the constitution.

As the whole nation remains gripped in a catastrophic economic crisis, it is time now to reflect to what extent this unchecked practice of making political appointments to diplomatic missions has cost the dollar—strapped country by way of diversion of foreign exchange to maintain political appointees abroad.

It is also timely to ponder seriously how and to what extent the disastrous mix of distorted use of foreign policy constructs, rhetoric and lack of coherent planning and scenario—mapping has vitiated Sri Lanka’s external environment resulting in the loss of economic opportunities for the country and its people.

The long-neglected crisis of credibility in Sri Lanka’s diplomatic representation remains therefore as a contributory factor to the economic crisis the country is so perilously fraught with today. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 April 2022]

Image: DevPolicy Blog | Thilina Panduwawala

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