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The significance of Sri Lanka’s success at the UNHRC in Geneva, May 2009

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Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe and Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka at UNHRC special session on Sri Lanka, in Geneva on May 26, 2009.-pic courtesy: Getty images

by Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Reflections on the Third Anniversary of the Diplomatic Victory

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.

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  1. This was no victory at all. Jayatilaka blowing his own trumpet again and again. Answer to this is given by JD in his recent article.


    I thought this was an answer to JD. I wonder whether JD will answer in another article.

    When a remarkable diplomatic victory hailed by non – Sri Lankans is belittled by Sri Lankans then is not the chief architecht of that victory entitled to respond?Circumstances may have forced him to blow his own trumpet? By the way there is nothing wrong in blowing ones own trumpet as long as it is not off tune.

  2. DJ and RW seem to have ambitions to become Foreign Minister and Deputy of Lanka. These two who like attacking people and ramming their views down people’s throats are like Tweedle dee and Tweedle dum and certainly not fit to be diplomats!

  3. Dear Mr Jeyaraj, I have added my comments to some of the contributions published here. As a retired very senior diplomat i would not hesitate to say that you are backing non career diplomats such as Dayan J and Tamara K. I have read your article from the time you contributed to The Island from the time of Viji Yapas time and know you could be about fifteen years younger to me. However, we would appreciate if you would rise above and not show your bias towards some and hatred towards others. Trust you would accept my comments in the right spirit.


    I do not support or oppose any individual. I extend support on the basis of principles to causes which I think are right and deserve space.

  4. Come on Dayan J, you are revealing sensitive information in your attempt to cleanse your name. Public servants in Sri Lanka (or in any country) are not allowed to write on matters dealing with state secrets or government policy matters merely to defend their own backs! Did Dayan ever get permission from any Foreign secretary to write these articles? (as DJ says, he has made frantic calls on some matters to Foreign Secretaries–so I am sure he could have made an ordinary call to seek permission)–Follow rules please, at least that will set an example! Blow your own trumpet, but for heaven sake don’t wipe the spit on your clothes!!!

  5. A victory is a victory, nothing there to take away from what Dr DJ had achieved, being at the forefront. Actually he thwarted one brought against SL and did just the opposite introducing a resolution praising GoSL for successfully dealing with LTTE menace and won it, well deserved. Did not SL punch more than its weight?

    The May 2009 was significance indeed both winning militarily and diplomatically. The month would have also seen even the trifecta, and it was in the offering, had we won politically too. It was not to be, reason, since the independence, we have not had a leader who is a visionary and think first about the country than him, of course his family. Much blame should be directed at MR, because he was in a unique position than anyone before, pronouncing in the same week of winning Gota’s war, perhaps in his first appearance in the parliament, of his Govt’s commitment for the implementation of the13th amendment in full. He did not require to command a 2/3 majority to do this as this was in the constitution, initially introduced when UNP was at the helm. No one would have blamed him for it. He was obviously not in this mindset; all his was how to share the spoils, and he saw this as a once in a life time opportunity, for him and his family. He is not racist, but made himself as one to keep the majority his side so they would not take note of all his side businesses/short comings.

    What this President did to achieve the things he wants to achieve was removing the two times limit on the terms of presidency; promoting SF to Army Chief of Staff and then disposing to jail accusing him of a coup; Rewarding DJ for what he did with a transfer to Paris; contesting for Time magazine most popular leader in the world; obtaining a PhD in Russia, for what I do not know, may be for cheating VP of not paying the arrears of the amount they agreed before his first president election; and conducting other elections, to increase family intakes into politics and high positions, the patriotic list has no end. So much for his achievements in the peace time in the past three years that gets to the UN and being get the attention of the superpower, requiring a full time Foreign Minister to look after the UN itself. With the LTTE complete wiped out, even the mainstream moderates have become extremists, saying now that provincial council is a stepping stone to Tamil Elam.

    Now attempts are being made to please Washington, rather than focussing on what needs to be done addressing the core issues that have been identified in the LLRC. Even, in this article what is being highlighted is if we gather enough votes to defeat a resolution that would be brought against us or to pass a resolution by us, which are what needed to get away with accountability commitments that were made to Mr Moon. This is not an easy job when the top has been implicated. Crimes committed pre LTTE could have been written off by the IC, if GoSL had improved its HR records post LTTE, and implemented measures promoting reconciliation amongst races in the island. Releasing SF is being done having conceded to the demand posed by USA, and this would please them, although our judiciary would be looked as if a laughing stock, what who cares, and this needs to be done before Sanjin’s entourage saw Ms HC. Until a victory achieved politically, others meddling with SL’s affairs is unavoidable; loop holes are every where, taking cover under sovereign rights becoming increasingly remote.

  6. DJ quotes DR Palitha Kohona.

    Perhaps DJ could share his thoughts on an opinion, that Sri Lanka could never depend on a China or Russian veto, because in international diplomacy, at some point, the large countries get together and will do a deal and that will be the end of Sri Lanka’s veto protection.

    Even with Oil, why didn’t the Russian and Chinese veto save the likes of Gaddafy, and many others?

    Wasn’t Slobodan and the Serbians considered more or less Russian? Did the a veto save them?

    Isn’t DJ being somewhat short sighted in “his” foreign policy?

    Our most senior diplomats commented that DJ’s strategy in Geneva was flawed and that the Empire will strike back and settle the score with compound interest soon after the 2009 vote. Are they all wrong and DJ, who has no diplomatic training and is a politically appointed amature is acting like a bull in a china shop?

  7. Srilanka should by pass Delhi alltogether.

    As one the senior BJP leader said in Madras recently ,India can never be a world power, with so many of its citizens living in poverty.

    To be precise ,that number is over 800 Million based on Ms Arundathi’s recent article on how vast the divide between the rich and poor there.

    With Srilanka,eradicating the terrorism, which was introduced by India, and the economy is moving along nicely with the benifits flowing right across the landscape, Srilanka is shaping up to be a country with a clout much more bigger than its size.

    What our dear friend Mr Solheim , said the other day is really interesting.

    He said Srilanka is such a strategically important place that many powerful countries want to intervene there.

    Obviously India must be worried that the ever blossomoing friendship of Srilankans with China may be harmful to her in the long run.

    So they may want to use the US as a ally to thwart Chinese power, plus prevent Srilanka becoming the Singapore of South Asia..

    Rebirth of Indira Gandhi doctrine perhaps.

    Again from the Solheim speech, Mrs Sonia Gandhi hasn’t forgiven the LTTE for killing her husband,

    So some sections of the Indian establishment must have presented a convincing case to the Govt that, the best way to win US support is to back them against Srilanka,

  8. ” DJ who has no diplomatic training and is a politically appointed amature is acting like a bull in a China shop”….

    .Look who is talking!!!!!!

  9. [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.]
    They seem to be not taking Dr.Dayan’s advice.They are going to the US,bypassing india.It seems that mahinda is very miffed with India’s vote for the resolution.He visited pakistan,south korea,qatar,singapore and now thailand.The message to india is we don’t need you,we can manage without you,by building up bilateral agreements with other asian countries,and will go directly to washington and instead of you,the US is going to become the dominant power in the indian ocean region,using us as a springboard.

    Let them take their minds back to JR’s era,when he thought the same,and the US dropped him like a hot brick when it was crunchtime,salivating at the thought of a 1200 million people market and also to have india as a counterweight to the emerging superpower,china.

    Dr.Dayan is wasting his advice with the foreign affairs being run by buffoons like sajin vaas,who can’t and won’t understand india’s growing influence not only in this region,but all over the world.

    And,why is that?It is because nehru effectively stiched 25 countries into one with the thread of devolution,that today’s leaders of srilanka mock at and don’t want to follow.Let them learn the hard way.For some idiots advice will be like water off a duck’s back,until they learn through hard lessons,but the country suffers in the process,that is the unfortunate part.

  10. Shankar I love you for this comment. I will be missing you in this blog.

    DBSJ, I am not able to communicate to you to your mail id. Please check whether it is right.

    Shankar, Now it is time for Pirivom and may be some time later we will Sandhippom… though separating from you is a very painful one. Bye for now.

    My feet go but my eyes turn back to you. Bye Dear friend.

    My e-mail is either dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com or djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com………..DBSJ

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