by Dr.Rajiva Wijesinha M.P.
‘The two sisters among the mourners, whose voices had till now lacked their usual intensity, rose and rent the air with their shrill cries, quite unconcerned about the fate of the Master of Ceremonies. The four mourners now worked in unison, their bodies swaying like reeds in the wind, and lamented in chorus:
‘The poor will miss you, oh, you charitable one!
Who is going to feed us on festival days?
Your grandson has come, wake up, my beloved!
Your grandson has come, wake up, my darling!’’ - From Alagu Subramaniam, ‘Professional Mourners’
Some years back, in compiling an Anthology of Sri Lankan short stories entitled ‘Bridging Connections’, I included a sharp satire by Alagu Subramaniam entitled ‘Professional Mourners’. Though the main subject of satire was the upper caste family which took ruthless advantage of the poor women who were paid to mourn at funerals, I was reminded of that chorus of women when I saw a recent piece by Sarala Fernando, described as ‘a retired diplomat…served as Ambassador in Geneva from 2004-2007’, which is supposed to be about what she describes as ‘the race that is being run between the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka and the Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General in New York.’
The lady asks whether the race will ‘climax at the next session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva at the end of February’. She is optimistic, in thinking that ‘there is a return to professional diplomacy in Geneva, with the amiable Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe also taking up again the human rights portfolio’. However, apart from generalizations which have appeared elsewhere too, the chief purpose of the article seems to be to draw attention to what she depicts as her own tremendous successes in Geneva.
This is of course nonsense, since the situation that faced Sri Lanka in 2007, when the lady left, was extremely dangerous. As her successor, Dayan Jayatilleka, has noted, a resolution had been brought before the Council in 2006, and not rejected but allowed to lie on the table. The British were confident enough to try to resurrect this in 2007 and it was only because of Dayan’s superb establishment of a coalition of countries that were committed to Human Rights but also aware of the threat presented to all of us by terrorism that that original European motion had to be dropped in 2007. He obtained full cooperation from a range of countries over the next couple of years, which led to the desperate effort of some European nations to condemn us through a Special Session failing miserably.
Ms Fernando however tries to insinuate that the Special Session was the fault of her successor, in claiming that, ‘when I left Geneva in early 2007, a Special Session on Sri Lanka would have been unthinkable’. This forgetfulness about the actual situation she left behind is compounded by her claim, with regard to disappearances, that ‘only a few cases now remain unresolved’.
This again is nonsense, because when I took over as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, we found that there were over five thousand cases of disappearances still on the books. The mechanism to resolve these, which had brought down an even larger figure, seemed to have been abandoned in 2003, and over the next few years little had been done. We had therefore to put together a team which went through all previous commission reports so as to try to resolve the issue, and the Working Group commended us for the cooperation we had extended.
The ambassador may of course only have been talking about what happened before she got to Geneva, but this type of blanket claim, in the context of contrasting her own ‘professionalism’ with that of her successor, is misplaced, particularly when the facts are taken into consideration. Incidentally, I should note that I have found out, now that I have been asked to help Minister Samarasinghe again, that the process has not been taken further since the Ministry of Human Rights was closed down.
I should note that there is another area in which the legacy of the period before Ambassador Jayatilleka took over haunts us. I refer to Philip Alston, whose first report on Sri Lanka, issued in 2006, was fairly positive (I gathered because he had been briefed thoroughly by Kethesh Loganathan, then Deputy at the Peace Secretariat, whom the Tigers killed because he was so effective). I was surprised then that Alston was so hostile to Sri Lanka in 2007 and I asked him why. His answer was that our ambassador had gone at him like a bulldog, and he had thought he should reciprocate.
I thought that he was referring to Dayan, but it turned out that he was referring to Ms Fernando, in terms of her reaction to his report. In all fairness to the lady, it turned out that he had refused to give her an advanced copy, but she found that the report had been leaked to select European ambassadors, who had quoted negative sections from it in their interventions. Ms Fernando has evidently forgotten all that, and her righteous indignation at the time, had led to her bulldog act. Unfortunately, instead of the matter being followed up and the source of the leaks traced, the confrontation had led to continuing bulldog behavior from Alston.
I would not dream of describing what Ms Fernando said and did as unprofessional, because professionalism demands different responses to different situations. What I find astonishing is the present attempt to rewrite history, and refuse to recognize the extraordinary contribution of Dayan Jayatilleka in Geneva. Though one might have differences with him about political issues, to suggest he was the cause of problems in Geneva rather than the solution is just bizarre. And when it is combined by fulsome praise of Minister Samarasinghe, who would be the first to acknowledge the seminal role played by Dayan in keeping lines of communication open to all, one wonders what strange agenda is being pursued.
I should add that, in his response (carried last week in the Daily News), while dealing with the particular canard, Dayan has been unusually generous in claiming that what he achieved will remain ‘safely intact and indeed ably enhanced in the hands of the professionals in situ’. I am not so sanguine. I worry first about what an Indian journalist indicated to me, that whereas Dayan had sought and received cooperation from a host of countries, now they are simply asked for their votes. The report may be inaccurate, but if not, it suggests a lack of professionalism, and also simple awareness of how much we can learn from sympathetic but high principled countries such as India and Brazil.
I mention just these two countries deliberately, because I have also been worried about the failure to use our current Chairmanship of the G 15 group. When the position was offered to President Rajapaksa, there were those in the Foreign Ministry who were of the view that the countries in the group were not important. In all fairness to the former Foreign Minister, when I pointed out that the group included vitally important countries such as India and Brazil, he advised His Excellency to accept the position.
However, instead of the group being used for setting new agendas, it lies passive, and instead we continue simply to react to problems posed by others. The tremendous prestige we acquired in sympathetic countries for the manner we dealt with terrorists was not exploited, and instead we continued to pursue the same old gods. We should be doing more with SAARC, where we are uniquely trusted by both India and Pakistan (and I should note that, for me, one of the most heartening aspects of the Special Session was the superb cooperation of the Indian and Pakistani ambassadors in accompanying Dayan to negotiations).
We should be doing more with ASEAN, given the strong cultural connections, the need for more investment, and the similarities in economic and social aspirations. We certainly should be doing more in South America, where Tamara Kunanayagam laid such productive roots for us in her different stints there, and for which I hope she will be given the high level of support she deserves.
But I fear that, despite the excellence of many individuals in the Ministry of External Affairs, the study and continuing consultation that are required to establish and develop a productive foreign policy are not happening. When I became Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management, I found that its various branches functioned with little knowledge of what others were doing, and I set up a system of regular weekly meetings, with focus on three separate areas. This certainly helped my staff, and I believe such coordination and an opportunity to exchange ideas is essential in any unit that aims to act coherently. Nothing of the sort however seems to take place in the Ministry of External Affairs. The professionals do not, except as individuals, contribute to policy in the manner one would expect.
But perhaps my expectations are misplaced. Unfortunately there seems to be no institutional memory in the place, understandably perhaps given the radical changes in perspective it underwent, having been led in turn by Tyronne Fernando, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Anura Bandaranaike, Mangala Samaraweera and Rohitha Bogollagama. We now have a Minister who comes closest to Lakshman Kadirgamar of all these, and much can be expected. But with no institutional mechanism to ensure continuity even with regard to the vital issue of Human Rights, I suspect that we will continue simply to react to problems instead of setting a suitable agenda ourselves.