By Salma Yusuf
A fact accorded scant credence in our times is that the personal and professional can be inextricably linked in the sphere of international and foreign relations.
This was the perception distilled from an event held last week to mark the second death anniversary of veteran Sri Lankan diplomat Vernon L.B. Mendis.
The personal memoir rendered by retired civil servant M.D.D Pieris in memory of his colleague was heart-warming, to say the least. What came through very strongly is the foundation of personal goodwill, trust and affection between two of Sri Lanka’s distinguished public servants, which undoubtedly played a key role in the conduct of their official functions.
Pieris noted instances where mutual trust that was cultivated in their personal relationship became a key driver of efficiency and effectiveness when carrying out national duties: he reflected on instances where matters of state importance were discussed over a telephone call, the individual minute-taking at either end would suffice for documentation and decision – making purposes, with no further need for exchange of notes or letters of confirmation.
This and the keynote address delivered by Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo, one time Foreign Secretary, and Secretary General of SAARC, were resonant with a key message for the public at large: foreign policy and international relations is as much about actors, personalities and relationships as it is about substantive policy and protocol.
The seventies was a time fraught with complexity for Sri Lanka’s external relations. Yet, a lesson to be learnt is that it is indeed possible to maintain productive and beneficial relations with somewhat opposing and polarized forces and ideologies: Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was known for her close personal relationships with leaders from India, Pakistan and China which greatly contributed to Sri Lanka’s strong regional positioning.
The dividends of such close personal relationships with leaders such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto are felt even today through the warm hospitality received when an ordinary Sri Lankan citizen visits Pakistan. At the international level, we had excellent relationships with the Middle East, the Western World, South Asia and China. Despite India, Pakistan and China having divergent foreign policy orientations, Sri Lanka managed its relationships with all three countries commendably.
The potential role played by actors in the context of international relations, in relation to Sri Lanka specifically, could be illustrated even today: Shiv Shankar Menon and Nirupama Rao, both former Indian High Commissioners to Sri Lanka and having served in China, are currently occupying positions that can have a significant bearing on Sri Lanka’s international and regional compasses. Shiv Shanker Menon is currently India’s National Security Advisor and Nirupama Roa is India’s Ambassador to the United States.
The ability of actors who have been associated with Sri Lanka in the height of conflict accords the ability to provide a graphical and realistic representation of the intricacies, nuances and complexities in situational contextual analyses. India as our immediate neighbour, and hence crucial both geographically and strategically for Sri Lanka’s international relations, coupled with India’s growing position in international affairs needs to be considered seriously.
Furthermore, living in times where the India – China relationship is set to emerge as the most important relationship in Asia and the parallel emergence of the phenomenon of ‘The Asian century’ makes it imperative that we begin to acknowledge the role that actors and personalities can play in shaping international and foreign policy.
The two meetings between Shiv Shankar Menon set for later this week with President Mahinda Rajapaksa when he visits Sri Lanka will once again provide an opportunity to clear misconceptions, outline challenges and note progress while reinforcing commitments : the fact that the only meetings scheduled for the visit are with the President underscores the important role that can be played by actors in the foreign policy discourse.
As my previous article in these pages highlighting Sri Lanka’s foreign policy challenges notes, most of the Sri Lanka’s current bilateral and multilateral engagements, both regional and international, are haunted by a spectre of reconciliation and human rights concerns. A related though somewhat distinct challenge that has been highlighted is the lack of direct contact with the international human rights community and groups.
There was a time, not so long ago, for instance in the eighties, when international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and the government of the day would, through informal channels, clarify matters especially in relation to facts and figures that would be quoted in human rights reports, and which were in turn used to draw analyses and conclusions and used for purposes of advocacy
The benefit of such direct contact and engagement is mutually beneficial for both parties – on one hand, maintaining credibility in respect of the findings of reports of the international organizations; and giving the state party an opportunity to clear the flawed or erroneous perceptions that are usually the cause of hostile relationships.
The damage caused after misconceptions and misperceptions reach the public domain cannot adequately be rebutted through a reactionary right of reply. The need for proactive engagement on issues of genuine national interest and concern will contribute greatly to improve foreign positioning.
Furthermore, a relationship of hostility and non – engagement between the government of the day and the international human rights community will only lead to further mistrust and will jeopardize the ultimate goal of achieving human rights protection and promotion. In this regard, the role of the diaspora in maintaining relationships with the international human rights community must also be accorded serious consideration, given the ability it has to influence the perceptions of the international human rights community in its analyses and conclusions.
A final example for consideration is the upcoming conference that is being planned by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in India for holding the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Conference (TESO) in Villupuram on August 5 2012. The Hindu reported this week the DMK President M. Karunanidhi, who is also the Chairman of TESO, saying that the venue was being prepared for the meet. The reception committee headed by DMK’s treasurer M.K. Stalin comprises five secretaries – former DMK minister K. Ponmudi, Dravidar Kazhagam general secretary Kali Poonguntran, Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi general secretary Ravikumar and DMK functionaries K.S. Radhakrishnan and advocate H.M. Jinnah. “We want to hold the conference on the lines of the one held in Madurai last time in 1986. Besides inviting national leaders, we are planning to bring human rights activists from across the world and international leaders who are supporting the Tamil Eelam cause,” said one of the secretaries, as reported in the news item.
The role of actors, once again, becomes important at such events which will be well within the cynosure of international attention. Relationships with international human rights organisations and leaders who are specifically mentioned as invitees will have a further bearing on the presentations and projections tabled. Moreover, the personalities that represent the country’s standing on matters of national importance and interest such as reconciliation and human rights protection will be critical to the outcome at such exchanges.
Ultimately what Sri Lanka requires is a robust foreign policy grounded in strong interest – driven national positions: the effectiveness of the policy will in turn largely depend on the actors involved in its implementation.