2 June, 2023


The Tamara Kunanayakam Affair: The Ugly Underbelly Of Sri Lankan ‘Diplomacy’

By Namini Wijedasa

Namini Wijedasa

In March 2012, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a resolution againstSri Lanka. In the run-up to this damaging development, the government spent millions of rupees on sending a 71-member delegation to Switzerland in the expectation that it would successfully defend the country against the US-led move.

The team included several ministers, senior diplomats, senior government officials and presidential advisors. In the face of defeat, however, only one individual—Tamara Kunanayakam,Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the UN inGeneva—is visibly being held accountable. As the drama continues to unfold, an ugly dispute between Kunanayakam and the Sri Lankan administration threatens to embarrass the country internationally.

According to information strategically leaked to the media, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris telephoned Kunanayakam on April 28 and told her she should leave her post in Geneva at short notice. She was asked to choose betweenBrazilandCubafor her next posting. She dramatically refused to go and told her story to the press.

Even after Kunanayakam was given official notice of transfer to Havana (and even afterRavinatha Ariyasinghe,Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Brussels, was named to Geneva) she remained defiant and gave her reasons for being so. Every step of the action against her was publicly recorded because Kunanayakam willingly spoke to the media—just as the media actively courted her.

Since she sees herself as a victim, Kunanayakam is using available means to get her message out. (She also says it was the Ministry of External Affairs that went to the media first by falsely leaking to a Sinhala language newspaper that she had resigned from her post). In the process of this acrimonious public debate, however, sensitive national issues are being discussed in full view of the international community, among which are countries Sri Lanka now openly treats as adversaries.

For instance, Kunanayakam in a letter to Prof. Peiris opposing her transfer reveals classified information of what happened behind the scenes before, during and after the Geneva resolution. She says that “vital information on a US initiative calling for an interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka was withheld from me”.

In another section of this letter, she says: “In preparation for that 18th Session, no instructions were received by me nor guidelines provided on the strategy to be adopted, and no response was forthcoming on my own proposal. My urgent request for authorization to travel to Colombo for consultations on the matter was first verbally approved by you and then denied by the Ministry of External Affairs, leaving me with no other option but to travel without authorization, given the gravity. The question of strategy, however, remained unanswered and l had to wade my way through that Session.”

Kunanayakam says the letter was leaked to media by the Ministry of External Affairs. Regardless of who released it, this is not information that should be in the public domain, for digestion by, among others, current or future sponsors of resolutions against Sri Lanka. The contents of the letter warrant a separate article, for which we have no space.

Without being physically present in Geneva, it is difficult to determine—or judge—the circumstances leading to Kunanayakam’s dismissal. Nevertheless, many confidential discussions between this writer and sources from all “camps” reveal some common positions on several matters.

For instance, supporters of Kunanayakam say it is unfair to have targeted her when several ingredients went towardsSri Lanka’s failure to defeat the US-led resolution. But others question her very appointment to Geneva eight months ago, pointing out that she represented a pro-LTTE organisation at the Human Rights Council in the 80s. This is reference to the fact that Kunanayakam made an intervention against Sri Lankaat the UN Human Rights Commission (predecessor to the Human Rights Council) in 1987. Representing the World Student Christian Federation, she alleged that there were widespread human rights abuses in the country.

“Having said that, I did feel sorry for her because the career diplomats did not give her a chance to work,” added the delegation member quoted above, He also said that Sajin de Vass Gunewardena, the influential ‘Monitoring MP’ of the Ministry of External Affairs, did not like Kunananayakam and probably persuaded President Mahinda Rajapaksa to remove her. Gunewardena has more or less taken over administration of the ministry from Prof. Peiris.

On the flip side, sources opposed to Kunanayakam hinted that she was “impossible to work with” and that she did not cooperate with career diplomats. They also scoffed at claims that she is being victimised, maintaining that she was being moved out because she was not suitable to head the Geneva mission. “People get transferred all the time in the public service,” said one official. “They don’t all go to the media about it.”

This is not an isolated incident. Despite having worked successfully with them in the past, career diplomats are increasingly on collision course with the new crop of political appointees who derive their authority directly from President Rajapaksa. The problem has worsened since the number of career diplomats posted abroad has plummeted.

Under Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, 65 percent ofSri Lanka’s heads of mission were drawn from the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) while 35 percent were politically appointed. At lower level, missions were staffed nearly 100 percent by career officers (excluding representatives of the Commerce Department, Labour Department, Defence Ministry, etc).

Under Minister Peiris (who has little say), these ratios have been turned on their heads.Sri Lankahas several missions abroad now with no career diplomats at all. Even the crucial Washington DC mission has only one SLFS officer. TheNew Delhimission has three from outside that don’t belong to any government service of relevance to the conduct of diplomacy or trade. The question of which category—political or career—serves the country is yet to be resolved. Indeed, it is unlikely that it will ever be.

Meanwhile, there is a school of thought that Sri Lankawould have failed to defeat the US-led resolution inGenevaregardless of who headed the mission or led the hefty delegation. Among these are some ground realities which have still not been factored in to Sri Lanka’s foreign policy strategy (or what exists of it).

One is the situation which prevailed during the final phases of the war, including the conduct of security forces. Another is the situation that has prevailed domestically since May 2009, particularly on the human rights front. Yet another is the continuance of a “post-war superiority complex and war victory euphoria”. There is also no recognition that the ethnic conflict has outlived the end of the armed conflict. And there is no recognition that the ethnic conflict must be resolved through “a political rearrangement of power”.

Hugely damaging on the foreign policy front is what one commentator called “insane attacks on the West”. While deriding Western governments and burning effigies of their leaders go down well with the local populace, it does not help Sri Lanka’s case internationally. As Jayantha Dhanapala, seasoned diplomat and a one-time UN Under-Secretary-General, recently wrote in the Lanka Monthly Digest: “With our dependence on the West for trade, aid, investment and tourism, and our geopolitical vulnerabilities vis-à-vis India, preventive diplomacy not provocative posturing is needed.”

Another foreign policy observer rued that “the Sinhala speaking taxpayers don’t understand what is going on”. “What is diplomacy, after all?” he asked. “It is showing to the outside world that despite the problems we have, we are a civilised, obviously imperfect, society coming to terms with our post-conflict problems. Preventive diplomacy is the surest way of ensuring that objective at least cost to the tax payer.”

“By letting the situation escalate, you create grave diplomatic situations, such as what we have now, from which it’s very difficult to extricate ourselves,” he warned. “We are in a shooting gallery, shooting at everybody including our former friends.”

However, the government appears to treat the concept of “preventive diplomacy” with derision, viewing it as an outdated concept. The policy has been to shift further and further away from the West. The conduct of foreign relations is being treated as a “zero sum game” where you make friends with some at the expense of others.

“It’s ok to fight,” said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Even diplomats have to fight but fighting diplomatically is different to abusing their enemies.”

 Closing the Stable Door after the Horse has Bolted

Prof G.L. Peiris will head a delegation to Washington DC tomorrow on an official visit, the highlight of which is a scheduled meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Earlier it was expected that the Sri Lankan team will take with it a copy of an ‘action plan’ outlining the measures to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. However, authoritative sources said it was unlikely that any formal document would be unveiled in Washington or presented to Clinton.

As such, the action plan is no longer being formulated expressly to coincide with the US visit, these sources said. However, detailed information related to this subject is not forthcoming from the government.  The possibility of some sort of draft being presented cannot, therefore, be completely ruled out.

According to sources, the president has asked party leaders for their views on the LLRC recommendations. Almost all that input has now been received and will soon be referred to a committee based at the Ministry of External affairs. This committee will collate and process the input as well as analyse them. The results will go to the president and others for decisions to be made. Thereafter, a committee headed by Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga will be tasked with implementation.

The Sri Lankan delegation’s US visit is consequent to a fresh invitation made to Colombo by Clinton.  An invitation was also extended for Peiris to visit in March, before a damaging US-led resolution was to be taken up at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. But this was rejected.

Afterwards, Peiris said he chose not to go in order to “prevent possible misunderstandings”. In reality, it was more a consequence of the Sri Lankan government’s intransigent position that there would be “no deal, no compromise” on the resolution.

The passing of the resolution means that Sri Lanka is on the agenda of the HRC and, thereby, officially on notice. Ironically, the government is now showing itself willing to “bend” to US demands for action on the LLRC recommendations. This eagerness to show progress in implementation comes amidst the irony that the LLRC report is still an alien production to the vast majority of Sri Lankans. This is because it is yet to be translated and made available in Sinhala and Tamil. Printed copies of the English version have also run out, although the report is available online.

Diplomatic sources said week Clinton invited Peiris to Washington principally to hear from him how the government is doing in its commitment to implement the LLRC proposals. This would explain why there was suddenly so much focus in Colombo on a document that the government has, for the most part, ignored during the past five months.

It is likely Secretary Clinton will reinforce during this visit that the LLRC report came out of an inherently Sri Lankan process—that the recommendations reflect the wishes and desires of Sri Lankan citizens, including those that made representations before it. While the commission was roundly criticised when it was first setup, it did not carry out a whitewash for the government as had been widely anticipated.

These sources pointed out that Clinton was heavily criticised by human rights groups and others for not taking a hard line on Sri Lanka—and for emphasising that the LLRC must be given time to work. The meeting between Peiris and Clinton is scheduled for May 18, three years to the date that the LTTE were defeated.

It is expected that the US authorities will also raise concerns about allegations of continuing human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including abductions, disappearances and threats to freedom of expression. The question of a political solution to Tamil grievances is also likely to be discussed with the US remaining keenly aware of the Tamil diaspora’s concerns in this regard.

US pressure on Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC recommendations will not dissipate in the near future. At the same time, any failure by Colombo to act on its own report might lead to renewed attention on the ‘Darusman report’ which has been sent into hibernation because of the LLRC process.

In the meantime, the Indian Ocean region has assumed more importance for the US in recent times. The US government has even looked at restricting different departments to give more focus to the region.

Courtesy Lakbima News


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Latest comments

  • 0

    Good Ambassador Tamara removed from UN. This is called “Karma”. She screwed (influenced to remove) Ambassador Dayan before his term ended at UN. Now Amb Tamara got same treatment-removed from UN before term ends. I support removal of Amb Tamara than removal of Amb Dayan. Amb Dayan was the most influential and effective ambassador for Sri Lanka at UN.

    Min GL Peiris is an asset to Sri Lanka’s diplomacy. Hope govt dont remove him as Foriegn Minister.

  • 0

    The oft repeated slogan ” we defeated terrorism after 30 years of war & we need another 30 years to implement any meaningful steps of reconciliation” won’t cut any ice any more. Most of the poor SL diplomats view the foreign postings as a means to escape the treacherous economic conditions back home and also a good chance to find a good education/livelihood for their offspring..

    No matter they are well-versed in diplomatic jargon or not. They only need some street-smart skills to secure a posting in a foreign mission.

    As the country is thrown to the dogs by its rulers, no wonder their servants too want to do their share (of robberies).

  • 0

    There’s nothing to say that this move had anything to do with ‘blaming her for the geneva outcome’. just as much as it’s unfair to say she’s to blame, it’s unfair to say that she was blameless, was the best person for the job etc etc. In any case, political appointees should understand that just as they can be hired (at the expense of career diplomats), so too can they be fired.

    • 0

      Yes Malinda, this is what will happen to all the stooges of Mahinda Rajapakse and the brothers. Tamara, has to remember Those who live by the “Dick” will Die by the “Dick”. Too bad.

      She has to be thankful that she had this great opportunity to market herself in the process. She will soon get another job in Geneva, while she hibernates in Havana. Anyway, she got her diplomatic ambassadorial post for “services rendered” in 1990. All enjoyed it and there was no harm or no foul in Geneva then!

      This should be a good lesson for all the hangers on of the Rajapakses! Those who are sucking “Kukul kakkul”.

      This also reflects badly on the Rajapakses and the GOSL. Especially, the fact that she was not only the permanent representative of SL in the UN in Geneva and Ambassador of SL, she was a woman and a Tamil, who had special connections.

      Journalist like Dayan and Banduala became ambassadors and other journalist are also looking for such positions provided they bend down well, and suck up well. Good Luck to such journalist who have no morals, ethics or values.

      • 0

        The fact is that at the end of the day women, especially women from minority communities who are always the first scapegoats when things go bad.
        It was Dayan Jayatilleke who was ultimately responsible for the Geneva debacle in 2012 due to this grand standing in 2009, and the flawed confrontational policy that was followed at Geneva 2012. It is DJ and not TK (who was merely using DJ’s out-dated post-colonial rhetoric), who should have been demoted or fired.

  • 0

    Hire and fire!! Its happens all the time,why deplomats have the spacial money system? Minister hon, G.L.Peris have all the frog jumping style politic experince. One of experince administor. He must be know what he is doing than most other ones..

  • 0

    Hiring for Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions abroad should be based on top notch recruitment practices.

    Being a career diplomat is an asset, but not a license to be an ambassador for sure. A lot of career diplomats have entered the service via back door using political influence anyway.

    Talent should be drawn into this vital arm of Sri Lanka’s defense from all available sources. Sri Lanka’s brightest and the best must be take on board. Nothing less will do.

    Career diplomat or political apointee does not matter. A job well performed is the only thing that matters.

  • 0

    This issue will definitely backfire on the Govt & shame them.

  • 0

    You are very correct Ben. I had a long association with Sri Lankan career and non-career diplomats from early 1970. I cannot remember any difference between them for being career or non-career diplomats. However, those who were appointed to mission as non career diplomats (mainly ambassadors were appointed that time ) were very much better than the career diplomats. Before they were appointed they had some respectable positions in Sri Lanka but not relatives of the politicians. Some career diplomats were very good gentlemen but there were lot who were keen in earning money using the import restriction which was in force in Sri Lanka. You can read the comments made by Tissa Wijeratne,who was a secretary of the Foreign Ministry for a while and exposed the dealings of some officials. The situation has completely changed in 1977 and it is not secret what happened after that. Although I do not admire Premadasa only during his period some officials were recruited based on merits. CBK as usual reversed that and allowed old guards of the foreign ministry to appoint their sons and daughters and in laws. Current situation is pathetic and known to everybody. People should ask government to present the account of the FM.

  • 0

    Well research well written article Namini. Keep it up.

    • 0

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  • 0

    Very good analysis !!

  • 0

    What do you expect from a brutal regime who recruited someone from HR scenario and belonging to this minority who fought for their rights for 3 decades?

    There is a deal between these two corrupted parties and we, the HR defenders, have nothing to do with this deal and this deal has nothing to do with fairness

    She is not a victim

  • 0

    Your accepting this elevated job, not knowing much of the inner political scenario as you really did not know the pulse of the Sinhala majority because you really did not live in this Country
    I do not blame you for your decision, You may have had aspirations like Lakshman Kadirgamar and he too if he had survived would have eventually fallen from grace.
    On the other hand you have helped the minorities and the International Community to judge,asses and expose the credibility of this Nation.
    This Nation is living in illusion,the 70% majority believes that by a majority vote (which is Democracy)can and will compel the minorities to accept their will.
    I know for certain that all the Kadirgarmars and Kukanayakams put together will not be able to save this beloved Country of ours.
    The break up is irreversible the seeds have been sewn by this majority euphoria.

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