3rd Anniversary Reflections: Geneva, May 2009

Photo courtesy UN

May is the month of the diplomatic success of Sri Lanka and its friends at the Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2009. That battle and victory are now the target of criticism and historical revisionism. It is alleged that Sri Lanka was brought onto the HRC agenda by our success, that the Sri Lankan team in Geneva at the time should have kept the resolution off the agenda as had our counterparts in New York, that the success of 2009 was the progenitor of an inevitable setback of March 2012 in the same arena, and that if we are in a hole today, we dug that hole in 2009.

This criticism, whispered and murmured since 2009 and finally out in the public domain, has the dubious virtue of being entirely ‘home grown’, because nothing remotely along these lines has figured in the voluminous commentary on the May 2009 and March 2012 votes published overseas, be it ‘Wikileaked’ cable traffic between Geneva and Washington DC, critical research monographs or ‘higher’ journalistic analyses. Having recognised its psychological well-springs and domestic political coordinates, one could ignore it except that wrong diagnoses inevitably lead to wrong policy prescriptions and are injurious to the national interest.

In several senses, the battle in the UN HRC on May 26-27th 2009 was inextricably linked to and a ‘superstructure’ of our military victory on the ground on May 18-19th. It was a run-on of that ‘ground war’. The West planned the resolution in the UN HRC as a means of securing a ‘humanitarian cessation’ of our final drive for victory against the Tigers. It followed through on the resolution, having earlier failed to move it in time to obtain a UN mandate for such a cessation. It failed because we in the UN HRC prevented the obtaining of the requisite sixteen signatures until the war was won. It remained one signature short for a week to ten days. The final signature was obtained shortly after, and the EU supported actively by the USA (as Secretary of State’s explicit instructions in a ‘Wiki leaked’ cable dated May 4th render incontrovertible) moved the Special session on Sri Lanka. Much is made of the fact that the US was not a member at that time, but by the same token, nor was Sri Lanka (having lost its seat at an election held in New York) –which did not mean that we were not active protagonists and players.

That Sri Lanka came on the UN HRC agenda in May 2009 due to its Geneva team at the time as alleged in an article in a well-known business magazine (and amplified in a Sunday column), is demonstrably false, several times over. Firstly there was an EU draft resolution against Sri Lanka as far back as early 2006, which we successfully removed from the agenda after I took over. Secondly, it is the EU backed by the US that sought a Special Session on Sri Lanka and tabled the resolution, thus bringing it on to the agenda.  Personally driven by David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner and carried on the wave of mass demonstrations in almost every Western capital by the Tamil Diaspora (including a self-immolation in front of the Palais de Nations), there was no possibility of  preventing it, though delay it we did. Thirdly, the comparison and contrast with New York is grossly erroneous. Sri Lanka was structurally safe in the UN Security Council, with the Russian and Chinese vetoes (and Russia and Vietnam as the rotating Chairs during the most intense weeks of the crisis), as it never was in the Human Rights Council. This is why, as an International Crisis Group report confirms, New York was never the intended pathway of the West’s move for a cessation of hostilities, while Geneva was. As UN Under Secretary-General Sha Zu Kang, China’s former Ambassador/PR in New York and Geneva, told me “they were looking for nothing less than a UN mandate, and knew it couldn’t come from the Security Council with us and the Russians there, or from the UNGA because the numbers were stacked against them; so they wanted it from Geneva. You not only deprived them of one, you gave them a negative mandate with your counter-resolution.”

What is richly ironic about this exaltation of a (professional) ‘New York model’ over a ‘Geneva model’ is that the issue of accountability entered the agenda and was conceded precisely in New York. Two successive Sri Lankan heads of Mission in New York had, during the final war, and indeed its final months, told me of the need for ‘a diplomatic endgame’ as distinct from a military one. Our current PR in New York, Dr Palitha Kohona, may recall an irate telephone call from me in May 2009 from the Serpentine bar at the UN Palais to Colombo (he was then the Secretary/MFA) to protest that we seemed to have conceded on accountability in New York, going by a communiqué issued after an ‘informal consultation’, which was being used in Geneva to put pressure on us. I told him I would not agree to anything of the sort. Dr Kohona urged me not to dissent on the record as we had to appear to be on the same page in New York, Colombo and Geneva. I am proud that when I left Geneva, I didn’t cut and run, leaving Sri Lanka dangling on an accountability hook.

Fourthly, our victory in the vote in May 2009 did not put or retain Sri Lanka on the agenda of the UN HRC; the EU driven Special Session did, but our diplomatic victory removed it from the agenda and there was no further action mandated, not even the need to report back to the Council. The return of Sri Lanka to the UN HRC agenda has therefore to be sourced in the actions or inactions – the sins of commission and omission– in the years following the success of May 2009, i.e. the post-war years.

Ironies abound in the revisionist critique of our diplomatic success in May 2009. If a 17 vote majority, is a ‘hole’, how may one describe the high-stakes, Sri Lankan bid in late 2005 at the UN in New York which failed to obtain the vote of either China or India, or to put it differently, obtained the support of neither India nor China?  Surely the support of Asia’s two major players, or at least one of them, should have been ascertained before making a move which pathetically crumbled? If ‘preventive’ diplomacy were ever needed, it was to prevent such a fiasco.

Did Sri Lanka have the option of a dignified compromise in Geneva in 2009, a compromise that could either have kept the EU resolution from being placed on the agenda or one that could have led to a consensus? As the Special Session drew near, negotiations between Sri Lanka and the EU-led West were conducted at our behest by a Quartet, comprising our main neighbours India and Pakistan, and the current and incoming Chairs of the Non Aligned Movement, Cuba and Egypt, together with Sri Lanka. This arrangement was designed to reflect the chief concentric circles constituting Sri Lanka’s identity in the world: the South Asian neighbourhood and the global South. Those negotiations included one convened by the President of the Council, the Ambassador/PR of Nigeria, Dr Martin Umohoibhi, just before the vote was taken. The stance  of the West even at those last minute backstage talks, and more clearly and publicly, the amendment moved by Germany in the Council after formal session resumed (successfully forestalled by Cuba), clearly proved the impossibility of a compromise: the EU and its allies were dogmatically insistent that any reference to ‘sovereignty’ should be deleted from the text, that UN Human Rights High Commissioner should engage in a fact-finding mission to the war zone and report to the Council within six months, and that an international accountability mechanism was imperative. It is vital to recall the larger, real-world backdrop against which the issue was being posed: that of the bitter and victorious final battles fought back home. The Quartet, the NAM and I as SL’s PR rejected such a sell out of the Sri Lankan armed forces and citizens, our hard fought and finally won victory over secessionist terrorism, and the principles of the NAM.

My critics depict our stance and strategy of May 2009 as some kind of ultra-left, lone wolf confrontationist adventurism. This defies both logic and fact. Firstly, had it been so, it could not have garnered a near-two third majority of support, from Russia to Nigeria, from India to Indonesia, from the Philippines to Uruguay, from South Africa to Brazil. Secondly, a distinguished professional of the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry Dr Rohan Perera, whom I always kept in the loop, consulted on draft texts and was invited to crucial meetings in Geneva during those days, is witness that all our strategic and tactical decisions were taken in a collective and collegiate manner, at consultations with our coalition, including crucially, NAM and the BRICs. Not a single decision was taken outside of and other than by our ‘united front’; not a move made without consultation with and concurrence of trained, experienced and accomplished senior diplomats of a diverse array of states who were in touch with their capitals (with Russia represented by a former Deputy Foreign Minister and China by the Ambassador who would go onto be the PR currently on the Security Council). A lesson of Geneva May 2009 was Sri Lanka’s need for –and ability to—‘unite the many, defeat the few’, rally the broadest forces, construct coalitions, build alliances with those who stood for sovereignty and a multi-polar world, neutralise those vacillators in the middle, thus helping us balance off pressures on our national sovereignty from the Diaspora-driven, ‘humanitarian interventionist’ powers.

It is unsurprising though, that the revisionist critics fault me for failing to arrive at a negotiated compromise when the last example they set of successfully negotiated compromise was the post-tsunami ‘joint mechanism’ (PTOMS) of  2005 with the Tamil Tigers, leaving Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar out of the negotiating loop. This mechanism consisted of a top tier in which the legitimate Government of Sri Lanka and the Tigers were accorded equal representation and the more important middle tier in which the Tigers were conceded five seats to the elected government’s three! The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka froze the operation of the P-TOMS’ middle tier and effectively aborted that deadly act of appeasement.

It is amusing that the tactics of the Sri Lankan Geneva team of the 1980s are upheld as a model for the 2009 challenge. It was not, though the performance was skilled and competent.  In the mid–to-late ’80s in Geneva, Sri Lanka was on the defensive, through no fault of its ably led team. In a lesson that may be apposite for March 2012 and beyond, but had no relevance for 2009, the Sri Lankan team of the ’80s found itself on the opposite side of India, while the latter had many allies and proxies. In such a situation Sri Lanka had to play for a draw as it were in Geneva. The crux of the matter, which has been avoided by the revisionist critics of our performance in Geneva 2009 and 2012, is the pivotal strategic significance of India for Sri Lanka’s external relations and those policy measures needed in the ‘intermestic’ realm to retain the support of that most critical of variables. I have been an unflinchingly consistent advocate of precisely such measures, and as a student of geopolitical Realism, have held that given especially the new strategic alliances, the road to Washington lies through Delhi.