Diplomacy in almost any setting requires tact—skill and sensitivity in dealing with others or with difficult matters—as well as the ability to handle a range of issues in a non-confrontational, polite manner. None of those qualities can be found in the speech delivered by this country’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Therese Baptiste-Cornelis, at a conference on cultural diplomacy last month. A 37-minute YouTube video of the ambassador’s speech currently being circulated on social network sites and by e-mail features her very controversial opinions delivered at a cultural diversity conference hosted by the International Conference Centre of Geneva. Very little of what Ms Baptiste-Cornelis said was even remotely connected to cultural diversity. Her remarks about being fired as Health Minister because she dared to criticise doctors, and that she “taught the current Prime Minister” at university were the most undiplomatic of comments, particularly in the setting in which they were delivered. Speaking largely off script, Ms Baptiste-Cornelis revealed that she met her husband over the Internet, talked about her sister’s fertility and even described how she was asked to take up the Health Ministry portfolio in a 4.30 am phone call from Ms Persad-Bissessar hours before she was sworn in.
Ms Baptiste-Cornelis is no minor official but an ambassador to Geneva, a worldwide centre for diplomacy, where she is expected to play a critical role in advancing the country’s interests and influence. This is an important assignment, since Ms Baptiste- Cornelis is accredited to several international organisations based in Geneva, Rome, Vienna, Paris and Berne, including the World Health Organisation, International Labour Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Ms Baptiste-Cornelis, whose academic qualifications are in management, mathematics and computer science, attracted her fair share of controversy during a stint as Health Minister from May 2010 to June 2011. It was shortly after being fired from that job that she was offered the overseas posting. Ms Baptiste-Cornelis’ inappropriate approach might have gone unremarked had it not been for the social media. The criticism of her performance is, among other things, a useful reminder to all public officials overseas that their words and actions can now be monitored by the population they are representing thousands of miles away.
Those sent on diplomatic assignments are expected to bring benefits to the country, ensuring that a positive international image is maintained at all times, particularly in situations where bureaucracy, public relations and politics may overlap. Ms Baptiste-Cornelis has at her disposal well-qualified staff at the embassy whose assistance she should have accepted in preparing her presentation for the conference. Instead, she decided to ad lib and the results were disastrous. Ms Baptiste-Cornelis is one of several political appointees heading T&T missions overseas. In fact, the trend has been to offer such appointments to former government ministers when they are fired from the Cabinet. This unfortunate situation may also provide a useful opportunity to reflect on the prevailing practice of shuffling off unsatisfactory or unwanted political appointees with a comfortable diplomatic sinecure. In the age of communication, out of sight is no longer out of mind. Furthermore, unsatisfactory performances in the Parliament or in other political arenas are not likely to be instantaneously transformed into stellar diplomatic skills simply by the act of bestowing such postings on political appointees. Some diplomatic postings require years of experience and technical knowledge and are best reserved for career diplomats who have the benefit of years of training.