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The Geneva consensus: Setting the record straight

Feb 14, 2011 5:37:07 PM- transcurrents.com

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

I write to correct an impression that may have been conveyed or mistakenly derived from references in an article ('The "race" between Mahinda Rajapaksa's LLRC and Ban-Ki-moon's UN panel') on your website to the evolution of the Sri Lankan issue at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva during the last war.

The written record would show that far from a special session on Sri Lanka being “unthinkable” during the tenure of the article’s author, there was a highly critical draft EU resolution on Sri Lanka on the HRC agenda from 2006, precisely during that tenure and a good year before I was deployed to Geneva.

When I assumed duties as Ambassador/Permanent Representative on June 1st 2007, the awesome nature of professional achievement immediately prior to my arrival was to have persuaded the initiators of the draft resolution to continue the postponement of the resolution to the next session, the first one that I would attend having assumed duties in June 2007. This was not quite ‘fixing the problem’ but fixing the successor.

By the end of 2007, in my first 6 months, I had succeeded in removing that draft from the agenda without making the slightest concession on the outstanding demand of stationing a full-fledged presence of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka.

When I accepted President Rajapaksa’s invitation to take up the post of Sri Lanka’s PR in Geneva as our war of liberation and national reunification was entering its decisive period, I was instructed also by the then Foreign Secretary that one of the tasks I had to expeditiously undertake was to correct an unauthorised deviation from our stance at the Conference on Disarmament; a deviation by my ‘professional’ predecessor which had generated a shocked inquiry-cum-protest at the highest political level from one of Sri Lanka’s most consistent friends, allies and military suppliers - and I might add, SAARC neighbours.

Indeed the Special session of late May was a Plan B, a fallback. Plan A was a UN HRC resolution (which was to be backed by an EU resolution), invoking an elasticised version of the doctrine of R2P calling for a halt to the Sri Lankan offensive operation and due on May 14th, 2009. As Prof Rajiva Wijesinha placed on the record already on May 18th 2009, that plan failed because of our successful resistance in Geneva which prevented the requisite signatures from being obtained until the Sri Lankan armed forces had destroyed the Tigers and its leadership. (‘How the West was Sidelined- For the Moment’, Rajiva Wijesinha, Human Rights Watch website, HRW-Watch.com, July 24, 2009).

As for the Special Session on Sri Lanka at the UN HRC, even the most amateurish (let alone a seasoned diplomatic professional) reader of the Wikileaks would confirm that the political officer of the US Embassy in London reported to the US Secretary of State that electoral compulsions motivated the former UK Foreign Secretary into a diplomatic drive on Sri Lanka; a drive, which the cable noted, included the May 2009 Special Session at the UN HRC. This is amply confirmed by an 80 page research study on the Lankan conflict and the (then) Labour government’s foreign policy on Sri Lanka authored by three commissioned specialists and deposited in July 2009 in the library of the UK Parliament.

The merest Google search of the foreign news coverage of the Special Session (May 2009), and then again on the first anniversary (May 2010) of our military victory, reveals that sources from the Washington Post, The Times (UK) and The Economist through the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International ruefully point to that Geneva vote as a considerable diplomatic achievement by Sri Lanka and its friends in the face of great pressure and momentum. Those reports reveal that elements at the time hostile to Sri Lanka hoped to secure a UN mandate for an investigation of some sort into the conduct of our armed forces in (at the least) the last stages of the war; and that given the veto exercised by Sri Lanka’s friends in the UN Security Council and the sheer arithmetical majority in the General assembly, it was thought that the UN HRC Geneva would be the best bet in securing such a mandate, modelled on the Goldstone inquiry which obtained its UN mandate from the HRC.

It is typical that while even those critical of Sri Lanka’s military victory admit that the Geneva vote of May 2009 was an unexpected defeat for their cause and a resounding achievement for our country, some sour Sri Lankan has-beens are the only ones to decry it.

The Geneva vote was won at a time when Sri Lanka had been unseated from the UN HRC by a General assembly vote in 2008 in New York; a venue from which I was ‘banned’ from attending by the former Foreign Minister, reversing a standing procedure of at least 25 years (and against the written objections of two successive Sri Lankan Perm reps there).

When I left my post in Geneva, I did not leave my successor a draft resolution on the agenda against my country. I left behind an unambiguous and decisive result in our favour.

If one may anticipate the argument that a built-in Third world or Afro-Asian majority rendered the vote in Sri Lanka’s favour axiomatic-- one that could have been achieved on auto-pilot as it were-- I would draw the readers’ attention to two facts: though backed by a Security Council member, Sudan lost a vote in the UN HRC a few weeks after we won ours, and a compromise arrived at the UN HRC Geneva just a year or two before was a factor that led to peacekeeping forces in Sudan and a peace deal. (If I may be permitted a digression, the recent peaceful secession of Southern Sudan through a referendum -- Rudrakumaran’s model and strategy-- could arguably have been the eventual outcome of the professionally negotiated PTOMS, if not for Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Supreme Court, the JVP and Sri Lankan public opinion).

I am confident that the multi-continental breadth of the Geneva Consensus of May 27-28th 2009, the ‘soft power’ and ‘smart power’ it represented, the international legitimacy it confirmed, and the politico-diplomatic and strategic space for post-war Sri Lanka that it symbolised, remain safely intact and indeed ably enhanced in the hands of the professionals in situ. How could matters conceivably be otherwise?