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The Resurrection of Fiji

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Law, Diplomacy and the Politics of Human Rights

 

by Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda

Sri Lanka will shortly be facing renewed scrutiny at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, where elements of the international community have been calling for action over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. This may lead to sanctions against senior officers of the Sri Lanka armed services and even political leaders.

Sri Lanka’s response has been characterized by the usual lack of preparedness, last minute flurries of activity and panic. There has been very little research, serious study or thinking. This has been the hallmark of Sri Lankan strategic and diplomatic thinking over the years.

The current president of the UNHRC is Fiji’s ambassador in Geneva, Nazhat Shameem Khan, a diplomat and former judge, who has been the Permanent Representative of Fiji to the United Nations since 2014. Khan, who served as the council’s vice president in 2020, was elected on January 15, 2021.

This story began at the UN Headquarters in New York in 2018 when Fiji won its bid for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, receiving the second highest number of votes among all the candidate. This was a moment of global success for Fiji, giving this small Pacific nation international recognition for its advancement and protection of human rights.

What is not widely known is that since independence Fiji has had a tumultuous recent history, characterized by ethnic tensions, military coups and recurrent suspensions of the democratic process. A closer look will reveal strong historic parallels and many commonalities between Sri Lanka and Fiji. Both countries have had to face similar problems and the challenges. These parallels and commonalities are clear and immediate and deeply relevant.

Like Sri Lanka, an island nation, Fiji was colonized by the British during the 19th century. The second Governor of Fiji (1875-1880) was the Liberal Party politician and colonial administrator Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, who went onto become the 16th governor of British Ceylon (1883–1890).

Hamilton- Gordon’s policies were to have decisive influence in the shaping the history of modern Fiji. He presided over the suppression of an uprising against the British in the central highlands. As with the suppression of the Kandyan rebellion in 1818, the British adopted a scorched earth policy, burning rebel villages and destroying fields.

In 1878 Gordon decided to import indentured labourers from India to work on the sugarcane fields which had replaced the cotton plantations. As in Sri Lanka, this began a wave of emigration which completely transformed the social, ethnic and political dynamics, leaving an enduring impact on the country. Whereas native Fijians, iTaukei, remain the majority (54 %), Indo-Fijians, the descendants of these Indian laborers now comprise 38% of the population. The tension between these two ethnic groups has dominated the politics of the islands since independence.

Unlike Sri Lanka, which has remained a democracy since independence in 1948, Fiji has seen several coups and many political revolutions. It also has a history of military rule, first by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, later Prime Minister from 1992-1999, and then Commodore Voreqe(Frank) Bainimarama, Prime Minister since 2007. Both men seized power when they were serving officers, before going onto to become elected political leaders

In 1970 Fiji gained independence as the Dominion of Fiji. Until April 1987, it was governed by the Alliance Party, which championed policies of “multiracialism.” This government, which had a majority of Indian members in the legislature, was overthrown twice in 1987 in military coups led by Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. These coups were driven by demands for the protection of majority rights and sought to entrench native Fijian dominance in any future government. To this end, Fiji declared itself a republic and revoked the 1970 constitution. In 1990 a new constitution, designed to concentrate power in the hands of Fijians, was established. Fiji was expelled from the Commonwealth in the same year.

Under the 1990 constitution, Colonel Rabuka was elected to parliament and went on to become prime minister in 1992. In 1999 Mahendra Chaudhry became Fiji’s first prime minister of Indian origin. Chaudhry’s premiership was bitterly opposed by Fijian nationalists, and in May 2000 he and his government were taken hostage and deposed by a military backed group, claiming to be acting for indigenous Fijians. A counter coup was launched by the Commander of the Armed Forces, Voreque (Frank) Bainimarama. The rebels were neutralized and an interim military government was formed. This led to the restoration of democracy and new elections.

However, the tensions between the military and the elected government remained. In December 2006, Bainimarama seized power in another coup, removing the prime minister and establishing himself as the country’s sole leader. In January 2007 he restored executive powers to the President, Ratu Josefa Iloilo(2000-2006, 2007-2009), who then named Bainimarama as the head of an interim administration. In 2009, the Fiji Court of Appeal ruled that the Bainimarama government was illegal. In response, President Iloilo abrogated the 1997 constitution and dismissed the country’s judges. National elections were postponed and another interim government appointed, again with Bainimarama as prime minister.

During this period Fiji was isolated and largely ostracized by western powers such as Australia, New Zealand, UK and Europe. Fiji’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations was also suspended. Neighbouring Australia and New Zealand were the loudest international critics and in 2009 Fiji expelled both the Australian and the New Zealand ambassadors, accusing them of interfering in the Fijian judiciary. Fiji also shut down many NGOs. In the same way as Sri Lanka, Fiji was forced to look beyond its traditional partners towards China, who refrained from involving herself in domestic politics.

Only in 2014, after years of delays, did a democratic election take place. The parliamentary elections of 2014 were won by Bainimarama’s Fiji First party. Bainimarama, who had resigned as head of the military in March, was sworn in as prime minister. In the 2018 general election the Fiji First Party won again an outright majority for the second time and Bainimarama was sworn in as Prime Minister for a second term.

In 2017 Fiji presided over the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP23).It was the first time a small island developing state had assumed the presidency of the negotiations. Fiji’s ability to preside over an international meeting of this calibre signalled its growing reinstatement within the international order. This was followed a year later, by Fiji’s election to the seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It is an extraordinary story, the resurrection of a nation which was an international outcast and its transformation into a human rights champion and a pillar of the international community. How did this turnaround take place?

Many of the answers appear to lie in the efforts of Fiji’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Nazhat Shameem Khan. Fiji opened its first Mission in Geneva in 2014, barely months before the country’s Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council. Under this process the human rights situation of all UN Member States are reviewed every five years. Every year, 42 States are reviewed during three Working Group sessions. The result of each review is reflected in the Final Report of the Working Group, which then lists the recommendations which each country will have to implement. Khan proved herself a skilled diplomat and negotiator and a convincing advocate. Not only did Fiji succeed in passing the review. In less than three years, she has managed to secure the Presidency of United Nations Climate Change Conference and now the UNHRC.

One of Fiji’s pre-eminent judges, Khan was educated at Sussex University and Cambridge, where she obtained a Master of Philosophy in Criminology. In 1983 she was admitted to the Bar of England and Wales at the Inner Temple in London. In 1994 Khan became the first woman in Fiji to be appointed as the Director of Public Prosecutions and in 1999, she became Fiji`s first female High Court judge. In 2009 she became a private practitioner, concentrating on training lawyers and judges in human rights law, sentencing law, governance and litigation.

There is a background of law and human rights in the family. Khan’s sister, Shaista Shameem, also a lawyer, was the director and then chairman of the Fiji Human Rights Commission (FHRC), later serving as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Use of Mercenaries (2004-2005) and becoming a member of the UN Working Group. During her time as chairman of the FHRC, Shameem published a report defending the 2006 coup, an action which was strongly criticized by Human Rights Watch. What is striking is that despite their legal and human rights background, both sisters have played an important role in defending and rehabilitating their country.

What appears to have gone unnoticed is the role played by many Sri Lankans in helping revive Fiji’s judicial sector and resuscitate the country’s international reputation. During the years when Fiji was frantically trying to establish law and order, many Sri Lankans played key roles in rebuilding the country. Some of the most important judicial offices were all held by Sri Lankans and until 2014 the Fijian judiciary was heavily dependent on Sri Lankan expertise. This was despite the considerable pressure which was put on many Sri Lankans not to live or work in Fiji. In 2009 Fiji’s chief justice, Anthony Gates, accused Australia and New Zealand of telling a number of Sri Lankan judges that they would be banned from entering Australia or New Zealand if they took up appointments on the Fiji bench.

Although as a country Sri Lanka has not helped Fiji, there remains a deep recognition and gratitude towards the many Sri Lankans who lived and worked in the country during this time. There are strong connections and in some cases enduring relationships. Shameem Khan herself has worked alongside Sri Lankan jurists and is very conscious of their skill, expertise and integrity.

The prima facie evidence suggests that Sri Lanka could be dealing with a sympathetic interlocutor with whom it already has many connections. Even at this late stage however, there are options and strategies which can be pursued.

This administration has three to four research institutions at its disposal, the BCIS, the Institute of National Security, the Lakshman Kadirgamar Centre and the Kotalawela Defence University. Yet there has been no study or appraisal of these potential links and their possible connections. It is clear from the public discourse that we have no idea of whom we are dealing with, what their backgrounds are and where their skills and attitudes lie. Perhaps we have not even begun to think about it.

The resurrection of Fiji seems to have taken place within a decade, much the same decade that Sri Lanka found itself being gradually isolated and targeted. Through the use of law, human rights and diplomacy, Fiji has rebuilt its place in the world. The parallels suggest that this has been achieved through the implementation of a carefully calibrated national strategy, one which has been concerted, sustained and informed. It shows what could have been done and how.



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S L – a cauldron of casualties and trouble

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Cassandra has stopped watching news at night for the sake of her wellbeing and peace of mind. Watching English news at 9.00 p m on a local channel caused her to toss and turn or wake up at the ungodly hour of 2.00 am to again toss and turn, but this time mentally with suppressed anger, frustration, and fear for the future surfacing and consequently inundating the mind with unease. Why all this? Because Sri Lankan news is always of protests, ministerial pontificating with next to nothing done to lift the country from rock bottom it has been thrust to; and violence, murders and drug hauls. All worrying issues. The present worry is spending 200 m on a celebration that most Ordinaries, the public Cass means, DO NOT Want.

What are the issues of the week just past? Hamlet’s disturbed and disturbing ‘To be or not to be’ twisted to ‘Will happen or will not.’ That specifically relates to the LG elections scheduled for March 9. The government has tried every trick of delay just because they face sure defeat – the combined Elephant and Bud that rules us as of now. Everyone else shouts for elections and follows up with the threat to come out on the streets. That seems to be Sri Lankans most resorted to pastime. And we dread the melees; the water cannon, police brutality and the disgrace of saffron robed, bearded and hair grown men in the vanguard of slogan lofting shouters. All a useless and worthless expense of energy achieving nothing but tear gas and water shooting, and remand jail for some. Some of these protests call for the release of one such IUSF protester deemed to be a terrorist by a draconian law and confined in solitary imprisonment for far too long.

A shot or more of arrack or kasippu was resorted to by men and excused by other men as necessary mental trouble relievers. A woman would imbibe a bit of brandy if not a sleeping pill to ease her troubled mind and thus queasy gut. Not any longer if one takes advice that comes pouring in via social media.

Canada’s new move on Alcohol Guidance

As questioned by Holly Honderich in Washington BBC January 18: “What’s behind Canada’s drastic new Alcohol Guidance?” She says a report funded by Health Canada warns that “any amount of alcohol is not good for your health and if you drink, less is better.” This is contained in a 90 page report from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse and Addiction. Health issues result from the intake of more than standard drinks and these include breast and colon cancer. Honderich says it may be a rude awakening for the roughly 80% of Canadian adults who drink. The ratio is higher, Cass presumes, in this resplendent isle with its arrack, illicit brews and toddy both kitul and palmyrah. So the comforting statement that was earlier in vogue, that a daily tot of alcoholic drink is good for health, is sent overboard by the Canadian advice. Of course now with money so short except in the hands of the corrupt, the latter advice will have to be taken, voluntarily or otherwise, by most Lankans.

Prez Gotabaya and his advisors’ ruling

We have all seen at least on TV, farmers mourning their yellowing crops of paddy and heard their heart-rending cries of hopelessness at the loss of a third harvest due to the utter crime of overnight stoppage of chemical fertilisers and pest control. Cass wonders how the ex-Prez who decreed this and his advisors sleep at night having blighted long term the entire agriculture of this predominantly agricultural country. Farmers cry out they are in debt, have no money to feed nor school their children; added to which hospitals are bare of medicines.

A highly-educated and experienced agriculturist sent Cass an email the gist of which is that rice farmers all over the island report a ‘yellowing’ of paddy, stunted growth and dead plants in patches. They had all used ‘compost’ issued by the govt. There is a hint this could be due to a nematode infestation. If correct, this has grave implications. It has occurred in tea with no easy cure. Only costly fumigation was effective, eventually. Once rice paddies are infected it would be very difficult to control – almost impossible; already impoverished farmers can bear no further expense.

A three wheeler driver told Cass that river bed soil had been mixed with thrown away household garbage (both obtained free, obviously) and sold as organic fertiliser. I hasten to add this is hearsay, but the obvious truth staring all Sri Lankans in the face and sending shivers of apprehension down all spines is that this Maha season crop is kaput; gone down the drain with farmers cheated and someone or some persons having made money from the deal.

Pointless it is to curse those who were in the racket; useless to commiserate farmers and their families; impossible to compensate them. Will those responsible for giving out dangerous fertiliser for distribution be traced and brought to justice? Never! However, that word ‘never’ is now pronounced with a mite of doubt after M Sirisena and others were dealt justly by judges of the Supreme Court. There are glimmers of hope that wrong doers, actually criminals who bankrupted the country and damaged its agriculture, will be dealt with suitably.

There will be no Aluth Avuruddha for the backbone of the country in April since celebrations centre around a good harvest and R&R after a Maha season of toil and filling bins and storehouses with bountiful paddy. This was pre-Gota days. Now it is all round misery since urban dwellers sorrow, and also suffer, with the farmers who supplied them with food.

Clear stats given to prove inefficiency of the state sector

A video clip came to Cassandra with Advocata CEO Dananath Fernando speaking on the inefficiency of the public service due to being too many in number. Dananath is much admired and spoke clearly and convincingly. He said more conversing with Faraz Shauketaly on Newsline presented by TVI channel on Tuesday 24 January at 8.30 p m.

Dananath said our bureaucracy is inefficient and ineffectual. Main reason being there are too many to do the work. His fact check went like this. In India for every 177 members of the general public there is one (01) government officer or as named earlier ‘government servant’. In Pakistan the figures are 117 to one. Bangladesh is almost the same. In Sri Lanka (hold your breath!) to every sixteen (16) citizens there sits one government officer, mainly twiddling his/her thumbs. It would be interesting to know the ratios in developed countries. But the very relevant to us countries have been named by the Advocata finding. Cass does not need to spell what the result is; she has already indicated it with the image of the thumb twiddler.

We knew the bureaucracy was over staffed, bloated and bulging big like the leaders we have: 225 in parliament, then local councils and pradeshiya sabhas. And in each of them, law makers, decision takers and those who carry them out are far too excessive in number and cost the government excessively in salaries, infrastructure, travel modes; etc. etc. So Advocata asks how development, or even mere running of the country can be achieved efficiently and effectively. A further shock, at least to Cass, was dealt by Dananath in proving the point by revealing statistics for the police service. 50% of the entire police force is deployed on security duty to 225 MPs, Ministers and state VIPs while the balance half is expected to provide safety and security to 22 million people! Lop sided and thus the country slants to sink or disintegrate. It has already slanted to bankruptcy and begging as never before and selling the meager money making ventures we possess.

How did the public service get so bloated? Again the guilty are, or were, those in power. They kept sending persons with chits and they had to be employed. Reason? Sympathy for the jobless? Not at all. Pure unadulterated self-interest so votes are assured them.

Rise up and show thy face, thou olde pensioner

That’s a government order to be observed by the old; most finding walking difficult and many finding the necessity to gather some money for three wheeler hire denting their January budget. But present yourself to the Grama Sevaka of your area is a must if you want to continue receiving your pension, now totally inadequate; but still very grateful for. Hence the procession of the old and weak leaning on walking sticks, even crutches or on willing supporting arms offered them.

Some years ago, questioned by Cassandra, an obliging woman Grama Sevaka said that those unable to present themselves are visited in their homes by officers. We do hope this is done since there must be plenty thumb twiddlers in this government department too.

Bravo Hirunika!

Cass most definitely is an admirer of beautiful Hirunika. She’s garnered another kudos by her latest action, OK, gimmick if you like that word to express the way she has shown displeasure, censure, disagreement of the general public on holding an elaborate National Day event to celebrate 75 years of’ democratic self-rule’ at the exorbitant cost of Rs 200m.. That expression itself calls for comment. Termed National Day it is far from being thus with so many protesting various issues. Celebration is a blatant falsehood. Feb 4 should really be a day of mourning, since the Nation is in the dregs of corruption, misrule and bankruptcy. Self-rule here equates to selfish rule by the leaders for themselves and misrule for us the public. Democracy is dead, actually it was totally dead during previous regimes but has revived somewhat lately,

And how did Hirunika express censure? By having black bows knotted on the posts erected to prop covered spaces for the march past, etc. Black connotes death, mourning, displeasure, bad times. Of course at expense, the bows will be removed before the posse of horses and motor riders and security cars conducts the Prez to the s venue. Cass entertains a jaundiced wish that the entire DPL Corps will, non-diplomatically, ignore invitation and not be present at the celebratory event. Rows and rows of empty chairs might convey the message of non grata, rather disdain for the powers that be. Ranil may be respected still, but those backing him and even guiding his hands are NOT.

Cheers till we meet next Friday!

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Gandhianv Ethics

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By JAYDEV JANA

The word ethics is derived from the Greek word ‘ethos’, which means ‘way of living’. The judgement of right and wrong, what to do and what not to do, and how one ought to act, form ethics. It is a branch of philosophy that involves systematising, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour.

Morality is the body of standards or principles derived from a code of conduct from a particular philosophy, religion, or culture. It can also derive from a standard that a person believes in. The word morals is derived from the Latin word ‘mos’, which means custom.

Many people use the words Ethics and Morality interchangeably. However, there is a difference between Ethics and Morals. To put it in simple terms, Ethics = Moral + reasoning.For example, one might feel that it is morally wrong to steal, but if he/ she has an ethical viewpoint on it, it should be based on some sets of arguments and analysis about why it would be wrong to steal. Mahatma Gandhi is considered as one of the greatest moral philosophers of India. The highest form of morality in Gandhi’s ethical system is the practice of altruism/self-sacrifice.

For Gandhi, it was never enough that an individual merely avoided causing evil; they had to actively promote good and actively prevent evils. The ideas and ideals of Gandhi emanated mainly from: (1) his inner religious convictions including ethical principles embedded in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Christianity; (2) the exigencies of his struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the mass political movements during India’s freedom struggle; and (3) the influence of Tolstoy, Carlyle and Thoreau etc. He was a moralist through and through and yet it is difficult to write philosophically about his ethics.

This is because Gandhi is fundamentally concerned with practice rather than with theory or abstract thought, and such philosophy as he used was meant to reveal its ‘truth’ in the crucible of experience. Hence, the subtitle of his Autobiography ~ ‘the story of my experiments in truth.’ The experiments refer to the fact that the truth of concept, values, and ideals is fulfilled only in practice.

Gandhi’s ethics are inextricably tied up with religion, which itself is unconventional. Though an avowed Hindu, he was a Hindu in philosophical rather than a sectarian sense; there was much Hindu ritual and practice that he subjected to critique.

In his Ethical Religion, published in 1912 based on lectures delivered by him, Gandhi had stated simply that he alone cannot be called truly religious or moral whose mind is not tainted with hatred and selfishness, and who leads a life of absolute purity and of disinterested services. Without mental purity or purification of motive, external action cannot be performed in selfless spirit. Goodness does not consist in abstention from wrong but from the wish to do wrong; evil is to be avoided not from fear but from the sense of obligation. Consistency was less important to Gandhi than moral earnestness, and rules were less useful than specific norms of human excellence and the appreciation of values. Politics is a comprehensive term which is associated with composition and operation of state structure as well as its interrelationship with other states. It is activity centred around power and very often deprived of morals. With its power-mongering, amoral Machiavellianism, and its valorisation of expediency over principle, and of successful outcomes over scrupulous means, politics is an uncompromising avenue for saintliness. Inclusion of ethics in politics seemed to be a contradiction to many contemporary political philosophers.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak among others warned Gandhi before he embarked on a political career in India, “Politics is a game of worldly people and not of sadhus.” Introducing spirituality into the political arena would seem to betoken ineffectiveness in an area driven by worldly passions and cunning. It is perhaps for these reasons that Christ himself appeared to be in favour of a dualism: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” In this interpretation, the standards and norms that apply to religion are different from those relevant to politics.

Gandhi by contrast, without denying the distinction between the domain of Caesar and that of God, repudiates any rigid separation between the two. As early as 1915, Gandhi declared his aim “to spiritualise” political life and political institutions.

Politics is as essential as religion, but if it is divorced from religion, it is like a corpse, fit only for burning. In the preface to his autobiography, Gandhi declared that his devotion of truth had drawn him into politics, that his power in the political field was derived from his spiritual experiments with himself, and those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means. Human life being an undivided whole, no line could be drawn between ethics and politics. It was impossible to separate the everyday life of man, he emphasised, from his spiritual being. He said, “I feel that political work must be looked upon in terms of social and moral progress.” Gandhi is often called a saint among politicians. In an epoch of ‘globalisation of selfcentredness’ there is a pressing necessity to comprehend and emulate the moralistic dimension of Gandhian thought and re-evaluate the concept of politics. The correlation between ends and means is the essence of Gandhi’s interpretation of society in terms of ethical value rather than empirical relations. For Gandhi, means and ends are intricately connected.

His contention was, “For me it is enough to know the means. Means and ends are convertible terms in my philosophy.” Gandhi countered the assertion that ends vindicate means. If the means engaged are unjust there is no possibility of achieving satisfactory outcomes. He compared the means to a seed and the end to a tree. Gandhi stuck to this golden ideal through thick and thin, without worrying about the immediate results. He was convinced that our ultimate progress towards the goal would be in exact proportion to the purity of our means.

Gandhi believed that “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.” His seven social sins refer to behaviours that go against ethical code and thereby weaken society. When values are not strongly held, people respond weakly to crisis and difficulty. The seven sins are: (1) Wealth without work; (2) Pleasure without conscience; (3) Knowledge without character; (4) Commerce without morality; (5) Science without humanity; (6) Religion without sacrifice; and (7) politics without principle. Gandhi’s Seven Sins are an integral part of Gandhian ethics.

The Satyagraha (Sanskrit and Hindi: ‘Holding into truth’) as enunciated by Gandhi seeks to integrate spiritual values, community organisation and selfreliance with a view to empower individuals, families, groups, villages, towns and cities. It became a major tool in the Indian struggle against British Imperialism and has since been adopted by protest groups in other countries.

According to the philosophy of Satyagraha, Satyagrahis (Practitioners of Satyagraha) achieve correct insight into the real nature of an evil situation by observing a non-violence of the mind, by seeking truth in a spirit of peace and love, and by undergoing a rigorous process of self-scrutiny. In so doing, the satyagrahi encounters truth in the absolute. By refusing to submit to the wrong or to cooperate with it, the satyagrahi must adhere to non-violence. They always warn their opponents of their intentions and forbid any tactic suggesting the use of secrecy to one’s advantage. Satyagraha seeks to conquer through conversion: in the end, there is neither defeat nor victory but rather a new harmony. Gandhi’s Satyagraha always highlighted moral principles. By giving the concept of Satyagraha, Gandhi showed mankind how to win over greed and fear by love.

There was no pretension or hypocrisy about Gandhi. His ethics do not stem from the intellectual deductive formula. ‘Do unto others as you would have them unto you.’ He never asked others to do anything which he did not do. It is history how he conducted his affairs. He never treated even his own children in any special manner from other children, sharing the same kind of food and other facilities and attending the same school. When a scholarship was offered for one of his sons to be sent to England for higher education, Gandhi gave it to some other boy. Of course, he invited strong resentment from two of his sons and there are many critics who believe that Gandhi neglected his own children, and he was not the ideal father. His profound conviction of equality of all men and women shows the essential Gandhi who grew into a Mahatma.

The question of why one should act in a moral way has occupied much time in the history of philosophical inquiry. Gandhi’s answer to this is that happiness, religion and wealth depend upon sincerity to the self, an absence of malice towards others, exploitation of others, and always acting ‘with a pure mind.’ The ethical and moral standard Gandhi set for himself reveals his commitment and devotion to eternal principles and only someone like him who regulated his life and action in conformity with the universal vision of human brotherhood could say “My Life is My Message.” (The Statesman/ANN)

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Vibrant ties with M-E, a foreign policy priority for SL

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Head table dignitaries with copies of ‘Sri Lanka-Oman Relations: Past, Present and Future’.

Economics primarily drive politics and this principle applies to Sri Lanka’s relations with almost the entirety of the world’s regions. The fact that economic interdependence is compelling this country to break new ground in its ties with the Middle East bears this out fully.

Over the decades, Sri Lanka has prioritized the need to sustain vibrant ties with the Arab countries of the Middle East and this is quite in order when Sri Lanka’s overwhelming dependence on the region for its oil supplies and for increasing employment opportunities for its labour force are taken into consideration. However, the need is great, owing primarily to growing local economic compulsions, for Sri Lanka to adopt a more studied approach to strengthening its relations with the Middle East.

The latter exercise needs to be research-based if it is to bear ample fruit and it is for this reason that the re-launch of a study titled, ‘Sri Lanka-Oman Relations: Past, Present and Future’ by a Sri Lankan diplomat with considerable work experience in the Middle East in general and Oman in particular, O.L. Ameer Ajwad, should be welcomed. The book was re-launched on January 12 under the aegis of the The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International and Strategic Studies (LKI), Colombo, at the latter’s auditorium in the presence of an audience that consisted of, among others, ambassadors from a number of West Asian countries, including those of Qatar, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The book was initially published on February 17, 2021, to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Sri Lanka-Oman diplomatic relations and its re-launch served to emphasize the importance that Sri Lanka should attach to its wide-ranging ties with Oman. The author, a one-time ambassador of Sri Lanka to Oman, is currently the Director General of the Performance Review and Implementation Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The re-launch of the book was a collaboration among the LKI, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka and the embassy of the Sultanate of Oman in Sri Lanka.

The book was formally launched by Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya, Foreign Secretary Aruni Wijewardena, Ambassador of the Sultanate of Oman to Sri Lanka Ahmed Ali Saeed Al Rashdi and the author.

Foreign Minister Ali Sabry who addressed the audience as Chief Guest at the re-launch, following a welcome address by the LKI’s Actg. Executive Director Ms. E.A.S.W. Edirisinghe, said, among other things, that the book needed to be welcomed as a literary endeavor on the part of the author ‘to preserve the institutional memory of the Sri Lankan mission in Oman.’ It also needed to be valued in view of the fact that it ‘proposed a road map through an envoy’s personal experience, for future cooperation between Sri Lanka and the Sultanate of Oman.’ Minister Ali Sabry mentioned the elevating of relations with the countries of the Middle East as a policy priority for Sri Lanka.

State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya, while focusing on Sri Lanka’s centuries-long ties with the Arab world, highlighted the importance of connecting the ports of Colombo and Sohar of Oman by a direct feeder service. The aim should be to create a trans-shipment hub for the respective regions, as proposed by the author.

It was left to Ambassador Ameer Ajwad to present to the audience a comprehensive overview of the contents of the publication. He said chapter five was especially important because it outlined in considerable detail the future course economic relations in particular between the countries could take.

The author does right by focusing on economic diplomacy in his publication. This holds the key to cementing cordial bonds among countries in contemporary times, given that antagonistic relations among states have the effect of perpetuating economic stagnation within countries. The latter condition is a sure recipe for intra-country social discontent and violence, besides acting as a stimulant for continued inter-state friction.

One of the chief strengths of ‘Sri Lanka-Oman Relations: Past, Present and Future’, is the stress it lays on the need for the countries concerned to exploit economic complementarities that exist between them in a number of areas, for the furtherance of shared development. There is tremendous potential here that is going untapped, the author points out. If utilized judiciously these complementarities could prove a vital factor in the economic betterment of the countries.

Some of these areas offering ‘synergies of growth’ or the potential for mutual cooperation are: trade and investment, agriculture and fisheries, tourism, education and maritime cooperation, to name a few. In this connection the author stresses that: ‘It is the lack of awareness of each other’s potentials and opportunities available in many areas of mutual interest’, that is getting in the way of the countries dynamically cooperating further for shared material improvement.

It is hoped that in the days ahead the Sri Lankan authorities would not only act on the insights thrown-up by Ambassador Ameer Ajwad but take into consideration the need to cooperate with the countries of the Middle East over existing divides, one of which is described as the ‘Arab-Israeli’ conflict.

Fortunately, economic compulsions have been compelling Lankan governments to recognize Israel as an important state actor in the Middle East. Likewise, some Arab states have today ‘broken the ice’, so to speak, with Israel, and are interacting with it in the economic field. In the case of Sri Lanka, it is quite some time since Israel has been opening up employment opportunities for Sri Lankans in multiple areas, such as agriculture and care-giving.

Accordingly, economics dictate politics. Old, adversarial mindsets needs to change for the ushering of the common good. There is a need for the international community to enlist the support of the Arab world and all other sections that have been having strained ties with Israel, to work towards the realization of the ‘two state solution’ in the Middle East. This presents itself as an equitable mechanism.

Looking for economic complementarities among countries presents itself as a wise course to take in inter-state relations, considering these complementarities’ peace-building potential, and it is hoped that the international community would put this item high on its list of priorities in the days to come. From this viewpoint, ‘Sri Lanka-Oman Relations: Past, Present and Future’ needs to be seen as a model study in the field of international relations.

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