Geneva – a personal analysis :
Votes for Sri Lanka, tribute to country and President
Returning to normality
I was first asked by the External Affairs Ministry to go to Geneva,
after a lapse of a couple of years, the night the US tabled its
Resolution. The reason, I believe, was the work I had done in
reconciliation, since the impression the United States and its friends
were trying to create was that Sri Lanka would do nothing unless it was
This is nonsense, given the massive amounts we have done in
resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction, but sadly we have not
been giving out the message, or detailed information, in any coherent
fashion. We have also failed to emphasise the improving situation with
regard to Human Rights, and in particular the actions taken with regard
to some of the interim recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and
Reconciliation Commission, (LLRC), actions that had commenced long
before that Commission was appointed.
With regard to reconciliation, I believe my office has done a lot,
even though it receives no resources and has only one executive level
member of staff, who has still not been paid. Despite all this, I was
encouraged, I should gratefully note, by the Secretary of Defence, to go
ahead with my plans, and indeed he arranged accommodation for me on
early visits, though now I have to meet such expenses myself.
I did tell him I could not act quite as swiftly as he did, since I
had no executive authority, but I am glad I went ahead, and I have had
nothing but sympathetic cooperation from all officials from the Governor
to the District and Divisional Secretaries in the North, and also from
In Colombo too, civil society has been most helpful, including the
small group of Partners for Reconciliation I set up, and the religious
educationists in religion, education and pluralism who, in any case,
have been doing excellent work themselves, even before the conflict
speeded up resettlement
The draft National Policy on Reconciliation we had produced was, I
believe, useful in Geneva in making it clear that not only had we done
much ourselves within the country, but also that we were able to
conceptualise and work within a comprehensive framework, that
encompassed restoration and empowerment as well as restitution.
Wider range of activities
Indicating the much wider range of activities required than the
formulae those with political agendas repeat (accountability meaning
retribution, and devolution meaning more power to provincial councils
regardless of the aim of such power, which is empowerment) was
illuminating, and we were able to invite and answer questions in a
relatively positive atmosphere.
I had not been able to go when initially asked because the Council of
Asian Liberals and Democrats was meeting in Colombo under my
However, I suggested that Jeevan Thiagarajah be asked, since he has
led the civil society actors who have made me work even harder than I
would otherwise have done on reconciliation as well as human rights,
even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force intended to
expedite work on the National Action Plan.
Overcoming what the Ministry of External Affairs had claimed were
suspicions about Thjagarajah with regard to his NGO connections, he was
invited and went, though unfortunately the Americans had not permitted
him to speak at the informal consultation they had set up in Geneva.
Having given former Attorney General Mohan Pieris just three minutes in
what was supposed to be a two-hour meeting, they closed it down after
just over an hour.
Thjagarajah had attracted the attention of the American ambassador
who presided, but after what seemed hasty consultations, focusing on
him, he was not given the floor. This is not surprising, because the
American Embassy in Colombo (or at least its political affairs office)
has declared him persona non grata, because he is too close to what are
deemed well-known violators of human rights.
Anyway, the following week saw me there as well, along with Javid
Yusuf, who had presided over the first seminar on reconciliation the
Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies had arranged, and who had then been
asked to chair the discussions on the policy document.
Our ambassador in Geneva, Tamara Kunanayakam had laid out a good
program for us that included two side bars, which had not happened
before with lots of opportunities for questions in a cordial framework.
I was sorry about this, for this had been one of the staples which Dayan
Jayatilleka introduced when he was our representative.
Kunanayakam, who operates on similar principles, had not however been
able to make changes on the scale that was needed. In fact, the open
engagement Jayatilleka had facilitated seemed to have been forgotten.
I had indeed discovered a few months ago when Minister Mahinda
Samarasinghe began to work on Human Rights again, that we were not
regular in our replies to special procedures, the practice we had
developed, of answering as quickly and as helpfully as possible, having
fallen into abeyance.
So had other methods of engaging.
As I got to the Palais, I was told by Amnesty International about a
statement they had made, and I offered to respond at once. I was then
told that the principle of the last couple of years was that NGO
statements were ignored, since responding gave them too much prominence.
Fortunately, Kunanayakam told me to go ahead, and the silence that
fell as I spoke reminded me of how Jayatilleka and I had worked in the
period between 2007 and 2009 – responding to any criticism, and making
valid points that could not be contested. That is what engagement means,
because otherwise, what NGOs say passes by default and, in the absence
of any strong information network on our side, becomes accepted wisdom.
However such responses are not enough, and it is lobbying with
delegations in Geneva, and through them and otherwise the capitals, that
is of the essence. Kunanayakam seemed to have excellent relations with
many of the representatives, and the seven ministers and two deputies
who attended, led by two of our best communicators, ministers, Prof G.L.
Peiris and Mahinda Samarasinghe, also did very well, but we left things
I was reminded then of what an Indian journalist had told me some
years back, that in Jayatilleka’s time we had asked the Indians and
others for advice, but now we just asked for support when there was a
In short, we had failed to build on the excellent foundation
Jayatilleka had laid. One of his last acts was to ensure that our
President was asked to chair the G-15 group. Sadly, the Foreign Minister
at the time was advised by his staff that this was not an important
grouping, though to his credit, when I told him the group included
India, Brazil and Egypt, he changed the advice he had given the
President, and we duly took over the Chair. Unfortunately, no use seems
to have been made of the group subsequently, though it included
Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Senegal, Peru, Chile and Mexico, seven
countries of which only Indonesia voted for us on the Resolution.
Kunanayakam produced two fantastic documents during the week we were
there which summed up the principles we should have enunciated, with
particular reference to developing countries and the Non-Aligned
Movement, but not enough use was made of them. There was even a school
of thought that sought to criticise her for having given publicity to
the note she prepared, at Minister Peiris’ request, to brief the African
group. It was very thorough, and one ambassador actually said he wished
this had been given to him earlier, so that it could have been
circulated to his capital.
I was in fact astonished that no such document had been prepared. We
had an excellent team of lawyers, including Yasantha Kodagoda and
Shavindra Fernando, who knew the workings of the Council backward long
before Dayan was appointed to head the Mission in Geneva, and also Mohan
Peiris, who was a tower of strength in the last year before the former
More use might have been made of their capacities, and a short and
sharp document, circulated to all countries which might in time face
similar problems through the acceptance of such country specific
resolutions, might have roused more thought on the implications of the
resolution for all.
It could however be argued that all efforts would have been in vain,
once India decided to suggest it would vote for the Resolution. There
may be some truth in that, and perhaps India would have proved
unsympathetic anyway, but I believe more could have been done to ensure
that India played a more positive role.
Two incidents occurred in the month before the Indian pronouncement
which they could claim propelled their pronouncement, and while it might
have been made anyway, we should not have left room for pressures to
build up within the country.
I believe too that we should have been more aware of the forces that
stood in balance in Delhi, and acted to forestall the more critical.
In that regard we should surely have at least one think-tank on the
lines of the several in Delhi or Beijing that provide such helpful
advice to policy-makers. I continue to be astonished at the failure to
build up either the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International
Relations and Strategic Studies or the Bandaranaike Centre for
International Studies on the lines the visionaries those bodies are
named after would have wanted.
Seminars with lively discussion should be promoted, led by in-house
staff who prepare good policy papers, which should also be required of
staff at the Ministry of External Affairs. In this regard I was sad to
be told by one of its brighter stars, who had been asked to edit a
collection of papers on international policy, that he had received no
contributions at all as yet.
With so much shortcomings, it is still impressive that we secured 15
votes, in the face of such overwhelming pressures. This is a tribute to
the stature the country and President Mahinda Rajapaksa still have for
having overcome such a powerful terrorist threat, and having kept so
many of the pledges that we made in 2009, including in particular
restoring normality to our Tamil citizens who suffered so badly during
the previous period.
The manner in which many of those who worked against us have
expressed themselves in a conciliatory fashion suggests they know they
must work with the current government to take things forward, and in
that regard I think India, which unlike some other supporters of the
Resolution has never been interested in regime change, can play an
important role in preventing the Resolution being used intrusively.
We however must also help ourselves by moving as swiftly as possible
on the LLRC recommendations and other activities to promote
reconciliation, including the host of positive recommendations in the
Human Rights Action Plan that was adopted by the Cabinet. If there are
areas in the LLRC recommendations which we think would not be helpful,
we should discuss these and explain what cannot be done, or what may
require postponement. Similarly, the draft National Policy on
Reconciliation should be reviewed, altered as appropriate, and then
adopted for action. A time frame for what is to be done should be
provided. In this regard President Rajapaksa’s concept of Senior
Ministers, responsible for coordination, could prove helpful, but the
concept must be given substance and teeth.
Much can be done, much should be done soon. It should be done in
terms of our own priorities and needs, not external dictation, but it
must be explained clearly, given that we live in a world where distances
of time and space no longer mean anything.