Foreign minister ali sabry responds to questions about the current direction of the country’s foreign policy and plans for the future. Excerpts of the interview: Q What is the next direction of our foreign policy? A: The next direction is to create a platform for all the countries in the world to come and invest in Sri Lanka. That is to make Sri Lanka a hub for tourism, aviation, investment and shipping. That is how we can create partnerships, and get the know-how. To finalize debt restructuring, we are yet to finalize work with private bond holders. Our focus, as a country, is to complete it within the first quarter of next year. Q What is the role of the Foreign Ministry in this case? We work with the Finance Ministry and President Ranil Wickremesinghe. Once we agree on the direction, our Ministry, along with the embassies, will engage with them to get the support required. Based on what is prepared by the Finance Ministry, we sometimes brief the ambassadors based in Colombo. We sometimes brief the relevant countries through our embassies. It is a big role. We are proud that we manage to play that role in debt restructuring. As far as private bond holders are concerned, the Finance Ministry is handling it through our legal; and financial advisors. The Foreign Ministry has nothing to do with it. The Paris Club, India and China came on board in debt restructuring. It is a historical achievement for the country. In relatively a small period of time, we managed to get assurances from them. Q The next year is going to be an election year. How challenging is the implementation of economic adjustments? It is definitely going to be challenging. Whoever comes from whatever party, Sri Lanka’s economic interests should be kept in mind instead of making electoral promises that cannot be fulfilled. We must learn from the past. If you look at the last election, both the parties gave promises economically unsustainable. former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to execute them. Ultimately, it contributed to the collapse of the economy. The prospective candidates must act with responsibility and only share what could be realized within the economic plan. Q In your budget speech, you mention about Sri Lanka’s plan to join BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). How far have you progressed in this case? We have got a note from the Sectoral Oversight Committee of Parliament on Foreign Relations. Internally, there is a team engaged in research into this matter. It will be presented to the Cabinet early next year. Q What prompted you to take such an initiative? Several parties brought it to our attention. Some MPs also brought this to our attention. The realization of these initiatives will take time. It cannot happen overnight. We will seek the direction of the Cabinet. Q How advantageous is it for us to team up with BRICS? It is a good thing. It is definitely going to be a multi-polar world. I think a few countries have had a monopoly over world affairs for a period too long. That is why the members of the global south got together and took the initiative to form BRICS. It is a good initiative in the long run. The countries like Sri Lanka will take a long time to get in. The gap between the global south and the global north need to be bridged. It is unfair for a few countries to call the shots in the world’s economic affairs. It is good to have a diverse pool of countries in this regard. In that sense, BRICS is a good edition. We hope it will succeed. Q How far have you progressed in terms of the evolution of the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for foreign vessels and aircrafts engaging in any operation in Sri Lankan territory? We have prepared it and shared it with the countries that sent their vessels to Sri Lanka during the last ten years. They are aware of our SOP now. As far as research vessels are concerned, we are going to have a moratorium for the next 12 months. That is for us to build our own capacity to participate in such research activities as equal partners. Standard military vessels have been coming to Colombo since time immemorial. We will continue to welcome them. There is no issue with it. For research, we need to build our own capacity to deal with it as an equal partner. The SOP applies to all vessels and aircrafts. Q Why is it not put in the public domain? We have basically given it to people who matter. It is not a matter meant for everybody. The Cabinet has decided to share it with those countries that sent vessels during the last ten years. We have not discriminated against any country in sharing it. We have looked at the last ten years. Q What is your reading on follow-up development on connectivity projects agreed upon with India? The line Ministries are doing follow-up work. Adani group is working on port development. The Power and Energy Ministry is working on renewable energy projects. We are also in the process of discussing grid connectivity. I think there is progress on that. We are finalizing the programme for the Trincomalee district development. Q There are reports that the Foreign Ministry is hamstrung in the discharge of duties due to lack of human resources. How are you going to address it? That is a huge problem as I told in Parliament. We have an approved cadre of 264 members of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service. This is in addition to the supportive staff. We have only 168 diplomatic officers to man 55 missions abroad as well 24 divisions in the Ministry. This is not easy. We have sought permission to recruit the next batch. We are in the final stage. We hope to recruit 25 diplomatic officers. We also invest on digitalizing our consular work. We are doing it step by step. We have integrated with the Department of Examination on Ordinary Level and Advanced Level Examinations. As far as these two examinations are concerned, one does not need to come even. We need to introduce this all over the world at our missions. For that, you need manpower and investments. We find trouble now in the Information Technology (IT) sector in particular. The salaries offered by the government are not attractive at all. We are now going to get some support from outside on voluntary basis. In the meantime, I will seek Cabinet approval to restart some of the missions we closed, like Cyprus and Frankfort in Germany. Also, we want to restart our embassy in Iraq where there is a huge market for our tea. Besides, we are going to open a new mission in New Zealand. Q What is the rationale behind the move to open a mission in New Zealand? There are Sri Lankans living there. Also, we import a lot of dairy products from New Zealand. We also see it as a market. There are tourists coming from there. Also, it is far for our diplomats in Canberra to look into New Zealand. Q Sri Lanka’s presence in Africa is not sufficient enough. What are your plans? We are also looking at it. We have to start missions in Morocco and Rwanda. Later we have to expand it to Central Asia. There is not a single presence there. We are looking at Kazakhstan to start off. Q What about the countries sharing Theravada Buddhist traditions with Sri Lanka? We will look at it. We have missions in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. They oversee the countries in the region. In the long run, Cambodia is an important country. Q You have taken initiatives to put up a Buddhist Cultural Centre in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)? There were a lot of requests from Buddhists who lived there. There are 340,000 Sri Lankans living there. That is the largest Sri Lankan community outside the country and a majority of them are Buddhists. In the meantime, there are Buddhists from other countries living there. Dubai has become cosmopolitan. They allow multi-faith religious activities. Sri Lankans have made this request. It is a fair request. I took it up with the UAE Foreign Minister who was receptive to the idea. Q What are the new plans to expedite the capture and extradition of Sri Lankan criminals hiding abroad? We cannot personally go and nab them. We have to work with their police. We have to work through Interpol. There has been progress. There are a few still operating from places like Dubai. The police have made requests to expedite work related to their arrests and extraditions. The Foreign Ministry will coordinate it on behalf of the Sri Lanka Police.

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