The art of diplomacy | Daily News

The art of diplomacy

“In the world of diplomacy, some things are better left unsaid.” These are the words of Lincoln Chafee, a former US Senator. In other words, diplomacy is about being tactful and also discreet. A diplomat should know when to comment and when not to comment.

It is a generally accepted principle that diplomats, regardless of whether they represent individual countries or multilateral organisations, have to refrain from commenting on purely internal matters of the countries they are posted to. This does not mean that they should remain silent – but rather that their public elucidations must necessarily be confined to bilateral issues between the host country and the diplomat’s country or organisation. Diplomats are also not supposed to comment on third countries which may be friendly or unfriendly towards the host country.

But this does not always happen in practice and diplomats do make the mistake of talking or acting out of turn, earning the ire of their host countries. In such instances, the host country has the right to demand an explanation from the diplomat concerned and take appropriate action. The latter can include the extreme action of expulsion from the host country, though recalling one’s own ambassador from the diplomat’s country as a mark of protest is the more commonly followed option. However, diplomacy does include the option of giving a diplomatic demarche, a formal way of expressing one’s concern on any given issue concerning the two countries.

We pen these words in the light of a recent tweet by Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, the United Nations (UN) Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, on the conduct of a State Minister at two prison complexes, an incident we condemned in these spaces yesterday. “It is the duty of the State, as per the #MandelaRules, to protect the rights of prisoners,” Hamdy said in the tweet. “In our work on prison reform and drug rehabilitation, UN Sri Lanka works to strengthen capacities to uphold the rights of all those in custody & condemns any ill-treatment of prisoners,” she tweeted. 

While this seems innocuous at first, a deeper probe reveals that Hamdy has commented on a matter that falls firmly within the jurisdiction of a sovereign nation. Sri Lankan authorities are well aware of the rights of prisoners and are working hard to alleviate the suffering of prisoners due to congestion and other factors. New prisons have been built in recent years to reduce congestion and many of those who were in prison due to their inability to pay fines, sometimes a matter of just a few thousand rupees, have been released. Sixteen LTTE suspects who were being held were also recently pardoned.

Furthermore, this particular case has nothing to do with the treatment of prisoners per se by the State or prison authorities – it is purely an isolated incident where a State Minister has threatened random prisoners. According to reports from the Anuradhapura Prison, the officials had tried their best to protect the two prisoners who were threatened by the State Minister, and indeed, all other prisoners.

There have been many incidents where diplomats who had overstepped their mark have been given marching orders by the respective countries. Here in Sri Lanka, several examples come to mind. When two diplomats spoke out of turn on the Senocholai incident back in August 2006, they were severely warned. Back in 1991, when Ranasinghe Premadasa was the President, the Sri Lankan Government declared British High Commissioner David Gladstone persona non grata and ordered him to leave the country because he reported alleged voting irregularities to police during the Local Government Elections. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry said at the time that the High Commissioner’s actions were an “unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka”.  The ruling United National Party charged that Gladstone, who was not an official election observer, had improperly interfered in Sri Lankan domestic affairs. It was later revealed that the High Commissioner had not personally witnessed any such malpractices and went by the words of a third party.

Sri Lanka has never been isolationist and values its relations with the International Community. Sri Lanka was one of the pioneering members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which steered clear of aligning itself with either superpower which existed then – the USA and Soviet Union (USSR). Sri Lanka hosted the NAM Summit in 1976. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike era and later, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s era are known as two of the golden periods in terms of Sri Lankan foreign policy. In today’s basically unipolar world, Sri Lanka has chosen to follow a neutral foreign policy with friendly relations with all countries, without swaying towards one country or bloc. Ambassadors and high commissioners from virtually all countries represented in Sri Lanka met the newly appointed Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris and pledged to extend their support for Sri Lanka’s development drive in the post-pandemic world. It is in the same spirit that Sri Lanka engages with the rest of the world, but as Prof. Peiris pointed out at the UNHRC sessions, as a sovereign nation Sri Lanka is in charge of its own destiny.

Add new comment