Ruling Elite Does not Seem to Understand that Sri Lanka is only a Part of a World System-Dayan Jayatilleka


Q: You had been successful in pre-empting an EU backed adverse resolution on Sri Lanka in 2009 by getting a favorable resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UN Human Rights Council.

Kassym Jomart Tokayev (right ) Director General United Nations Office at Geneva with Navy Pillay (left ) United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights during the High Level Segment of the 22nd Session of the Human Rights Council. 25 February 2013 – Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

However, since then a resolution against Sri Lanka was passed last year and we are about to face another adverse resolution and chances are high that we would lose it. What did go wrong since our initial success at the UN Human Rights Council?

A: It was not simply an adverse resolution that we pre-empted in May 2009. In its August 6th 2009 issue the prestigious journal The Economist (London) referred to “…Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Geneva, who warded off the threatened UN war-crimes probe in May [2009]…” We not only defeated a threatened war crimes probe, which posed a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and its armed forces, we did so convincingly, by a 29-12 vote. We thereby bought Sri Lanka time and space for three years. When the US resolution prevailed last year, it got 24 votes, but we had won 29 votes in May 2009. It was with great frustration that I watched from Paris in March 2012, that 17 vote majority which I had helped secure for our country, dropping vertically, being squandered and converted into a 9 vote defeat. Now, in March 2013, we must hope that the vote, if there is one, does not drop even further. It seems a challenge to even get to the double –digit mark.

As for what went wrong with our initial success, well there’s a minor and obvious factor, and a major and less obvious one. The minor factor is that as the saying goes ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, by which is meant that if you have a success, you don’t tamper with it; you reward it, encourage it and build on it. If a cricket captain wins a World Cup or an MP wins an important seat handsomely, you don’t sack him within months. That however, is the irrational manner in which the Government behaved, reversing President Rajapaksa’s decision to keep me for another year in Geneva, and removing me by July 2009, after we had won in May. Thus I was unable to firmly consolidate our victory, which I could have done had I continued there. This also gave the wrong signal and confused those who had supported us. One might well say that the decline, the reversal of our victory, began with that irrational decision.

The major factor that has caused this plunge is the failure of our post-war external relations and the errors of our post-war domestic policy, especially towards the Tamil question, or the question of political reconciliation and a just and sustainable peace. These are inextricably intertwined. Geneva is only a symptom that we have won the war but are losing the peace, or to put it differently, having won the hot war, we are losing the Cold war. Our Geneva victory in May 2009 was made possible partly because of the post-war perspective that I had presented in good faith to the Council. That perspective and pathway is the only one which could have retained the support of the world community. My removal was symbolic of a sharp departure from that path of post-war peace-building. The alternative or opposite perspective that was tried out for the last three or four years has proven a dismal failure in the task of winning the Cold War, and instead has lost Sri Lanka considerable international space.

Q: If you were in Geneva, in your 2009 capacity, how would you have dealt with the latest diplomatic challenge emanating from the forthcoming resolution?

A: If I had continued in Geneva after May 2009, which would have been the logical and rational thing to do, I would have consolidated that victory and we would have been better placed to face the current challenge. I cannot of course say exactly how I would have dealt with today’s challenge had I held the same post today, after having been sacked yesterday or the day before, so to speak. In any event, it is not fair for me to make any implicit criticisms of the current Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in Geneva, because I am sure he’s doing his very best, in accordance with what he thinks is right and possible.

Q: According to news you received from Geneva, what is our strategy in handing the latest challenge?

A: I do not receive any news from Geneva and even if I did, I would not wish to disclose or comment on it. However, I do observe what is happening in Colombo and I do not see any evidence of any coherent policy or strategy. In fact I do not see any analysis and strategy at all.

Q: Are we lobbying to get the second draft of the resolution, which has now been circulated in UNHRC, soften up?

A: I do not know and do not wish to engage in speculation or backseat driving. What I can discern is that the second draft of the resolution, far from being watered down, seems to have stiffened, especially after and because of the effect on opinion of the shocking, pathos-evoking photos in the latest Channel 4 movie.

Q: Going by the second draft, what does the resolution envisage to achieve and what would be its impact on Sri Lanka?

A: Going by what is available in the media, the resolution will ratchet up pressure on Sri Lanka, or if you prefer to make the metaphor more dramatic, it will tighten the noose a bit more. One of two negative things can happen: we can lose a vote by a margin that reveals just how much our international standing has weakened, or we can be arm twisted into an unfair, unbalanced compromise which can constitute a beachhead into our national sovereignty. There is nothing wrong with negotiating a compromise and it may well be the most prudent thing to do, but we must distinguish between compromise and capitulation, and must not imitate the Tigers by doing the diplomatic equivalent of swallowing a cyanide capsule or immolating ourselves.

Q: The Ministry of External Affairs has come under attack for our failure in UNHRC in 2012 and as well as for the forthcoming resolution. Do you think they deserve the blame?

A: While the Ministry has many failures and weaknesses, has a few bad apples and incompetents — and I have been the victim of some of them– I do not believe that either the present Minister or the Ministry taken as a whole, are the main causes of our dismal performance in the UNHRC and elsewhere in the global arena. The blame for our failure lies elsewhere, with those few who make the real decisions; those who force through wrong decisions or deadlock and divert correct decisions including the ones made by President Rajapaksa, who is still the sharpest single political leader we have and whose natural instinct gives him the best intuitive grasp of international dynamics. The problem is the closed mindset of the ruling collective and the resultant regime ethos. The ruling elite does not seem to understand that Sri Lanka is part of a world system. They do not comprehend how that world system works. The separatist element in the Tamil Diaspora, especially those embedded in the political and media structures in the First World, understand the game far better than the Lankan decision-makers who are at variance with the direction in which world opinion and the world system, including Asia, is moving, in the 21st century. The world is moving towards greater openness, greater interconnectedness, greater democracy, greater liberty and freedom.

Q: The forthcoming resolution stem from the failure on the part of the government to deliver on its promises made at the UNHRC and the apathy on the part of the government to implement the recommendations of the LLRC. Should not the political leadership take the greater share of the blame for Sri Lanka’s failure in the international arena, UNHRC resolution being only one such manifestation?

A: Absolutely so. However, it is not merely a question of not implementing promises or apathy in implementing the LLRC recommendations. The problem runs far deeper. It is to do with the whole perspective and outlook of the power-elite, the unrealistic and delusional way in which it views itself and Sri Lanka’s position in the world. Our international failures and defeats are the reflection and result of the false consciousness of the most dogmatic and hawkish elements within Sri Lanka’s ruling elite who are currently the drivers of policy or wield an effective veto over policy. This false consciousness will lead us to lose the peace—and the Cold War– someday.

Q: Do you think the current government is genuinely interested in implementing LLRC recommendations?

A: I do not know about the Government but I think that the President was initially in favor, though it now seems that those elements within the power elite who were opposed to the LLRC recommendations from the beginning, have now prevailed.

Q: One would argue that those resolutions would compel the government to implement at least some of the salient recommendations of the LLRC. In the absence of a clear commitment on the part of the government, international pressure may be effective. What is your take on that argument?

A: This is one possibility. Certainly I would say that had the government begun to credibly and concertedly implement the LLRC recommendations, it would have been more difficult for this resolution to make progress and it is the manifest vacillation of the government with regard to the implementation of the LLRC that has given an opening for the resolution to have credibility. However, the resolution may evoke a hardening on the part of the government; a reaction driven by those who irrationally imagine that we can behave as if Sri Lanka were Netanyahu’s Israel.

Q: The forthcoming resolution, even passed, would be nonbinding. Then why should we worry?

A: As I said, it would demonstrate that Sri Lanka’s international standing has eroded still further, that we have lost space in the global arena. This would make us more vulnerable. Secondly, we must view this resolution as part of an incremental escalation or tightening. If we do not cooperate, we will then be accused of non-cooperation with a UN resolution and UN mechanisms. That will then have knock-on effects in various national legislatures around the world. The resolution is part of what is known as ‘condition-setting’ or softening the battlefield, which will someday lead to an endgame.

Q: In terms of international reputation of Sri Lanka and respect it commanded from other countries, which itself may be termed as a soft power, where do you rank our country. If 10 being the best and 1 being the worst.

A: Currently and entirely needlessly, below Myanmar and above Zimbabwe: so, perhaps a 3 or at best, a 4.

Q: Are we becoming an international outcast? Aren’t we walking backward in terms of democracy, as we saw in the case of Chief Justice Bandaranayake and the 18th amendment? As a political scientist, what is your take on the matter?

A: No we aren’t becoming an international outcast, but we are needlessly isolating ourselves and helping others isolate us, when we have so much potential to be so much more successful. Yes, the manner of the impeachment—which was so different from the courtesies observed and afforded to the CJ of the Philippines during his impeachment–and the choices made in its aftermath, show that Sri Lanka is retrenching in terms of democracy. There is a growing democracy deficit, though I must stress that Sri Lanka still remains a democracy. It is not understood by the power elite that our democratic credentials and practices must be strengthened and expanded, not diminished and contracted under the guise of security, if we are to reduce our vulnerability to external pressure. Less democracy does not make the state strong; it only makes it appear so when it actually is becoming stiff and brittle. Hardness and harshness are not signs of strength; in fact they are a sign and a cause of weakness.