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    President restores balance in envoy appointments

    March 29, 2019

    While the opposition assailed the government for overloading the lucrative foreign postings with political appointees, the strong measure taken by President Maithripala Sirisena to restore the healthy ratio between foreign services officers and political appointees in overseas missions almost went unnoticed.
    This week, President appointed 14 new ambassadors and high commissioners to represent Sri Lanka abroad and all of the new appointees belonged to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS). The new appointments include the most important foreign capitals such as Washington, New York (UN Permanent representative), Brussels, Singapore, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Vienna and Jakarta.
    A senior Foreign Ministry source said that the SLFS is extremely grateful to President Sirisena for restoring the balance, which was heavily tilted in favour of political appointees until now. “President also turned down the proposals made to appoint some political personnel this time too and said he would appoint only SLOS officers this time,” she said.
    Appointing retired politicians to key diplomatic posts in strategically important capitals attracted heavy criticism from opposition members when the Votes of Foreign Ministry was discussed at the Committee Stage Debate of Budget 2019 in Parliament earlier this week. Bimal Ratnayake of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) pointed out that currently Sri Lanka has political appointees posted at every South Asian mission, and in many other key countries.
    He said that the SAARC countries, except for Bhutan where Sri Lanka has no mission, are filled with political appointees. “The Ambassador and High Commissioner posts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan and Maldives are occupied by political appointees. We have political appointees as Ambassadors in Russia, China, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, France, South Korea, and Canada,” he said.
    The JVP member also referred to the fact of Sri Lanka neglecting to appoint an ambassador to the United States for over a year, said: “We thank the Government for showing Sri Lanka is the strongest country in the world and can afford to neglect the mighty United States. The President and Prime Minister together turned Sri Lanka into a superpower that does not even care for Washington,” he commented sarcastically.
    Obviously, Mr. Ratnayake was not aware that President Sirisena has already named Rodney Perera, current ambassador in Brussels to be the next ambassador to Washington.
    New 14 ambassadors
    The President, while advising the new 14 ambassadors to keep the interests of Sri Lanka as top priority while serving as representatives of the country, he also emphasized the imperative need to obtain foreign investments and boost foreign trade, especially Sri Lanka exports to those countries. He urged them to cut down extravagant expenses while renting accommodation and entertaining.

    President also cautioned SLFS officers not to look down on political appointees and referred to some important services rendered by some of the brilliant non-SLOS officers who represented Sri Lanka abroad and urged the SLFS officers to extend fullest support to such envoys to serve the country better, without trying to place obstacles and hurdles.
    Although nobody questions the need for non-career diplomats, one should not forget the fact that SLFS has produced exceptionally good career diplomats in the past and there are quite a few brilliant career diplomats in service with high potential. Diplomatic greats such as, Jayantha Dhanapala, Bernard Tilakaratna, S.M.G.S. Palihakkara, Bernard Gunatilleke, Vernon Mendis and others brought much glory to Sri Lanka in the past. As a leading academic said recently, “there may be bad eggs, perhaps a lot of them in the service, but throwing away the whole basket is not the right answer”.
    However, one cannot deny the fact that some of the best diplomats were non-career officers. To name a few, Shirley Amarasinghe, Neville Kanakaratne, Gamini Correa, R. S. S. Gunawardena, Gunapala Malalasekera and Ernest Correa brought honours to the country and the first three diplomats served at top positions in international organisations - Shirley Amarasinghe, President, UN Law of the Sea Conference, Neville Kanakaratne, United Nations Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Congo and Gamini Correa, Secretary General, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) earned the respect of the diplomatic world.
    At the same time, there are quite a few diplomats whose only interest is to enjoy a good time abroad and educate their children in top international schools at state expense. Most of them limit their work to draft periodic reports to Colombo, just to give the impression they do a great job.
    Their reluctance to assist or even meet fellow Sri Lankans living in host countries is well known. They will use the entertainment allowance to entertain visiting friends from Sri Lanka. In that too they limit their hospitality to a few influential and rich Sri Lankans living in the host country.
    Career diplomats and non-career diplomats
    One fault in service officers is, some of them become lethargic because they get promotions routinely, whether they perform or not. The evaluation system is not effective and some officers give priority to self-interest and not to the interest of the country.
    There is no question that most of the career diplomats have experience and diplomatic skills. But, it is incorrect to say that career diplomats have all the wisdom and that non-career diplomats are useless.While replying to the debate in Parliament, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tilak Marapana outlined the steps taken to streamline the Foreign Service and the Ministry. “Of special note, is the bifurcation of the Overseas Administration Division (OAD), into Human Resources & Mission Management and Overseas Assets Management & Development,” he said.

    “Recruitment, training, posting and promotion are also a matter of concern. While the SLFS has an approved cadre of 261 we have only 188 officers at present. Systematic and regular recruitment is needed in order for the Foreign Ministry to function effectively. The 2018 Intake to the SLFS consisting of 20 Officers assumed duties on May 2, 2018,” Minister stated.
    He also said that the Ministry strives to enhance the professionalism of its cadres, especially of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service and it is also important to ensure the primacy of the professional Sri Lanka Foreign Service officers in appointments to missions abroad.
    “In this context, the disparity between career Foreign Service officers and those politically appointed to Sri Lanka Missions abroad is being addressed,” Marapana concluded.


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