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Today's Foreign Service: Confronting the Challenges

“The vast Indian Ocean at our door step remains an immense resource waiting to be better utilised. Tourism could do with more international players, especially at the top end. Our culture, the history, the natural beauty, almost predictable weather and above all, our friendly people are the envy of other countries striving to develop their own tourist industries. Natural resources could be better exploited to improve the standards of living of our people. Against this backdrop, it becomes the responsibility of the Foreign Service to be actively engaged in encouraging inward investments and developing trade against the backdrop of our liberalised economy in collaboration with the responsible line ministries.”
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by Maurice de Tallyrand

(March 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Sri Lanka's Foreign Service is one of the oldest public sector institutions in the country. It was initially headed by the Prime Minister and later by a Foreign Minister. It has long been a glamourous career option for the best and the brightest.

The Foreign Service has, in the past, earned a reputation for performing well in defending and advancing the country's interests overseas. However, whether it has continued to maintain this reputation has come into question in recent times.

The qualities of its cadres may have become uneven, political appointees may not have lived up to expectations and some may not even have realised the need to reflect the rapidly changing requirements of the country. It has produced many success stories, some of its silent achievers have retired gracefully after a life time of valiant service to the country, while a few have ventured further to bring credit to their country in the multilateral arena.

However, whether there is a uniform commitment to serve in the face of the multifarious challenges among all its staff is questionable.

As we advance into the 21st century, in an intensely complex international and domestic environment, the challenges confronting the Foreign Service today are daunting. The country will quite rightly demand more of this service. It is a costly ministry and should not be considered to be a cushy retirement option, as some have done or merely an opportunity to educate their children.

Terrorism has become a global threat and has become every country's nightmare. Sri Lanka has also been confronted by a ruthless terrorist group for over two decades, even as the country tugs at its reins to advance economically and socially. Terrorism's multi-dimensional, political and socio-economic threat requires a constantly vigilant response in the multilateral and bilateral spheres.

Primarily, the challenge to our diplomats is to ensure that there is no compromise permitted in the global commitment to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka. No subtle relaxation of the world's vigilance should be permitted, enabling a quiet life-line to be thrown to the LTTE.

Likewise, there would be no recognition for any level of parity between Sri Lanka and the terrorist, LTTE. In this, the endeavours of the Foreign Service have been successful. Every effort to damage our standing, with implications to the economy, needs to be countered proactively. The LTTE and its sympathizers tend to dominate the Sri Lankan Tamil population, and purport to represent it, particularly those living in the West, even though many may not willingly acknowledge the hegemony of the LTTE. This is a force that the LTTE deploys effectively and that needs to be constantly engaged, proactively. The propaganda war will require our diplomats to engage local decision makers, lobby groups, including NGOs, media, and importantly, the pro-Sri Lankan diaspora.

The LTTE has over the years sought to create a negative impression of Sri Lanka with the objective of disrupting aid flows, tourism, foreign investment and perceptions of the country overseas. Sri Lanka's real and perceived failings tend to get highlighted to a far greater extent than those of other countries. Like all other terrorist groups before and contemporary, the importance of destabilizing the Sri Lankan state economically has not been lost on the LTTE. It is incumbent on the Foreign Service to continue in its efforts to meet this challenge. Increasingly, public diplomacy will play a critical role in its work as the need to reach out to a broader audience, including non-governmental groups becomes critical. In many Western countries, community groups and NGOs exercise critical influence on public policy formulation, making it essential for our diplomats to reach out to these entities. Sri Lanka must continue to identify its interest with the global effort to eliminate the scourge of terrorism and build on commonalities with regional and global partners.

There are many seasoned officers in the Foreign Service who have confronted the LTTE and its legions of sympathizers over the years. Some of these LTTE sympathizers may simply be misguided into seeing innocent liberators forgetting the history of ceaseless killings of civilians, ethnic cleansing, suicide bombings targeting civilians, eliminating moderate Tamils etc. The LTTE pioneered the technique of massively deploying suicide bombers to terrorise political leaders and civilians. It is also important to ensure that the democratic world is not lulled into forgetting through clever propaganda, that Sri Lanka is Asia's oldest democracy and continues to be one. Its judiciary commands enormous respect.

There will be a continuing requirement to identify with democratic forces in the world and to ensure support for Sri Lanka as it seeks to strengthen democracy and consolidate its institutions, including the rule of law, in the face of the challenge posed by a ruthless terrorist group. The success in the Eastern elections must be exploited to the maximum.

Our consistent effort must be to emphasise the strengthening of our own institutions. The world cannot be allowed to ignore Sri Lanka's commitment to achieving and even surpassing the millennium development goals, remaining a high achiever on the UN Human Development Index and providing education and health services, infrastructure facilities and government services to the areas left under LTTE control pursuant to the now defunct CFA.

The contemporary Foreign Service must also be very much focused on the country's economic priorities. Historically, a trading nation, much admired by other trading nations, Sri Lanka' needs a continuous flow of investments, expanded trade and tourism for it to realise its true potential. It is also important to reinvigorate the centuries old tradition of trading, hospitality and wealth creation.

Today, the country's potential remains largely underutilized. The terrorist threat is a continuing dampener of economic enthusiasm. But opportunities are there and need to be marketed. A few examples come to mind. It is a significant supplier of apparel to lucrative Western niche markets but in global terms, remains a relatively small player. There is every possibility for capitalising on the hard work done and the excellent reputation earned by the pioneers in order to attract other top end industry players and customers. As often repeated, manufacturing and assembling industries could be encouraged to benefit from our strategic location, the pool of flexible and educated labour, the easy investment regime and bilateral trade agreements, particularly with the booming Indian sub-continent.

The vast Indian Ocean at our door step remains an immense resource waiting to be better utilised. Tourism could do with more international players, especially at the top end. Our culture, the history, the natural beauty, almost predictable weather and above all, our friendly people are the envy of other countries striving to develop their own tourist industries. Natural resources could be better exploited to improve the standards of living of our people. Against this backdrop, it becomes the responsibility of the Foreign Service to be actively engaged in encouraging inward investments and developing trade against the backdrop of our liberalised economy in collaboration with the responsible line ministries. A country that had been a trading hub for over two thousand years and with a history of having attracted traders from far away as Rome, Greece, Egypt and China should find the resources within itself, to reinvigorate its trading roots. The exaggerated size of Sri Lanka in Ptolemy's map of the world millennia ago indicates the importance ascribed to this land in distant Alexandria. It is interesting to note that many countries, e.g. New Zealand, Canada, Australia, have amalgamated the departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade to benefit from the obvious synergies.

Sri Lanka has been confronted by a barrage of accusations on human rights issues. Human rights is as important to democratic Sri Lanka as it is to any other country despite the paucity of institutional resources and the inherent drawbacks of a developing country. Alleged lapses in our standards, compounded by the ever present threat of terrorism and the shortcomings in our resource levels and technical infrastructure, make us the target of a well orchestrated tide of criticism.

In a world where human rights have sadly become a convenient political football, developing countries tend to be subjected to standards of scrutiny which are not always applied even to far more developed countries with more sophisticated support bases. The Foreign Service knows that while we may need assistance in improving standards, what we do not need are sanctimonious sermons from self seeking prophets who may have discovered human rights in the aftermath of recent egregious violations in their own country. Ours is an intrinsically caring and compassionate society where deep sentiments of respect for the fellow being existed long before many of our critics discovered human rights. As the President so aptly articulated this sentiment at the recent SAARC summit; "Human Rights were an inherent part of our culture before its discovery by some others in the aftermath of bloody global wars and the deaths of innocent millions caused by misguided philosophies".


While we must never shirk in our efforts to protect the rights of our fellow beings, and seek the company of those who do, we must also not permit recent converts to the cause opportunities to preach from the pulpit.


Advancing and consolidating existing relationships and developing new ones is a task that is natural to the Foreign Service. Our own region must be a critical focus and India, with the advantage of deep seated historical, religious, cultural and increasingly significant economic links must be central to our approach. The booming bilateral economic links, trade, investment, tourism, etc., add substance to the relationship. While the plethora of existing ties and the common democratic tradition might make the task of relationship building seem easy, the complexities of domestic political reality requires continuing attention on the part of both countries. Increasingly, Sri Lanka must focus on the Tamil Nadu factor. The South Asian region will demand continuing high level focus from the Foreign Service and the galloping economies of our neighbours will demand our attention. We stand to benefit extensively from the very fact of being part of the region with the necessary adjustments to our priorities. Our links with all our neighbours need constant and considered care. Pakistan, a critical friend and a source of military hardware needs constant attention.

Greater attention needs to be paid to understand Pakistan's culture and politics. The long standing cultural and religious ties with China now acquire a wider dimension due to its burgeoning economy which has confounded critics, skeptics and well-wishers alike. They are also a key supplier of military hardware and a source of investment. The firm relationship with Japan could be further strengthened in the cultural, religious and economic areas. Increasingly, large numbers of Sri Lankan youth are looking east for their education and employment. This development must be encouraged and further opportunities created. On the whole, Sri Lanka will benefit further from strengthening its ties in the SAARC, ASEAN and East Asian regions. The existing historical cultural and religious ties will be a good spring board for this.

Our Buddhist heritage, long neglected in our international relations, gives us unprecedented access to many of the countries of the region, which could assist our efforts to curtail LTTE money laundering and arms procurement. With little effort, we should be able to convert casual relations to reliable alliances. In global fora, Sri Lanka must continue to identify with issues of common concern such as terrorism, human rights, the environment, respect for the UN Charter, etc.

At a time when many suspect the motives of multilateral agencies, the Foreign Ministry must seek to allay unreasonable fears and develop effective linkages.

The Middle East is the temporary home for over 1,000,000 Sri Lankans and the source of over USD 2.7 billion in foreign earnings. While fostering our traditional links with the region, every effort must be made to encourage increased trade, two way investments and tourism, while ensuring that our citizens, temporarily resident abroad receive adequate protection from our Missions. Inward tourists from the Middle East have continued to grow in number. The country has enjoyed constantly good relations with Europe and the United States. However, for too long these relationships have been characterized by a dependence on development assistance. Sri Lanka has graduated to the status of a middle income country, and greater effort will need to be placed on strengthening our contacts on the basis of shared global values, intensified trade and investment, interaction between people and on the cultural and religious heritage that Sri Lanka can share.

Our relationships must never be based on dependence or create perceptions of inferiority.

A significant but inadequately utilized resource for the country is the large number of its citizens scattered around the world. Some left these shores, lured by the challenge of succeeding in a different environment, others sought greener pastures and yet others left in unhappier circumstances. All of them can be made partners in a forward looking, confident and advancing Sri Lanka. The attraction would not only be the old home in a charming village but also the prospect of participating in making Sri Lanka a better place for all its people and for its sons and daughters scattered around the world, the economic potential for success and the obvious joys of life on an island in the sun.

The Foreign Service will face these challenges in its efforts to advance the goals of the government. A Government's policy of only rewarding those who produce results and not those who claim rewards on the basis of longevity and personal need or patronage will facilitate this.

- Sri Lanka Guardian

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