Six Key Challenges Faced by Sri Lanka in Foreign Relations Sphere

By Salma Yusuf

A widely held belief among the populace is that the discourse on foreign policy remains the sole prerogative of those in the highest echelons of political power; that is, until presented with a statement by the likes of well-known American political activist, Ron Silver, who declared: “I can’t talk about foreign policy like anyone who’s spent their life reading and learning foreign policy. But as a citizen in a democracy, it’s very important that I participate in that.”

Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka, speaks during a meetingthe Millennium Development Goals Summit at United Nations Headquarters on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)- courtesy: MPR

Such sentiments serve as both a reality-check and a wake-up call to every Sri Lankan citizen, as the country moves on from a phase of post-war to post-conflict.

It is beyond dispute that Sri Lanka’s three decade conflict was externalized due to a combination of factors, among others, ranging from the presence of an active expatriate community abroad; the involvement of foreign facilitators in the peace process; and the presence of foreign peacekeeping forces in 1987. By the end of the war, Sri Lanka was placed well within significant cynosure of the international radar. Such international attention has spilled over into the country’s post-war phase as well, but this time taking on new meaning.

That said, the process of foreign policy formulation should be state-led, inviting the public to participate in the process, thus keeping the process open and transparent. There can be no room for ‘strategic ambiguity’, a phrase used by Barack Obama in his 2008 election speeches when he asserted that the public have a right to know through election manifestos of candidates what foreign policy courses will be taken by each candidate.

Conversely, citizens have a correlated duty to participate in the foreign policy discourse and decisions of their country. It is therefore essential that we have institutions that can help in this task. They should ideally be coordinated and used to develop a bipartisan foreign policy. Institutions set up especially for diplomatic training, international studies, provision of policy support and impetus in strategic thinking, namely the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute and the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, are well-placed to play a catalytic role in such an endeavor.

As the former British Prime Minister Palmerston famously said: “We have no eternal allies and no permanent enemies. Our interests are eternal, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Following our national interests will be the prudent, genuine, and safest course to chart in pursuing a foreign policy—diplomatic honeymoons on the one hand, and unbridled engagements on the other will not be sustainable; over reliance on allies and the defensive criticism of enemies will not take us very far. The victories may be imminent just as much as they will be temporary.

As it currently stands, Sri Lanka faces a number of challenges in its foreign relations. Six key challenges need to be addressed with priority.

First, distinction needs to be drawn between, on the one hand, voluntary participation in international mechanisms and the subsequent rules of procedure, obligations of implementation, and reporting that come with it, and, on the other hand, an encroachment of a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that are not as a result of a nation’s undertaking. The true test of our sovereignty will be to follow the nation’s interest, assume strong national positions and communicate such positions effectively to the local and international communities. We must understand that the opportunity to justify our policies is an exercise of sovereignty, and not an encroachment of it.

Second, we live in an age of globalization and unprecedented connectivity that is characteristic of the twenty first century, permeating all aspects of governance including foreign and international relations. In an inter-dependent world the only way of maintaining sovereignty is not through hostility but through constructive engagement. Sovereignty is a relative concept. Accordingly, sovereignty in this era can only be maintained to the extent we learn to live in inter-dependence and not in hostility.

Third, the impact that the members of the heterogeneous expatriate community have on the politics and electoral campaigns of host governments must be given serious consideration in our foreign policy discourse. The best way to deal with it is to address the rights of minorities locally, both systematically and genuinely. Rights of minorities need to be coupled with assurances for the possibility of peaceful return and life in the country. This is once again illustrative of how domestic policy and foreign policy are inextricably linked.

Fourth, the fostering and maintenance of credibility of national positions should be the underlying objective of the conduct of our foreign relations. This will require that there should be one interlocutor between the state and international community. The internal consensus will not only prevent confusion and contradiction but also help maintain credibility and reveal the strength of the establishment – this will be the true test of exercising sovereignty in the conduct of our foreign affairs.

Fifth, most of the country’s bilateral and multilateral engagements are haunted by a specter of reconciliation and human rights concerns. We must remember that human rights and inter-communal harmony are not alien to our country, the values of which are enshrined in our shared history, cultures and legal frameworks. We need to capitalize and draw on these strengths to forge a robust system of governance that will be able to function with independence and credibility. Hence, for every allegation made, we will have the availability of structures and norms to deal with such allegations domestically. In this regard, the implementation of the outcomes of the two national processes, namely the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the National Human Rights Action Plan will demonstrate that homegrown mechanisms can credibly provide solutions, while improving our foreign relations and prospects. Here once again is a demonstration of the link between domestic and foreign policy.

Lastly, due to the conflict, we were largely inward looking, preoccupied with internal considerations and taking up defensive positions in human rights and other international forays. With the end of the war, there is now a need to broaden our areas of engagement into areas such as trade, science, environment, human and arms trafficking, terrorism, and regional cooperation. With a shift to the post-war phase, an identification of priorities and a policy of engagement must be pursued to find common ground.

In the final analysis, it is the consolidation of peace, freedom, democracy and the domestic rule of law that will translate into the ability for us to project our nation as sovereign and credible in the international domain – the link between the protection of our national interests and international positioning cannot be clearer.

Source: International Affairs Review