by Sujeeva Nivunhella
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage, said Sri Lanka will not accept the special mechanism imposed by the UN Commission on Human Rights, but will implement solutions where possible.
In a zoom interview with the Sunday Island, Admiral Colombage said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had given him clear instructions not to grant extensions to diplomats beyond three years. He also said that our overseas missions will focus more on economic diplomacy starting this year.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Do we still follow the line of the non-aligned?
A: Yes, of course. We never got out. We are a non-aligned country, but due to the geopolitical power games taking place in the Indian Ocean, we will have to maintain neutrality. We do not side with any country to compete with another.
Q: But can we say that we are more inclined towards China?
A: We engage in a large number of investment and business projects with China. At the same time, we do business with India, America, Japan, Korea, Australia and other European countries. All these investment projects do not compromise our security or our sovereignty. Right now we need a lot more investment and currently China is investing heavily. Some countries might think that China would exploit us, but it is up to us not to allow any country to strategically exploit us especially on a war footing.
Q: Do you think China is just helping us get into a debt trap?
A: I cannot comment on another country’s strategic goals. However, we have lost approximately US$10 billion due to the decline of the tourism industry over the past two years as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At present, our main priority is to attract investment. Therefore, we must enlist the help of any party willing to invest in our country.
Q: Do you think that because of our strategic location, America and India also want to keep a foothold here?
A: Yes, the whole world knows that Sri Lanka is located at a strategically important point in the Indian Ocean. The busiest maritime trade route across the Indian Ocean is only 12 nautical miles from us. For this reason, Sri Lanka is important to all major and aspiring Indian Ocean powers. I believe we need to use this attraction to our advantage and get investment from as many countries as possible.
Q: Recently you closed embassies in Nigeria and Cyprus as well as the consulate in Frankfurt. We know that there are a large number of Sri Lankan workers in Cyprus and it has been reported that they are facing difficulties due to the embassy closure.
A: It was in 2013 when we last assessed our embassies. By 2021, we have 67 overseas missions. It is not easy for a small country like ours to maintain up to 67 missions, especially given the current economic situation in Sri Lanka. In addition to the three missions you mentioned, we also closed our mission in Afghanistan due to security concerns. Regarding the embassy in Cyprus, there are over 6,000 Sri Lankans working in Cyprus and we derive a substantial income from them. We will soon be opening an honorary consul general’s office and our people will have access to the same service as before.
Q: When we talk about our foreign service, it is quite unfortunate that the general public opinion tends to be that these diplomats only travel abroad to send their children to study abroad or simply to enjoy a trip abroad. What do you think about this?
A: This is not a fair judgment. There may be one or two people in this category. However, everyone else works very hard. I am very proud of their work. At the height of the pandemic, our officers at foreign missions worked tirelessly to secure COVID vaccines for Sri Lanka and to send stranded Lankans home. Furthermore, they have been successful in raising support for us from diaspora communities and wealthy people living in wealthy countries and more importantly representing Sri Lanka in various multilateral forums protecting the national interests of Sri Lanka .
To stop the malfeasance, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave me clear instructions not to allow extensions to a diplomatic officer beyond three years. I discovered that some officers had been out of the country for more than nine or ten years after being transferred.
The president believes that if an officer does not return to work in Sri Lanka, he will not be able to get a clear picture of the situation in the country.
As a result, I’ve implemented the instructions with an efficiency rate of 99% so far. Some high-ranking diplomatic officers, especially those working in Western countries, are asking for extensions, but I regret that I cannot authorize them. There was a misconception that missions in Western countries are the best. In our view, the countries close to our country are the most important. We will have an appropriate rotation scheme.
Q: Even after 73 years of independence, we are still a developing country.
Economically, we are in a very bad state. How can our foreign missions contribute to improving the situation in the country?
A: We are not a nation that accepts defeat easily. We managed to survive during and after 30 years of war and overcome the disaster of the tsunami by uniting as one country. We have had a severe blow to our economy due to COVID 19. We have been hit hard by the lack of remittances from our foreign workers and the adverse effects on the tourism sector.
We are very good at international political diplomacy, but from this year we will pay more attention to economic diplomacy. For example, sometimes I’m rather puzzled whether the high commissioners and ambassadors working in Sri Lanka are business people. They are always talking about an investment or a business. So we asked our diplomats to get more investment in Sri Lanka and expand our export basket. We can no longer rely solely on tea, rubber and coconut.
Q: After Brexit, Britain is rapidly signing free trade agreements with non-EU countries. Isn’t this the best time for us to sign an FTA with Great Britain?
A: According to Foreign Minister GL Peiris, we should sign Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). We don’t even have an FTA with China. After signing the FTA with Singapore, some parties feared that other countries would take our jobs, dump their waste on us, etc. We cannot go on borrowing from China, India and Bangladesh indefinitely. My belief is that in the future, we will have to conclude free trade agreements with other countries and create a strong trade consortium.
Q: In a recent interview with the Sunday Island, MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam said overseas Tamils have money and could help develop Sri Lanka in five years. We can see that the Tamil diaspora has substantial wealth. Are you not ready to dialogue with them?
Certainly, we certainly want to engage with all groups in the Sri Lankan diaspora. Even the President plans to have an audience with groups of Sri Lankan expatriates and invite them to come and invest in Sri Lanka. Lord Ahmad, who recently visited Sri Lanka, also discussed the importance of engaging the Sri Lankan diaspora and we asked him to play the role of mediator.
It is important that we unite and should not divide into Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and bourgeois diasporas separately. It should be a single Sri Lankan Diaspora. I expect our missions abroad to bring them together, and currently our High Commissioner in Ottawa does.
There is a misconception that if a Tamil expatriate returns to Sri Lanka, they will encounter problems. There is no such danger. Even a TGTE member came to Sri Lanka recently and he had the freedom to go anywhere in the country and back. It is the duty of the Sri Lankan Diaspora communities to invest in Sri Lanka and help the country.
Q: My Tamil friends say they have no way to communicate with the government. Are you happy to meet Tamils living in the UK?
A: Absolutely. If you can arrange it we are happy to meet them anywhere or I would like to welcome them to Sri Lanka for a chat.
Q: Lord Ahmad recently visited Sri Lanka to sign a memorandum of understanding for health workers. What I noticed this time was that he did not blame Sri Lanka for its human rights conduct.
A: Our Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Service have worked hard to show the world how much work we have done to facilitate the reconciliation process. I am proud to say that we are winning the battle. We no longer make empty promises and show the world what we have done so far to solve the problem. We no longer just want to talk about missing persons. We intend to identify them and compensate. If we find someone who can’t get their land back, we want to fix the problem quickly.
I am happy to announce that the amendments for the prevention of
The law on terrorism is being drafted. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defense and the Chamber of the Attorney General are working closely together to find solutions. The president plans to have talks with TNA soon. We should meet in Sri Lanka and sort out all the issues we have left.
At the moment, we are pleading our cases in Geneva or New York. I am happy to quote Lord Ahmad’s remarks that they are only waiting for “pragmatic and practical solutions to current problems”. We implement solutions where possible. We don’t want a foreign power to set up a special mechanism and plead the case. We will not accept the special mechanism imposed by the Human Rights Commission.