‘I acted in conformity with the mandate given to me by His Excellency The President’ –Tamara Kunanayakam

by Ayesha Zuhair

Tamara Kunanayakam, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative (PR) to the United Nations (UN) in Geneva, has accused Navanethem Pillay, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, of playing the political agenda of the US and Western powers.

In an e-mail interview with the Daily Mirror, Ambassador Kunanayakam elaborates on the accusations contained in her letter to the UN human rights chief, and reflects on her tenure as PR to Geneva which comes to an end on 30 June.

Q: Some confusion has arisen as to whether the accusations that you have recently levelled against Ms Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reflect the official position of the Sri Lankan Government. Could you clarify whether or not your letter to Ms Pillay received prior clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs?


A few days ago, the Daily Mirror quoted a very senior Ministry official as having said that the Government has no intention of criticising the High Commissioner or taking action against her. If that is the stand of the Ministry, then it must also be that of the Government!

After having verified the authenticity of the email communication by Mr. Rory Mungoven, I acted in conformity with the mandate given to me by His Excellency the President and the stand taken by the Government so far.

The consistent position of the Government has been to defend the independence and sovereignty of our country and to oppose any kind of external intervention in its internal affairs, and to pursue a policy of non-alignment in international relations.

You will recall that as far back as 2006, the Government refused to succumb to pressure from the previous High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, and certain Western powers, to open an OHCHR field office in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Rory Mungoven was then stationed in Colombo as the UN Human Rights Advisor. A cable sent to the US State Department by the then US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake, and released by Wikileaks, reports Mungoven as having said that what was essential for Sri Lanka was not technical assistance, but a robust UN monitoring and protection mechanism in the field!

The position I took was in full conformity with that stand. Now, if the Government has suddenly changed that position, then it has not been communicated to me.

Q: How do you intend to follow-up on the issue?


For some obscure reason, the External Affairs Ministry has chosen to denounce the Representative of Sri Lanka and instead protect the High Commissioner whose Office (a) played an important role in triggering the adoption of the US resolution against Sri Lanka; (b) provided support to the Darusman Panel that concluded that there were “credible allegations of war crimes” in the country, a report that the Government has previously rejected; and (c), undermined the Human Rights Council by failing to respect its decision at the 2009 Special Session to support Sri Lanka in its internal efforts toward resettlement and reconciliation.

As for follow-up on the issue, you are aware that I have been removed from this position without any explanation given. It is a question that will therefore have to be answered by the Ministry and my successor.


In your letter to Ms. Pillay, you have questioned her impartiality, and accused her of “playing the political agenda of the US and Western powers”. If these allegations are proven, would you recommend to the Ministry of External Affairs to take this issue up internationally – perhaps at the upcoming summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in August?


It is common knowledge to our friends and allies in the Non-Aligned Movement and the Like-Minded Group of countries in Geneva that the US and certain other Western powers are directly involved in the functioning of the Office of the High Commissioner. We have seen this in the case of Sri Lanka, but also in many other cases.
Some 80% of the staff and programmes are funded through voluntary contributions from the rich countries that come with conditions attached. That is why Sri Lanka joined many like-minded countries in promoting a Human Rights Council resolution on the need for accountability and transparency by the High Commissioner on the allocation and utilisation of such voluntary funds.

Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that the resolution, which Mr. Mungoven claims was the culmination of years of efforts by the Office, was drafted and tabled by the US.

It is also known that the US decision to table the resolution under Item 2 of the Council’s agenda, which has to do with the Annual Report of the High Commissioner, was taken in consultation with the High Commissioner to allow her to introduce elements of the Darusman report into her own report on Sri Lanka, thus giving it official status.

As for taking up the issue internationally, it is up to the Government of Sri Lanka to take that decision and to assume responsibility for it.


Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, reacting to your letter to Ms. Pillay, tweeted: “Sri Lanka attacks UN Rights Office for, of all things, promoting human rights in Sri Lanka,” and describes it as a terrible transgression. Your response?


Obviously, he didn’t get the point of my letter or he chose to deliberately misread it. The point of my letter was precisely to defend the multilateral character and credibility of the human rights system that was established by the UN General Assembly under the UN Charter and to ensure that the principles of independence, impartiality, non-selectivity, and objectivity are fully respected, so that both the High Commissioner and the Human Rights Council can effectively promote human rights around the world.

It is widely known that among the institutions funding Human Rights Watch is the National Endowment for Democracy, which is linked to the US State Department and US intelligence.
It won’t come to you as a surprise then that Rory Mungoven was Global Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch and Stephen Ratner, the US member of the Darusman Panel, Advisor to Human Rights Watch and member of the Advisory Committee on International Law of the US State Department.


What were your objectives when you took up your current assignment in Geneva, and to what extent have they been achieved?


My sole ambition was to serve my country and people, and to place at their service my professional experience, particularly within the UN, and knowledge of international relations. I am resolutely attached to the principles of sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, non-intervention, and non-interference, as well as to the unity of our people, which is fundamental to the defense of those principles.

The conclusions I have drawn from my fleeting yet intense experience in Geneva are fully coherent with the line of conduct that I have adopted for myself. It is my hope that I have been able to contribute in some small way toward clarifying the real issues, making our position better understood, and mobilising a greater number of friends around us.


Do you think that the sudden proposal to transfer you to another station signals a lack of a coherent strategy in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy? What could / should have been done differently?


I am still to receive an explanation from the Ministry as to the reasons for my sudden transfer. Four Ambassadors in three years does not send a positive signal to the international community, but demonstrates a certain instability and febrility in the country’s foreign policy strategy and objectives.

Daily Mirror has published some of my own views on the subject. The country is going through a very difficult period with risks to its independence, sovereignty and unity. We cannot afford to under or overestimate the dangers that we face.

It is significant that since the end of the last session of the Human Rights Council, the Ministry has not considered it useful to bring together the key members of the delegation to conduct an evaluation of the situation and our work. We need to be lucid in our assessment of the balance of forces and anticipate events rather than adopt an empirical approach.


Former Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, in a recent article published in the Lanka Monthly Digest, has asserted: “With our dependence on the West for trade, aid, investment, and tourism, and our geopolitical vulnerability vis-à-vis India, preventive diplomacy not provocative diplomacy is needed.” Do you agree?


If by “preventive diplomacy” is meant compromise with the West on principles, especially that of independence and sovereignty, then I cannot agree! It is precisely to reduce our dependence on the West that I have always advocated diversification of our economic and trade relations to include Latin America and Africa. This has today become a necessity given the financial and economic crises that is affecting the West in particular, and the shift in the balance of power towards Asia.

While compromise, concessions and trade-offs may be necessary for the maintenance of friendly relations among individuals or collective entities, compromise that amounts to surrender, especially of hard-won independence and sovereignty gained at the cost of enormous sacrifices by our people, and a return to servitude are reprehensible.

Petty and mediocre arguments propagated by certain media or the so-called ‘authoritative’ arguments of certain former diplomats who caricature the resolute defense of these principles as “provocative diplomacy,” “suicidal diplomacy” or “megaphone diplomacy” and project the role of a diplomat in terms of capitulation to the edicts of the powerful, betray the existence of determined efforts to steer our country in a particular direction that is not in line with our traditional non-aligned diplomacy.

There are only two ways of preventing the US from moving a resolution. The first is to capitulate; the second is to build a strong alliance with our natural friends and allies to ensure a majority in our favour. May I recall that of the 47 members of the Council, 34 are from Africa, Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean; of the remaining 13, only 7 are from the Western group and Russia is among the 6 Eastern European countries.

It is by mobilising our forces that, at the Human Rights Council’s 18th session in September 2011, we succeeded in preventing the US from tabling a resolution against Sri Lanka and in forcing Canada, its proxy, to withdraw within a matters of hours the draft resolution that would have placed Sri Lanka on the Council’s agenda for an interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka. On that occasion, the United States decided not to table the draft resolution but to use Canada as a proxy instead, precisely because of its inability to mobilize the required support for its adoption.

Despite evidence to the contrary, today so-called enlightened experts of diplomacy tell us that our error was to focus on building alliances with our natural allies, the like-minded majority, and that we should henceforth centre our efforts on dissuading Washington even if it means compromising our integrity. Continuing on that path is certain to alienate us from our natural friends and allies, and lead to our isolation and encirclement, rendering us even more vulnerable. courtesy: Daily Mirror