By DR DAYAN JAYATILLEKA
In several senses, the battle at the Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on May 26-27th, 2009, was inextricably linked to our military victory on the ground on May 18-19th. 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 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 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.
There was an EU draft resolution against Sri Lanka as far back as early 2006. We successfully removed it from the agenda after I took over in 2007. 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), the EU backed by the US sought a Special Session on Sri Lanka in 2009 and tabled a resolution, thus bringing it on to the agenda. Our diplomatic victory removed it from the agenda with no further action mandated, not even the need to report back to the Council.
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. An International Crisis Group report confirms that 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.”
The return of Sri Lanka to the UN HRC agenda in 2012 has 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.
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.
Some criticize our stance and strategy of May 2009 as 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, who was 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.
Russia and the Philippines were represented by former Deputy Foreign Ministers and China by the Ambassador who would go on to be the PR currently on the Security Council. A lesson of Geneva May 2009 was Sri Lanka’s need for --and ability to— construct the broadest global coalitions with those who stand for sovereignty and a multi-polar world, thus balancing off pressures on our national sovereignty from Diaspora-driven, ‘humanitarian interventionist’ hegemony.