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Sri Lanka Embassies Abroad, then and now

Charles Perera- France

I recently read an article on Sri Lanka’s “Foreign Public Diplomacy in US. In Jeopardy”.

This reminded me of the Service in Sri Lanka Embassies in European countries many years back. Working in a Sri Lanka Embassy then was an ennobling experience. The Ambassadors were chosen from among legal dignitaries, University Professors retired Senior Government Servants or experienced Senior Diplomats. The Embassies were manned by able diplomatic officers, who were well read, cultured and well informed. They were also good administrators. Even the home based staff were selected after rigorous interviews.

The Embassy was a Sri Lankan family abroad. The Ambassadors were very kind and humane and looked after the staff without distinction of grades or differentiating the Home based and local staff. The local staff members were invariable natives of the country of the accreditation of the Embassy. Everyone cooperated in the working of the Embassy, prepared to take any work allotted whether it is a part of the duty of one or the other.

The atmosphere was cordial and friendly, where loyalties and respect to each other remained intact. Ambassador and his wife would visit the home based staff to see for themselves their living conditions. If a home based staff member were taken ill and removed to a hospital the Ambassador and the first Secretary visited them in the hospitals or called their homes seeing to it ,that they are not left out .

The Embassy staff met regularly for a lunch , a dinner or a cocktail either at the Ambassadors or the First Secretary’s Residence. These formal gatherings were very enjoyable, relaxed and every one was at one’s ease. The local and home based staff were part and parcel of the Embassy and were invited for all functions held at the Embassy.

Any administrative problem was settled by the First Secretary or the Ambassador, never would such problems go beyond the walls of the Embassy. The Ambassador and the Diplomatic officers were distinguished and humane people, and maintained high moral standards. Home based non-diplomatic staff were not entitled to duty free liquor and cigarettes, but the First Secretary shared his quota with the non-diplomatic home based staff. Of course the number of Sri Lankans in any European Capital at that time was not many, and all knew each other.

To-day the situations have changed not for the better but for the worst. In a Sri Lanka Embassy in a European capital, a senior diplomatic officer was beaten by Sri Lankans in a Hotel car park, while he was waiting to meet a married Sri Lankan woman to whom he had given an appointment at the Hotel. Such an incident would not have been heard of those days.

Now the local staff members of different grades are either selected from the expatriate community or are sent directly from Sri Lanka. One can imagine the difference of the treatment meted out to staff members of the Embassies now, from what it was then, in the following episode.

In an Embassy in a European capital, a messenger continues to be harassed by the Senior Diplomatic Officer. The messenger in question fell ill with a serious heart ailment and was admitted to the cardiologic Hospital. He was asked to rest, but as he has a small family to look after he continued to work, after having informed the Embassy and handing over the medical report of the Hospital.

But when he received the pay for the month, he noticed that one day’s salary had been deducted from his salary . For him every cent matters as he has a family with two little children , who depends on his salary, and he is the lowest paid in the Embassy. When he inquired why it was, that a day’s salary had been deducted, the paying officer had said that it was on a decision taken by the Senior Diplomatic Officer, who was that day the Acting Ambassador.

The messenger, went to the Acting Ambassador and asked why a day’s salary had been deducted from his salary despite the medical report. In the course of the ensuing argument, the acting Ambassador had telephoned the Police force of the country. This, despite the fact, that the Embassy has its own Security Officer. The Police arrived, about six or seven of them, and after speaking to the Acting Ambassador, handcuffed the poor messenger and was taken to the police station. He was released after taking statements.

This is a scandal for an Embassy in a Foreign Country. An Embassy is treated as foreign soil by the local police, it is only at the Ambassador’s request that the police intervenes in an internal matter of an Embassy. This untoward incident will go down the annals of the Sri Lankan diplomatic service. There was no apparent threat to life or a brawl that justified calling the police force. The acting Ambassador could have easily called the Security Officer of the Embassy or any other staff member in case of an embarrassing situation. It is a shame to see our Diplomatic service coming down to that level.

After that, 12 members of the Embassy had signed a letter to be sent to the Foreign Ministry complaining of the incident. But the Acting Ambassador intimidated one of them and got him to make a statement telling that he heard shouting from the Ambassador’s room. This is the result of political influence or haphazard manner in which Diplomatic Officers are selected. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should take full responsibility for not selecting appropriate person to diplomatic serv ice. In selecting Diplomatic Officer of all grades, the Ministry should carefully investigate the suitability of a candidate , not only on the results of a competitive examination and qualifications, but also their moral standards, and personal back ground. A diplomatic Officer is representative of his country.

This should be a lesson for all Sri Lanka Embassies to treat their Staff without any discrimination against class, grade or race , keeping within the norms of human rights, and respectful of their human dignity. And never to call the local police to intervene in matters concerning internal administration.

Outside the administration of Embassies there are other matters that have changed from what they were some years back. The government officials sent to represent Sri Lanka at International Conferences were specialists in their field. Now it is the opposite, at least some of them are inadequate both in intellectual and social stature to stand up to the representatives of other countries and impose and impress on them their contributions to the world forums.

This is an area that the Sri Lanka authorities should pay more attention to, instead of merely sending any one to represent the country at International Conferences, the Government should select persons who are well informed on matters, that are likely to be discussed and would be able to actively participate in debates.



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