Colombo Telegraph

Sri Lanka In Geneva May 2009: International Scholarly Assessments & Interpretations 

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

The only ‘weapons’ that diplomats carry as representatives of a small state are reason, logic and charm.” ~ Kishore Mahbubani in ‘50 years of Singapore and the United Nations’ (2015, p13)

No phase of Sri Lanka’s protracted wartime and postwar diplomacy, or more broadly, of Sri Lanka in the United Nations, has had anything remotely close to the volume of analytical and scholarly inquiry, study and mention internationally, as has Sri Lanka in Geneva during the last war and most especially in 2009. Though for obvious and deserved reasons, the Indian role in the Sri Lankan conflict culminating in the airdrop, the Accord and the war with the LTTE has generated much scholarship, that body of work has not been on Sri Lanka’s own diplomacy, except to note its weakness or failure. Any bibliography will show that on the subject of Sri Lankan diplomatic practice and outcomes, Sri Lanka in Geneva May 2009 has generated the greatest number of pages of published work globally. It is the one that has evoked international academic and analytical interest and has done so for several years after the event, with the articles in periodicals, chapters of or passages in books, being produced at least up to 2017. Two that came out in 2017 are ‘Push Back: Sri Lanka’s Dance with Global Governance’ by Judith Large (Zed, London 2017) and ‘War, Denial & Nation-Building in Sri Lanka: After the End’ by Rachel Seoighe, (Palgrave Macmillan, London 2017). 

What really happened in Geneva in 2009? Why was it important? What if it had gone the other way? A critical source, the UK House of Commons Research Briefing paper lodged in Westminster disclosed:

“On 18 May the EU called for an independent war crimes inquiry. The US has added its voice in support of these calls. However, at a special session of the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka which took place on 26-27 May, Western attempts to include such a call in the final resolution were comfortably defeated by Sri Lanka and its allies…the UK Government has been a strong supporter of calls for an independent investigation into allegations that both the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE committed war crimes. It supported the unsuccessful EU-led efforts to pass a resolution at the 26-27 May special session of the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka that would have authorized the Council to establish such an investigation… –‘War and Peace in Sri Lanka’, Commons Briefing Papers RP09-51, authors: John Lunn, Claire Mills, Ian Townsend, June 5th 2009

Another source unsympathetic to the Sri Lankan state, namely a 2011 study by a team at the London School of Economics (LSE) which included Rajesh Venugopal, Asst Prof in Managing Humanitarianism, at the LSE, said the following about Geneva May 2009:

“A special session of the UN Human Rights Council was held in the third week of May which provided a venue for an exchange between the GoSL and western critics. A group of western countries including the UK, France, Canada, Switzerland and Germany called for the special session specifically to discuss allegations of civilian killings. A resolution was passed accusing GoSL and LTTE of war crimes – but the GoSL, represented by Dayan Jayatilleka (permanent representative to the UN in Geneva), successfully organized a counter resolution, in support of its actions backed by India, Russia and a majority of Asian, African and Latin American members.” —SRI LANKA: STRATEGIC POLICY ASSESSMENT, February 2011 Jonathan Goodhand, David Rampton, Rajesh Venugopal, and Nishan de Mel

Could issues in Geneva in May 2009 have been resolved by a compromise and concessions instead of the vote which was requested by Germany at the end of the Special Session? The authoritative reconstruction of and perspective on the dramatic UNHRC episode of May 2009 from that most impeccably professional and objective diplomatic quarter, Singapore, says otherwise. Part of the World Scientific Series on Singapore’s 50 Years of Nation-Building is a volume entitled “50 YEARS OF SINGAPORE AND THE UNITED NATIONS” edited by the iconic (and outspoken) Singaporean ambassador to the UN in New York, Tommy Koh. The volume was issued in 2015 to mark 50 years of Singapore’s Independence and 70 years of the founding of the United Nations, and contains contributions on every aspect of the UN and the international order, and Singapore’s experience, including the lessons learned which they intend to pass down to their younger diplomats.  The UNHRC is covered in the contribution to the volume authored by Singapore’s top Geneva diplomat, Ambassador Tan York Chor, who had served previously as Deputy PR in New York under Ambassadors Tommy Koh and Kishore Mahbubani, and went to serve as Ambassador to France, after which he retired from the Foreign Service. 

The Singaporean Ambassador/PR’s contribution is entitled “Who Owns the UN?” and significantly enough, Sri Lanka in Geneva May 2009 is accorded a longish passage:

“The second incident happened in 2009. The early months of 2009 saw the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka suffer huge setbacks but, right to the end, the Tigers gave no sign of wanting to sue for peace by laying down arms. All previous truces had not held up. As the Sri Lanka army pushed to eliminate the Tigers for good, ending 26 years of conflict that killed or wounded hundreds of thousands, some western states suddenly became seized with humanitarian concerns about the human rights of the Tigers and urgently sought an HRC Special Session. Was this a liberal knee-jerk reaction in western capitals to save the hundreds who risked being killed in the final battles of the war? If so, it disregarded the fact that if the Tigers were once again given time and space to recuperate, the renewed conflict would kill and harm far more people. In much the same way, those who champion abolishing the death penalty often ignore the lives destroyed by crime syndicates and their arms, drugs and other activities. Behind this apparent move, some saw a cynical last-ditch attempt by an effective pro-Tiger lobby in many Western countries to pressure Sri Lanka to desist from finishing the Tigers. In the end, Sri Lanka won the understanding of a majority of member states in both the HRC and the wider UN membership. After destroying the Tigers, Sri Lanka could begin to work in peace to heal its nefarious interethnic divisions. As a corollary, Sri Lanka’s woes offer a lesson in the grave danger of societal divisions over race and religion.” (Tan York Chor, ‘50 YEARS OF SINGAPORE AND THE UNITED NATIONS’ eds Tommy Koh et al, pp. 74-75)  

It is interesting to uncover why there is such manifest academic and analytical interest internationally, for several years after the Sri Lankan achievement of May 2009 at the UNHRC Geneva. We can recognize the importance of Geneva May 2009 in the mirror of analytical research published even as late as 2016, seven years after that vote. A study was published in the special issue of Global Society: Journal of Interdisciplinary International Relations, formerly titled Paradigms and published for the University of Kent. It was co-authored by a Western and an Indian academic, based in university departments of War Studies and International Relations, in London and Delhi respectively. Most interestingly, the chapter on Sri Lanka is in a special issue of Global Society on ‘Contesting and Shaping the Norms of Protection: The Evolution of a Responsibility to Protect’. A note discloses that “all authors in this special issue gratefully acknowledge generous support from the Volkswagen Foundation through its program “Europe and Global Challenges”, which provided the funding for their project on ‘Global Norm Evolution and the Responsibility to Protect’.”

Thus, Sri Lanka in Geneva 2009 was and is relevant from the perspective of ‘Global Norm Evolution’ which was important enough a thematic topic for a study and publication to be funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The Introduction to the Sri Lanka chapter condenses the main point as the researchers see it:

“Sri Lanka’s military strategy has drawn attention and even inspired governments also fighting insurgencies and other armed groups to consider emulating it (e.g., Myanmar, Nigeria, Thailand and Turkey), but the more important impact is a diplomatic one. Sri Lanka’s discursive strategy could be perceived as a model by such governments, for it kept international pressure at bay for the greater part of the war and ensured an endorsement by the Human Rights Council right after the end of the war. The government’s rhetoric skillfully combined counterterrorism with protection and non-aligned references, which resulted in severely restricting the effectiveness of political pressure, particularly from European states, the United States and the UN.”

(Introduction, ‘Protection in Peril: Counterterrorism Discourse and International Engagement in Sri Lanka in 2009’Gerrit Kurtz &Madhan Mohan Jaganathan, Global Society, Volume 30, 2016 – Issue 1: Contesting and Shaping the Norms of Protection: The Evolution of a Responsibility to Protect, Pages 94-112). 

The chapter sets out the extent of the research that has been undertaken by the authors, on the subject of the international dimension and dynamics of Sri Lanka in 2009:

“This study aims to provide this understanding, based on the analysis of primary documents, secondary sources and in-person and telephone interviews with diplomats, expert observers and UN officials in London, Delhi, Chennai, Colombo, Geneva and New York. It consists of two main parts: a close description and analysis of the international engagement in 2009, and an assessment of this debate’s impact on the norms of protection and of the potential for normative erosion through the perception of Sri Lanka’s military and discursive strategy as a “model” for other insurgency situations.” (Ibid)

The riddle of the high international scholarly and analytical interest in Geneva 2009 has a clear solution. The contestation between global norms had been clearly identified quite early on, as the crux of the issue by scholars:

“Many of the battles over conflict-related norms between Sri Lanka and Europe took place in UN institutions, primarily the Human Rights Council (HRC)…it was Sri Lanka which generally had the best of these diplomatic battles…Although this process of contestation reflects shifting power relations, and the increasing influence of China, Russia and other ‘Rising Powers’, it does not mean that small states are simply the passive recipients of norms created and contested by others. In fact, Sri Lankan diplomats have been active norm entrepreneurs in their own right, making significant efforts to develop alternative norms of conflict management, linking for example Chechnya and Sri Lanka in a discourse of state-centric peace enforcement. They have played a leading role in UN forums such as the UNHRC, where Sri Lankan delegates have helped ensure that the HRC has become an arena, not so much for the promotion of the liberal norms around which it was designed, but as a space in which such norms are contested, rejected or adapted in unexpected ways…As a member of the UN HRC Sri Lanka has played an important role in asserting new, adapted norms opposing both secession and autonomy as possible elements in peace-building—trends that are convergent with views expressed by China, Russia and India…The Sri Lankan conflict may be seen as the beginning of a new international consensus about conflict management, in which sovereignty and non-interference norms are reasserted, backed not only by Russia and China but also by democratic states such as Brazil.” (David Lewis, “The Failure of a Liberal Peace: Sri Lanka’s Counter-insurgency in Global Perspective”, Conflict, Security & Development, Vol. 10, No. 5 (2010), pp. 647–671, p. 661.)

A study entitled “Rising Powers and Human Rights: The India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum at the UN Human Rights Council”, by Eduard Jordaan, Assistant Professor of Political philosophy at Rhodes University and previously Assistant Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University, noted that “… All three IBSA states spoke in support of the Sri Lankan government.” (Eduard Jordaan, Journal of Human Rights, October 2015, 14 (4), pp. 463-485, Taylor & Francis)

Significantly, the scholars in the Volkswagen foundation-funded study on ‘global norms’, published in Global Society (2016), have contrasted Sri Lanka’s diplomatic success in Geneva in May 2009 with the failure of Israel in the same venue just weeks before, also in the aftermath of a military offensive against irregular forces waging asymmetric warfare, and have tracked, sourced, identified and zeroed in on the crucial ingredient of Sri Lanka’s successful methodology and strategy in May 2009: 

“In contrast to the broad international criticism of Israel’s operation in Gaza, which took place at the same time as Sri Lanka’s final offensive in the Vanni, however, the favorable Human Rights Council vote and the lack of renewed LTTE violence seemed to amplify the impact of Sri Lanka’s discourse strategy.” (Kurtz and Jaganathan, Global Society, Volume 30, 2016 – Issue 1, pp.94-112)

Thus the ‘silver bullet’ is identified as ‘Sri Lanka’s discourse strategy’. This is how its components and efficacy are analyzed: 

“The government’s political strategy was based on how its discourse played into normative sentiments and managed international pressure. As a result of its skilled diplomacy and rhetoric, the government became less vulnerable during the very last phase of the offensive, which had always been the stage at which previous governments had restrained themselves. This discourse consisted of three main elements, each directed at a particular audience and with a particular effect on protection: counterterrorism, protection/humanitarianism and anti-imperialism/self-determination…the government of Sri Lanka played on notions of sovereignty, self-determination and solidarity in the global South.” (Kurtz and Jaganathan, Ibid) In support of this last point, Kurtz and Jaganathan quote a book published by Yale University Press which makes the same observation, namely David Keen’s Useful Enemies (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2012, p. 136.) 

Meanwhile, Rachel Seoighe’s book (2017, Palgrave Macmillan, London) features an eight-page analytical account, straddling two chapters (pp.262-270) of the UN Human Rights Council battle of May 2009 with 24 references to ‘Jayatilleka’ in that segment. In a painstaking tracking, with marker dates, of my ‘discourse’ (43 references to ‘Jayatilleka’ in the book itself), supplemented with cabled observations to Washington by Warren Tichenor, the US ambassador in Geneva from 2008 (thanks to Wikileaks), Seoighe also disaggregates its themes and resonance to various international constituencies and mentalities which were welded into a winning-coalition, defeating the Western effort, concluding that “Sri Lanka benefitted from astute diplomatic strategizing and the shrewd adaption of international discourses…”

In its ‘Conclusion’, Rachel Seoighe’s 2017 book sums up the international scholarly evaluation of Geneva 2009 and thereby reminding readers of its significance as an object of study:

“…This shift is supported by states such as Brazil, Russia, India, China (the BRICS), Indonesia and South Africa. A diplomatic cable from the US Mission to Washington in March 2008 noted the efficacy of Sri Lanka’s approach of nurturing NAM alliances and avoiding international censure on that basis: its latest public relations campaign in Geneva…reflects a strategy of appealing to NAM countries, to whom it argues implicitly (and probably explicitly, behind closed doors) that it is willing to stand up to the West, which is unfairly picking on it. That message resonates particularly strongly in the Human Rights Council, further complicating our efforts to use that body to pressure Sri Lanka on its human rights record. (Tichenor 2008) Adopting a pro-active stance in Geneva in 2009, the Sri Lankan Mission under Jayatilleka held events ‘in debate mode’ to present its position and welcomed NGOs and ‘pro-LTTE representatives’ into discussions, while adopting what the US Mission termed an ‘acerbic’ tone in its public relations campaign (Jayatilleka 2013; Tichenor 2008). Sri Lankan diplomats contested the liberal humanitarian norms ingrained in the UN system and actively pursued debate on alternative conflict resolution models. Lewis (2010) notes that Sri Lankan diplomats adopted a role of ‘norm entrepreneurs,’ arguing that the Human Rights Council was a forum for contesting, rejecting and adapting norms rather than merely perpetuating the liberal norms on which the institution was built.” (Seoighe, 2017)

An interesting feature is the popping up in internationally published work as well as in postgraduate research, of my entirely extempore opening remarks to the staff of the Sri Lankan Permanent Mission in Geneva when I took over in 2007, two years before the UNHRC vote. Seoighe opens her reconstruction of Geneva 2009 with an episode dating back to 2007:

“Dayan Jayatilleka was Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva from June 2007 until late 2009. When Jayatilleka assumed his role in Geneva, he gathered his mission staff and told them the story of the 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, who “held on against incredible odds to provide the time and political space for the rest of the Greek Federation to mobilize and crush the aggressors” (Jayatilleka 2013, p. 232). “This,” he told them, “would be our task, and should animate our work and attitude.” Jayatilleka contended that the ‘heroic task’ underway in Sri Lanka—defeating the LTTE—was theirs to protect within the UN, by preventing any outside intervention.” (‘Diplomatic “Outmaneuvering” in the UN Human Rights Council’, Seoighe 2017)

Take also a research paper on “Representations of humanitarian action in the media at the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War: A Discourse Analysis (Jan 2009-May 2009)” by Akshay Kadam of India, submitted as part of a Master’s degree to the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague/Erasmus University of Rotterdam. The research paper is 57 pages long, has 66 references to ‘Jayatilleka’, and critically analyzes my discourse. The critical attention to me is justified by the statement that “Jayatilleka was chosen…apart from being Sri Lanka’s representative in the United Nations, he was credited for removing international scrutiny on Sri Lanka in 2009 for human rights violations.” (p5) Having identified and classified as part of my discourse, my (supposed) use of “Mythopoesis; the use of stories to legitimate social practices”, Section 4.3 in Chapter 4 is entitled ‘Dr. Jayatilleka: The “Valiant” Spartan’. One notes that the MA research paper is dated December 2016, i.e. 7 ½ years after Geneva, May 2009.

No less mainstream an academic work than ‘The Routledge Handbook of The Responsibility to Protect’ (2012) edited by W. Andrew Knight and Frazer Egerton, has a chapter on South Asia in which Sri Lanka comes up for extensive discussion. Authored by Sarah Teitt and entitled ‘Paper Tiger or Platform for Action? South Asia and the Responsibility to Protect’ (pp. 197- 215), the chapter quotes me five times, and opens with a quote from me at the top of the page, which clearly reveals the perceived strategic importance of the factor of “discourse”. 

A scrutiny of keywords and phrases of studies and analytical commentaries on Geneva 2009 yields their broadly consensual answer to their research problem as to how Sri Lanka turned the tables on the Western efforts in 2009 in Geneva. (I) “skilled diplomacy”/ “diplomatic strategizing” (II) “Sri Lankan diplomats norm entrepreneurship”, contesting neoliberal norms and projecting alternatives in “global norm evolution” and (III) “discourse strategy”, involving “combining” and “shrewd adaptation of international discourses”.

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