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Controversy hits appointment of envoy to Sri Lanka

The controversy over the appointment of a new envoy to Sri Lanka has not only caused diplomatic embarrassment to the country, but has also exposed the flawed procedure for the appointment of retired military officers on ambassadorial posts.

In a statement issued on Sept 30, the Foreign Office said that Prime Minister Imran Khan had made a number of diplomatic appointments. Among those appointments was that of retired Maj Gen Saad Khattak as the High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. He was to replace retired Maj Gen Shahid Hashmat in Colombo, who had completed his two-year contract.

However, an objection was reportedly raised by Defence Minister Pervez Khattak over Gen Khattak’s appointment as the high commissioner at the cabinet meeting held a day after his appointment was made public. The government then decided to cancel the appointment.

A source at the Foreign Office claimed that by the time the government changed its mind on his posting, the Sri Lankan government had already been requested for its consent, which is called ‘agrément’ in diplomatic lingo, for appointing Gen Khattak as the high commissioner. In diplomatic practice, the consent of the receiving state is mandatory for ambassadorial appointments.

Therefore, the request for agrément for Gen Khattak had to be withdrawn. Withdrawing nominations isn’t unusual. Countries occasionally take back nominations. Similarly at times the receiving countries reject nominations. It is for this reason that appointments are not announced by the sending state till the agrément is not received from the receiving state. That practice was followed by Pakistan as well in the past. However, it changed under the PTI government and nominations are now announced before the receipt of the agrément.

An FO official commenting on this practice said it is even an “insult to the receiving state”. According to Article 4 of Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relation: “The sending State must make certain that the agrément of the receiving State has been given for the person it proposes to accredit as head of the mission to that State.”

This diplomatic faux pas aside, Gen Khattak’s episode has also brought into spotlight the procedure for appointment of retired military officers against the 20 per cent quota of non-career ambassadors. Although not a hard and fast rule, military officers have traditionally held eight of the 16 slots for non-career ambassadors. These include envoys in Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Brunei, Bosnia, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Maldives and Jordan.

Theoretically, nominations of retired military officers have to be routed by the respective headquarters of the armed forces (GHQ in Gen Khattak’s case) through the defence ministry to the Foreign Office for appointment. Insiders, however, claim that MoD channel was being bypassed. That’s why, it is claimed, the defence minister had to raise his objections at the cabinet meeting instead of earlier during the process. Ambassadorial appointments per se are the prime minister’s prerogative and do not require the cabinet’s nod.

It is argued that had the defence ministry channel been effective, the government could have saved itself of embarassment.

Defence Minister Pervez Khattak was contacted for his comments, but no response to the query was received from him.

It is alleged that rivalry between the minister and Gen Khattak was political in nature as both hail from Nowshera. Defence Minister Khattak had previously blocked his appointment as the chairman of the Evacuee Trust Property Board.

Foreign Office spokesman Dr Muhammad Faisal, in response to a query, said: “I cannot comment on what was discussed during the cabinet meeting, but as far as the ambassadorial postings are concerned, it may be noted that these were made following a well-established set of procedures and practices.”

Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2019

Author: TELO Admin