By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Preambular Paragraph 3 of the October 2015 resolution says that the resolutions of 2012, 2013 and 2014 formed the basis of the resolution of 2015. The 2015 Resolution flows directly from the 2014 Resolution which mandated the Office of the High Commissioner’s investigation on Sri Lanka. What is important is to note that the US resolution of 2015 makes no mention whatsoever of the resolution of 2009. This is because 2009 was an outright victory for Sri Lanka and left no residue which the West could use.
An important feature of the successful May 2009 UNHRC resolution was that unlike all other resolutions adopted at special sessions, and indeed unlike the 2015 US-SL resolution, there was no call for follow up at the subsequent sessions of the Council.
One of the most striking differences between the UNHRC May 2009 and UNHRC October 2015 was that in 2009 Sri Lanka initiated and co-sponsored a supportive resolution together with the Non-Aligned Movement, while in 2015 it co-sponsored a critical and intrusive resolution presented by the US-UK and the West in general. This symbolizes Sri Lanka’s dramatic realignment. This realignment detaches us from our natural habitat and who we really are: a developing country of the Global South and an Asian state in particular. It realigns us with whom we do not really belong and with who we are not: a state in the Western hemisphere. Worse still, it realigns us with that part of the world with powerful Tamil diaspora lobbies existentially hostile to us, i.e. to whom and what we are.
In the interests of political honesty it must be said however, that this profoundly counterproductive realignment with the West/Global North was possible because the previous administration eroded in its second term, our support among our traditional support base, the nonaligned and the Global South.
What most people probably don’t know is that in May 2009, there was indeed a resolution on Sri Lanka that the West tabled at the UN Human Rights Council, but it was not taken up for debate because the President of the Council announced that it was no longer necessary since all the issues included in it had been taken up in the resolution that Sri Lanka tabled which had just got voted in with a massive, near two thirds majority in the Council. It is also interesting that the only dissenting votes were the EU block of 12 votes. In 2009, the bulk of the international community was firmly with the resolution that Sri Lanka put forward together with the non-aligned nations. It had the broadest support of the Human Rights Council, bar that of the EU.
There was a Western resolution circulating against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC since 2006—which proves that some were out to get us, and belies the argument that it is the horrors of the last stages of the war and President Rajapaksa’s behavior that caused the Western resolution. When I succeeded veteran career diplomat Sarala Fernando as Ambassador/Permanent Representative in Geneva in mid-2007 having attended the March 2007 UNHRC sessions, she had already briefed me about the EU resolution. Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe suggested that I endeavor to get the draft removed by the last session of 2007, which I did through effective lobbying. In fact, after having meetings with all the members and non-members of the council to explain Sri Lanka’s case, I was comfortable enough to challenge the EU to either bring the resolution to the Council where we can debate it, or remove it from the Agenda. They decided to remove it.
Things were far more serious in 2009. The West which had indeed helped us weaken the LTTE militarily, was however unhappy with the prospect of a complete military defeat of the LTTE. The West wanted the final offensive to stop, for the Sri Lankan government to return to the negotiating table and work out a political solution. This was manifest in the efforts of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and most importantly in the joint statement issued in early 2009 by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and David Miliband.
This attitude led to an effort at the UNHRC Geneva to call a special session and move a resolution in April 2009 calling for a humanitarian pause and a cessation of hostilities. The Wikileaks cables show that on May 4, 2009, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton instructed the US Mission in Geneva to obtain signatures and votes for the EU resolution and that Washington would help in the editing of the draft. She also said that a diplomatic victory for Sri Lanka was an outcome to be avoided. This showed that the US was leading from behind’. Had this succeeded our military offensive could not have been completed without going against a UN resolution.
Our Geneva team fought hard to prevent the required 16 signatures from being obtained for that special session. While continuing to engage with the West, (we were in the process of organizing an event on the sidelines of the HRC together with the West to debate the call for a ‘humanitarian pause’ of the military campaign, with the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay in the Chair), we lobbied the Council that such a ‘pause’ would be counterproductive. Despite equally intense lobbying by the West, the UNHRC members refused to give the West the 16 signatures needed to call a special session for that purpose. We thus halted a possible UN resolution calling for a ‘humanitarian pause’ and ‘a return to negotiations’ and bought the time and created the space for the final victory of our troops.
When the West finally got the 16 signatures for the special session, we had won the war the previous week. By the time the special session opened on May 26th 2009, the Sri Lankan representation in Geneva and its allies making up the negotiating team were confident of the support of the majority of the Human Rights Council. Ambassador Zamir Akram of Pakistan ( who spoke in support of Sri Lanka in 2015 too) joked that he is willing to donate his signature so that the West can gather the 16 needed for the special session and get on with it! The negotiations on the draft of the Sri Lankan resolution had gone on for some time at meetings with groups of Ambassadors representing the different regions. This included the Western Group. I addressed from the podium, the interactive session convened by the Western Group to discuss their draft resolution.
Before I got to Geneva the (professional) diplomatic practice had been for the Sri Lankan Minister of Human Rights only to meet the EU with regard to its draft. Having communicated with President Rajapaksa, I drastically changed that and initiated the practice of caucusing intensively with all regional and cross regional groupings, broadening our base of support.
In handling the final round of negotiations with the EU, I had formed a Quartet with the then current and incoming chairs of the Non Aligned Movement and major south Asian neighbors, India and Pakistan. Our larger grouping was the “like-minded group” (LMG) which contained China and Russia. So our negotiating team consisted of Sri Lanka plus its allies. In those negotiations including the final one summoned by the Council’s President during the special session—and just before the vote–the West was so hardline and uncompromising to the extent of wanting the deletion of any reference to sovereignty. This didn’t go down at all well with either the Non-Aligned Movement led at the time by Cuba or with our neighbors India or Pakistan.
UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay addressed the Council by video link from New York on May 26th 2009 just as her successor Zeid al Hussein did on Sept 30th 2015. She spoke of ‘war crimes’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ and called for an international inquiry. The Western draft resolution called for Navi Pillay to visit the conflict affected zones and present a report to the UNHRC in six months. If this effort had succeeded we would have had a team probing our battlefields and collecting “forensic evidence” of war crimes a mere six months after the war! The WMD affair had forever put paid to any axiomatic faith in a Western led effort to find ‘evidence’ in a country they had targeted for ‘investigation’.
The Tamil Diaspora protests were strongest in 2009. There were massive demonstrations in every western capital. In Geneva itself traffic was snarled up when almost twenty thousand people demonstrated and a 21 year old accountant from London immolated himself right outside the Council. The pressure was on, but the work had been done by us well in advance and the Council was convinced of our case. They therefore adopted the SL-Non Aligned resolution without a clause that called for any kind of follow up action in the subsequent sessions. We had taken Sri Lanka off the agenda of the Council and given our country a clean slate. For the next three years, there was no attempt to bring a resolution against Sri Lanka in the Council.
The March of Folly (partly hubristic) of the Rajapaksa administration in international relations began almost immediately following the 2009 UNHRC Geneva victory. While the Wikileaks cables show that top Western officials were dialoguing in Paris and New York about their failure in Geneva in May 2009 and were reluctantly praising the “very effective diplomacy” of “Sri Lanka’s representation in Geneva”, I was sacked six weeks after our victory, reversing a written instruction that I should stay at my post till May 2010.
A leading guru of Cuba’s diplomacy, Emeritus Prof Miguel Alfonso Martinez, co-Rector of the elite Higher Institute of International Studies, which is their diplomatic training institute, told me that he had developed a three hour teaching module based on Sri Lanka’s 2009 victory to study the example of how a small developing country can win big against heavy odds. Having been a member of the Cuban delegation when Ernesto Che Guevara addressed the UN General Assembly in December 1964, Prof Miguel Alfonso had been one of the strategists and planners of the winning Cuban resolution against the US embargo in the 1990s. The Cubans of all people hardly needed such study since they had been winning against the USA at the UN General Assembly since the 1990s. However, that recognition was another measure of our diplomatic achievement in 2009.
Sri Lanka missed a clear window of opportunity with the Kerry-Lugar Report of late 2009, when there was a deal on the table. The deal was that the emphasis on accountability would be traded in for progress on devolution within the framework of the 13th amendment. I was with President Rajapaksa in Vietnam when the Report came in and he understood and appreciated it immediately. However there were hawks and hangers-on in his Establishment who were somehow under the illusion that the US had finally come to its senses, that it was a seller’s market, that if we held firm for a while more the US would climb down.
In early 2011 at a working dinner at Prof GL Pieris’ residence, at which 15 players—sibling-Minister, monitoring MP, top officials and frontline diplomats– were present, chaired by President Rajapaksa, I warned that in the global sphere we can’t keep saying “no” on everything to everyone, every time and that we have to decide what to trade in so we can keep our coalition going especially the Indians and get off the accountability hook. President Rajapaksa immediately took the point and gave the right orders on talking with the TNA on the basis of the 13th amendment and a fresh look at the concurrent list, but his instructions were sabotaged weeks later, with Sajin Vaas insulting Mr. Sampanthan and being quoted in the press.
On May 24th 2012 I was invited to deliver a lecture on the topic ‘Sri Lanka and the Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council May 2009’ by the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI). IBEI is an inter-university institute of postgraduate research and training in politics and international relations, supported by five universities in Barcelona. While its Master’s programme has students from over 30 countries, the Institute has more than 25 PhD –level researchers currently. Prof Fred Halliday, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the LSE and iconic Leftist scholar, spent the last five years of his life as Research Professor at IBEI, referring to it as “our institute” in ‘A Time In Barcelona’, in the volume ‘Political Journeys’, a posthumously published anthology of his Open Democracy essays.
While the West was studying our victory and there were several essays in scholarly journals about how we led and won “the battle of norms” in the UNHRC, the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs and the Rajapaksa administration had no idea of how we had achieved it and never bothered to ask.
With no education or experience, Sajin Vaas Gunawardena was appointed Monitoring MP of the Ministry of External Affairs and Advisor on International Relations to the President (a post held by Bradman Weerakoon during the Premadasa presidency) and travelled to Geneva since late 2011 to manage the sessions. Apart from me– the frontline Ambassador/PR– almost the entire Geneva team of May 2009, from the Cabinet level through Mohan Pieris downwards, was deployed in Geneva when we were defeated in 2012 (under Sajin’s conspicuous de facto management). I was serving in neighboring France but was not deployed by the administration to advise or reinforce the team (though I declined the sidelined, soon to be scapegoated and sacked Ambassador Kunanayakam’s personal invitation to do so). Sri Lanka lost 3 years running from 2012 in the Council, with the West escalating and phrasing of resolutions getting steadily worse –and GoSL never managed to regain its advantage. It neither knew how we had won in 2009 – and therefore how to win–or why we had lost in 2012 onwards!
Meanwhile the proof of the pudding was in the eating. When Professor GL Peiris visited France during my stint and met the Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, the word ‘accountability’ never came up in the conversation.
While serving in France as Ambassador and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO, I had been one of a small group of activist ambassadors who helped convince the UNESCO on an issue that President Obama himself had taken a stand against and the US had threatened a huge (60%) budget cut. We helped the Palestinians, who had a Mission of two (led by the stellar intellectual Ambassador Elias Anbar), beat the diplomacy of the mighty USA which deployed none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Paris to lobby UNESCO against the entry of Palestine as a member. As (ex) Ministers Tissa Vitarana and Jagath Balasuriya who were there at the time would attest, we secured more votes than the two thirds needed for Palestine’s entry.
After my stint in France ended in Jan 2013, I was not posted back to Geneva to troubleshoot the alarming crisis. If I had been, perhaps the UNHRC resolutions of 2013 and 2014 might have played out differently. We might have at least drawn the game.
Perhaps the last chance to get off the accountability hook was the LLRC report presented by President Rajapaksa’s close friend former AG CR (“Bulla”) de Silva. We had worked together when I was ambassador in Geneva. As Minister Nimal Siripala Silva will attest, at his nieces wedding (she was one of my secretaries when I served in Paris) CR de Silva told me that he had told President Rajapaksa that the report was the best shield he could provide for Sri Lanka and that the president agreed. When I asked CR de Silva why it was being blocked and who by, he said it sure wasn’t Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even the Israelis had their own independent commission of inquiry after Gaza—headed by Emeritus Prof Yehezkel Dror, who incidentally, reviewed my book on Fidel’s Ethics of Violence for Amazon.com– but the LLRC report commissioned by the President was sought to be blocked by the hawks.
In addition, because of the Rathupaswela shooting which resulted from the criminal folly of sending heavily armed troops in battle dress into Gampaha to deal with unarmed civilians, and the Aluthgama violence, the failure to crackdown on the BBS with the attendant perception of state or security sector patronage or protection, we gave the US and the UN High Commissioner a significantly broader range of issues with which to strengthen the 2014 UNHRC resolution. That shooting, like the ones in Katunayake a year or two earlier, enabled the drafters of the resolution to include the post-war period into the texts. The Govt. made itself an easier target to hit.
The bitter end came in October 2015, when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe decided to co-sponsor the very worst of the Western resolutions which calls for a special court and War Crimes investigations under national and international law, in partnership with foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators. From “thug diplomacy” of 2012-2014, we have moved in October 2015 to “tart diplomacy”. The new government has turned us into a satellite of the West. We are becoming a semi-colony. According to Mao, a “semi-colony” is distinct from a “colony” because a colony has one colonial power while a semi colony is shared by a few or several (as was China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Sri Lanka is now a semi-colony of the West and India.
On May 18-19th 2009 we won the protracted hot war, liberating our soil from separatist terrorism, and a week later we won the diplomatic battle far away from our frontlines, on adversarial territory in the West. A few days after the battle of Geneva I published an article in which I queried whether it was the last battle of the old war or the opening battle of a new one, a Cold War. Today we have to re-fight the battle we fought and won in Geneva in May 2009 and then lost, beginning in 2012. We have to re-fight it here on our soil, by preventing the implementation of the wretched Resolution.
Just as I was confident we could win the battle in May 2009, I am confident that we can win this one, because we have all the advantages of fighting on our terrain, on our liberated soil, and in our institutions and political spaces. We have the most sacred combination of causes: (I) to defend our national and state sovereignty from the imposition of foreign, alien laws, institutions and personnel (II) to defend for the historical record, the just character and content of our war of self-defense and national liberation against the fascist terrorist Tigers (III) to defend and protect our armed forces and our leaders who defended and freed us from marauding terrorism which visibly plagues so many countries subject to Western intervention and interference, causing so much misery, from Afghanistan through Libya, Iraq and Syria (IV) to defend the honor and self-respect of our nation from the imposition of alien practices such as hybrid courts which are imposed only upon failed states and defeated nations, neither of which we are (V) to fulfill the basic moral and ethical duty of not allowing those cowards who appeased and collaborated with the Tigers in the form of a Ceasefire Agreement to preside in judgment of those brave, noble men who stood up in the country’s darkest hour of danger to defend it and its people.