For a professional foreign service | Daily News


For a professional foreign service

New Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena’s resolve to emphasize professionalism in the country’s Foreign Service is to be commended. In an interview with our weekly publication the Sunday Observer the minister said steps would be taken to maintain the present ratio of 58 percent career diplomats in the Foreign Service. As one of his initial tasks he has issued instructions to recall all political appointees in Sri Lanka’s foreign missions with immediate effect.

In the run up to the Presidential Election many political appointments have been made disregarding the explicit instructions of the Elections Commission that no new positions or posts should be granted to any individual in the state sector. The minister also wanted other key institutions too to coalesce with Sri Lanka’s overseas missions since in the face of external pressures they could not work unaided.

As mentioned, the minister’s approach in infusing professionalism to our foreign service will receive the plaudits of many, including retired veterans who have over the years seen the deterioration of the service chiefly due to the appointments of misfits who were found wanting in the face of tight situations. This was glaringly evident during the conflict years where our envoys signally failed to combat the vicious propaganda launched against the country by the Tamil diaspora and other actors. This was mainly because they were ill equipped and out of their depth to combat sophisticated propaganda networks, being who they are- political appointees.

Minister Gunewardena, we are sure, will resist pressures to appoint defeated candidates or party loyalists as diplomats at the expense of career officers. The same goes for relatives of ruling party politicians. It is no secret that career diplomats today are a frustrated lot, either vegetating at the Foreign Ministry or given postings to insignificant countries where their talents could not be put to good use. In the current context, unlike in the past, the role of the diplomat has undergone a sea change. International relations have today taken on a whole new dimension that require shrewd minds to cope up and the skill and ability to deal with complex matters.

Diplomats today have to be on their toes unlike the laid back approach one associated with them in the past where the picture painted of their chief function being attending cocktail parties or carrying the baggage of Lankan leaders visiting the host country. Our envoys should necessarily be those who are capable of painting a positive picture of their country in his/her host country and try to draw investments from the other end.

Such tasks needless to say will be beyond the ability of political loyalists or friends/relatives of politicians. Minister Gunewardena, no doubt, will have an unenviable task in cleaning the Augean stables since the Foreign Service has been the most politicized state body under all regimes in the past.

There had been so called diplomats who failed to return at the end of their tour of duty since they had their children being educated in the host countries. There had also been other instances where the tasks and functions of some of our diplomats were outsourced. Such diplomats, needless to say, are not only a financial burden on the country but also place the country in very poor light. Hence handpicked men and women of ability should man our international desks if the country is to benefit from their talents.

This is not to say that only career diplomats should be given postings to important countries. In the past there have been those outside the career service who had performed their tasks with aplomb and brought credit to themselves as well as the country. There are among us professionals, businessmen and captains of industry who will make ideal diplomats bringing to bear their knowledge and skills on their posts in a way that would be of immense value to the country. Minister Gunewardena should not hesitate in seeking out such talent, especially at a time the new Government will be keen to bolster its investment prospects.

Special attention should also be paid to pick the right candidates for diplomatic postings in the West Asian countries where Sri Lanka has a huge migrant population. We say this because some of our envoys in these countries proved thoroughly inefficient in attending to the problems faced by our expatriate workers. It was revealed that some of these envoys in the Middle East were those appointed at the behest of a minority political party backing the former regime. Minister Gunewardena, we hope, will put a full stop to such practices. The country’s diplomatic service should not be made an employment agency or a haven for political stooges of all varieties.

There should be a heavy focus on India and the SAARC countries. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s State visit to India was a resounding success and a diplomatic victory. Now we need to maintain that positive momentum in foreign relations with South Asia and the rest of the world.

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