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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2737

New U.S. Envoy Butenis: Balancing interests between U.S. and Sri Lanka

Daya Gamage – US National Correspondent Asian Tribune: Investigative Analysis

Washington, D.C. 06 June (Asianbtribune.com): Diplomatic law governs the conduct of relations between representative organs of a state operating within the territory of another state, and the receiving state. Its purpose is to facilitate international diplomacy, balancing the pursuit of the foreign policy interests of the sending state with respect for the territorial sovereignty of the receiving state. Diplomatic immunity is an exception to the general rule of territorial jurisdiction. It allows diplomats to be able to carry out their functions within the framework of necessary security and confidentiality. But it still contributes to the balancing of interests between the sending and receiving state, because immunity does not entitle diplomats to flout local laws.

With the nomination of Senior Foreign Service Officer Patricia Butenis to be the next American Ambassador to Sri Lanka by the Obama administration last month who had the history of meddling in internal affairs of another Asian nation Bangladesh not so long ago, and the departure of another Senior Foreign Service Officer Ambassador Robert O. Blake who acted as he were ‘Uncle Sam’ Sri Lanka needs to deeply scrutinize her bilateral relationship with the West in general and United States in particular.

The scrutiny is even more important at this time as Mr. Blake has been nominated to the post of assistant secretary in charge of the South Asia Bureau of the State Department. Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Napal and Maldives come within the jurisdiction of Mr. Blake.

Coincidentally, a former American ambassador to Sri Lanka Peter Burleigh has been taken out of his well earned retirement to be the Deputy Chief of Mission in New Delhi. Mr. Burleigh knows Sri Lanka and her principal players well. Previously he served twice in India as a State Department official. The Asian Tribune at this moment does not underscore his alleged connections with the CIA in the 70s as it needs to assess why he was posted to New Delhi when the State Department has many experienced ‘Asian Hands’ in its Foreign Service Officer cadre.

Asian Tribune carried an account on May 30 under the caption Caution Sri Lanka: New U.S. Ambassador Patricia Butenis – a meddler in internal affairs presenting an in-depth investigative report how Ms. Butenis endeavored to make Bangladesh feel like a client state. Similarly this Online newspaper carried many accounts how Robert Blake interfered in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka dictating what this South Asian nation needs to do and what path it should take disrespectful of its territorial sovereignty.

Before that, another U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka Jeffrey Lunstead used the Colombo office of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2003/04 to conduct seminars, symposiums and dialogues with civic groups in urban areas and rural Sri Lanka along with organizations that were considered opinion shapers to ‘force’ a governing system called federalism on the nation a system to which a majority of people seems to oppose or skeptical. Lunstead was trying to draw the national agenda of Sri Lanka endeavoring to impose a system against the will of the Sri Lankan people.

To such diplomatic operatives President Obama gave this answer in his major speech in Cairo, Egypt on Thursday, June 5, 2009:

(Begin Quote) “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

“That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people.

“Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure…” (End Quote)

It seems that the will of the people in Sri Lanka is a home grown governing system away from federalism about which a majority of the masses are very much skeptical.

Now the question that arises through Mr. Lunstead’s effort to impose a federal system on Sri Lanka despite his denial that the United States has no intention of forcing a governing system is that there was no resistance nor denunciations nor criticism by the Sri Lanka government authorities, civic groups or the media. There was a vibrant discussion at that time, and even at present, the pros and cons of a federal system but Ambassador Lunstead was never told not to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation which has the right to find her own system of government that would fulfill the aspirations of all ethnic communities.

In scrutinizing the bilateral relationship between the United States and Sri Lanka the whole purpose should be as noted at the outset is to facilitate to balance the pursuit of the foreign policy interests of the United States and domestic agenda and aspirations of Sri Lanka with utmost respect for the latter’s territorial sovereignty.

As much as Senior Foreign Service Officer of the U.S. State Department Patricia Butenis who is posted to Sri Lanka as America’s envoy when she was in Bangladesh did not care about that country’s national sovereignty and Robert Blake who just relinquished his position in Sri Lanka to take up a more serious engagement at Washington’s South Asian Bureau was not concerned about Sri Lanka’s independent rights to make decisions of her own without outside interference Mr. Lunstead was acting like a ‘viceroy’ when he was U.S. envoy in Colombo.

The Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations (VCDR), to which both Sri Lanka and the United States are signatories, sets the guidelines on how diplomats should conduct their relations in the host countries together with other provisions. One of the important provisions of this Convention is on diplomatic immunity. Diplomats are exempted from persecution in the courts of the host countries and other legal obligations that the citizens of that country are subjected to. This immunity is however balanced by responsibilities. Article 41 (1) of VCDR reads: "Without prejudice to the privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving states. They have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that country". Sub-paragraph (2) of Article 41 is equally interesting as it states that diplomatic missions must conduct their relations with the host country either with the Foreign Ministry or through the Foreign Ministry of the receiving state.

Here is the full text of Article 41 of the VCDR:

1. Without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State. They also have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State.

2. All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed.

3. The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State. (End Article 41)

In a major public address last week Sri Lanka president Rajapaksa reiterated that his administration is seeking ways and means to re-draw the country’s relations with the West, a well come policy decision in the light of what occurred in recent times that amount to interference of internal affairs by some Western nations in general and the United States in particular.

The scrutiny of Sri Lanka-U.S. bilateral relations at this moment is appropriate when one meddling American ambassador is being replaced by another who has a record of meddling in a country she was posted not so long ago.

Butenis’ interference in Bangladesh

It is in this context that Asian Tribune took the opportunity to alert Sri Lanka when the Obama administration nominated Patricia Butenis who was charged by many sections of the Bangladeshi civil society for interfering in that country’s internal affairs.

NEW AGE a daily newspaper in Dhaka (Bangladesh) charged in its March 11, 2008 editorial that Ms. Butenis “held a number of closed-door meetings with the chief of the armed forces, which propelled the present undemocratic government to power.”

The paper further noted: “That these foreign ‘counselors’ so blatantly meddle with our politics is largely due to the subservience of a large section of our leaders across the political divide, and the bias of a section of civil society, and the civil and military bureaucracies, to them. The political parties and other powerful sections of the country should realize that their real strength lies not in serving the US and other countries but in serving the people of their own country.”

This popular Bangladeshi newspaper had this advice: “It is true that the foreign powers will continue to exert pressure on the country’s political coterie, both in and outside power, to get them serve their own political and strategic purpose. But it is the patriotic responsibility of the latter to stand up with self-respect and uphold national pride.”

And, that national pride needs to be shown by Sri Lanka that she is not a subservient nation however much some Western nations endeavored to subject this South Asian nation in the final weeks of the battle with the Tamil Tiger rebel outfit.

Ms. Patricia Butenis left Dhaka in June 2007 to assume duties as deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Baghdad. In February next year she made a ‘private visit’ to Bangladesh, and the allegation was that a week after former American ambassador Patricia Butenis made a ‘private trip’ to Bangladesh, the charge d’affaires of the US embassy had all of a sudden developed an interest in Bangladeshi politics and political parties would be to engage in conjecture.

According to well informed Bangladeshis there is something eerie about the latest overt attempts by a foreign diplomat to intervene in that country’s politics. The last time that happened, they say, when Butenis herself was the woman in charge inside ‘fortress America’, Bangladesh got a declaration of emergency, suspension of fundamental rights and the coming to power of a military-propelled regime that, according to political observers, did not seem to have a clue how to gracefully exit the stage.

Nicknaming her ‘Aunt Sam’ they question what was Ms. Butenis hoped to gain with her sudden ‘private visit’.

One Bangladeshi media commentator said, “Of course, whatever America’s reasons may be for its latest flirtations with our political parties, it is probably safe to say that those reasons have everything to do with America’s national interests and nothing to do with ours. And, so it should be. While we are absolutely justified in feeling incensed by the highly pejorative lectures on democracy and governance that we receive from America and her allies on a regular basis, we should neither be as livid with the junior foreign office mandarins from the United States and Britain who come here and act like kings and viceroys in giving audience to our leaders and politicians, nor can we hold other countries responsible for trying to further their national interests at the cost of ours. Every country has a right to advance its own interests. We would have done the same had we been in a position to do so.”

Jeffrey Lunstead and his team of USAID professionals lectured Sri Lanka in 2003-04 the vitality of the ‘federal system of government’, and Lunstead had the audacity to declare that the United States has no intention of advocating what governing system was appropriate for Sri Lanka.

This comment by a Bangladeshi journalist is food for thought for Sri Lanka: “Unfortunately, it is our leaders who have been at fault for their unwillingness and inability to put these foreign diplomats in their place. While we should always maintain strong diplomatic ties with regional and global superpowers based on certain shared values and ideals as free nations, we should never have allowed their representatives in our country to become such prima donnas and demigods. Sadly, political leaders and military dictators of our country have always looked to the west for seals of approval, often paying more attention to what London or Washington has had to say rather than listening to the will of the people.”

In scrutinizing Sri Lanka relationship with the West in general and United States in particular this South Asian nation needs to maintain her national pride and sovereignty in restraining foreign diplomats from lecturing and advocating what is suitable and what course of action should be taken on issues.

Sri Lanka needs to take note of the media quote given above in her effort to scrutinize these relationships: “While we should always maintain strong diplomatic ties with regional and global superpowers based on certain shared values and ideals as free nations, we should never have allowed their representatives in our country to become such prima donnas and demigods.”

This is what a Bangladesh media commentator said about Ms. Butenis: “When Butenis left Dhaka to take up a new job in Iraq last April, the British high commissioner, Anwar Choudhury, took up leadership of the interfering-diplomats club. Maybe America just wants its original role back, or perhaps there is really something more to this than getting back her reputation as the biggest bully in town.”

Sri Lanka needs to figure out if she is allowed to transfer the role played in Bangladesh to Sri Lanka when she arrives to represent the United States which almost forced a ‘ceasefire’ on Sri Lanka that would have given a breathing space for Pirapaharan and his click to join ‘K.P.’ to start another episode of the Eelam war another day.

And Bangladesh media commentator Shameran Abed made this satirical phrase which could be taken note by Sri Lanka:

(Begin Quote)But while the fault is primarily ours for allowing such insolence on the part of our celebrity foreign diplomats, one wonders what they would think if we wanted to suddenly play our part in upholding human rights in America and Britain and ensuring that their elections occur smoothly and peacefully. Chances are that they would find the idea rather amusing. Perhaps we should put the theory to the test by asking our foreign office to instruct our ambassador in Washington DC to set up a meeting with President Bush to tell him off for vetoing the bill banning waterboarding. Such primitive torture measures are not acceptable in any civilized society in the modern day and as an equal member of the community of nations, our man should attempt to walk into the Oval Office and tell the ‘leader of the free world’ that we object to the use of torture. Would our ambassador be allowed inside the White House walls, let alone the Oval Office? Chances are his call would get answered by a junior member of the state department, who would tell him as politely as possible to mind his own business unless he wishes to experience waterboarding firsthand. (End Quote)

The Dhaka Reporters Unity (DRU) in their Meet the Reporters programme in May (2009) hosted the US Ambassador who used the opportunity to discuss about Bangladesh internal affairs. A veteran Bangladesh former diplomat said he was not sure whether the members in the DRU were aware of it or not. He said there was a small matter of diplomatic norms and another a little bit more important, an international Convention at stake here.

He was referring to the sub paragraph 2 of the Section 41 of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations which reads: “All official business with the receiving State entrusted to the mission by the sending State shall be conducted with or through the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the receiving State or such other ministry as may be agreed.”

Mr. M. Serajul Islam a former Ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan writing to Dhaka Courier on 29th May 2009 under the caption Diplomats and Diplomatic Norms said, “The US Ambassador, while speaking at the DRU, was addressing a media group. He therefore knew that whatever he said would be covered in the media. He spoke freely and fairly but almost entirely on our internal affairs. He spoke on our elections; on agenda for the government and parliament and gave us ample advice on what the parliament and the government should do. He also warned us that Bangladesh is still facing the threat of religious militancy. What the Ambassador said may have been said with good intentions but what he said were also clearly our internal affairs and hence not his subject to discuss in the media. We cannot also overlook the fact that what he said also affects Bangladesh's image negatively. His intentions would have served better purpose if his views and perceptions were communicated to our Government directly”.

Sri Lanka needs to counteract the undue interference of ambassadors and high commissioners in the internal affairs. Foreign diplomats need to follow diplomatic norms and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs should enforce this.

On the other hand, political parties and their operatives most of who are in the government under President Rajapaksa should limit their reach to the diplomats. This will prevent foreign diplomats drawn in to internal politics.

In media briefings it was witnessed that ambassadors and high commissioners of Western nations criticizing the manner in which the government was conducting internal affairs. This needs to be restricted in asking them to totally adhere to subsection 2 of section 41 of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations.

The veteran Bangladesh diplomat and former ambassador Serajul Islam in his article to Dhaka Courier made this observation:

(Begin Quote) “The role of the media in the context of what we are discussing is very important, particularly the visual media. In their search for a scoop or "breaking news", these journalists often lose perspective of what their job expects from them as professionals. In this instance, the DRU's Meet the Reporters Programme's invitation to the US Ambassador should have ensured a number of things. First, there should have been a reference or at least consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out whether they can invite the Ambassador. There was a time when the MFA's permission was necessary for such an invitation. Article 42 (2) of the VCDR also requires such a reference. Second, the DRU should have set the topic for the Ambassador so that a foreign diplomat was not given a public platform to talk about our politics and embarrass us. At a time when President Obama has become an iconic figure in international politics, why the DRU did not request the US Ambassador to talk about the US President's initiatives in international politics beats me. (End Quote)

What Ambassador Islam says here is most relevant to Sri Lanka if and when the Rajapaksa administration decides to scrutinize his nation’s relations with many countries in the European Union and the United States to establish transparency, openness and mutual respect of their own sovereignty.

(Begin Quote) Our journalists often go after the Ambassadors and High Commissioners, chasing them at the corridors of power and then asking them questions about our domestic politics. There is a matter called reciprocity in conduct of diplomatic relations between two countries; reciprocity that does not seem to work in our case. Our journalists must bear in mind that the indulgence we give to resident Ambassadors/High Commissioners to interfere in our internal affairs is a one-way traffic, in addition to being a violation of VCDR. It is ridiculous even to think that our Ambassador in Washington would be able to talk to the media on US politics in the manner the US Ambassador has on our politics and does on a regular basis. Our journalists need to consider that their focus on Ambassadors/High Commissioners achieves no good purpose except embarrassing Bangladesh. (End Quote)

On the eve of Ambassador Patricia Butenis’ arrival in Colombo after her U.S. Senate confirmation possibly end of this month Sri Lanka has the space to deeply re-thinking of her relations with some of the countries in the European Union and the United States to put bilateral diplomatic relations in a sound footing with mutual understanding and respect while Sri Lanka firmly maintaining her exclusive rights to decide the system of governance and the style of governance, a sentiment President Obama expressed in his Cairo address on Thursday.

- Asian Tribune -

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