by Namini Wijedasa
Never in recent times have relations between the UN secretariat and Colombo been this acrimonious or so unashamedly mishandled over an issue that could have been easily resolved through diplomatic channels.
When Wimal Weerawansa, a minister, recently encouraged the public to lay siege on the UN compound in protest against Ban Ki-moon’s appointment of a special advisory panel, the government quickly maintained that this was not their official position. The UN secretariat took the government’s assurance at face value.
For its Colombo offices, therefore, it was business as usual on Tuesday. The resident coordinator, Neil Buhne — despite being forewarned of a protest that day — was away in Batticaloa. Staff in all UN bodies situated inside the UN compound at Bauddhaloka Mawatha reported to work. This included personnel attached to the resident coordinator’s office, the UNDP, the UNFPA, OCHA, UNAIDS, the UN Drugs and Crimes Office, FAO, UNIC, ILO and UN-HABITAT. On a normal day, there are about 200 employees in the compound. Essential staff comprises about 40 to 50 of that number.
The demonstration started in the morning, with Weerawansa leading the fray. It quickly turned unruly despite police presence. The Reuters news agency reported that Weerawansa used his mobile phone to secure the intervention of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to prevent police from assisting UN staff.
A local UN officer, who did not wish to be quoted, alleged that police had been “immature” in the way they handled protesters. “They provoked these people,” he said. But it was evident to those present at the location that the demonstrators had come prepared to push the boundaries of good behaviour. They quickly erected a shed opposite the compound. Some climbed on walls while others pushed against the police barriers and grappled with the authorities. A bottle of petrol and a box of matches were also observed. UN employees were inside for at least eight hours before police facilitated their departure amidst hoots and shouts.
The protest reduced in intensity the following day. But although there was no apparent threat of bodily harm to UN personnel, only essential staff reported to work at the UN compound on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The protest continued on a lower key while some members of the National Freedom Front embarked on a hunger fast that did not last even as long as the “fast-unto-death” that Weerawansa started on Thursday.
War of statements
While this drama was being played out on the streets, another drama was playing out in the diplomatic arena. It was a war of words — or statements — and it wasn’t pleasant.
Initially, Ban Ki-moon’s bureau in New York defended the Sri Lanka government despite the violent protest on Tuesday. At the noon press briefing at the UN headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Ban Ki-moon’s spokesman Farhan Haq read a statement which said: “We trust that the Government of Sri Lanka will honour the commitments made in ensuring the safety and security of our staff so that they can continue the vital work being carried out by the United Nations each day to help the people of Sri Lanka.”
Haq said the secretariat held a number of high-level meetings with the Sri Lanka government, “trying to get their assurances”. “And as for Mr. Wimal Weerawansa, we notice that he himself said in a press conference that UN staff would be allowed to move in and out of the compound,” Haq continued, optimistically. “And we trust that that assurance will be kept.”
But by the following day, the tone had pointedly changed. Significantly, it was Wimal’s continued participation in the protest — in his capacity as member of the government — that led to more stern action being taken by the UN secretariat.
A statement attributable to the UN secretary-general’s spokesman now said: “The Secretary-General finds it unacceptable that the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to prevent the disruption of the normal functioning of the United Nations offices in Colombo as a result of unruly protests organized and led by a cabinet minister of the Government.”
Ban Ki-moon recalled Neil Buhne to New York for consultations and decided, harshly, to close down the UNDP regional centre in Colombo. He also called on the government to “live up to its responsibilities towards the United Nations as host country”.
The government replied with a hollowly that “throughout the situation, the Government of Sri Lanka has looked after the safety of the United Nations premises”.
“The demonstrations taking place outside have not resulted in harm to anyone,” a statement said. “Access has continued to be afforded to the premises, through the facilitation of the movement of persons wishing to enter or exit.” It was not the government’s role to obstruct a peaceful protest, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris said at a press conference. And in a sense, this assertion rang true.
The UN itself upholds the right to peaceful protest. After the unruliness of Tuesday, the rest of the week was relatively non-violent (despite Wimal and some demonstrators remaining outside the UN compound). Peaceful protests are a democratic right so was the UN not being duplicitous by whining merely because it offended or inconvenienced them?
In response to a question by this newspaper, Farhan Haq replied: “You are wrong in saying we minded the peaceful protest. We have said repeatedly this week that we do not have any problem with peaceful protest. What has been the problem has been the obstruction of UN staff, hindering our normal work on the ground. That is not in keeping with the Government of Sri Lanka’s commitments as host country. We have again repeated that we want staff to be able to go about their work without further hindrance.”
This, technically, was accurate. The entrance/exit to the UN compound was not clear. Hence, the allegation of obstruction rang true.
UNDP regional centre
Meanwhile, a controversy broke out regarding Ban Ki-moon’s decision to close down the regional centre. It was revealed in Colombo that the centre, which had been shifted here from Kathmandu some years ago because of turmoil in that capital, was being phased out anyway. There were already plans to shift it to Bangkok. In fact, some drivers of the regional centre had already been absorbed into other UN offices in Colombo.
Besides, the regional centre was not even in the compound. Closing it down would not have any impact on other UN activities in Sri Lanka. So what was Ki-moon playing at?
In response to our question on this, Haq said: “Although the UN had been discussing closing the UNDP regional centre with the foreign minister, up until yesterday, we had only decided to scale down the office, not to shut it. The decision to close it was taken yesterday by the SG, as a direct response to the situation in Colombo affecting our main UN compound.”
And so, as Weerawansa “fasted” outside, the government and UN secretariat were being sucked into a major diplomatic row. The government’s blatant duplicity in this matter was something that couldn’t be missed. Not surprisingly, the UN secretariat didn’t miss it.
Weerawansa, diplomats noted, should have resigned from his cabinet portfolio if his position was, indeed, not the position of the government. When he did send in his resignation letter, the president did not accept it. So here was a government minister obstructing the UN while the government maintained that they did not subscribe to this protest.
In Sri Lanka, such things seem normal. Outside, they seem ludicrous and bizarre.
A diplomatic demarche soon followed— and there hasn’t been one of these in a while. A joint statement by the heads of mission of Germany, UK, US, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Romania, Norway and the EU delegation expressed dismay at the blockade of the UN compound in Colombo and the “role played in it by a Government minister”. Blocking access to the United Nations — of which Sri Lanka itself is a member — as well as intimidating and harassing UN personnel is a breach of international norms and harmful to Sri Lanka’s reputation in the world, they said. The heads of mission will meet Minister Peiris on Monday to discuss the issue.
Weerawansa eventually ended his fast after a record two-and-a-half days when President Mahinda Rajapaksa wiped his brow and gave him some water. But the damage he has done to Sri Lanka with his thirst for third-grade publicity is irreparable. Not only has he embarrassed the government — though they may not realise it yet and may even have encouraged him — he has made a mockery of all Sri Lankans.
What could have been handled through careful, quiet diplomacy was made into a comedy of nonsensical proportions.
Upping the ante
Senior diplomats say that the situation with the UN is unfortunate and embarrassing. Sri Lanka, having managed the most difficult period of the military operation against the LTTE easily, now finds herself in a diplomatic quagmire.
“The UN has painted itself into a corner and the government has painted itself into a corner, a double-edged one at that,” said one senior Sri Lankan diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This is a failure of our diplomacy. Street smart tactics are not necessarily good diplomatic strategy. I don’t think there is any room for the UN to back down and what happened in front of the UN compound is upping the ante.”
There is nothing wrong with the demonstration, said another, also requesting anonymity. “Yes, people should have demonstrated to show our displeasure. But a senior government minister taking the lead and having given notice in advance that he will do it... that is the problem.”
Ban Ki-moon’s advisory panel could have been prevented, as Sri Lanka prevented Security Council intervention, by appointing the local Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission earlier and given government endorsement to it. There would be no need, then, for Ban Ki-moon to appoint its own panel. “Prevention is always better than reaction, even in diplomacy.”
“I must say that we cannot afford to let this escalate further and there is still room for the government to work through quiet diplomacy to solve this crisis,” he stressed. “There are serious and strategic issues in Colombo and representational issues in New York. All these need to be handled.”
“Representational issues” in New York is a reference to the fact that Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN Palitha Kohona is frequently out of his station while the Deputy Permanent Representative Bandula Jayasekera has now been recalled.
It is difficult to say how the crisis with the secretariat will play out. “It will depend on how we handle it from now on,” said a senior retired diplomat. “This is a clear case where we have certain responsibilities as the host country to facilitate the UN work and this was disrupted by a demonstration led by a government minister.”
“While our policy is to keep the Sri Lankan issue away from the UN, we have dragged it straight back by diplomatic default,” he said. “I don’t think this kind of thing has ever happened to Sri Lanka before. This is embarrassing particularly because the agenda was to make a hero out of a cardboard hero. At what cost is the issue.” - courtesy: lakbimama News -