By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Enemies of the President’s Promise – Sleepy (continued)
GL’s appointment as Minister of External Affairs in 2010 was generally welcomed. Bogollagama had lost the election, which made the President’s task easier since, given his complaisant approach to those who supported him, he would have found it awkward to replace Bogollagama. The only other serious candidate was Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had peformed well as Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights. The Sri Lankan Ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, who had done a fantastic job in staving off moves against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council, had refused to deal with Bogollagama and instead insisted on the Minister of Human Rights being the main Ministerial presence at sessions of the Council.
Bogollagama however got his revenge soon after Jayatilleka’s greatest triumph, at a Special Session of the Council summoned on a largely British initiative to discuss Sri Lanka. This initiative, generally used only for emergencies, had succeeded only after the Tigers had been defeated. This was fortunate, since clearly the game plan had been to insist on a Cease FIre. Jayatilleka, who had extremely good relations with Sri Lanka’s natural allies, the Indians and the Pakistanis, Egypt as head of the Organization of Islamic States and Cuba as the head of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Chinese and the Russians, and the Brazilians and the South Africans, put forward his own resolution before the Europeans had got theirs ready, and this was carried with a resounding majority.
The ease of the victory, and the widespread perception in Sri Lanka that he was its architect, was his downfall. Samarasinghe was irritated in that his role was played down. Also upset was the Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, despite the fact that Jayatilleka had been instrumental in persuading the President to have him appointed. Pieris had come prepared to speak at the Session but, after Jayatilleka made the opening statement, he got me to deliver the closing remarks, given that we had worked together on the Council very successfully, and knew which factors to emphasize. But this did not please the duo and they did nothing to defend Jayatilleka when the knives came out. Indeed they failed even to contact him when he returned to Sri Lanka.
Typically, the President was the first to get in touch, and try to use Jayatilleka’s services again: when the latter mentioned how disappointed he had been that no one had contacted him after he got back to Sri Lanka, the President said that was no surprise, after the manner in which he had been treated. The fact that the President himself had acquiesced in the dismissal was thus sublimely passed over.
It was less than two months after the resolution that Jayatilleka was summarily removed. The President may have been persuaded by the ease of the victory to the belief that any idiot could handle international relations, for that certainly is the view he and the government embodied over the next few years. It was also alleged however that the Israelis had moved heaven and earth to get rid of Jayatilleka, since his intellectual abilities had put him in the forefront of moves to bring the Palestinian issue to the attention of international fora. Unfortunately the Israelis had the ear of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and also of Lalith Weeratunge, both of whom actively promoted Jayatilleka’s dismissal.
He was replaced in Geneva by Kshenuka Seneviratne, who was perhaps the last official in the Ministry to represent the mindset of the eighties when, under Jayewardene and his Foreign Minister Hameed, it was assumed that Sri Lanka had to be firmly allied to the West. This also involved hostility to India, and Kshenuka certainly embodied this, and was found later to have actively tried to set the President against the Indians, after the 2012 March Geneva debacle when a resolution against Sri Lanka was carried at the Human Rights Council.
Kshenuka had been High Commissioner in London in the days when Britain was bitterly opposed to Sri Lanka but she had done little to counter this. She claimed on the strength of her time there to be an expert on the country, and when her successor, a retired judge, proved ineffective, she took charge of the President’s approach to Britain. Thus, late in 2010, she encouraged him to travel to Britain just to address the Oxford Union, something he had already done. The High Commissioner in London advised against this, as did his experienced Deputy from the Ministry, Pakeer Amza, but Kshenuka’s will prevailed.
She was strongly supported by Sajin Vas Gunawardena, whom the President chose as what was termed Monitoring Member of Parliament for the Ministry of External Affairs, on the grounds that administration there was a mess and someone was needed to sort things out. Sajin was a good friend of Namal’s, and GL naturally acquiesced in the appointment. Sajin and Kshenuka got on extremely well, and they in effect ran foreign policy over the next few years.
The President’s 2010 visit to London was a disaster, and began the process of denigration of Sri Lanka in the international media, a process which has steadily grown worse since then. One catalyst was the decision of the President to ask his personal Head of Security, General Gallage, to leave Britain hastily on the grounds that he might be arrested and charged for War Crimes.
General Gallage, a battle hardened soldier who had led one of the Divisions that finally crushed the Tigers, had not wanted to leave but he could not disobey the President. His departure led to triumphant declarations that he had fled prosecution, and this contributed to the sense that Sri Lanka had much to fear. However the view of the Mission was that there was no possibility of any arrest, which suggested that it was the advice of others that had led to the hasty and easily exploitable decision. Typically, there was no inquiry afterwards as to what had prompted the President’s anxiety.
A clue to what probably happened emerged in 2012, when a similar effort was made to make the main Tamil member of the Cabinet, Douglas Devananda, who had throughout been opposed to the Tigers and had supported government strongly during the conflict, flee Geneva before the crucial vote at the Human Rights Council. Fortunately the Ambassador who had replaced Kshenuka, Tamara Kunanayagam, went back by chance to her house, where Douglas was staying, and found him packed and ready to leave. His explanation was that the President had told him to come home in case he was arrested. The message had been conveyed by Sajin.
Tamara was confident enough to call the President, who told her that he had been told, by Sajin, that Douglas was nervous about staying on in Geneva with various human rights groups calling for his arrest. He had therefore said that Douglas might as well leave. Tamara pointed out that there could be no question whatsoever of such an arrest, given the status of representatives to the Human Rights Council, so the President told her to tell Douglas to stay on. He did, but no one bothered to find out why there had been an effort to send him away, nor to think about how aggressive the publicity would have been with regard to such an apparent hurried escape.
Whether Sajin or Kshenuka was responsible for these stratagems is not clear. One High Commissioner later said that, whereas Sajin thought he was controlling Kshenuka, in reality it was the other way around. This is the more likely, given Kshenuka’s own predilections for the West, and also the contacts she had with Tiger groups, as was evidenced when she gave the contract to repair the Ambassador’s residence in Geneva to a company with suspicious links. Though there were audit queries about what had happened, these were swiftly suppressed.
Interestingly, the Israeli ambassador in Geneva had told Tamara when she arrived that Kshenuka had been an excellent ambassador, quite unlike her predecessor. Tamara’s negative response may have led to moves to get rid of her too, a process duly accomplished soon after the 2012 vote, which meant that her efforts to rebuild the coalition Jayatilleka had set up were stymied.
Contrariwise, Third World diplomats had found themselves ignored by Kshenuka. As a distinguished Indian journalist put it, in Jayatilleka’s time there had been requests for advice from senior diplomats from friendly nations; with Kshenuka there were only requests for votes, after protracted neglect.
How had such a situation occurred, such swift decline in our relations with the world? The answer lies in the complete incompetence of G L Peiris, arising from overweening ambition and deep insecurity. The first led him to acquiesce in whatever he thought was wanted by those in authority, the second made him avoid working together with anyone he thought might be a threat.
I had personal experience of this, in terms of a comment of the President, who once told me that there was no one in the Ministry who could write or speak properly in English. This was a story propagated by Sajin and Kshenuka to highlight their own competence in the language, and also to do down the Secretary to the Ministry Karunasena Amunugama, who had not been to an elite Colombo school.
But in some cases there was indeed room for improvement, and in fact I had told GL, who had asked me way back in 2010 whether I would assist in drafting statements, that I could do this but it would make more sense for me to train some youngsters to do this themselves. I told the President that I was surprised he had not taken me up on the offer, to which the response was that GL was terrified when he saw another Professor. I suppose his fears had been exacerbated because the Swiss Ambassador, before the 2010 election, told me that she had heard I was on the National List so as to be made Foreign Minister. While at the time I thought the story absurd, given my lack of Parliamentary experience, I now realize that the diplomatic community in Sri Lanka had a better idea than I did about the comparative paucity of talent in governmental ranks.
GL’s ineffectiveness had been compounded by the fact that the first Secretary to the Ministry he worked with, an experienced career diplomat whose father had been Secretary 30 years earlier, was dying of cancer. He left much unattended to, and GL himself failed to exercise proper supervision. Thus Human Rights were completely ignored, and communications from Geneva received no response.
It had indeed been a mistake to hand over Human Rights to the Foreign Ministry, which the President decided to do after the 2010 Election. I acquiesced in the decision when I heard about it, since I thought that GL, with his legal background, would devote his attention to the matter. I told him, having previously been Secretary to the Ministry under Mahinda Samarasinghe, but having resigned when my name was put on the government’s National List for the election, that he should take over my staff. He agreed, but failed to ensure that our very competent Consultant, Nishan Muthukrishna, a former student of his from the Law Faculty, was appointed promptly, By the time he got his letter, which GL indeed requested, but which the Ministry delayed, he had already accepted an appointment in Mahinda Samarasinghe’s new Ministry.
Our project staff did go to the Ministry of External Affairs, but they received no administrative support and were not involved in communications from Geneva. All they had to work on was the Human Rights Action Plan which we had begun drafting, and which Mohan Pieris and I saw to a conclusion, and adoption by Cabinet, over the next year. Mahinda Samarasinghe was asked to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement it, and as usual I had to do much of the work through convening a Task Force to expedite implementation.
I resigned however in 2013 when I found that, though there was much goodwill from many Ministries, and we got a few things done, no formal coordination of activities and initiatives was possible. I realized that it was impossible without proper authority to expedite decisions and action. I told Samarasinghe in my resignation letter that he should request that a Ministry be set up. While he was the obvious person to be Minister, I told him he should suggest the President take over the portfolio and be his Deputy. This upset him, even though I pointed out that he would still be in the Cabinet with his existing portfolio of Plantation Industries.
He ignored the letter, and simply declared that he would not let me resign, but did nothing further about the matter. So, after my resignation, hardly anything happened, with Mahinda Samarasinghe uncertain too about his own position, being often asked to go to Geneva at the last minute for Council sessions. By 2014 he was talking about resigning himself, but characteristically he held on to the position, though in effect doing nothing to promote the Human Rights Action Plan.
Human Rights were grossly neglected by the Foreign Ministry, with no invitations to any Special Rapporteurs, until they were forced to interact more positively from late in 2013. Contrariwise, we had tried to engage with them constantly, and had indeed had invaluable support from the Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, Walter Kalin, who came to Sri Lanka three times during the conclusion of the War. But there were no visits after that until the High Commissioner herself came in 2013, followed by Kalin’s successor.
All this was of a piece with Peiris’s failure to recognize, or unwillingness to convey, that the Human Rights situation was worrying for Sri Lanka. Unlike in the days when the dedicated Ministry under Mahinda Samarasinghe coordinated responses to critiques, writing and disseminating the most effective ones, there was now no concerted response to attacks on us. As a result, the impression gradually developed that we could not answer the many allegations against us.