by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Many Sri Lankans watching live proceedings of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the fateful Thursday of March 22nd 2012 were puzzled by the composition of our representatives when the spotlight was on Sri Lanka in Geneva.
With our learned minister of External Affairs himself being present in Geneva it was but natural to expect that Prof GL Peiris would deliver the official response of Sri Lanka. Instead we saw the Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe functioning as leader of delegation read out from a prepared text in what was visibly a lack- lustre performance.
A wide view of the High-Level Segment of the 19th session of the Human Rights Council. 27 February 2012. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré
This was rather strange for at least three reasons. Firstly it is customary for the Minister in charge of External or Foreign affairs to lead the delegation officially when he or she is present. Secondly Mahinda Samarasinghe had already spoken once on behalf of Sri Lanka earlier during the “High level segment”period on February 27th when the 19th session of the UNHRC got officially underway. Thirdly in comparison with Samarasinghe,Prof Peiris would have done the Country proud by rising to the occasion eruditely, eloquently and effectively.
Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Plantation Industries of Sri Lanka addresses before the voting of resolution on Sri Lanka L.2 during the 19th session of the Human Rights Council. 22 March 2012. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré
Besides Prof.Peiris was not even seated at the side of Samarasinghe when the Plantations minister read out the statement.It was former Attorney-General Mohan Peiris who shared the honour of “frontal prominence” with Samarasinghe and not his Professorial namesake. The External affairs minister was relegated to a seat behind Samarasinghe. Seated alongside Peiris was the self – confessed “half Democrat” and Traditional Industry minister Kathiravely Devananda alias “Douglas”.
That was not all! While almost every country at the UNHRC on that day was represented by their permanent representative or deputy permanent representative to the UN,Sri Lanka’s permanent representative Tamara Kunanayakam and her deputy Manisha Gunasekera seemed to be conspicuous absentees.Both were not visible as the cameras focused on the four gentlemen from Sri Lanka. Where oh where was Tamara Kunanayakam “our woman in Geneva”?
Having read many reports in sections of the Sri Lankan media extolling the virtues of certain personalities while denigrating others I jumped to the conclusion that Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam had been sidelined by influential members of the Colombo caucus who had invaded Geneva temporarily and were strutting about “dressed briefly in authority”.
I thought then that Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland was being enacted without Alice in a month where individuals as mad as “march hares”leap and bound. But I learnt later that Tamara had indeed been present.
Only, Sri Lankas officially accredited permanent representative to the UN in Geneva could not get a seat among representatives from her mother land and had been compelled to seek occupy a seat vacated by Gambia.After weeks of painstaking spadework our woman in Geneva could not find accommodation with the “big boys” from Colombo.
Ambassador Kunanayakam however had her day on March 23rd when the 19th session of the UNHRC formally concluded. With the ministerial heavy weights departing , the field was clear for Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to make her closing remarks at the end of the session.
“Sri Lanka is proud to have led a battle of convictions by appealing to the conscience of each and every one – for the respect of the principles and values that should unite the international community” Ambassador Kunanayakam said.
“The US resolution against Sri Lanka constitutes a negative precedent that challenges the core values of the Human Rights Council, and reflects a blatant case of politicization that takes the Council hostage to the hidden agendas of the mighty” she pointed out.
Laura Dupuy Lasserre, President Human Rights Council opens session the voting of resolution on Sri Lanka L.2 during the 19th session of the Human Rights Council. 22 March 2012. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré
Speaking further at the session chaired by the President of the UNHRC, Laura Dupuy Lasserre of Uruguay, the Sri Lankan envoy to the UN in Geneva said –
“Today, one country deems itself the depositary of a mission to dictate to the rest of world its vision of Democracy, of Human Rights, of Development. Is any of us safe from becoming the next target, the object of pressure, even of military aggression, to the detriment of our peoples and their right to life?
It is our duty to unite in the common struggle to defend our sovereignty, our independence, our territorial integrity, and the free choice of our peoples to shape their own societies and their destiny.
Sri Lanka will continue its policy of peace and reconciliation, which is an inclusive process that enjoys not only the support of its own people, but broad international support.
We will also continue to defend the independence and the prerogatives of the Human Rights Council, against any effort to undermine its multilateral principles.
We must heal not hurt; unite not divide ! The victory of one nation over domination is our collective victory, its defeat is our collective defeat!
Sri Lanka pays homage to all those who, in various ways, expressed their support for our common cause!”
After Kunanayakam’s closing remarks a Western Human rights activist who is familiar with the Sri Lankan situation as well as the UN in Geneva observed that it would have been better if she had been allowed to make the statement on behalf of Sri Lanka when the vote was taken on the US sponsored resolution.
“Apart from her intrinsic merit and ability to make an effective presentation it may also have helped Sri Lanka to project a better image as Tamara Kunanayakam happens to be ethnically a Tamil” this HR activist stated in what was strictly a personal opinion.
“At a time when there is so much of criticism against Sri Lanka about alleged discrimination against Tamils and at a time when there was lobbying in Geneva by Tamil groups on those lines, it would have been a good idea to let a Tamil woman represent Sri Lanka” the activist emphasized.
“From what I know about Tamara Kunanayakam, she may be ethnically a Tamil but she does not think of herself as Tamil. Tamara regards herself as Sri Lankan” I replied.
“That may be so but it does not matter.It is the optics that counts. The Tamil groups have been attacking Kunanayakam viciously saying she was a token Tamil appointed by Mahinda Rajapakse to Geneva. So why not play that card to Sri Lanka’s advantage”? was again the query.
I replied that I did not know why it was not so but that I could guess. I also said “In Sri Lanka these things happen all the time”.
Even though I replied the human rights activist in that manner I must say that I too was puzzled to use a mild expression by the inexplicable under utilization of Ambassador Kunanayakam at the UNHRC during”showtime”.
In this I am not referring to exploiting her “Tamilness” alone but also to her background and proficiency that would have served Sri Lanka so well in Geneva.It must however be stressed that her “absence” at showtime does not in any way detract from her overall performance in Geneva at a critical time.
It is indeed unfortunate that a lot of negative publicity has been generated due to the huge number of persons sent by Sri Lanka to Geneva to lobby for the Country. Some “plants” in sections of the media by certain ministers denigrate the performance of some other ministers as well as the officials at our permanent mission in Geneva.
The impression sought to be conveyed is that all effective lobbying was done only at the last stages by our minister studded delegation and that they alone were responsible for garnering support at the UNHRC. It also implies that Sri Lankan officials in Geneva were inefficient and ineffective and that ministers from Colombo had to do all the lobbying and canvassing.This is rather absurd and far,far from the truth.
This inaccurate impression ignores the fact that Ambassador Kunanayakam and loyal members of her staff have been systematically engaged in promoting the Sri Lankan cause and forging vital alliances in a bid to gain wider support for the Country. It also seeks to negate the Important role played by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and External Affairs minister Peiris in enlisting support for Sri Lanka.
What is being glossed over or not realized comprehensively is the fact that President Rajapaksa, Minister GL Peiris and Ambassador Kunanayakam are all of the same mind and opinion in formulating and implementing an approach towards US inspired developments in the UNHR. The policy guidelines were laid down by the President himself and executed by the Minister and Ambassador.
The significant feature of this policy was that it was based on principles and not on expediency. The President was prepared to lose rather than compromise on principles. The final outcome of the vote therefore is not perceived as a defeat in war but as the first encounter in a series of battles.
What is more the stance adopted by President Rajapaksa had a very good chance of succeeding at the vote too.That is until India dealt Sri Lanka a diplomatic blow. Had New Delhi not changed course after assuring Colombo of unwavering support , Sri Lanka may have altered its strategy differently. The Indian “inconsistency” gave Sri Lanka very little time to adjust accordingly.
It is against this backdrop that the observations by the human rights activist about the perceived under utilization of Ambassador Kunanayakam assumes relevance. Given her long years of experience with the UN in Geneva,her shared world view and affinity to President Rajapaksa and the reality of her ethnicity, it does make sense to say that better use should have been made of her utilitarian and optic value. But this did not happen to a very great extent and other “invaders” either eroded into or usurped her legitimate authority and functions.
It is all the more puzzling because President Rajapaksa had apparently recognized and appreciated the fact that Tamara Kunanayakam would be an asset to the Presidency and the Country at the UN in Geneva. This is why he recalled Kshenuka Seneviratne from Geneva before her term was over and filled that vacancy with Tamara.Kshenuka was appointed Additional secretary to the ministry in Colombo.
This action was not a slight on Seneviratne but only an illustration of the Presidents acumen in placing the right person at the right time in the right place.Given Tamara Kunanayakam’s credentials there is little doubt that she was indeed a very good choice given President Rajapaksas own attitude and approach towards the issue.
There were basically two schools of thought in this matter.One was the school which thought it could buy time by discussing and compromising. The other school was against giving in through appeasement and wanted to resist with the principle based support of fellow developing and non aligned nations. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Tamara Kunanayakam belonged to the latter school of thought.
Thus when Tamara Kunanayakam was appointed to Geneva it was welcomed by those knowledgeable about the actual stakes involved.It was felt that multiple factors rendered her the suitable choice in the current environment to be our woman in Geneva. She was ideally equipped to lead Sri Lanka’s diplomatic campaign at the Geneva UNHRC front. A fellow Sri Lankan diplomat gushed “If Tamara was not for real we will have to invent her”.
Who then is Tamara Kunanayakam ,Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva and Sri Lankan Ambassador to the Holy See at Vatican? Why is it felt by many that she is most suitable and best equipped to battle for Sri Lanka in Geneva at this critical juncture?What sort of person is this dusky woman with a husky voice who valiantly defends her country and President against the sole super power on the one hand while charges of “traitor” and “stooge” are levelled against her by vocal warriors on the other?
Tamara Manimekhalai Kunanayakam was born in Colombo to a Father of Jaffna Tamil origin and a Mother of Indian Tamil descent. Her father was a Tamil Anglican from Chundikuli while her mother was from a Tamil Hindu family in Badulla.Both families were against the union.
Tamara’s father was a leftist and member of the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party(LSSP) He was in the Clerical service and in the vanguard of the Trade Union movement, playing a prominent role in the Govt Clerical Services Union (GCSU) strike of 1947 in which comrade Kandaswamy was killed.
Her maternal Grandfather Gnanapandithan was a businessman in Badulla with leanings towards the Indian freedom struggle and National Congress. Many prominent Indian leaders visiting Badulla during British rule have stayed at their residence. Chief among them were Mahatma Gandhi and Jawarhalal Nehru.
Tamara studied in the Tamil medium at Ladies College in Colombo. For a brief period she studied at Vembaddy Girls High School in Jaffna also where she was known by her middle name Manimekhalai.The name is derived from the classical Tamil epic “Manimekhalai” in which the protagonist bearing the titular name is a Tamil Buddhist nun.
Growing up in Colombo ,Tamara acquired proficiency in Tamil,Sinhala and English.One of her brothers was a musician who played the Guitar for Jet liners. Tamara had a cosmopolitan upbringing and grew up in what could be termed a secular ethos.
Endowed with a spirit of adventure Tamara left the shores of Sri Lanka in 1972 with scarce cash resources. The 19 year old teen –ager travelled overland by bus to Europe. Her original destination was the Netherlands but fate willed otherwise and she ended up in Switzerland.
After spending some years in Geneva where she held a series of jobs ,Tamara went to Germany. She enrolled at the University of Heidelberg and obtained a Bachelors degree in Economics and International relations.
Tamara then returned to Geneva where she got a Masters degree from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies at the University of Geneva in public international law, international organizations ,diplomatic history and International financial and trade relations.
Apart from academic accomplishments , Tamara also gained further linguistic fluency. She mastered French, Spanish and German thus achieving linguistic competence in six languages. In addition to English Tamara has written extensively in French and Spanish too.
In 1982 Tamara joined the United Nations Development Program in Geneva. She also served as a Consultant and policy adviser to the Lutheran World Federation from 1983-84 and also 1986 -88. It was then that she her “name gained fame” in Sri Lanka.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) Conference was in progress at Vancouver in Canada when the anti –Tamil violence erupted in Sri Lanka in July 1983.Upon a request by Lutheran church delegates, Kunanayakam sent a fax to Vancouver outlining the information she had acquired then about the violence. This fax was leaked to the media and several news agencies quoted her by name.
Shortly after that ,Arne Fjortoft the Norwegian who had served in Sri Lanka for many years on World Vision International led a delegation to Sri Lanka. Arne requested and obtained some particulars of the July violence from Tamara. She presented all the diverse information she had obtained from different sources. It was aimed at providing a wider picture of the situation.
When Fjortoft met then President Junius Richard Jayewardena he gave JR some copies of documents sent by Tamara Kunanayakam. Jayewardena was irritated and went public accusing a person called Tamara Kunanayakam who had supplied wrong information because she was a terrorist agent. No one who knew Tamara believed the charge levelled unfairly by JR Jayewardena.
That publicity though negative had a silver lining to it. It was through this episode that two Sinhala political leaders in their forties became aware of a person called Tamara Kunanayakam in Geneva. One was Vasudeva Nanayakkara.The other was Mahinda Rajapaksa. Both were not in Parliament at that time.They took steps to establish contacts with her.
Meanwhile Tamara undertook different stints at different places acquiring expertise and experience like a wandering bee gathering more honey.She held research positions at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo(1984 -85, Antenna International(1985-86) and Institute for Interdisciplinary research on Conflict and Violence(1991).
Kunanayakam also served as a consultant for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for Sub-Saharan Africa in 1985 and as researcher for the International Labour Organization (ILO) from 1991-93. From 1993 to 1994 she was head of the development of policy dept at the “Bread for All” in Berne,Switzerland.
Tamara Kunanayakam was essentially an economist interested in development issues who specialised in research,policy formulation and consultancy. Serving in different capacities she has travelled extensively in the developing world and written several papers and reports on development issues.She is also the author of the book “Quel developpement?Quelle cooperation internationale?
Tamara Kunanayakam began evolving politically too. Her father’s Trade Union activism and the anti-colonial nationalism of her mother’s family had imbued her with basic anti – imperialistic, pro- left leanings. This tendency was nurtured and nourished further by reading vast amounts of socialist and communist literature and through interaction with European leftists and Latin American marxists.
Tamara was fascinated by Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas. She was now very much a “leftist” with great admiration for Marxism as a tool of analysis. Her views on religion too transformed radically.Despite her Christian –Hindu parentage and links with Christian organizations she regards herself as a humanist subscribing to the religion of humanism.
While being primarily interested in development issues Tamara was equally concerned about human rights issues too and often worked in association with human rights activists on a voluntary basis.Her primary area of concern was involuntary disappearances. She also worked in an official capacity at the UN in this sphere.
Her interest in Human Rights issues led to her working as a Human Rights officer for the United Nations Centre for Human Rights from 1989 to 1990. She also worked for many years at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. She served from 1994 to 2005 in the unit on disappearances at the Special procedures branch in the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s office.
It was this interest and concern for the issue of enforced disappearances that brought Tamara Kunanayakam and President Mahinda Rajapaksa together.It was during the dark days of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) campaign where the United National Party(UNP) Governments of JR Jayewardena and Ranasinghe Premadasa cracked down ruthlessly on perceived “enemies of the state”.
This was the time when thousands and thousands of Sinhala youths mainly from the socially backward communities in the South kept on disappearing. This was the time when mothers in the South realised and shared the sorrow and anguish of mothers in the North and East who had lost their children too.
It was in these troubled times that opposition politicians like Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mangala Samaraweera challenged the power of the all powerful state in their bid to achieve accountability and justice. It was realised then with ample justification that one way of combating the power of state terror was to seek International attention and support.
It was the UN in Geneva that the opposition politicians thought of in their fight for human rights against the almighty state. Both Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Mahinda Rajapaksa then resolved to go to Geneva and spotlight the prevailing human rights abuses and disappearances there. It was a gigantic task then because very few people were courageous enough to confront the powerful UNP regime. Vasu and Mahinda had very few people to draw support from in their principled battle.
When Vasu and Mahinda went to Geneva to raise awareness at the UN and to enlist support from the global human rights community they got no help from the Sinhala people living in Geneva.In fact they had to face opposition from some die hard UNP supporters. But they had a friend in need who was a friend indeed!That was Tamara Kunanayakam.!!
Palais des Nations & Ariana Park-UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre
Tamara was already in contact with Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Now she was to play host, friend, guide and comrade to both in Geneva.Tamara’s widowed mother and her brothers too had moved to Geneva after 1983.While the family lived elsewhere, she stayed alone in a small studio apartment near her workplace at the “Palais des Nations”(Palace of Nations)housing the UNO.
When Vasu and Mahinda arrived in Geneva they had very little financial support. There were no “Mudalalis” and “capitalist entrepreneurs” to support “apey Mahinda” then. They could not afford to stay in Hotels or eat at restaurants.
So Tamara gave up her studio apartment temporarily for both to stay and went to live with her mother. Vasu slept on the single bed while the younger Mahinda lay on the couch. Meals were cooked by Mrs.Kunanayakam and sent regularly to them. Tamaras brother drove both in his car to the places they needed to go.
Tamara herself devoted her time, energy and knowledge to the project. She helped to plan and devise reports and letters. She made innumerable telephone calls on their behalf. She put then in contact with relevant officials,representatives,activists and media personnel.She set up appointments and accompanied them to act as interpreter where required.She went with them to the “palace” and helped them get better acquainted with the UN corridors of power and influence.
Placards featuring President Mahinda Rajapaksa, held at protests agianst UNHRC Resolution across the country-Feb 27, 2012-Pic Courtesy of: VikalpaSL
It was the help and support of the Kunanayakam family in general and Tamara in particular that aided Vasu and Mahinda then to focus UN attention to the Sri Lankan human rights situation. Subsequently Mahinda followed this up with vigour and determination. It may be recalled how Mahinda was stopped at the Katunayake Airport on the way to Geneva and was relieved of the affidavits and other documents in his possession.
It has been said of Mahinda Rajapaksa that he never forgets those who help him in times of trouble and remains grateful. This was so in the case of Tamara Kunanayakam too.Mahinda Rajapaksa was appreciative of the enormous help given by Tamara and her family in dark, desperate times.That he never forgot and was ready to acknowledge it publicly was demonstrated clearly years later.
The 17 year rule of the UNP was over and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga became President in 1994. Mahinda himself was minister of Labour and later Fisheries in her Government. He came to Geneva for an International Labour conference in his capacity as Sri Lankan Labour minister.
The Sri Lankan association comprising mainly of Sinhala residents of Geneva gave “ Minister” Mahinda a grand welcome and reception. When it was time for him to speak Mahinda Rajapaksa was nostalgic. He revived memories about his earlier visit to Geneva to spotlight the human rights violations perpetrated by the UNP regime of Ranasingha Premadasa.
“There was no welcome reception like this then. There was no Sinhala person in Geneva to help me then.Many people avoided me. Only one family – a Tamil family – helped me then. That was the Kunanayakam family” stated Mahinda Rajapaksa openly to a preponderantly Sinhala audience To Be Continued
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org