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Sri Lanka vs. Human Rights Complex

A Review of Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha’s “Representing Sri Lanka; Geneva, Rights and Sovereignty”

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“… Sri Lankan hankering after the West is longstanding, fine-tuned in the Jayewardene days which spawned a breed of diplomats who thought the Cubans uncivilized and the Africans unreliable.” – Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Contrary to popular belief, Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism and the LTTE did not end in May 2009 by the waters of the Nandikkadal Lagoon. The LTTE, by any definition, was an international terrorist organization with a carefully crafted and intricately positioned propaganda arm, parts of which still remain in place. These elements, with tentacles spread far and wide, laid a foundation that would sustain its military efforts in Sri Lanka while also achieving the long-term application of international diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka at every turn. Indeed, in those crucial early months of 2009, the machinations of the ‘Human Rights Complex’ were working on overdrive to contain Sri Lankan military advances. The LTTE were surrounded in the North but Sri Lanka was besieged on the international stage in Geneva.


Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Thus began perhaps one of Sri Lanka’s proudest moments, a high-water mark of our country’s international diplomacy, under-appreciated though it was at home. The UNHRC Resolution in 2009 (S-11/1) in the aftermath of the war, was largely supportive of Sri Lanka while commending the operation as well as the commitments made by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his administration.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha’s new book, “Representing Sri Lanka; Geneva, Rights and Sovereignty”, provides what is an essential perspective of all aspects of the Sri Lankan mission as well as a front row seat in various theatres of diplomatic confrontation. Prof. Wijesinha had rejected other posts offered by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, including the Ambassadorship to the United States. His appointment to Geneva was at the request of Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, the Permanent Representative. He is effusive in his praise for Dr. Jayatilleka’s efforts to organize and inspire a small but focused staff at the mission, taking on and beating the Western Bloc and their networks of NGOs, think-tanks and media.


The “Machang Culture”
It is ironic that Prof. Wijesinha’s chance meeting with celebrated writer, the late Gore Vidal occurred not in some grand European hall, as might have been expected, but on the shores of the Indian Ocean, deep in the south of Sri Lanka. Mr. Vidal is celebrated for many reasons including his 1968 novel Myra Breckinridge which challenged gender norms of the time, drawing a parallel between Mr. Vidal and Prof. Wijesinha whose own published research was titled “Marriage and the position of women, as presented by some of the early Victorian novelists”. It is a fascinating insight into the varied formation Dr. Wijesinha has benefited from as well as his diverse interests and pursuits. 

As former President of the Liberal Party as well as Vice-President of Liberal International, Prof. Wijesinha critiques the current state of Liberalism in general and Liberal International in particular: its co-opting by the “economic interests of the West and of big business”. His writings on these and many other topics are also collected in an extensive blog which serves as an excellent resource for anyone interested in Sri Lanka and its politics.

Prof. Wijesinha does not take many backward steps, even when faced with journalistic luminaries such as Stephen Sackur or Sir David Frost. His blunt rhetorical style is perfectly suited to squaring off against representatives of the Western Bloc alongside Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, not to mention the pro-LTTE propaganda parroting liberal media. These many hostile elements required direct confrontation and Prof. Wijesinha indicates some surprise at being utilized as such by Dr. Jayatilleka; one speculates that various elements of the human rights complex were just as surprised. In the book he refers to Dr. Jayatilleke’s appointment as the Permanent Representative to Geneva as “inspired” and calls Samarasinghe “excellent” and an example of a Minister that studies his brief and acquires the opinions of experts.

The Human Rights Complex has many moving parts, including think-tanks and intellectuals and like many other groups, deploy these assets very effectively. ‘Representing Sri Lanka’ reveals countless examples of the carrot and stick nature of funding for these elements within the diplomatic ‘industry’ and uncovers the seedy underbelly of diplomacy that is not widely understood. The book is at times a process-driven inquest that discusses opportunities missed while providing fleeting glances into an alternative future where Sri Lanka grasped its post-war future with both hands instead of the steady descent into triumphalism. There is a window into the growing excesses of the post-war Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and its manifestation in Geneva: “the machang culture”; large delegations without focused objectives, full of ill-considered rhetoric.

Prof. Wijesinha makes clear his reservations about the personalities and characters he encounters in ‘Representing Sri Lanka’. Heroes, villains and pawns are clearly defined, their motivations laid bare. The stereotype of the liberal white knight saviour is alive and well as is the careerist diplomat, always looking for a more illustrious assignment. There are also no illusions about the double standards prevalent in the international system and of the biases that form the basis for decision making among Western establishments. Yet it is clear Prof. Wijesinha sees this international system as worthy of substantive engagement, optimistic that minds can be changed by well-presented and concerted argument.


Indulging in Excess
There is a belief that diplomatic offices largely exist in some elite bubble of expensive lunches in exotic cities. ‘Representing Sri Lanka’ does nothing to dispel this notion, yet it does present ample examples of integrity amongst the many actors in the diplomatic space, those that do not treat their posts as all-expense-paid holidays. Rather, there is a seriousness to the nature of their work that leaps at you from the pages of this book. Prof. Wijesinha charges that many of his compatriots do not appreciate the intricacies of diplomacy and instead see fit to engage in chest-thumping and drum-beating. Those from the political arena seem more intent on impressing party elites at home than in effectively countering the foreign pro-LTTE lobby. Bravado and machismo seemed to be mistaken for effective arguments and rebuttals.

On the subject of rebuttals, Prof. Wijesinha would engage in quick and sharp written replies to allegations and comments put forward by the human rights complex through the NGO corps. This practice meant that any and all contentions were dealt with swiftly and any concerns were being tracked and challenged by Prof. Wijesinha and his staff, leaving no room for false propaganda. You get the sense Prof. Wijesinha treated allegations seriously, emphasizing that the work of the mission was based on upholding principles. Sadly, this practice of rebuttals ended with their successors, who considered such responses unnecessary.

A recurring theme involves the biases held by Sri Lankan representatives and delegates against other third-world countries. Various officials would pander to the west despite their open hostility towards the GOSL, while simultaneously being dismissive of the need to build relationships amongst the ‘smaller’ nations that would form the core of Dr. Jayatilleka’s own strategy to counter the western bloc. 

There was always tangible sympathy towards the LTTE amongst many members of the international community. A few weeks prior to Prof. Wijesinha’s arrival in Geneva in March 2009, the LTTE had crashed their light aircraft in to central Colombo in a ‘kamikaze’ style attack. Against such a backdrop, it seems bizarre that the international community were so concerned about Sri Lanka’s military operations but paid little attention to the LTTE’s procurement of Czech-built light aircraft during what was supposedly a ceasefire agreement. This would have been an inconvenient digression from the western bloc’s narrative. Sri Lankans have always held doubts about the veracity of claims made by NGOs against the GOSL. What ‘Representing Sri Lanka’ does best is to uncover the broad oppressor/ oppressed consensus that seems ingrained in what Prof. Wijesinha has himself in the past referred to as the “human rights perspective”.

“Representing Sri Lanka” exposes the deeply entrenched nature of working relationships between pro-LTTE propaganda machinery and staff of human rights organizations. The United Nations and its various agencies have nothing like the pristine reputations its members might perceive. The infamous Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq is emblematic; allegations of millions of Dollars in commissions and kickbacks including payments made to Kojo Annan, son of former Director General, Kofi Annan.

Prof. Wijesinha exposes what he refers to as the “indulgence” of several UN staff towards the LTTE highlighting fascinating incidents with members of UNICEF. Prof. Wijesinha was left enraged when a UN official referred to LTTE ‘legislation’, reporting her to the UN Resident Coordinator. Another occasion describes alleged corruption related to direct funding from UNICEF to the LTTE for rehabilitating child soldiers; a report from an external audit carried out due to Prof. Wijesinha’s complaints was later withheld from his office.


A Tinge of Disappointment
On one hand, in the period between 2007 and 2009, Sri Lankan diplomacy at the HRC in Geneva consisted of carefully worded, subtle yet clear representations and arguments. Unfortunately, the other side of the scale had little more than political promises targeted at the gallery with no apparent long-term strategy. Sri Lanka, on the backs of military and diplomatic efforts, had earned a certain respect on the world stage as a serious, practical actor. 

This respect was squandered as it became clear that commitments made, be it on the LLRC recommendations or on at least commencing negotiations on the 13th amendment, were little more than rhetoric. Post war, discussions of reconciliation became a distraction and a nuisance instead of a keystone project that would have far-reaching implications for Sri Lanka.

The narrative in ‘Representing Sri Lanka’ is certainly cause for pride but also brings a tinge of disappointment. In the context of history, one regrets the careless dismantling of a structured, well-oiled, purpose-built machine that served the country with such efficiency. The moving parts were its people; Dr. Jayatilleka and Prof. Wijesinha, but also their many colleagues that had built up not just networks and relationships but also expertise. Their dispersing to various corners of the Sri Lankan bureaucracy is in a sense a microcosm of why Sri Lanka keeps faltering. The right people with the necessary expertise in positions where they might affect proceedings are cast aside for the sake of patronage. It is that which truly disappoints; not only does the cast of National characters include so few of these “good men” but they so often find themselves as disparate components of a dysfunctional instrument.

There is a belief that the diplomatic circuit; officials, ambassadors and their often-large entourages, exist in an environment far removed from the corporate rate race that many are familiar with. ‘Representing Sri Lanka’ reveals the careerism that seems to define the actions of those in positions of significant influence across the spectrum of the human rights complex. The arenas of diplomacy seem co-opted, to some extent, by the political dreams and ambitions of its operators and it is at once shocking and illuminating to notice that the fates of history for nations of millions can fall at the mercy of these very narrow and personal intrigues.

Sri Lanka, a foundational democracy in our region with well-developed institutional structures, might be little more than collateral damage in the pursuit of career objectives of some far-removed bureaucrat. It is also a reminder: these seemingly inept international organizations, so disorganized with their rigid bureaucracy, are in fact extremely powerful bodies that could very well alter the destiny of a nation. This is now the frontier in the battle for Sri Lanka’s rights and sovereignty, we can only hope that our representatives are worthy of their place on those front-lines.
Twitter: @kusumw


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