By Dianne Silva –
This interview was given by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to France & Permanent Delegate to UNESCO. He also the former Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva 2007-9. (Courtesy Daily Mirror)
How prepared do you think Sri Lanka is for the onslaught at the 19th UNHRC session?
In certain important aspects, it is, because our able Minister of External Affairs has been quite active and the President has picked, this time around, Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam, a very able and committed representative to head our Permanent Mission in Geneva. It is difficult for me to assess preparedness in other, larger dimensions such as doctrine, policy, strategy and tactics, because I am not privy to such information as I am not in the loop.
What are your comments on the quality of SL delegation sent to Geneva this time? Are they capable of carrying out a strong and authoritative diplomatic defense?
The threat to Sri Lanka in Geneva is far too important to be met by any but the very best available; it is far too risky to do otherwise. President Rajapaksa stands head and shoulders above the Sri Lankan political leaders presently available, in his unflinchingly staunch patriotism and his gut instinct for assessing threats to Sri Lanka. Prof GL Peiris is the most educated in our Cabinet, is an impressive speaker and our best interlocutor with the world. Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam is a multilingual intellectual, a writer, a passionate defender of the sovereignty of Sri Lanka and the countries of the Global South, who has thirty years of political and institutional experience in Geneva. If it is left to the synergies of these three personalities, if our stellar ambassador is rightly regarded as the field commander and permitted to lead from the front in accordance with her assessment of the ground situation, if we bear in mind the old saying that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’, we should come through ok.
When Sri Lanka came under attack in May 2009 you were part of the delegation, which was successful in outsmarting a US led resolution against SL in the UN. Why were you left out this time? Many feel that yourself and Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, being diplomatically adept and savvy speakers should have been part of the delegation.
Wikileaks contain a May 2009 cable from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which provides incontrovertible proof that the US supported that special session against Sri Lanka. It shows that in 2009 we were not only up against the EU and its allies, in an offensive spearheaded by Miliband and Kouchner, but a project backed by the sole superpower. “Mission Geneva is requested to convey to the Czech Republic and other like-minded members of the HRC that the USG [US Govt] supports a special session on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and related aspects of the humanitarian situation. Mission is further requested to provide assistance, as needed, to the Czech Republic in obtaining others, signatures to support holding this session…Mission is also instructed to engage with HRC members to negotiate a resolution as an outcome of this special session, if held. Department believes a special session that does not result in a resolution would be hailed as a victory by the Government of Sri Lanka. Instructions for line edits to the resolution will be provided by Department upon review of a draft.” [Cable dated 4th May 2009 from Secretary of State (United States)]
The Wikileaks cables report a conversation in Paris, significantly between the US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues, Clint Williamson, and senior officials of the French Foreign Ministry. A cable from the US Embassy in Paris to Washington DC quotes France’s Official Representative for International Penal Tribunals, Christian Bernier, saying “Bernier opined that the Sri Lankan government is “very effective” in its diplomatic approach in Geneva…” [Cable dated 16 July 2009]
The very fact that Sri Lanka figured prominently in a discussion that the US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues had with the Official Representative for International Penal Tribunals of a Western ally, fellow Permanent member of the UN Security Council and NATO member, is an incontrovertible indication of the high stakes in Geneva at the Special Session in May 2009, and what would have followed had we not prevailed in that battle.
The US Mission in Geneva informed Washington DC of the efficacy of our line and stance:
“As in the past, Sri Lanka’s delegation took a tough and often acerbic tone in its latest public relations campaign in Geneva. While this may in part reflect the personality of its ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, it also reflects a strategy of appealing to NAM countries, to whom it argues implicitly (and probably explicitly, behind closed doors) that it is willing to stand up to the West, which is unfairly picking on it. That message resonates particularly strongly in the Human Rights Council, further complicating our efforts to use that body to pressure Sri Lanka on its human rights record.” [Cable date 10 March 2008] A US Mission cable described the effect of our strategy as follows: “… There was general agreement that Sri Lanka, and in particular its outspoken ambassador here, were effectively playing off the West against less developed countries.”[Cable date 10 March 2008]
A considerably important cable conveys the assessment made to Susan Rice, Cabinet-ranked US Ambassador/Permanent Representative in the Security Council, by Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay, on the results of the Special Session on Sri Lanka. “Pillay …contrasted this outcome with the result of the special session on Sri Lanka, where …Sri Lanka and its allies, meanwhile, had a draft resolution ready to go and simply outmanoeuvred the EU.” [Cable date 25 June 2009]
How did we defeat it? It was certainly not by ‘outsmarting’ the West. We prevailed by standing for principles, waging what Fidel calls ‘a battle of ideas’, building the broadest possible coalition flexibly but founded on the right principles, and also by the personal and collective performances of the very small and unconventional ‘A-team’ we had assembled.
So, as to your question as to why Prof Rajiva Wijesinha and I were left out this time, all I can say is that I was removed from Geneva a few months after the victory. I was not replaced by Ambassador Kunanayakam who would have built upon our 2009 achievement. She was posted to Geneva only last year, which left a gap of two years between my stint and hers. I cannot speak for Rajiva, who superbly partnered me in the Geneva battle of 2009 – we set the ‘ground record’ batting at two ends of the wicket– but there would be absolutely no point in my presence on the delegation in Geneva today even if someone were to consider deploying me, because I did not help pick the delegation, I do not know the doctrine that is being followed by the delegation, and I would never implement a doctrine I hadn’t been part of working out and which I may not agree with. In 2009, I had a clear foreign policy doctrine for the Geneva arena, worked out strictly between President Rajapaksa and myself already in early 2007 when he sent me there as a member of the delegation just prior to my assumption of the post of Ambassador/Permanent representative.
How do you think the power blocs will vote this time? Will Sri Lanka have the support of the African Bloc and will the Asian Bloc be split in its votes for us?
Since I do not know the ground situation I cannot answer that. I can only provide the public and policy makers with the ‘open secret’ of our success in 2009 and hope that there are ‘lessons learnt’. A research scholar David Lewis presented a paper at the University of Edinburgh which has since been published in a journal and contains an analysis of our successful diplomatic strategy. The title of the study is ‘The failure of a liberal peace: Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency in global perspective’, and is published in Conflict, Security & Development, 2010, Vol 10:5, pp 647-671. David Lewis is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Co-operation and Security in the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, and headed the International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka programme in 2006-7. He writes:
‘Many of the battles over conflict-related norms between Sri Lanka and Europe took place in UN institutions, primarily the Human Rights Council (HRC)…it was Sri Lanka which generally had the best of these diplomatic battles… Although this process of contestation reflects shifting power relations, and the increasing influence of China, Russia and other ‘Rising Powers’, it does not mean that small states are simply the passive recipients of norms created and contested by others. In fact, Sri Lankan diplomats have been active norm entrepreneurs in their own right, making significant efforts to develop alternative norms of conflict management, linking for example Chechnya and Sri Lanka in a discourse of state-centric peace enforcement. They have played a leading role in UN forums such as the UN HRC, where Sri Lankan delegates have helped ensure that the HRC has become an arena, not so much for the promotion of the liberal norms around which it was designed, but as a space in which such norms are contested, rejected or adapted in unexpected ways.
….As a member of the UN HRC Sri Lanka has played an important role in asserting new, adapted norms opposing both secession and autonomy as possible elements in peacebuilding—trends that are convergent with views expressed by China, Russia and India…The Sri Lankan conflict may be seen as the beginning of a new international consensus about conflict management, in which sovereignty and non-interference norms are reasserted, backed not only by Russia and China but also by democratic states such as Brazil.” (pp. 658-661)
Is there a chance of Sri Lanka finally putting to rest, the call for an international mechanism of accountability? Or are we no match for Navi Pillay’s vindictive nature?
The issue is far bigger than Navi Pillay and anyway, Navi Pillay is not vindictive; she is a human rights fundamentalist. The call for an international mechanism of accountability can be put to rest finally, only by a combination of strong, credible, independent and fully functioning national mechanisms of human rights and accountability, and successful post-war ethnic reconciliation, which builds a better, and more just Sri Lanka different from the one that spent half of its life as an independent nation, locked in war with and within itself.
At the previous sessions in October the GOSL pointed out that there was a serious breach in protocol when the President of the Human Rights Council came to know of a matter on the agenda, through a third party. Why has there been no action by member states on this issue? and why did Sri Lanka not pursue this any further, if it had a strong argument?
I am afraid I am not privy to any information on that.
The Lankan Delegation has called for the postponement of the resolution against Sri Lanka, till the periodic review that is due in October, was this an appropriate move? Or is it better to deal with these issues now?
It is far fairer to deal with these issues at the UPR. Nothing is prohibited and everything is permitted for discussion and debate at this peer review, including the two reports that some delegations wish to see discussed in the Council. So why this strange combination of delay and haste? I use the term ‘delay’, because the war is over, it is not an ongoing conflict, and I say ‘haste’ because the UPR is a few months hence. This having been said, we must squarely face the challenge of the US resolution, and I think it is better to face that challenge now. We must not make the mistake that Israel made, in playing for time, when, as President Obama cautioned it publicly, time is not running in its favour!
What guarantee is there, that Sri Lanka will be in a better diplomatic or political position in six months time?
There are no guarantees at all. It depends entirely on how wisely and positively we spend those six months in addressing the relevant issues. In May 2009 in Geneva I helped build a wall to defend Sri Lanka, and bought us more than two years. I am proud that we are still defending ourselves behind that wall. Future historians will judge how we used those years that were bought by our May 2009 diplomatic victory. That has, by the way, been the single, solitary vote we have won in any international arena since that time. In the last year of the war and for months after the two victories, on the ground and in the global area, I wrote about the future dangers, warning that a new Cold War against Sri Lanka has begun, and urging certain policies, strategies and courses of action. These pertained to domestic issues with external ramifications; policies which would have guaranteed that the Geneva Consensus, the broad bloc that supported us in Geneva, remained with us. My ideas and recommendations were intended to ensure that the global political, strategic and diplomatic space available to Sri Lanka in May 2009 did not shrink in the post-war period; they were intended to re-build Sri Lanka’s soft power, and enable us to hold the moral high ground. It was speculated in the media that these views led or contributed to my removal from Geneva. Now is a good time to assess whether or not the implementation of those suggestions would have put us in a better position than that which we face today.
Do you think Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is moving in the right direction?
I think that foreign policy formulation should be left entirely in the hands of the two most able persons, who are also those constitutionally mandated to do so, namely, President Rajapaksa and Prof Peiris. We won’t go too far wrong, that way.
Prof G.L. Peiris head of SL delegation has flown to Africa in a bid to woo African votes. Do you think Sri Lanka should have done its homework before rather than waiting last minute shuttle diplomacy?
I am not privy to whether or not, and to what extent, Sri Lanka has done its homework. I assume and hope that it has. It is not prudent to assume that time, demography and world opinion are on Sri Lanka’s side. Sri Lanka needs to look at the big picture and wrestle with the large questions: How do we look to the world? How have we projected ourselves? What is our profile? Who are we? What have we become? What must we become? What is our way of being in the world? After three decades of war, have we caught up with the rest of Asia? Have we caught up with the 21st century? Does our discourse “resonate strongly”, broadly and widely enough? All this requires thinking and clarity.