Review of Rajiva Wijesinha’s ‘Representing Sri Lanka – Geneva, Rights and Sovereignty’
Rajiva Wijesinha’s new book “Representing Sri Lanka” (S. Godage & Brothers) spans 7 significant years of Sri Lanka’s engagement with the international community, from 2007 to 2014. It is as much a travel diary as a record of his time as the Head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) and as Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights under Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.
The detailed reminiscence of engagement in both these capacities with international actors and Sri Lankan officials sheds light on hitherto little-known facts of the intense work behind the scenes that had to be carried out in order to obtain the successful outcomes for Sri Lanka, and the bureaucratic roadblocks and erroneous political decisions that resulted in avoidable failures.
While there’s much to learn from descriptions of inter-ministerial and inter-agency dealings at the highest levels during the turbulent years of the last stages of the war against the LTTE, continuing into the post-war years, the book also greatly entertains with its narrative of delightful anecdotes and hilarious pen-sketches of prominent personalities from the author’s interactions with them at close quarters.
Opening A9 from Omanthai
In a frustrated critique of the international actors operating in Sri Lanka during this time, Professor Wijesinha describes the difficulties he faced in his attempt to get the A9 Road opened for supplies to the North during the war. He found that Sri Lanka was blamed for keeping the A9 closed while the Tigers claimed people starved due to restrictions on food supplies. He approached the head of UNOPS in Sri Lanka, Rainer Freuenfeld, to find out why the road couldn’t be opened 7 days and was told that the MoD wouldn’t permit it. He approached Secretary/Defense Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and was informed that the ICRC would not let him open it for the 7 days.
Rajiva then approached the ICRC, and its head Toon van der Hooven told him that since they had to monitor the checkpoints, they could do so only if both the government and the LTTE agreed to the opening. Since the government was seeking to open it, he asked Toon Van Hooven if the LTTE was against the opening. Incredibly, Toon van der Hooven told him his conversations with the LTTE were confidential. Van der Hooven affirmed the LTTE’s culpability only when it was pointed out that since the Defence Ministry had agreed, the stumbling block had to be LTTE.
Subsequently, finding that the ICRC had dropped from their minutes the request to them to raise it with the LTTE, Prof Wijesinha had to insist on its inclusion, which led to the LTTE finally agreeing to open the road for 6 days a week. The Norwegian Monitoring Mission then recorded in its minutes that the A9 was opened at the request of the LTTE. (pp. 26-27)
Diplomacy in Geneva
Speaking at a seminar at the OPA in Colombo, Mr. HMGS Palihakkara, former Secretary Foreign Affairs and Permanent Representative to the UN in New York during the last stages of the war, once described Sri Lanka’s diplomatic victory in 2009 in Geneva a week after its military victory at Nandikadal, not without a note of dismay, as a “gunfight”. Professor Wijesinha’s book belies this caricatured impression which mostly emerged from the Foreign Ministry.
The May 2009 Special Session at the UNHRC was dramatic and grippingly suspenseful for sure, as a bold new move by Sri Lanka in the Council saw it seize the initiative in the face of formidable odds, and the people in Sri Lanka holding their collective breath included the President and his Cabinet, but for the self-assured Sri Lankan team in Geneva which had put in the work over two years, victory was certain.
In painstaking detail, the book sets out the vast amount of multi-dimensional work that was carried out in Sri Lanka, in the Ministry of Human Rights, the Peace Secretariat, and the Attorney-General’s Department, in addition to the numerous meetings in Geneva and in other major capitals of the world, with a number of international agencies, diplomats, the Sri Lankan Diaspora and the influential media such as the BBC, during the years 2007-2009.
It is when all this came together that “The Triumph in Geneva” as he titles his Chapter 6, was made possible, together with the assiduous and dedicated work of the team at the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka in Geneva and the delegations attending the Council’s sessions which Professor Wijesinha was often a part of as a frequent attendee. This book is essential reading for all who require a look into to how that was done and what it took.
Professor Wijesinha who travelled often to Europe for work says that when he met the then EU High Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner in Brussels, her displeasure at the ban on the LTTE gave him the impression that “She seemed to think that they would have behaved themselves and given up terrorism once she had read them a lecture.”
In London for a few days where he had a BBC World interview, he was invited to the Sri Lankan High Commissioner’s for dinner whereupon he was “astonished at the attempt to create in London the equivalent of a local baila party” which he writes was “not surprising given the ‘machang’ mentality” that was evinced “rather than professional assessments”. He writes that Britain became our worst enemy even though expressing love and affection [for the High Commissioner].
In Geneva for UNHRC sessions, he met with WHO officials for he was “deeply conscious that we would need much psycho-social support for those who had suffered from the war”. The WHO was supportive, but back in Colombo, the effort stalled. “For three years I kept knocking my head against a wall, one reason for government intransigence being their view that admitting to psycho-social problems would strengthen the hand of those who claimed our violence had caused them. I continue to be bemused by the stupid callousness of our decision makers, neglect fueled by the view that they were not accountable to anyone, not even our own people.”
As head of SCOPP and as Secretary, he was in constant touch with NGOs which worked in Sri Lanka or had an interest in it, and through his interactions had developed a shrewd evaluation of those who were sincere and those who were opportunists. He was therefore often called upon to respond to NGOs both at the Council and at side events and other meetings.
In Bern, he had lunch with some MPs one of whom “belonged to an NGO that was part of the very shady Solidar Group…headed in Sri Lanka by a rascal called Guy Rhodes…I had no doubt that he was behind the use by the LTTE of heavy earth-moving equipment which the Norwegian component of Solidar…had kept at its headquarters in Kilinochchi”. He says that “the Norwegian Leadership of the NPA travelled to Sri Lanka to apologize” for the “abuse of vehicles” in its custody. He says Guy Rhodes and also Rainer Freuenfeld were members of UN Security Team “…a shadowy outfit that was not under the control of the UN Resident Coordinator.”
The Sri Lankan critical engagement with and responses to NGOs at the UNHRC stopped after Ambassador Jayatilleka was removed from Geneva, because his successor stopped the practice, “claiming that criticisms should be ignored.” Professor Wijesinha writes that “This was disastrous for, since she also stopped networking, the allegations made carried conviction and it was assumed that we could not answer them, not that we had chosen not to.”
In Chapter 7 with the above title can be seen the beginnings of the eventual closure of both SCOPP and the Ministry of Human Rights. In September 2009, resettlement of IDPs had begun and Prof Wijesinha flew to Manik Farm with Walter Kalin, Special Rapporteur of the UNHRC. The Ministry of Human Rights was coordinating the aid effort and had developed a Common Humanitarian Action Plan. He writes “But over the next few months Basil Rajapaksa pushed the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human rights out of the equation”. Instead, the Northern Task Force which Mr. Basil Rajapaksa chaired took over that work and informed Prof Wijesinha that he should tell his Minister that “aid was no longer his business”. (p103)
When the John Kerry-Richard Lugar Report was sent to Sri Lanka for comment, Prof Wijesinha tried vainly to get it done, even offering to draft a reply, but to no avail as “nothing happened with the Committee” (p107). After Ban ki Moon appointed the Darusman Panel, President Rajapaksa initiated the LLRC and he was told that the “mandate with regard to the Kerry report was subsumed in that of the LLRC” (p107). This he found was not the case.
Prof Wijesinha reveals that:
“Chairman C R de Silva…worked quickly and issued some Interim Recommendations well before the Darusman Panel issued its own scathing report. But, though Mohan [Peiris] was straight away appointed to chair a committee to work on these recommendations, the committee never met, and in fact he finally confessed to me, having said for weeks that he was trying to get a date from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa for the committee to meet, that Gotabhaya did not want that to happen”. (p108)
Geneva March 2012: What went wrong?
When President Mahinda Rajapaksa asked Prof Wijesinha to attend the March 2012 UNHRC session in Geneva, he writes “there was no efforts at all to deal with criticism at the Council itself. Previously Dayan and I had responded immediately to attacks on Sri Lanka and, since we both had facts at our disposal and could speak effectively, we soon managed to put a stop to the relentless sniping that had gone before”.
When he wanted to rebut the Amnesty International criticism, “the junior Ministry officer with me told me that they did not respond to such critiques”. He then called Tamara Kunanayakam, PR in Geneva who called Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka in Paris to check, and on being convinced, agreed to let Prof Wijesinha speak. (p115)
However, that was too little, for he writes that “We had a sidebar that day, which was chaotic, for the government had sent a massive delegation which was totally disorganized. The clear-cut way in which Dayan had organized presentations and responses had been replaced by confused aggression with some of those sent believing and asserting that reconciliation was quite unnecessary.” (p116)
Things were certainly not helped by the battle for supremacy between the Minister of Human Rights and the Minister of Foreign Affairs who were both in Geneva for the session. At a meeting to discuss strategy at the Hotel Intercontinental, “the hostility between them was palpable. The chief thing to be decided it seemed was who would make the closing speech on behalf of Sri Lanka when the resolution was taken up…” (p117) Considering Sri Lanka was almost certain to lose the resolution by this time, it is incomprehensible why either minister would have volunteered for the slot. Eventually when Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe “flung his badge on the table and threatened to go back to Sri Lanka, GL, with no alternative, backed down.” (p117)
There were other incidents which prefigured the 2012 defeat in Geneva. Prof Rajiva discloses that when he asked for the Action Plan with regard to the LLRC which President Mahinda Rajapaksa had wanted presented at the Council, Mohan Peiris “told me it was not yet finalized. When I suggested he let me look at what there was, he told me that it belonged to the Foreign Ministry. I went straight away to GL… ‘What plan?’ he said in bemusement and I realized nothing had been done. It was also clear that GL knew nothing about it. “(p118)
Sri Lanka lost its attempt to stop the Resolution in March 2012 sessions “at which the Americans mustered a solid majority”. (p123)
Infamous incident in New York
On the last page of his book, Rajiva refers to what must surely be one of the most incredible incidents in the history of the Foreign Ministry. Of all the anecdotes told in this book, this one is the most disreputable. In this shocking story the protagonists were Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, the monitoring MP of the Foreign Ministry, and High Commissioner to the UK Chris Nonis, who had won the nation’s applause when he performed exceptionally well in a memorable CNN interview. As most people heard it, the former slapped the latter in New York where they were both part of the Sri Lankan delegation to the UN General Assembly sessions, which was headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Professor Wijesinha writes “…[When] I went to England on a wholly private visit, I met Chris in London for the last time. He had been beaten up by Sajin Vass Gunawardena in New York and had resigned. But what traumatized him even more was that the President [Mahinda Rajapaksa] took Sajin’s side. Chris was indeed so nervous that…next day when he picked me up for dinner at the Royal Overseas League, having passed me once or twice in his car to make sure I was not being followed.”
This incident was consequential in many ways. It certainly signaled a crisis in the conduct of Foreign Affairs. As for Prof Wijesinha, even though he thought Chris Nonis was “…perhaps exaggerating the present danger, what happened was appalling and I sympathized with him and his fears. That I think more than anything else ensured that I agreed to support Maithripala Sirisena against Mahinda Rajapaksa when he called an early Presidential election a month later. “(p159)
The book also provides highlights of his frequent travels around the world, representing the government of Sri Lanka and in his capacity as the head of the Sri Lankan chapter of the Liberal International including an addendum of his travels in Asia.
Most valuably, Prof Wijesinha has provided a critical evaluation of the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign relations starting from 2007 when he was first invited to Geneva to participate in the HNHRC sessions by then Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, through to the last time he represented the government of Sri Lanka in 2014. He has done so using his personal experience of close interactions with government officials both local and foreign, in the international system and numerous NGOs.
He has used his intimate experience in the corridors of power to bring fascinating accounts of instructions given by the highest political authority being ignored but forgiven, personal rivalries laid out and shamelessly played out, of meetings held and not held, reports written and withheld, to reflect on the impact of all these on the interest of the state and citizens of Sri Lanka.
As Sri Lanka struggles to regain its standing in the world, not least at the UNHRC Geneva, the lessons he recounts are worth learning.