Politics and Foreign Policy – A Presidential Event at the BMICH

Politics and Foreign Policy – A Presidential Event at the BMICH

by Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.

On the 13th of June, the Policy Evaluation Unit of the Presidential Secretariat and the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies with the distinguished participation of President MaithripalaSirisena hosted a dialogue on, “Sri Lanka in Global Affairs: The Journey since January 2015.” The dialogue began with a short film on the President on the international stage, followed by a keynote address by Dr. Ram Manikkalingam and a stellar panel of Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke, Dr. Jayadeva Uyangoda and Eastern Province Governor Austin Fernando. The panel discussion that followed was moderated by Ambassador Palihakkara, the former Governor of the Northern Province.

Presentations were generous in praise, even mildly hagiographic of the President’s “middle path”, “realism” and “Asia centric” foreign policy orientation, of his ability to build coalitions and make friends. Dr. Jayatilleka gave an impassioned critique of the Government’s policy vis-a-vis the Human Rights Council, suggesting that if the President’s realism and “Asia centrism” won the day there would have been no co-sponsorship of the 2015 resolution providing for an accountability mechanism with the participation of international judges. The point was made that Dr. Jayatilleke could make his critique now without risking dire consequences because of the salubrious changes the President has ushered in since  assuming office. Dr. Uyangoda made the points that he was not going to praise the President in his speech and that he did not represent any political interest and was not an “insider”. He also pointed out that the government had a non-ideological approach to foreign policy, that flexibility in policy was not a weakness and appealed to the President not to forget the coalitions that brought him to power. Governor Fernando detailed the progress made by the government on reconciliation. The President in his brief address laid out his understanding of foreign policy and the needs of the country.

In all, it was a fascinating event, not least because it begged the question of the politics underlying it.   This is a coalition government and collective cabinet responsibility in this day and age anywhere could be problematic even sans a coalition. Was there a special reason for the President’s Office to convene a meeting on foreign policy since January 2015 into the future, without the participation of the Foreign Ministry? Especially intriguing in this instance was that there was no one from the ministry charged with the responsibility for foreign policy to respond to the critique of the policy on Geneva, in particular, on the eve of yet another session of the Human Rights Council. The head of the executive, the President, nevertheless was present and participating. Given Dr. Jayatilleke’s well -publicized views on Geneva, his association with the Rajapaksa regime in office and out, the organizers, presumably, and the President included, would surely have had an idea on what to expect.Was the intention to give Dr. Jayatilleke’s critique a public airing in the presidential presence – diplomats too -and allow space for the interpretation that it has presidential sanction and endorsement?

Were this interpretation correct, are we to assume that the government has two foreign policies and that if it is to be one as indeed it should be, the President has now signaled that he will be in charge of it? This columnist certainly got the impression, given what transpired, that he wasn’t too impressed with the current foreign policy of his government on the key issue of the Geneva resolution.

Reconciliation seems is in order within government over policy and reform, the paradigm shift from the darkness of yore to the diffident dawn of the present streaked with dissent and disagreement as far as foreign policy is concerned. What will the Foreign Minister’s brief be for Geneva when he speaks to the UN Human Rights Council? Second thoughts on the resolution or ringing endorsement of it and the progress the government has made and intends to make with respect to its implementation? And what of the mechanism in respect of accountability? Media reports state that both the President and the Prime Minister have ruled out the participation of international judges. In any event, won’t the Supreme Court of the country have the last word on any convictions?   Is it the case that as far as reconciliation is concerned, it is the order of the day within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party? Has the attempt to reconcile its main factions under one roof resulted in the fight over the heart and soul of the party also publicly exposing intra-governmental differences over foreign policy?

It is the case that Sri Lanka enjoys greater international goodwill since January 2015 than it did under the Rajapaksa regime. In this respect the national interest has been served and served well by those who designed and executed foreign policy. Into the future, the government cannot take for granted international goodwill in such measure, were it to fudge or forsake commitments made. It should also not be forgotten that the international goodwill enjoyed today is in considerable measure on account of the commitments made in Geneva, at the Human Rights Council and the pragmatism in relations with friends and protectors of the previous regime.

Oftentimes the textbooks tell us that many a foreign policy is about muddling through. Perhaps. But, it does not have to be the case. And as for foreign policy in a coalition government in a country in transition and the recipient of considerable goodwill, public debate and criticism of that policy is surely in order, but surely not at the instigation and in the service of insalubrious internal politics, as appeared to be the case in this instance at the BMICH?


Originally published here.