By Rajiva Wijesinha -
21– The Empire Strikes Back
Last week the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanetham Pillay, issued a critical statement by Sri Lanka. Unusually for the Ministry of External Affairs, there was a forceful rebuttal of this, written by the Acting Secretary, Ms Kshenuka Seneviratne.
I have been a strong proponent of prompt rebuttals of unfair criticism, but the Ministry had seemed to disapprove of this position. Often through former diplomats, as well as journalists connected to Ministry personnel, it claimed that Dayan Jayatilleka and I had engaged in megaphone diplomacy which had ruined Sri Lanka – even though it was under Dr Jayatilleka’s leadership that Sri Lanka had achieved its most substantial diplomatic victory in years.
That approach was denigrated and, ever since Ms Seneviratne replaced Dr Dayan Jayatilleka as our Representative in Geneva, the impression created was that criticism had to be taken lying down, and obsequiousness would solve all our problems. Though Ms Seneviratne’s successor, Tamara Kunanayakam, tried to defend the country forcefully, this was not to the taste of the Ministry and they came down on her like a ton of bricks.
This cannot have been a pleasant experience when ladies are involved. But seeing the volte face that has now occurred, Tamara and Dayan would doubtless be laughing, were they not deeply patriotic. As it is, they must be wondering what will hit the country next, given that Dayan’s and Tamara’s strategy of building up international support was thrown aside and we put all our eggs in one basket, described by one of the more aggressive of their critics as Sri Lanka’s ‘traditional liberal democratic alliance base’, by which was meant the West.
Ms Pillay’s missile was not an isolated one, and was preceded by criticisms by several Western countries. Unfortunately, those who thought they were satisfying proponents of liberal democracy, such as Ms Pillay doubtless thinks she is, have no understanding of the principles of liberal democracy. Dayan does, which is why he got on so well even with Westerners whose countries were opposed to Sri Lanka. He was able to deploy our strengths in related areas, and engage actively, which is why during his tenure we welcomed several visits by holders of Special Procedures mandates, and took their advice unless it was contrary to our national interest. His view was that anyone who was not against us was for us, and I should note that many European diplomats, though compelled to vote against us at times because of the Three Line Whip exercised by the European Union, appreciated his willingness to take their concerns seriously.
And in any rebuttal of Ms Pillay, he would have concentrated on what she had got wrong, rather than simply indulging in a plethora of adverbs and adjectives, and descriptive phraseology, that may sound good but do not deal with the substance of the charges made by Ms Pillay. In this respect, the letter sent by Ms Kunanayakam when she was given evidence of double dealing in the Office of the High Commissioner, is a model of restraint. In that, she noted that ‘The communication raises serious doubts about the impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity of the work conducted by the staff of OHCHR and their respect for the decisions of the Human Rights Council’ and ‘sought clarification on those developments that appear to be contrary to the mandate granted to the High Commissioner and her Office by General Assembly resolution 48/141’.
Unfortunately the Ministry repudiated that letter, and it was deemed contrary to Ministry instructions to ‘refrain from taking up antagonistic and offensive positions against Western governments and the UN and its officials in the run up to the Universal Periodic Review’. Presumably Ms Seneviratne as Acting Foreign Secretary has now decided that, with the UPR being over, a new policy needs to be implemented. I do not think this will succeed, unless we realize that rhetoric alone is not enough, without substance, and commitment to the values we assert.