In praise of our diplomats

Criticisms are being raised about the pace and manner with which the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) are evacuating Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Libya, following an escalating civil war against the Gadhafi Government. Indeed, the evacuation should be more organized and conducted urgently, but we must understand that our diplomats there—and elsewhere around the world—operate to meet their objectives under challenging, even trying limitations.

As my wife observed to me last week, a crisis in any country is a crisis for the Philippine government. This is unique to us because of the Filipino Diaspora: we are everywhere – in many professions (white or blue collared, even shirtless), in almost any city or town, on board ships, planes or trains – in the world at any moment. Earthquakes in Christchurch or Haiti; terrorist attacks in Lebanon or New York—and yes, government instability in Egypt or in Libya—become a DFA concern. OFW welfare has risen to be a primary foreign policy interest of the Philippines, especially since the 1995 execution of Flor Contemplacion in Singapore. It is now at the forefront of the work of our diplomats or Foreign Service Officers (FSOs).

Our FSOs are some of the brightest and most agile Filipino citizens around, literally our country’s cream of the crop. The Foreign Service Exams are the hardest of the professional exams in the country, with very few making even the first round of tests.  They have to be as our diplomats bear responsibilities essential to our country’s well-being, executing government’s foreign policy with all its challenges in a globalized and evolving world. We must maintain our long-time ties with allies such as the United States, in Europe, Japan, and in ASEAN, while also managing our relations with rising powers such as China and India. Our diplomats must bring home investments, development assistance, and trade opportunities. They fight for our environmental, human rights, territorial, and security interests. Not least of all, our diplomats must protect the safety and dignity of Filipino citizens abroad.

All these mandates they fulfill – like most government workers – while underpaid and overworked, with meager budgets and with scant resources. To add to their burdens, FSOs have t deal with the Commission on Appointments early in their careers as, like officers of the military, they have to go through confirmation even at lower ranks. Still, as I have personally witnessed in the last twenty years, our diplomats persevere and excel.

In my area of specialization – environmental issues –their competence and dedication are exemplary. In the climate change negotiations, for example, the Philippines has been quite influential because of diplomats (retired and in the active service) like Bernaditas Muller, Ambassador and DFA Assistant Secretary Leslie Gatan, Leila Lora Santos, and Ivy Banzon-Abalos who work very hard and skillfully to advance national interest.

I also have nothing but praise for the diplomats I worked with last year in the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front: for veteran diplomat Ambassador and presently DFA Undersecretary Rafael Seguis, former Chairman of the government negotiating panel, with his hard-nosed diplomacy, pragmatic wisdom and vast contacts in the Muslim and Arab world; for Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia Vic Lecaros and his staff in Kuala Lumpur who supported the government panel with necessary logistics and strategic information; for then Manila based FSOs – Ed Malaya (DFA Spokesman and Assistant Secretary), Leo Herrera Lim (now Consul-General in Chicago, USA), Henry Bensurto, Zoilo Velasco, and others who were part of our formidable legal and diplomatic team.

On another front, the Ateneo School of Government, which I lead, collaborates with the Philippine Embassy in Rome, headed now by Ambassador Romeo Manalo and previously by Ambassador Philippe Lhuillier, on a Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship training program for OFWs which by next month would have graduated more than 150 students from Rome, Naples and Milan. Such an outcome would not have been possible without the engagement of the Embassy and its Milan Consulate (and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration officials assigned to Italy).

I also got to know many of our diplomats since I have been an OFW myself. I am most familiar with those diplomats assigned to our embassy in Washington DC, USA from 1998-2006 when I lived in that city. I am particularly grateful to Evan Garcia, now Philippine Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Switzerland, and Jocelyn Batoon Garcia, now our Ambassador to Venezuela and Trinidad Tobago, for the many times they assisted me  professionally and personally during that period. I also engaged with our embassy, especially with diplomat Rico Fos (now assigned to OFW concerns in Manila),  during the 2004 elections (the first time overseas voting was allowed) when I organized the United States chapter of the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) that monitored the counting and canvassing of votes.

More recently, in 2009, I lost my passport in the Frankfurt airport when I was on a business trip to Germany.  The next day, as I entered our consulate, I was immediately assisted by FSO Raul M. Santiago, Jr., the Deputy Consul General, who recognized me as a former lecturer of the Foreign Service Institute. I received a new passport on the same day.

Going back to Libya, evacuating the almost 30,000 or so OFWs (we are not even sure how many) is no easy feat—from locating every Filipino to arranging the necessary transportation and safe access to get everyone out of danger. DFA Acting Secretary Alberto del Rosario himself flew over to Libya to personally direct the evacuation; on his return, del Rosario headed a land convoy of about 550 Filipinos to Tunisia. This courageous and extraordinary act of leadership by Secretary del Rosario (whose work ethic is legendary as many of us witnessed when he was Philippine Ambassador to the United States) is highly commendable and speaks of the dedication of our diplomats.

There are of course problems in the way our government had responded to the Libyan crisis – which to me, more than the fault of anyone, reflects weaknesses in the way the Department of Foreign Affairs is organized. I wish for example that our diplomats were trained to specialize from the very beginning or early on their careers so that, regardless of geographic or issue-based crisis, we would always be ready to tap a pool of experts whatever situation we have to respond to. In trade and climate change negotiations for example, it is frustrating to observe that we have not yet developed a core group of diplomats to rely on in these permanent and critical negotiating processes. It would also be great if we developed a strong capacity to predict international crises so we are better and always prepared for the next emergency. Finally, mobility and connectivity are indispensable features which should describe the DFA but unfortunately does not. Of course, all of these would require a significant increase in the DFA budget – justified I think by its essential mission.

While I have suggestions on how to improve Philippine diplomacy, second-guessing criticisms should not be made now while the bullets are flying in Libya. More than laments and complaints, all our energy should be in the evacuation that still has to be completed. There will be the proper time for stocktaking, but for many reasons, today, with the crisis in Libya still worsening, let us support and praise our diplomats.

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