Diplomacy · Sri Lanka

The Origin of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service

The Republic Building Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka


Today there is much talk of gentlemen like Jayantha Dhanapala and H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, both former career diplomats of Sri Lanka. Both these two esteemed personnel are stalwarts in the diplomatic service and are regarded both locally and internationally. Dhanapala who was Sri Lanka’s official candidate for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2006 is now the Senior Special Advisor on Foreign Relations to President Maithripala Sirisena. A former Foreign Secretary of Sri Lanka, Palihakkara is the current Governor of the Northern Province.

The origin of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service

A diplomatic service comprises of diplomats and foreign policy officers who are maintained by a government of a country, purely to communicate with the governments of other countries. Diplomatic services are often part of the larger civil service and form the foreign ministry. Diplomatic personnel enjoy diplomatic immunity when they are accredited to other countries.

Gentlemen like Jayantha Dhanapala and H.M.G.S Palihakkara were recruited to the diplomatic service to serve the purpose of serving their country after sitting for an extremely competitive examination and facing an interview with a tough panel of eminent personnel. The Sri Lanka Overseas Service, as it was known back then, was established on 1st October 1949. At the time, it was known as the Ceylon Overseas Service and was the foreign counterpart to the Ceylon Civil Service. After Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972, it was renamed as the Sri Lanka Overseas Service.

In addition to the appointment of career diplomats, Sri Lanka also follows the tradition of appointing non-career diplomats to different missions abroad. Such appointees are usually eminent personnel from varies fields whose expertise is drawn in to the Foreign Service. The appointment of non-career diplomats usually occur according to the relationship sending country has with the hosting country. The usual practice in appointing a non-career diplomat is for cultural purposes. Whilst some of these appointees such as Prof. Gunapala Malalasekera and Dr. Ananda W. P. Guruge have been remarkable in raising Sri Lanka’s profile internationally during their respective tenures in the Soviet Union, Canada, the United Kingdom and at UNESCO, France and the United States, others have done very little.

History of Diplomacy  

Diplomacy is the established method of influencing the decisions and behaviour of foreign governments and people through dialogue, negotiation and other measures short of war or violence. Modern diplomatic practices are a product of the post-Renaissance European state system. Historically, diplomacy meant the conduct of official – often bilateral – relations between sovereign states. However, by the 20th century, diplomatic practices pioneered in Europe had been adopted throughout the world, and diplomacy has expanded to cover summit meetings and other international conferences.

The ability to practice diplomacy is one of the defining elements of a state and it has been practiced since the formation of the first city-states. Originally diplomats were sent only for specific negotiations and would return immediately thereafter. Diplomats appointed were usually relatives of the ruling family or of very high rank in order to give them legitimacy when they sought to negotiate with the other state.

The origin of modern diplomacy commenced with the establishment of embassies in Northern Italy in the 13th century. It was in Italy that many of the traditions of modern diplomacy began, such as the presentation of an ambassador’s credentials to the head of state. This practice spread from Italy to the other European powers. And Milan was the first to send a representative to the court of France in 1455. As foreign powers such as France and Spain became increasingly involved in Italian politics the need to accept emissaries was recognized. Soon all the major European powers were exchanging representatives. Spain was the first to send a permanent representative when it appointed an ambassador to the Court of England in 1487. By the late 16th century, permanent missions were a norm.

Many of the conventions of modern diplomacy developed during this period. The top rank of representatives was an ambassador. An ambassador at this time was almost always a nobleman and the rank of the noble varied with the prestige of the country he was posted to. Further, smaller states sent and received envoys that were one level below an ambassador. As the ambassadors appointed had little foreign or diplomatic experience they needed to be supported by a large embassy staff. These professionals were sent on longer assignments and were more knowledgeable about the host country. In the meantime, permanent foreign ministries were established in almost all European states to coordinate embassies and their staff. However, these ministries were still far from their modern form. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna established an international system of diplomatic rank and served as a model for later organizations such as the League of Nations in 1919 and the United Nations in 1945.

Sri Lanka’s Diplomatic ties

Having remained a distinct sovereign state for over two thousand years, Sri Lanka has had the fortune of being involved in the realm of international affairs for most of that time. Sri Lanka’s diplomacy commenced with the introduction of Buddhism to the island nation in the 3rd century BC from India as the Indian Emperor Ashoka of the Mauryan Dynasty sent emissaries to King Devanampiyatissa of Anuradhapura. Sri Lanka’s geopolitical location played a vital importance in its diplomatic relations between the East and West as well as in the region especially with the Indian kingdoms in the South.

Due to this strategic location, ancient Sri Lankan kings of each era sent emissaries to maintain cordial relations with various countries. And by maintaining these cordial relations, Sri Lanka was able to reap many a positive outcome. In addition, by sending emissaries to foreign lands, ancient kings not only gained alliances, but also managed to establish a positive image for Sri Lanka. Further, Sri Lanka was able to avoid many harmful incidences due to the friendships maintained by the ancient kings.

In the maritime sphere, Sri Lanka had extensive foreign contacts which included imperial Rome, the Hellenistic Kingdom, the Court of Axum in the Horn of Africa, the Sassanid Kingdom in Persia, the Byzantine Empire on the west and the maritime empire of Sri Vijaya (a city-state based on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia), China, the Kingdoms of Siam, Cambodia and Myanmar on the east. Sri Lanka was not only known for her strategic maritime positioning but was also a renowned location for knowledge with educational institutes such as Abhagiri being reputed internationally attracting students from Asian countries for various fields of study. Thus engaging in soft power diplomacy.

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