Sunday, February 18, 2018

Faux pas and mis-step

As a former minister of foreign affairs, I wish to clarify certain facts relating to the controversy surrounding the hiring, dismissals, terminations and imposition of administering qualifying examinations to existing staff at the Consul General’s offices in New York.

Within the context of the A2 visas, a “Sending State” e.g. Trinidad and Tobago, cannot issue visas to facilitate the entry and working arrangements into a “Receiving or Host State” e.g. US, Canada, India or Australia. The granting of any visa is within the sole discretion of the “Receiving State”.

Given the various perspectives, legal opinions and commentaries thus far, especially the latest, contained (or presented as) in a letter to the editor on January 16, 2014 in a daily newspaper claiming “PNM abuse” and facilitation for A2 visas to be issued to PNM family and friends’’ and thus accusing the PNM of abusing the courtesy of a foreign government, one is reminded of the great late Dr Martin Luther King Jr, that visionary icon for better race relations with an American dream, who published the point that “nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”.

The recent consular and diplomatic debacle at the T&T Consulate should never have occurred. The treatment meted out to our nationals appears at best incompetent and unprofessional and demonstrates not only mal-administration in the extreme but poor governance. It is indeed an embarrassment to our country.

A consulate is a foreign mission located in an active commercial city which is not the capital city. It is deemed “important” because of its socio-cultural, community building, commercial and financial underpinnings, and critical because it is the adopted home of a significant number of a sending country’s nationals. The responsibilities of a consulate are many but are not limited to the issuance and renewal of passports, the issuance of visas, assisting nationals, including students, in need and facilitating the safe return of nationals in distress.

Distinguished former consuls general in New York such as Wilfred Naimool, Babooram Rambissoon and Terrance Walker were loved and respected by many within diverse communities and they laboured assiduously to eschew any form of racial animosity. These true public servants — “patriots”—successfully bridged the divide within the complex diaspora.

Within the last two decades the “locally-recruited” staff at the New York Consulate grew substantially with the introduction of the new machine readable passport and the focus on trade, investment and tourism. These personnel have competently provided valuable support to home-based staff of Foreign Affairs and National Security due to their extensive institutional memory, specific skill sets including ICT, public administration, investment and tourism promotion. Therefore, any notion that the locally-recruited staff simply “arrive off the streets” or are employed as a result of patronage or favouritism or nepotism should be dismissed.

The legal status of these staff could be quite varied, but they must possess properly issued visas by the US. Consulates under successive political administrations of the NAR, UNC and PNM have traditionally supported applications for A2 visas for a number of the present staff, a status given to worldwide non-diplomatic employees of foreign missions.

Under these successive administrations, our consulates have operated with an absence of notoriety and adverse publicity. No one has been able to recall any local recruit being unfairly dismissed prior to the term of the present Government. Why this change now and ugly international publicity at the New York Consulate?

In July 2012 “locally recruited” employees were forced to take an examination for continued employment. Vexing questions that have arisen for many are: from what Government policy did issue of examination for job retention come and why did the withdrawal of support for applications for A 2 visas arise?

Under my stewardship as the minister of foreign affairs, not one selection for overseas postings was based on race, creed, colour or political persuasion. No test was administered, but factors such as experience, demonstrated competence, knowledge of candidates’ respective areas and interpersonal skills were considered.

Further, it is the understanding of all within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Permanent Secretary carries a “dual title” as “Head of the Foreign Service”. Have procedures and universally accepted practices fallen apart and have senior officials abandoned their responsibilities for guiding and directing policy at consulates? Has the Head of the Foreign Service been unable to successfully intervene, properly advise the Minister of Foreign Affairs and exert her administrative influence to direct the politically appointed Consul General to cease and desist from pursuing such turbulent and embarrassing courses of action?

If long standing staff at the New York Consulate are consequently without A2 visas, their status to remain in the US will be compromised. Any “illegal” status arising therefore would have been created by our country — not the Host Country, the US mind you. Is this not contrary to the essence of the role of Consul General — to assist nationals abroad. Will Trinidad and Tobago not contribute to their loss of livelihood, deportation and the creation of new burdens for our republic?

Finally, within the context of this fiasco, other disturbing questions about the new practice of appointing non-career diplomats as Consuls General have arisen. If the well tried, tested and internationally accepted practice of appointing senior career diplomats as Consuls General were followed then the ensuing diplomatic embarrassment, poor image and bad local, regional and international press could have been averted.

Shouldn’t the Minister not now intervene, although belatedly, to ensure that not “only must justice be done, but must indeed appear very clearly to have been done? Minister, please put on a diplomatic cap, demonstrate benevolence and reverse the turbulence. Consider whether local legal opinion should trump measured and internationally accepted public diplomacy. Many are waiting to applaud you at this time for treating your nationals with decency, dignity and respect.

* Arnold Piggott is a

former minister of foreign affairs