By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Uditha Devapriya, uncannily close to a reincarnation of Ajith Samaranayake in the same vital social and intellectual role he plays as the Critic, reviews in The Island’s SatMag, Prof Rajiva Wijesinha’s indispensable book, or notebook, on Geneva, the UNHRC and Sri Lanka’s diplomatic trajectory of triumph and travails. He entitles it ‘Downhill All the Way’.
“…Nothing epitomised these developments better than the removal of the man responsible for the 2009 diplomatic victory. Dr Wijesinha is justifiably nostalgic in his recollections of Dayan Jayatilleka…That this ploy succeeded tells us just how much the reversal of such strategies after 2009 cost the country. In that sense, the author is right in considering Dr Jayatilleka’s removal as ‘the silliest thing Mahinda Rajapaksa did.’ In effect, it marked the beginning of the end.”
In his slim memoir, Rajiva Wijesinha opines:
“His [Dayan’s] appointment was, apart from making Gotabaya Rajapaksa his Secretary of Defence, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s most inspired selection. Where Gotabaya led the fight to overcome the LTTE, Dayan led the fight to overcome those who wanted to help them survive through international pressures.” (‘Representing Sri Lanka: Geneva Rights & Sovereignty’, p 13.)
UNHRC Geneva May 2009 remains the equivalent of our Cricket World Cup victory—unprecedented and unrepeated. There is more scholarly scrutiny internationally on that single period of Sri Lanka’s diplomacy (UNHRC 2007-2009) than on any other period or achievement of our diplomatic history. The central critical concern running through all those research reports, academic papers, undergraduate, post-graduate and post-doctoral dissertations, book chapters and books, is the problem: “How did Sri Lanka evade R2P in 2009?”
I wasn’t shocked or surprised that I was sacked six weeks after we had won in Geneva. It had happened to my father, Mervyn de Silva, at the hands of earlier administrations. The late Izeth Hussain (NMMI Hussain), former Ambassador and literary critic, a few years my father’s senior at the university, put it best:
“…For here was a journalist widely recognized as exceptionally brilliant, a world-class journalist as we say, arguably even Sri Lanka’s greatest journalist, and he of all people gets sacked not once but twice, on both occasions from state-owned newspapers. That says a great deal about the vicissitudes of Sri Lankan journalism in our time…” (The Weekend Express, July 10-11, 1999)
Fifth Column? Sabotage?
What really shocked and disgusted me was the attempt to sack me earlier, when the war was at its height in its closing months and the West was closing in to forestall final victory. That attempt was thwarted by the build-up of public opinion especially in and through The Island, culminating in a decision by President MR. This attempt was in early 2009 and ended on March 30th 2009, just before the West began to collect signatures for its draft resolution on Sri Lanka and its call for a Special Session which we managed to delay till the war was over in May, and defeat when it was held.
Shamindra Fernando wrote a story in the Island, titled ‘President Extends Dayan’s Term Thwarting Moves to recall him’. It provides the timeline:
“President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ended a simmering controversy over the move to recall Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka…Political sources said that the President had informed Jayatilleka of his decision on Monday, March 30th  in recognition of his significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s successful effort at last month’s Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva…”
In her book ‘Mission Impossible-Geneva’ (Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2017), Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka, my wife, recounts this attempt in the section ‘First Rumblings of a Sacking’ (pp. 73-84). She quotes extensively from veteran diplomat Ambassador Nanda Godage’s long letter to the Editor on February 26th 2009, urging my continued stay at the crease in Geneva despite efforts to secure my recall.
On February 19th 2009 Secretary/MFA Dr. Palitha Kohona had written a letter to me titled ‘Termination of Contract’, when the war was still being fought, the West was trying to prevent the military victory by diplomatic means and the decisive battle was looming in Geneva, stating that “in accordance with your contract your services…will come to an end with effect from 31.05.2009.”
The attempt to remove me in wartime only ended with an official communication dated March 26th 2009 also from Dr Kohona, which informed me that “H.E. the President has decided to extend your tour of duty till 31. 05. 2010”.
This was later rescinded by fax on July 16th 2009 six weeks after our diplomatic victory at the UNHRC, and I was instructed to quit by August 30th 2009, without even a cross-posting i.e., a lateral move to another state. But that is far from being my main point.
The historical record shows that powerful liberal-interventionist hegemonistic forces were closing in on Sri Lanka’s war effort from early 2009. Wikileaks disclosed that in April 2009, the UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, spent 60% of his time on Sri Lanka due to the “very vocal Tamil Diaspora in the UK”. Much more crucially, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State of the world’s sole superpower, had instructed in a personally signed cable dated May 4th 2009 that its Mission in Geneva to throw its weight behind the move on Sri Lanka at the UN HRC Special Session:
“Mission Geneva is requested to convey to the Czech Republic and other like-minded members of the HRC that the USG 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)]
If I had been recalled in February-March 2009 or any time until the war and the diplomatic battle had been won, what would have ensued? Could any new Head of Mission have maintained the broad alliance that had been painstakingly built in 2007-2009 as described by Prof Wijesinha? The proof of the pudding being in the eating, the abject failure to do so in 2012, 2013 and 2014 when we were defeated by successive resolutions at the UNHRC, and then again in 2021, under Permanent Representatives of quite diverse politico-ideological orientations, answers that question.
If my recall had taken place in the 1st quarter of 2009, a UNHRC resolution—the UN mandate the West was seeking and couldn’t obtain in New York due to the Russo-Chinese ‘veto wall’—would have been secured, calling for a cessation of hostilities. Action is then likely to have been taken invoking R2P, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Secretary David Miliband doing the joint, concerted pushing, to stop the war from reaching its victorious conclusion. That this was the game-plan is evident from published western material including a Report archived in the House of Commons.
Had my recall by May 30th 2009 (as in Secretary /MFA Kohona’s Feb 19th letter) gone ahead and Mahinda Rajapaksa had not intervened to modify it—reversibly, as it turned out– I would have been packing to leave at the end of May 2009 and saying my farewells. No Ambassador would have been persuaded by what I said and voted with us because it would have been known that I was on my way out. With a May 30th departure date, I would have been unable to devote full attention to the Special Session—which in actuality I did with only one (just arrived) Foreign Service officer (Mr. Jauhar) to assist me, because the Ministry had overruled my request to keep my young de-facto deputy, Mr. OL Ameerajwad (now a superb Ambassador) until the Special Session, so vital to Sri Lanka, was over. My de jure deputy had left for Colombo weeks before for his sister’s wedding. He was later employed by the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Geneva office.
GR & Geneva Redeployment
It gets (arguably) worse. I had supported President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his re-election bid in late 2009, despite my sacking and to the surprise and disapproval of many. Much as I admired General Fonseka, I believed that the voters should not visit on MR what he had visited—or permitted to be visited– upon me: the injustice and unwisdom of dismissing someone from a post in which he had successfully defended and furthered his country’s interests against all odds. I also held—and in this I have been proven amply correct—that someone with no experience in governance should not be elected over someone who had.
In late-2009 when Lalith Weeratunga tracked me down at lunch at Prof GL Peiris’ and offered me the ambassadorship in Tokyo -which Ajith Nivaard Cabral had already congratulated me on at breakfast that day (to my confusion) — I politely told him that if my help was required in the presidential re-election campaign I was quite ready to extend it (which I did), but he needn’t bother to incentivize me with the offer of an ambassadorship. Instead, I went to the National University of Singapore as a Visiting Senior Research Fellow.
When Prof GL Peiris who was attending the Shangri-la strategic dialogue in Singapore in 2010, conveyed to me over dinner President MR’s puzzled remonstrance that I had suddenly disappeared from SL after his re-election, shared his concern about the forthcoming Darusman report, mentioned that Ambassador Kohona in New York had expressed apprehension about the stand of France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and communicated MR’s request that in that emerging context I return to diplomacy and serve in Paris, I agreed in principle but reminded Prof Peiris that I had a commitment to the ISAS/NUS. He said he had already cleared that up at breakfast that morning with the Institute’s Chairperson, Ambassador Gopinath Pillai. To Sanja’s dismay I pulled up stakes from the NUS. (We took the financial hit of having paid an advance for an apartment.)
During my tenure, Minister G.L Peiris arrived in Paris and the Embassy arranged a series of meetings including with the Foreign Minister of France, Alain Juppe. The relationship built up by me with the Quai d’Orsay was such that at Prof Peiris’ meeting with Alain Juppe the case of the killings of the 17 ACF employees did not come up.
Upon completing my two-year term in France, I returned home in January 2013. Sri Lanka had just commenced its losing streak in Geneva, with Delhi’s distancing from Colombo (which I had warned about while in Colombo in 2011; a warning dismissed by then High Commissioner to Delhi, Prasad Kariyawasam) and SL’s first defeat in 2012.
My immediate redeployment in Geneva was suggested but ignored by Foreign Minister GL Peiris and dismissed outright by Secretary/Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa. India’s High Commissioner Ashok Kantha, a friend of Sri Lanka who had served in Colombo from late 2009 to 2013, had told GL Peiris that things were going badly in Geneva and GoSL’s best bet was to follow the foreign policy advice in my columns, and also to send me back in. Prof Peiris had replied that he had received rather more optimistic reports from the Geneva end.
High Commissioner Ashok Kantha’s father was a high-ranking military-man who had been commanding officer of the famous Jungle Warfare Training School in Mizoram when Gotabaya Rajapaksa had trained there. This cemented the High Commissioner’s friendship with the Secretary/Defence. Travelling together on official business to Delhi he urged upon GR the same counsel he had given Foreign Minister Peiris: send Dr Dayan Jayatilleka.
GR’s response to Ashok Kantha’s recommendation had been quite decisively negative and for the most interesting reasons. He had expostulated with a gesture, that I was “on another plane” and furthermore, had sorely offended Israel by my stand while Ambassador to France and UNESCO to the extent that he had to fly to Tel Aviv to explain it. (With MR’s encouragement we had successfully supported Palestine’s entry to UNESCO securing a more-than-two-thirds vote while defying Hillary Clinton’s personally delivered warning of a Congressionally-mandated 60% budget cut. Prof Tissa Vitarana was witness and enthusiastic participant). But what did incurring Israel’s ire have to do with the ability to effectively defend Sri Lanka’s national interest?
UNP’s Collaboration & Capitulation
In late 2009 when MR faced the electoral challenge from the Army commander who had won the war on the ground, he was not only the President who had given political leadership to the war effort in which his rival General Fonseka was the warrior who headed the miliary effort, he was also the leader who had led Sri Lanka as a country to the heights of overall achievement including internationally, as seen in the Geneva UNHRC victory under his hand-picked Ambassador.
After he had dismantled the Geneva team weeks after May 2009 and did not exercise the option of reassembling it after we had lost the first time (2012) or even the second (2013), it was the serial defeats of 2012, 2013 and 2014 that shattered the myth of invincibility of Mahinda Rajapaksa, emboldened his domestic opponents including critics inside the ruling SLFP, and gave momentum to the external push for regime-change. The triple Geneva defeats made landfall in the defeat of January 2015 (an election in which I stood by MR).
This opened the door to the abject capitulation by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in Geneva in 2015. The recent testimony of John Sifton of Human Rights Watch (HRW) to the US Congress at the initiative of Congressman Tom Lantos, confirms the ugly truth about that betrayal of national sovereignty:
“…Sri Lanka joined a consensus resolution of the UN Human Rights Council in 2015, resolution 30/1, which included…justice through a hybrid mechanism including international investigators, prosecutors, and judges.” (hrw.org)
The Rajapaksas opened the gates for this capitulation by dismantling our successful May 2009 team, destroying our Geneva defenses, and failing to give the effort to resist and reverse the triple defeats that followed at the UNHRC in 2012, 2013 and 2014 the (proven) best shot.
The Gotabaya administration’s March 2021 defeat in Geneva was the worst yet. UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s written report of March 2022 will activate universal jurisdiction and international prosecutions, while providing caches of evidence for cases. These will dissuade foreign investors and tourists while shrinking demand for our products in Western markets. Protecting and promoting those found guilty could trigger unilateral sanctions. “Downhill all the way”, as Uditha Devapriya concluded.