By Dharisha Bastians –
There is a reason that diplomatic missions in Colombo, especially representing countries of the West that are constantly being denigrated by the Government of Sri Lanka or its proxies, refrain from reacting publicly to every charge levelled against them and every negative sentiment expressed. One senior diplomat put it succinctly – “Do we really want to be front page news in Colombo every morning?”
Diplomacy, almost by definition, is something that must be conducted with some degree of discretion. It is a tool used to prevent conflict and build trust, confidence and relationships between States and International bodies. Diplomats must always attempt to further a State’s national interest and the national interest, is not always served in the public domain. This is why Wikileaks, while being the hero of journalists and freedom of information activists, is officially the diplomat’s worst nightmare. Diplomatic engagement is most successful when it is conducted quietly and with neither bragging in success nor finger-pointing nor wound-licking in defeat. Sri Lanka has known such diplomacy – but its successes are rarely touted and the sequence of events often not publicly known at all. Former Foreign Secretary and career diplomat H.M.G.S. Palihakkara was at the helm of one such success at one of the most critical junctures of Sri Lanka’s military offensive against the LTTE in May 2009. Palihakkara who was serving as Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, put up the fight of his life to keep Sri Lanka out of the agenda of the UN Security Council in 2009, an eventuality that would have proved far more damaging for Sri Lanka than the UNHRC resolution recently adopted in Geneva. Yet, Palihakkara having never spoken of it, the triumph is only known and acknowledged by those with a particular interest in such affairs. Compare that against the constant crowing that has been underway since Sri Lanka successfully quashed a resolution attempted at the UNHRC in 2009. Compare that also, against the public relations disaster that has been the Geneva and the Sri Lankan delegation since the UNHRC’s 19th Session in March this year.
Last week, Sri Lanka’s soon to be ex-Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Tamara Kunanayakam fired her latest bombshell when she issued a strongly worded letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, charging that her office was carrying out the agenda of the US and other Western countries. Her letter included details about a private email circulated within Pillay’s office, the Sri Lankan Mission in Geneva had obtained, which was congratulatory about getting the Resolution against Sri Lanka passed at the UNHRC in March. In her letter, Kunanayakam has demanded that the UN High Commissioner ‘clarify’ the developments she claims are contrary to the mandate granted to the High Commissioner and her office – strong diplomatic language under any circumstances. Furthermore, Kunanayakam’s missive charges that there are ‘serious doubts about the impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity of the work conducted by the staff of OHCHR and their respect for decisions of the Human Rights Council,’ and reminds the UN High Commissioner about the obligations of her office. Kunanayakam’s latest onslaught against the UN and the West comes on the heels of a specific directive issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, as exclusively reported in Ceylon Today some weeks ago, faxed to each of Sri Lanka’s overseas missions instructing officers at those missions to refrain from taking up antagonistic and offensive positions against Western governments and the UN and its officials in the run up to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) scheduled for October and November this year. This directive was especially targeted at Sri Lankan diplomats serving in embassies in the US, Europe and the UN cities.
Be that as it may, in typical form, as with most of Kunanayakam’s correspondence of late, this letter to High Commissioner Pillay very soon appeared in the local media, to the same newspaper that is always at the receiving end of most of Geneva’s ‘leaked’ correspondence. Last month her scathing letter to External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris – her boss for all intents and purposes – refusing to take up what she called punishment transfers to Cuba and Brazil appeared in the newspaper, causing some embarrassment to the minister who it is learnt was incensed at the letter being shared publicly. This is the modus operandi of a particular calibre of politically appointed senior diplomats who often seem more interested in ensuring the government and the Sri Lankan public are aware of how stoically they are ‘defending’ Sri Lanka, as opposed to actually playing their appointed role as diplomatic officers.
Needless to say, Pillay’s office has not officially responded to the Sri Lankan envoy’s charges. Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs on the other hand, was called upon to explain on record whether the charges levelled against the UN High Commissioner were sanctioned by the government. A ‘senior ministry source’ was quoted a few days ago as saying the government had no intention whatsoever of levelling charges against the UN High Commissioner based on an internal communication within her office. Speaking to the same newspaper, External Affairs Ministry Secretary, Karunathilake Amunugama, said the ministry was verifying the authenticity and implications of the email communication sent by the staffer at the Office of the High Commissioner and would then decide on the proper course of action to be taken. Kunanayakam appears to have taken the ministry’s comments as a personal affront.
“I am deeply troubled to see that the Government of Sri Lanka has chosen to protect the High Commissioner, rather than Sri Lanka’s own representative to the United Nations. It is clear that the political line of the ministry has changed from one defending our traditional Non-Aligned position to one aimed at finding a compromise with the United States and colonial masters,” she told a daily newspaper. This is not to say that having obtained seemingly controversial communications from within the Office of the High Commissioner, Kunanayakam’s office should have done nothing about it. The question instead is whether there was no other way to have the matter addressed, without launching a direct offensive against Pillay. There was always the option of the ‘inspired leak’ thereby leaving it to the media to dig up the story and bring it into the public domain; or indeed there are appropriate forums at which such issues can be raised – and both of these options would speak to a certain amount of diplomatic acumen on the part of a Sri Lankan envoy. While Kunanayakam is perhaps justifiably incensed by the lack of support of her latest initiative from the Ministry of External Affairs, there is also the legitimate question of whether she should have placed the ministry in a position where it must now necessarily choose between its representative and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at a time when Sri Lanka is facing the bulk of its international challenges from that quarter. In a separate vein, if the UN High Commissioner’s office has been working beyond its mandate, as Kunanayakam charges in her letter, specifically targeting Sri Lanka, then it also speaks to a severe breakdown of communication and engagement between that office and the Sri Lankan representation in Geneva – once again earning our envoy there no kudos. And at the end of the day, why has this come down eventually to a case of Kunanyakam Vs. Pillay, when personalities have no role to play in diplomatic engagement, a factor that a particular breed of politically appointed diplomats from Sri Lanka have a tendency to forget.
Furthermore when the question of whether her decision to issue a letter to High Commissioner Pillay was sanctioned by or at least notified to the Ministry Ambassador Kunanayakam responded that she was ‘acting in conformity with the mandate given by His Excellency the President’ – which begs the practically rhetorical question in this day and age of does Kunanayakam really believe that the ministry on the other hand acts independent of and contrary to the presidential wishes?
Strange though it is that any officer of the government could entertain such thoughts, Kunanayakam and her loyalists persist in believing that her ouster and other political machinations are entirely the work of the Ministry of External Affairs. Undoubtedly, such perceptions are being reinforced by other regime loyalists and President Mahinda Rajapakasa himself, who met Kunananyakam in the Vatican City last week, during his state visit there. To other observers and analysts however, it has long been apparent that no big shakeups and diplomatic appointments, especially to Sri Lankan missions in the West, take place outside of the Presidential sphere of influence. Furthermore, even the ministry’s reaction to the letter to Pillay is surely at least authorized by senior administration officials. The government being keen not to further antagonize the West and the UN in the wake of the UNHRC resolution and the upcoming UPR later this year, faces a dilemma in cases such as this, where it is secretly glad for any opportunity to expose the double standards of the UN and the West while at the same time facing the new realization that a policy of antagonism and hostility against these same sections of the world has cost Sri Lanka greatly.
Kunanayakam’s marching orders therefore and the appointment of her successor Ravinatha Ariyasinha was undoubtedly sanctioned by the highest echelons of power in Sri Lanka. Ambassador Kunanayakam however, persists in believing the best in her long-time friend President Rajapaksa who she first befriended when he travelled to Geneva in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to lobby the then Human Rights Commission there to act against disappearances and human rights abuses taking place in Sri Lanka during the squashing of the JVP insurgency. She is, without doubt, a capable officer, with significant experience in the UN system. But when it comes to understanding Sri Lanka’s national interest and the specific skill set required to practice efficient diplomacy, Kunanayakam falls short – and this is the realization that has prompted the government to move her from the key Geneva position as soon as possible. Undoubtedly, she would have something to offer in another world capital – such as Cuba – where her heart and ideologies finds resonance.
In her interview yesterday, Kunanayakam criticizes senior Diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala for sentiments he expressed with regard to suicidal diplomacy in the Geneva aftermath recently. “Despite evidence to the contrary, today so-called enlightened experts of diplomacy tell us that our error was to focus on building alliances with our natural allies, the like-minded majority, and that we should henceforth centre our efforts on dissuading Washington even if it means compromising our integrity,” Kunanayakam said. Whatever her personal opinion about Dhanapala and diplomats of his calibre, who are advocating quiet re-engagement as a means to preventing further international condemnation and damage to Sri Lanka’s national interest, Jayantha Dhanapala’s personal ideologies, his political leanings or his personal opinions about what Sri Lanka’s foreign policy ought to be, was never in the public domain while he was a serving diplomat, nor indeed, very often even now. He is however, regarded as a highly capable diplomat who has plied his trade with quiet efficiency that has earned him international repute.
Perhaps as Kunanayakam prepares to pack her bags and relinquish her position in Geneva, there may be some merit to questioning whether her diplomatic journey could have taken a slightly less vociferous, less offensive road.
Courtesy Ceylon Today/