Debate stresses need for Foreign Service Reforms | Daily News

Debate stresses need for Foreign Service Reforms

Some attempts were made to divert the focus on Foreign Policy and Foreign Service earlier this week during the debate on the votes for the ministry in the Budget 2023. The diversionary tactics included the focus to shift towards recent malpractices of a third secretary in Sri Lanka Embassy in Oman and on the efforts to solve the ethnic issue and devolution of power.

Dissident SLPP MP Dullas Alahapperuma, who uses his admirable word-power for good causes, however tried the path of sensationalism by demanding to know whether Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service was engaged in the flesh trade. It was a reference to some Sri Lankan embassy officials who were allegedly involved in a racket where female job seekers were forced into prostitution overseas.

“The victims may have gone abroad on visit visas, but they were under the protection of the Embassy in Oman, and the question is whether our Foreign Service is engaged in the flesh trade,” Alahapperuma asked.

However, the seasoned politician, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, brought the debate back on to the right track. He said that the Government would investigate the matter, and a special team had been dispatched to look into the complaints of the sex slave ring, in Oman, and swift action would be take on the receipt of their report.

“The President has paid special attention to this situation. This is a national issue and as a result of the steps taken, the relevant groups have been arrested,” Prime Minister Gunawardena said.

The alleged culprit in question –Third Secretary in Sri Lanka Embassy in Oman - is not a member of the Foreign Service and he was appointed by the Ministry of Foreign Employment to look into the welfare of the Sri Lankan workers in that country. In addition to the SLFS officers and trade secretaries appointed by the Ministry of Trade, few labour officers are being appointed to oversee the welfare of expatriate workers in the Middle East.

SJB Puttalam District MP Hector Appuhamy also raised the Oman issue said the suspect, who was behind the racket, where Sri Lankan women were sold as sex slaves in Oman, had been arrested at the Bandaranaike International Airport on arrival from Dubai. “All information about the man must be made public so that more women will not fall prey,” Appuhamy said.

Although the State Minister of Foreign Employment Jagath Pushpakumara tried to pass the buck, it was not appreciated by his colleagues in Treasury benches. He said that the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau could not take responsibility. “These women have gone to Oman on visit visas. They have not been registered in the Bureau. They have gone there on their own. This is not a problem for which our Ministry should be held responsible. It is up to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to look into it,” the Minister said.

As Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena correctly stated, as a responsible Government, an investigation has been ordered and a special team has been dispatched to look into the complaints. The alleged suspect is already in custody.

While the Prime Minister, as onetime Foreign Minister intervened positively, another former Foreign Minister, now independent Opposition MP, Prof. G.L. Peiris on Monday thought it fit to criticise the country’s Foreign Policy, alleging that there are questions regarding the credibility of the Government’s recent plans with regard to resolving the ethnic issue. He further said, while also noting that the re-orientation of the priorities of the Foreign Policy through investment and foreign trade cannot be achieved with the rampant corruption present in the country.

Prof. Peiris also questioned how a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) would be set up. He is also of the opinion that the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s plans to re-orient the priorities of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy through investments and foreign trade may not succeed.

“I think that the most important ingredient of the Foreign Policy is credibility. What we say must be believed. It must be taken seriously. The Government has told us that it is planning to solve the ethnic issue through a completely new Constitution. The Government has said that it proposes to do this before Independence Day on February 4, 2023. Does anyone take this statement seriously?”

The reply to the good professor’s question came within hours when President Ranil Wickremesinghe stated that he was prepared to introduce the proposal made by Sri Lanka Freedom Party Chairman, independent Opposition MP, and former President Maithripala Sirisena to set up District Development Committees (DDCs).

He said the DDCs will provide a platform for coordination between the Government, the Provincial Councils and the Local Governments for all executive decisions. This will ensure the process is not duplicated and will reduce financial wastage.

Onetime Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who knows very well the importance of dissemination of information by Sri Lankan missions abroad to boost the country’s image by correcting false propaganda of interested parties, said most of our missions have failed in this aspect. He pointed out glaring inadequacies of the mission in Geneva to brief the UNHRC members of the actual situation with regard to human rights and reconciliation.

State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasooriya acknowledged that the Foreign Affairs Ministry is currently faced with severe financial crises and staff shortage. He said that only 84 individuals have been recruited to the Diplomatic Service during the past 10 years.

He said that there are only 177 diplomatic officials, whereas the actual diplomatic cadre strength is 264 and the Ministry has taken measures to recruit another 40 officers by July next year.

As several MPs pointed out, the recruitment process will have to be reformed. It is essential to make it mandatory for new recruits to know at least one foreign language in addition to English.

The Minister also said the Foreign Ministry is faced with severe financial issues as the funds allocated to the Ministry were cut down gradually over the last few years, whereas more funds should be allocated, given the depreciation of the rupee against the Dollar.

“56 million US dollars was allocated to the Foreign Ministry in 2018. We have spent 35 million US dollars so far this year. Only US dollars 24 million had been allocated from the Budget for 2023,” he said.

As it will not be easy to raise fund allocation, what could be done is to cut down unnecessary expenditure by cutting down on staff as some missions are over-staffed. Furthermore, some missions could be closed down as the work can be done online by the Foreign Ministry in Colombo. Sri Lanka can emulate the practice of Singapore. For example, Singapore’s Sri Lanka High Commissioner resides in Singapore and there is no High Commission Office in Colombo.

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