2 March, 2024


Sri Lanka’s Wartime Diplomacy At The UNHRC Geneva

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

I write to rectify any misunderstanding that may have arisen about Sri Lanka’s diplomatic history at the UNHRC in general, and a Western draft resolution regarding Sri Lanka in 2006 in particular, from references in a recent article in The Sunday Island by Ambassador Sarala Fernando, my predecessor as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN Geneva. 

As Ambassador Fernando relates it: 

“In 2006 when the UK first broached the notion of a resolution against Sri Lanka, as Permanent Representative in Geneva, my instructions from Colombo were to make sure there was not even a reference in the official records. I remember briefing all the regional groups and the OIC on Sri Lanka’s fight against terrorism. At the Western group I remember ending my statement with the words: “if any draft on Sri Lanka was tabled, my instructions are to call for a vote and vote against”. No draft was officially tabled and all the lobbying done from the capital and Geneva out of the public gaze and without any humiliating public press appeals.”

However, this I’m afraid, is only a half-truth.

As part of her final duties in Geneva, Ambassador Sarala Fernando handed me a copy of her last political report to the Foreign Ministry. When I read it, I found that a draft resolution was already tabled at the Human Rights Council against Sri Lanka. Ambassador Fernando’s report written April 27th 2007 and bearing the Ministry date-stamp May 7th 2007 clearly says that the EU draft “has been deferred for a future session of the Council, which will be in September or later…”.

This meant that “all the lobbying done” had only kicked it down the road well into my term.

Ambassador Sarala Fernando laments the end of “quiet diplomacy” and pedantically pronounces that “the art of diplomacy is to create win-win outcomes through careful speech, making useful contacts, exchanging quid pro quos, listening to others for possible compromises.”

This is certainly one of the ways in which diplomacy is conducted. In 2006, with this approach, Ambassador Fernando succeeded only in postponing the draft down the road. It took another kind of approach to get it removed altogether.

The Cabinet Minister whose Ministry was the designated ‘focal point’ for the UNHRC, namely Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Minister for Human Rights, urged me to try to get it removed, taken off the table altogether, instead of kicking it down the road.

On the 11th of March 2009, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe wrote a letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, (with a copy to me) reporting on his recent visit to Geneva to attend the High-Level segment of the Human Rights Council and reviewing our situation at the UNHRC as it stood at a crucial stage of the war. (The delegation had consisted of Dr. Rohan Perera, legal advisor to his ministry, Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary to the Ministry and Attorney-General Mohan Pieris)

Mahinda Samarasinghe informed President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Cabinet in writing that:

“…in 2006, there had been a resolution against Sri Lanka on the table, which Ambassador Jayatilleka’s efforts had had removed, as confirmed by the former Japanese Permanent Representative.”

Ambassador Fernando preaches the virtues of a professional diplomacy which strives for ‘win-win’ outcomes, but the facts show that no win-win solution was on offer or indeed structurally possible during the final war.

I quote here an extract of an article written by Ambassador Tan York Chor, who had served previously as Deputy PR in New York under Ambassadors Tommy Koh and Kishore Mahbubani. His article appeared in the volume “50 YEARS OF SINGAPORE AND THE UNITED NATIONS”, published for the World Scientific Series on Singapore’s 50 Years of Nation-Building. The Singaporean Ambassador/PR’s contribution is entitled “Who Owns the UN?” and significantly enough, Sri Lanka at the UN-Geneva at the war’s conclusion is accorded a longish passage:

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…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…”

(Tan York Chor, ‘50 YEARS OF SINGAPORE AND THE UNITED NATIONS’ eds Tommy Koh et al, pp. 74-75)

This narrative –and account of the stakes involved– is essentially confirmed by a contrasting source, quite unsympathetic to the Sri Lankan stand, namely the UK House of Commons Research Briefing Paper dated June 5th 2009, lodged in Westminster:

“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

The historical facts, context and outcome are clear enough, I should think.

Ambassador Fernando sweepingly opines that “many idealistic notions and theories of support to Sri Lanka from a ‘Global South’ or a unified ‘Non-Aligned Movement’ or an ‘Asian Consensus’ are not realistic”. (The Island, ibid)

While it is true that such support can neither be taken for granted, and is, in and of itself, insufficient, it is truer still that this is Sri Lanka’s foundational identity and support base in world affairs. Whenever Sri Lanka departed from this existential understanding it found itself isolated and/or generated domestic blowback (1977-87, 2015-2019). Whenever it misunderstood this foundational fact in a formulaic manner, it also failed (2012-2014).     

In normal times it may be the right thing to play the game of conventional “quiet diplomacy”, but in exceptional and extreme situations for one’s country, when its core strategic interests are at stake, the need is not to keep playing the game but precisely to change it, accumulating a sufficiency of support so that those core interests may be protected or indeed prevail.   

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Latest comments

  • 3

    When the UNHCR is manipulated by the powerful countries, it is very very difficult for the‘GROUPS’ that are targeted to get JUSTICE. Justice is invariably denied in their own country. There is a great need to empower the UN so that it can provide Truth reconciliation and Justice for the victims

    • 1

      The whole civilized world (except North Korea) supported SL get rid of LTTE for good.

      But the world is worried about what happened thereafter.

      When there is a war, the international law applies. When there is no war human rights law applies which is tougher. Good to have another war.

  • 4

    I wonder if this is the opening salvo in what could become a rather undiplomatic battle of two former diplomats for personal glory.

  • 8

    Dayan, you cannot compare the situation pre 2009 with present, as scenario is different. Pre 2009, LTTE was intransigent and it was easy for anyone to advocate defence of Sri Lanka security forces and it was difficult for anyone to defend LTTE. Now it is proved that Sinhalese are intransigent to arrive at a fair political solution, which has made Tamils to be on a moral high ground. Mahinda regime which promised Ban Ki Moon and India that it will do, never attempted it, while Yahapalana regime pretended that they will do and cheated the international community. Present government is obstinate in moving forward, and naturally international community which wants justice and peace to Tamils are at their throats. In this state it is difficult for anyone to defend Sri Lanka as genuine in forging reconciliation with Tamils. 13th amendment has been incorporated in the final draft probably on the instruction of India. Is India laying a foundation for military intervention with support of UN, to implement 13th amendment if Sri Lanka fails to honour.

  • 2

    The whole problem with the Sri Lankan politically appointed Diplomats are that they give wrong advises to the Governments when they work for them just to keep their posts and benefits and spoil the UNHCR deliberations. This time the situation would be quite different and Sri lanka would be facing very critical situation at Geneva.

    • 1

      Pon Lanka

      “The whole problem with the Sri Lankan politically appointed Diplomats are that they give wrong advises to the Governments when they work for them just to keep their posts and benefits and spoil the UNHCR deliberations. “

      Irrespective of nature of the advice, right or wrong, nothing will work in the interest of the country as long as the wrong people are in control of the country.

  • 0

    Dayan has laid out the needed facts of history. Encompassing even a much longer time frame for rebellion and consequences, there is a solution that works. Unfortunately, many are not aware that there has to be reconciliation upwards first and then only is it possible to be reconciled with people groups and nations in the horizontal to bring peace. Closed brains cant be bulldozed with reality, when victory of war is the only reality. Peace and not war, is the reality of reconciliation, but money lure of war is too strong. It is the increase of his government and of peace that has no end. Love is not subject to bitter battle.

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