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Multilateral diplomacy and our interests

by K Godage

(August 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)
I was surprised to learn that the government is intending to appoint senior military personnel to manage our foreign relations, being unsatisfied with the manner in which the Foreign Ministry has worked without publicity for instance in having had the LTTE banned in the West. Be that as it may managing our bilateral relations may not be as challenging as managing our multilateral relations.

Multilateral diplomacy is a very specialized field. Multilateralism is a term in international relations that refers to multiple countries working in concert on a given issue.

International organizations, such as the United Nations (UN) and the World Trade Organization are multilateral in nature. The main proponents of multilateralism have traditionally been small countries. Larger states often act unilaterally, while the smaller countries have little direct power in international affairs; by participating in the United Nations and by consolidating their UN vote in a voting bloc with other nations, small countries can have a say. Multilateralism involves multiple nations acting together as in the UN or may involve working with regional organizations such as SAARC, ASEAN and NAM.

The end of the first World War saw the re-emergence of multilateral diplomacy with the birth of the League of Nations to prevent another conflict on a similar scale but the League was unable to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War. After the Second World War the victors, having drawn experience from the failure of the League of Nations, created the United Nations in 1945 with a structure intended to address the weaknesses of the previous body.

Unlike the League, the UN had the active participation of the United States and the Soviet Union, the world’s then two greatest contemporary powers. Along with the political institutions of the UN, the post-war years also saw a wide array of other multilateral organizations such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) (now the World Trade Organization), the World Bank (so-called ‘Bretton Woods’ institutions) and the World Health Organization develop.

The collective multilateral framework played an important role in maintaining world peace in the Cold War. Moreover, United Nations peacekeepers stationed around the world became one of the most visible symbols of multilateralism in recent decades

Today there are myriad multilateral institutions of varying scope and subject matter, ranging from the Human Rights Council which appears to have an abiding interest in Sri Lanka, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW); where mutilateral diplomacy is practiced; then there are Agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, the Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel land mines and a draft protocol to ensure compliance by States with the Biological Weapons Convention.

The question that arises is what sort of person and what sort of skill are required to safeguard our interests in this world where multilateral diplomacy prevails. Having had the privilege of working with that great diplomat Shirley Amerasinghe and observing Ambassadors Ben Fonseka and Vernon Mendis at work and being aware of the achievements of the likes of Ambassador Pallihakkara and Dr. Rohan Perera, Chairman of the UN Committee on Terrorism, I do hope that the government realizes that special skills are required to safeguard our interests at the UN.

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