Mission Impossible: Invoking Intelligence In The Foreign Ministry

Related to : http://www.lankanewspapers.com/2017/10/19/lessons-from-geneva/

The details of the Sri Lankan triumph in the 2009 Geneva special session, as described in Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka’s Mission Impossible Geneva, should be essential reading for all those concerned about Sri Lanka’s foreign relations. It is of particular importance that members of the Foreign Service – and those thrust upon it by different regimes, including envoys in vital positions now such as Ranil Wickremesinghe’s cousin Amari Wijewardena (Britain), and Athauda Seneviratne’s son Buddhi (France), and Maithripala Sirisena’s Polonnaruwa pal Karunasena Hettiarachchi (Germany) – should read the book and understand how Sri Lanka can gain the respect and support of the world.

But is this possible? Sanja ends her book with the assertion that, ‘for small states like Cuba and Sri Lanka, intervening intellectually in “the battle of ideas” is the most powerful equalizer in the world’. The book itself makes clear how Dayan used his considerable intellect to assess what was going on when he got to Geneva, and to plan a strategy that countered the Western strategy of stopping the progress of our forces in destroying terrorism in Sri Lanka. He succeeded admirably, and the account of how he won support through the entire world, except for the West, shows how he carefully studied the situation, and the perspectives of different countries, to win not just their votes but also their sincere admiration. The positions he was elected to within the system (Vice-President of the Council from the Asian Group, Coordinator of the Group of 21) bear ample testimony to the respect he commanded.

Is there anyone working for our Foreign Ministry now, capable of such conceptualization, and then the practical skills to translate his ideas into practice? The answer is a resounding silence. Our only envoy in recent years to try to engage in serious policy discussions, Ranjith Guneratne, now only Consul in Frankfurt rather than an Ambassador as he deserves, tried some years back to produce a book on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. But the idea was squashed by GL Peiris. More startlingly, I think only one member of the Foreign Service responded to his request for articles, and I rather suspect that hardly any could actually produce a coherent essay with helpful ideas.

The manner in which Dayan was dismissed makes clear the contempt the Sri Lankan Foreign Policy establishment has for analytical capacity and practical success. Both politicians and administrators not only got rid of Dayan (or acquiesced in his dismissal), they had no qualms about appointing the manifestly unthinking and unsuccessful Kshenuka Seneviratne as his successor. It was she after all who had been our High Commissioner in London when the British spearheaded the moves against us in Geneva in 2006, and then when Miliband engaged in his petty persecution of Sri Lanka. And sure enough she served her British masters well again in 2010 when she persuaded the President to go to London against the advice of the then High Commissioner. That visit resulted in him returning in humiliation and thus destroying the respect in which his government had been held internationally, following his victory over terrorism and the international recognition of this that Dayan had achieved in Geneva.

What we have instead of policies based on the study of history and reflections on other perspectives, is blind adherence to what might be described as the subaltern approach of JR Jayewardene. The fact that that approach led to disaster is forgotten, in the current determination, as asserted by Dharisha Bastians, to put all our eggs into a Western basket. Dharisha, it should be remembered, was the strongest critic of the approach Dayan had adopted, claiming after we lost in Geneva in 2012 that we should recognize that Western countries were our only true friends. The West had just moved a resolution against us, but her argument was that India had let us down by voting for that resolution and we should realize we could not trust such countries and instead stick to the West. The fact that, for internal political considerations, Western governments paid more attention to LTTE propaganda, did not enter into her calculations.

This lady is married to Gihan Indragupta who was appointed to Geneva to head the Group of 15 Secretariat. Significantly, he was recruited to the Foreign Ministry just when he had written a scathing attack on our armed forces, in which, true to his international allegiances, he said ‘Foreign governments will have a difficult time convincing their own people as to why the Sri Lankan state should be supported, while newsflashes continue on their television screens, portraying Sri Lanka in a bad light. This is another reality which seems to elude the Defence establishment.’

Palitha Kohona, who was Secretary to the Ministry at the time, told me he had no idea about how and when the man was recruited. Palitha should have been more careful, but I suppose he trusted his underlings, and sadly the ethos of the Ministry was still on J R Jayewardene lines. Sanja quotes one of its leading lights denigrating Cuba and Chavez, implying that they were not ‘decent’ – though most of the rest of the world consistently supports Cuba in votes about it at the UN. Similarly I have heard it said that we should not trust Africans. Given that the West has been on the rampage about us for years, and still is, though claiming affection for this government, it is ridiculous not to develop and implement a strategy based on Sri Lankan rather than Western interests. Certainly the recent failure of the Foreign Minister to treat the retiring Russian ambassador properly, or his neglect of the Chinese when they needed our support, bodes ill for this country.

Sanja makes clear too that Dayan was always aware of our interests, unlike those in the Foreign Ministry who did nothing about commitments President Rajapaksa made in May 2009, either about stopping him putting in writing more than he intended, or else advising him that one must stick to one’s word. Mahinda Rajapaksa made a commitment to India on May 21st, which subsequently extremists tried to blame on Dayan. Gunadasa Amarasekara, whose patriotism has been unthinking and destructive, claimed that it was Dayan who promoted the proposal that the Government would fully promote the 13th Amendment. This is a sloppy use of language, and Gunadasa should have known better. Dayan certainly proposed, as I did, that the Government should implement the 13thamendment, but that it would ‘promote’ it was a commitment made by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The way the Foreign Ministry then trashed Indian attempts to ensure that the government fulfilled its commitment is another story that needs to be told. But Sanja will have to do it, since I do not think Prasad Kariyawasam will make it clear how the letter the Indian government sent in 2012 was ignored. He should do this, in the interests of the country and future diplomats, so they understand how this neglect contributed to the Indian decision, against the advice of its Foreign Ministry, to vote against us.

Prasad himself seemed not to understand the implications of the commitments the President made about accountability in his joint statement with Ban Ki Moon in Kandy. I told Prasad there that I thought this was unwise, but he dismissed my qualms. Interestingly, it was only Dayan in Geneva who also understood what that statement would entail, while the rest of the delegation had not even thought about it.

Later Palitha Kohona said that he had advised against it, but the President had been impatient to get things over and done with and told them to give in to Ban Ki Moon’s insistence. It is typical of the amateur approach of the Foreign Ministry that they did not understand what the commitments could entail or failed to explain this properly to the President – and then failed to advise the President to fulfil those commitments promptly, instead of rousing increasing suspicions by delay.

We know the LLRC did a great job, but it was appointed only after Ban Ki Moon had appointed his own panel of experts, who produced the vindictive Darusman Report. And then Mahinda Rajapaksa was not urged by those who advised him to expedite an Action Plan and then implement it. Mohan Pieris, who was largely responsible for the delay, described me as a nuisance for pushing – while he and others responsible for foreign relations continued to think about their own ambitions and misled Mahinda Rajapaksa completely, so that we suffered successive defeats in Geneva where Dayan had in 2009 won the world to our side. 

Ironically, the recognition his own country denied Dayan was given to him in ample measure by East and West alike. I have noted the regard in which he was held by the then Portuguese ambassador, who led the EU group at the time, and who clearly sympathized with us even while officially having to act as the British proposed. The account of Dayan’s relations with the Swiss, who opposed us strongly but were always polite and respectful, should be studied by all aspiring diplomats. And though the Americans in the end, under Hillary Clinton, jumped on what they thought would be a British bandwagon, they were on good terms with Dayan, as exemplified by the American Deputy Head of Mission, who was clearly a good friend.

Most interesting is the understanding of the implications for international relations of what happened in Geneva in May 2009, as displayed in studies of the events and discussions since. I suspect one reason the West, including Israel, were so bitterly opposed to Dayan was that had he stayed on, there would have been a change in the manner in which the West dominated human rights discussions. But having succeeded, with much assistance from the jealous and the stupid in Sri Lanka, the West at least understood what Dayan had achieved. Towards the end of the book, Sanja records a comment by Michael Honigstein, the Head of the Political Section of the US Embassy in Sri Lanka under Michelle Sison, one of the sharpest Ambassadors in her relentless opposition to the last government (unlike her predecessor, Patricia Butenis, who was initially keen to undermine it but then started to be more positive though forces of darkness on either side, including her Political Head Paul Carter, ensured that we were kept apart).

Honigstein remarked in 2013, at a briefing organized by a UNP group that found Ranil Wickremesinghe difficult to work with, about the competence of the Sri Lankan diplomats in Geneva in 2009. He then asked what happened to that team, at which point he was introduced by Karu Jayasuriya who chaired the event, to Dayan, who was also present. But Dayan had then to tell him that ‘he was sacked soon after he achieved that victory’.

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