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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Kandiah’s grocery store in Geneva and Geenva embarrassment

As it turns out, Geneva has proved to be an abiding embarrassment to the government not just because of the US resolution but the manner in which the government handled the issue. This is still the subject of discussion in the local media.  Certainly, never before in living memory has the conduct of foreign policy been the subject of so much media discussion after an event.
That there was no unified command or control was obvious from the start. There were two cabinet ministers, Prof G.L.Pieris handling foreign affairs and Mahinda Samarasinghe handling Human Rights and there was the turf war about who should be leading the delegation. In addition to that was Sajin de Vas Gunawardena who is a parliamentarian assigned to the foreign ministry. It was not just a question of the clash of personalities, there is allegedly even a clash of political lines within the foreign policy set up with two tendencies emerging.

These comprise the collaborationists who believe that we should engage with the West and the resisters who believe that we should resist foreign intrusion through alliances with like minded nations.  That there were collaborationists in the foreign policy set up was obvious by the way the Ban Ki-moon expert panel was handled. Instead of flatly refusing to acknowledge a committee that was appointed outside the established procedure of the UN, the government made attempts to ‘engage’  the Ban committee in the mistaken belief that they could somehow be sweet talked into agreeing with SL.

There is apparently a strong lobby within the foreign ministry among career diplomats who favour collaboration with the west.  Most career diplomats live their lives dreaming of postings to Western capitals and their natural tendency is to curry favour with the west.  This faction would prefer to ‘engage’ with the west and avoid antagonising them and would resist attempts to turn to other allies among the emerging powers. As a result, one faction of the Sri Lankan delegation had apparently been trying to negotiate secretly with the Americans while the other faction had been trying to rally support among like minded nations.  When news had leaked that Sri Lanka had been trying to secretly engage with the Americans, it had upset the allies that the other faction of the Sri Lanka delegation had lined up.

There was a front page story in The Island during the HRC Sessions that Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Geneva Tamara Kunanayagam had had to send a strongly worded letter to the members of the HRC repudiating an email sent to them by the US Embassy saying that the US was in close consultation with Sri Lanka. At that time, everybody in Sri Lanka thought this was US subterfuge of the worst kind. But it now turns out that the US was correct. There was nothing wrong with that email they sent to the other member states of the HRC because Sri Lanka was in fact in  close contact with them. Some time before he left the government to return to the UNP, Karu Jayasuriya told the present writer that the government was being run like Kandiah’s grocery store and this was never better illustrated than with the fiasco in Geneva.

What the Americans have to take note of is, here was a tiny, economically weak nation, with no coherent action plan on how they were to meet the US challenge and delegation led by two ministers and a parliamentarian, all pulling in different directions; and yet the Americans won the vote only by the skin of their teeth. In contrast to the squabbling, disunited, confused Sri Lankan delegation without a game plan, the Americans were united, focussed, and the entire power of the US State Department was concentrated on defeating Sri Lanka.

The only thing that stood in Sri Lanka’s favour despite the bloated, bungling Sri Lankan delegation was the understanding among other nations of the implications of this resolution and the precedent it will set in terms of Western interference in the affairs of other nations. The Singaporean representative had in fact told a member of the squabbling Sri Lankan delegation that they knew that Sri Lanka was not fighting just for itself but on behalf of all the others as well. This is the reason why the US was able to win only by the skin of their teeth – the understanding among other nations that they could be facing what Sri Lanka is facing today.

The problem in Sri Lanka is that in any foreign policy controversy there will always be a section that says that we should ‘use our heads’ when dealing with unhappy foreign powers. If one asks a few probing questions about what this phrase ‘using or heads’really entails, it finally boils down to nothing more than ‘nodding our heads’. Any kind of resistance in foreign policy is seen as a sign of immaturity, a lack of foreign policy savvy, of being ‘godayas’ who know nothing of the outside world and so on. That this tendency is strong within the foreign ministry is not surprising when it is so strong among the English educated elite in Colombo.

Perhaps one weakness that was revealed in Geneva was that we do not have much clout among African and Latin American states. Our representation and influence in that part of the world is minimal because the career diplomats favour missions in the West rather than in underdeveloped nations. Perhaps the Geneva turnout shows that we should take steps to improve our links with Africa and Latin America as a matter of priority.


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