By Rajiva Wijesinha –
I was first asked by the Foreign Ministry to go to Geneva, after a lapse of a couple of years, the night the US tabled its resolution. The reason, I believe, was the work I had done in Reconciliation, since the impression the United States and its friends were trying to create was that Sri Lanka would do nothing unless it was under pressure.
This is nonsense, given the massive amounts we have done in resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction, but sadly we have not been giving out the message, or detailed information, in any coherent fashion. We have also failed to emphasize the improving situation with regard to Human Rights, and in particular the actions taken with regard to some of the interim recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, actions that had commenced long before that Commission was appointed.
With regard to Reconciliation, I believe my office has done a lot, even though it receives no resources and has only one executive level member of staff, who has still not been paid. Despite all this, I was encouraged, I should gratefully note, by the Secretary of Defence, to go ahead with my plans, and indeed he arranged accommodation for me on early visits, though now I have to meet such expenses myself. I did tell him I could not act quite as swiftly as he did, since I had no executive authority, but I am glad I went ahead, and I have had nothing but sympathetic cooperation from all officials from the Governor to the District and Divisional Secretaries in the North, and also from Civil Society. In Colombo too Civil Society has been most helpful, including the small group of Partners for Reconciliation I set up, and the religious educationists in Religion, Education And Pluralism who in any case have been doing much excellent work themselves, even before the conflict ended.
The draft National Policy on Reconciliation we had produced was I believe useful in Geneva in making it clear not only that we had done much ourselves within the country, but also that we were able to conceptualize and work within a comprehensive framework, that encompassed restoration and empowerment as well as restitution. Indicating the much wider range of activities required than the formulae those with political agendas repeat (accountability meaning retribution, and devolution meaning more power to provincial councils regardless of the aim of such power, which is empowerment) was illuminating, and we were able to invite and answer questions in a relatively positive atmosphere.
I had not been able to go when initially asked because the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats was meeting in Colombo under my Chairmanship. However I suggested that Jeevan Thiagarajah be asked, since he has led the Civil Society actors who have made me work even harder than I would otherwise have done on reconciliation as well as human rights, even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force intended to expedite work on the National Action Plan. Overcoming what the Ministry of External Affairs had claimed were suspicions about Jeevan with regard to his NGO connections, he was invited and went, though unfortunately the Americans had not permitted him to speak at the informal consultation they had set up in Geneva. Having given former Attorney General Mohan Pieris just three minutes in what was supposed to be a 2 hour meeting, they closed it down after just over an hour. Jeevan had attracted the attention of the American ambassador who presided, but after what seemed hasty consultations, focusing on him, he was not given the floor. This is not surprising, because the American embassy in Colombo (or at least its political affairs office) has declared him persona non grata, because he is too close to what are deemed well known violators of human rights.
Anyway, the following week saw me there as well, along with Javid Yusuf, who had presided over the first seminar on Reconciliation the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies had arranged, and who had then been asked to chair the discussions on the Policy document. Our ambassador in Geneva, Tamara Kunanayakam, had laid out a good programme for us that included two side bars, which had not happened before with lots of opportunities for questions in a cordial framework. I was sorry about this, for this had been one of the staples which Dayan Jayatilleka introduced when he was our Representative. Tamara, who operates on similar principles, had not however been able to make changes on the scale that was needed. In fact the open engagement Dayan had facilitated seemed to have been forgotten. I had indeed discovered a few months ago when Minister Samarasinghe began to work on Human Rights again that we were not regular in our replies to special procedures, the practice we had developed, of answering as quickly and as helpfully as possible, having fallen into abeyance.
So had other methods of engaging. As I got to the Palais, I was told by Amnesty International about a statement they had made, and I offered to respond at once. I was then told that the principle of the last couple of years was that NGO statements were ignored, since responding gave them too much prominence. Fortunately Tamara told me to go ahead, and the silence that fell as I spoke reminded me of how Dayan and I had worked in the period between 2007 and 2009 – responding to any criticism, and making valid points that could not be contested. That is what engagement means, because otherwise what NGOs say passes by default and, in the absence of any strong information network on our side, becomes accepted wisdom.
But such responses are not enough, and it is lobbying with delegations in Geneva, and through them and otherwise the capitals, that is of the essence. Tamara seemed to have excellent relations with many of the representatives, and the seven Ministers and two deputies who attended, led by two of our best communicators, Prof Peiris and Mahinda Samarasinghe, also did very well, but we left things too late. I was reminded then of what an Indian journalist had told me some years back, that in Dayan’s time we had asked the Indians, and others, for advice, but now we just asked for support when there was a problem.
In short, we had failed to build on the excellent foundation Dayan had laid. One of his last acts was to ensure that our President was asked to chair the G 15 group. Sadly the Foreign Minister at the time was advised by his staff that this was not an important grouping, though to his credit, when I told him the group included India and Brazil and Egypt, he changed the advice he had given the President, and we duly took over the Chair. Unfortunately no use seems to have been made of the group subsequently, though it included Indonesia and Malaysia and Nigeria and Senegal and Peru and Chile and Mexico, seven countries of which only Indonesia voted for us on the Resolution.
Tamara produced two fantastic documents during the week we were there which summed up the principles we should have enunciated, with particular reference to developing countries and the Non-Aligned Movement, but not enough use was made of them. There was even a school of thought that sought to criticize her for having given publicity to the note she prepared, at Minister Peiris’ request, to brief the African group. It was very thorough, and one ambassador actually said he wished this had been given to him earlier, so that it could have been circulated to his capital.
I was in fact astonished that no such document had been prepared. We had an excellent team of lawyers, including Yasantha Kodagoda and Shavindra Fernando, who knew the workings of the Council backward long before Dayan was appointed to head the Mission in Geneva, and also Mohan Peiris, who was a tower of strength in the last year before Dayan was removed. More use might have been made of their capacities, and a short and sharp document, circulated to all countries which might in time face similar problems through the acceptance of such country specific resolutions, might have roused more thought on the implications of the resolution for all.
It could however be argued that all efforts would have been vain, once India decided to suggest it would vote for the Resolution. There may be some truth in that, and perhaps India would have proved unsympathetic anyway, but I believe more could have been done to ensure that India played a more positive role. Two incidents occurred in the month before the Indian pronouncement which they could claim propelled their pronouncement, and while it might have been made anyway, we should not have left room for pressures to build up within the country. I believe too that we should have been more aware of the forces that stood in balance in Delhi, and acted to forestall the more critical.
In that regard we should surely have at least one think tank on the lines of the several in Delhi or Beijing that provide such helpful advice to policy makers. I continue astonished at the failure to build up either the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies or the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies on the lines the visionaries those bodies are named after would have wanted. Seminars with lively discussion should be promoted, led by in house staff who prepare good policy papers, which should also be required of staff at the Ministry of External Affairs. In this regard I was sad to be told by one of its brighter stars, who had been asked to edit a collection of papers on international policy, that he had received no contributions at all as yet from other Ministry staff.
With so many shortcomings, which indicate that we need much better organization and professionalism in the future, it is still impressive that we secured 15 votes, in the face of such overwhelming pressures. This is a tribute to the stature the country and its President still have for having overcome such a powerful terrorist threat, and having kept so many of the pledges that we made in 2009, including in particular restoring normalcy to our Tamil citizens who suffered so badly during the previous period. The manner in which many of those who worked against us have expressed themselves in a conciliatory fashion suggests they know they must work with the current government to take things forward, and in that regard I think India, which unlike some other supporters of the Resolution has never been interested in regime change, can play an important role in preventing the Resolution being used intrusively.
We however must also help ourselves by moving as swiftly as possible on the LLRC recommendations and other activities to promote Reconciliation, including the host of positive recommendations in the Human Rights Action Plan that was adopted by Cabinet. If there are areas in the LLRC recommendations which we think would not be helpful, we should discuss these and explain what cannot be done, or what may require postponement. Similarly, the draft National Policy on Reconciliation should be reviewed, altered as appropriate, and then adopted for action. A time frame for what is to be done should be provided, for we know many things go by default because of the limitations of our bureaucracies and the proliferation of responsibilities the current system of establishing Ministries has led to. In this regard the President’s conception of Senior Ministers, responsible for coordination, could prove helpful, but the concept must be given substance and teeth.
Much can be done, much should be done soon. It should be done in terms of our own priorities and needs, not external dictation, but it must be explained clearly, given that we live in a world where distances of time and space no longer mean anything.