”Even after Kunanayakam was given official notice of transfer to Havana (and even after Ravinatha 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. ”
In March 2012, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a resolution concerning Sri 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 in Geneva – is visibly being the fall- (guy) girl. 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 between Brazil and Cuba for 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 after Ravinatha 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.
Acrimonious public debate
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 the 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 towards Sri 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 Lanka at 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 the 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 victimized, 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 per cent of Sri Lanka’s heads of mission were drawn from the Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) while 35 per cent were politically appointed. At lower level, missions were staffed nearly 100 per cent 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 Lanka has several missions abroad now with no career diplomats at all. Even the crucial Washington DC mission has only one SLFS officer. The New Delhi mission 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 Lanka would have failed to defeat the US-led resolution in Geneva regardless of who headed the mission or led the hefty delegation. Among these are some ground realities which have still not been factored into Sri Lanka’s foreign policy strategy.
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-a-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 civilized, obviously imperfect, society coming to terms with our post-conflict problems. Preventive diplomacy is the surest way of ensuring that objective with the 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.”