The battle of Geneva

By Dayan Jayatilleka

“Sri Lanka forces West to retreat over ‘war crimes’ with victory at UN”
- The TIMES (London), May 28, 2009

“Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends
…Mmm, I’m gonna try with a little help from my friends”
- The Beatles

(June 01, Geneva, Sri Lanka Guardian) Was Geneva the last battle of the Thirty Years (hot) war, the first battle of the next war – a long Cold War against Sri Lanka -- or was it a combination? Only future history will tell.

When we aren’t involved, our arithmetic goes awry. We speak of four Eelam wars when there were five, because we omit the important one fought between the LTTE and the IPKF. There were five Eelam wars fought on the soil of our island: 1978-1987, 1987-1990, 1990-1994, 1995-2002, and 2006-2009.

Similarly, there weren’t two defeats suffered by the Tigers and pro-Tiger separatism, namely military (on the Wanni coast) and diplomatic (at the UN in Geneva), but three, military, politico-ideological and diplomatic. The political defeat actually preceded the decisive military defeat and provided the final prerequisite for the surge that overran the LTTE leadership. This was the result of the Indian election and especially the wipeout of the hardcore pro-Tiger forces in Tamil Nadu.

Geneva was the third defeat. It was not a defeat of the Tiger Diaspora alone. It was the defeat of a powerful bloc of forces: the foreign affairs apparatuses of the European Union (driven by several Western European states), the Western dominated international media, the amply endowed international NGOs, the pro-Tiger Tamil Diaspora, anti-Sri Lankan elements within the UN system, and a residual political fifth column within Sri Lanka itself.

An unintended consequence of the Geneva session was the profoundly educative and collective character of the experience for Sri Lankans, a huge number of whom watched the proceedings on the live web-cast which was picked up by at least one popular TV channel. It was a distance learning Open University on international affairs for the country as a whole.

The nation saw who our true friends were and who the friends of our separatist terrorist enemy were. Sri Lanka saw and heard hypocrisy at work in world affairs. It also saw and heard fairness, friendship and solidarity.

As a former student activist of the Independent Students Union of Colombo University, now a university lecturer in New Zealand emailed me about the support we received: “It’s a beautiful wave going through, if I start from the “west”, from Brazil, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba through Egypt, Iran, the Middle East via Russia, Pakistan, India, China to the Far East including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia etc up to the Philippines.” More prosaically, we received solidarity in the forms of vote (member states) and voice (observers) from the following states, geographically clustered by a young Sri Lankan student from Cambridge, voluntarily interning in our Mission.

Euro-Asia: Russian Federation

South Asia: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Nepal

Far East: China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Maldives, Singapore, Thailand, Lao People’s Democratic Republic

Middle East: Azerbaijan , Bahrain , Egypt , Jordan , Qatar , Saudi Arabia , Iran , Syrian Arab Republic , Lebanon , Oman , United Arab Emirates

Latin America: Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Venezuela

Africa: Angola , Burkina Faso , Cameroon , Djibouti , Ghana , Madagascar , Nigeria , Senegal , South Africa , Zambia , Algeria , Sudan

When I handed in my credentials here on June 1st 2007, I assembled the Mission staff and told them of the chronicle in Herodotus’ Histories of the three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae who held on against incredible odds to provide the time and political space for the rest of the Greek federation to mobilize and crush the aggressors. This, I told them, would be our task, and should animate our work and attitude. It worked and we held the line, not permitting a single move or sound out of Geneva which could reinforce the other prong of Western diplomacy – working for a “humanitarian pause” and an evacuation or “honorable exit” for the Tiger leadership-- before the Sri Lankan armed forces finished their historic task, decimating the Tiger army and decapitating the fascist enemy.

The Western Europeans had pushed for a special session for weeks, lobbying intensively in capitals across the world. Their target date was May 14th. They failed due our intense resistance, and that was our first success. The story is best told by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha in his How the West Was Sidelined (For the Moment), which appeared in The Island. Though the proffered reason was the fate of trapped civilians, a Reuters report out of Geneva on Friday May 15th, datelined 5:30 pm, and dealing with the call for a special session, let slip the truth. It leaked the text of a draft declaration to be adopted by the EU Council on Monday May 18th which would insist that the Government of Sri Lanka “desist from a final assault”. This then was the agenda, because the EU had reckoned that with the Tamil nadu elections over on May 13th, the Sri Lankan armed forces would storm the last redoubt of the fascist Tigers. They were right.

When the European Council met on Monday May 18th, it had to amend its text, dropping the obsolescent call for desisting from “a final assault” and substituting instead one for an independent international inquiry into war crimes, and urging the UN Human Rights Council to have a special session. The news leaks surrounding it clearly stated that the EU expected the Human Rights Council to be the appointing body for such a probe. Obviously someone up there wanted to punish the Sri Lankan state for pressing ahead with the offensive and finishing off the LTTE. On May 19th, after President Rajapakse’s address to the Sri Lankan Parliament, UK Foreign Secretary Miliband submitted a written Ministerial statement endorsing the European Council’s call. One simply must recall that it was after the visit of secretary Miliband to Washington that the joint US-UK statement called for a pause and negotiations, and that the remarks by Foreign Secretary Miliband and Foreign Minister Kouchner in a co-signed article in The Times, Mr. Miliband’s favorite paper ( which he commended twice to reporters at the UN Security Council briefing) concluded by sounding the note of the so-called Responsibility to protect and calling for an international inquiry, more than 18 days before the war would be over. These personalities echoed this call at their remarks at the standup microphone outside the Security Council following the UN SC Press statement on Sri Lanka.

The EU worked overtime across the globe during the weekend of May 16-17 and in an activity spike occasioned by the May 18th statement in Brussels and the written Ministerial statement in Westminster of May 19th, finally managed to get the 16 signatures (peaking at 17) by the middle of that week. The surge was assisted by vigorous lobbying by Tamil ethnic lobbies in some countries of the global South and most of all by a blitzkrieg of disinformation in the Western dominated world media.

How did little Sri Lanka first resist successfully and then prevail over, for the moment—but a decisive moment-- the concerted global efforts of old, massive, well funded and thoroughly professional foreign offices of the UK, France, Germany and Denmark, together with their access to the media, their “paramilitary proxies’ the INGOS, and their men and women seeded through the upper reaches of the UN system?

In the first place we had a political leadership, or more correctly, a politico-military leadership, in President Mahinda Rajapakse and Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, that possessed the political will to go ahead despite the odds, and in this they were supported by the national will, the people’s will, to prevail over the Tigers whatever the external pressures.

The strategy that I adopted in Geneva was discussed and agreed upon in a one-on-one conversation with President Rajapakse at the very time he appointed me. He had sent me on the delegation for the HRC sessions in March 2007, so I could get a feel for the place. Upon returning I outlined my perspective, simply that which came authentically to me, of actively re-committing to and practicing Sri Lanka’s traditional foreign policy of Nonalignment. The President briefed me on certain unfortunate departures from this policy that had taken place, which had led to changes he had just made in the foreign relations apparatus; deviations he wanted rectified including in the disarmament realm -- and gave me the needed autonomy, saying “you know my thinking”. As for the specific scenario I anticipated, given that the EU had a draft resolution against Sri Lanka on the table since March 2006, he said “Yes, even if we lose, go for a vote.” President Rajapakse re-endorsed the strategy in two telephone conversations I had with him on the weekend just prior to the special session.

Sri Lanka’s leading analyst of international affairs, Mervyn de Silva, my father, died ten years ago this month, June. I practiced in Geneva that which I had absorbed from him. He told me of Ben Bella and Patrice Lumumba even before I started schooling. As a boy I had seen Sri Lanka’s diplomatic stance at its best, adopted by his friends Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe, Neville Kanakaratne, Gamini Corea, and Anton Muttukumaru. Through my teens I attended the lectures, including by Sir Michael Howard, organized by the Ceylon Institute of World Affairs, of which Maj Gen ‘Tony’ Muttukumaru was President and Mervyn was Secy General, and the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies which was founded on the basis of a report by Mervyn. As importantly I was introduced to top foreign diplomats such as Cuba’s Armando Bayo and foreign policy thinkers such as Russia’s Evgeni Primakov. From the library at home to my father’s famous foreign journalistic friends, from our travels overseas to our conversations at dinner, the world my family inhabited was as much international as it was national. Eschewing lucrative offers of journalistic employment overseas, my father had his feet firmly in the national reality but his head in the international. I grew up with hardly any dividing line between one and the other, with my own role models and independent identifications being with a trend, tradition and experience that was internationalist and truly world-historical.

Mervyn de Silva believed firmly that Sri Lanka’s national interests were best served by active membership in the Non Aligned movement and commitment to the policy of Non Alignment. He believed that our relationship with our neighbor should be the bedrock of our foreign policy. He was also keenly aware of tendencies towards multi-polarity and new global trends such as identity politics which transcended national boundaries (“in this age of identity, ethnicity walks on water” he said in one of his last essays). Though he avoided didacticism of any kind, something he told his staffers (as revealed in the reminiscences of one of them, the journalist and literary critic Gamini Dissanayake) was that “if you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything and everything”.

In Geneva we stood for something. In our hour of need, we reaped the harvest of a principled and active foreign policy practice, in the votes and supportive speeches we received from our natural constituency, variously identifiable as the global South and Russia, or the NAM plus Russia and China, or G77 plus Russia. Mao ze Dong identified the crucial question of strategy as “Who are our friends? Who are our enemies?” and commended the building of the broadest possible united front, uniting all those who can be united, neutralizing those intermediate elements who cannot, and isolating the main adversary. Without clarity in identification of who one’s friends are, one cannot build the broadest possible united front and succeed. In Geneva last week we may have applied the tactics of Zizek’s Lenin, of a high risk pushing for an endgame while we could have stopped short and capitulated in a compromise on sovereignty masked as consensus, but our approach was more Lennon than Lenin. We won “with a little help from our friends”.

As Cuba has proved, one cannot defend the national interest by being narrowly nationalist; one has to be internationalist in order to defend and protect the Patria. Geneva was a miniature diplomatic Dien Bien Phu or Bay of Pigs for the EU. Of the many comments on Sri Lanka’s victory (and the many congratulations that came my way) the most accurate was in an email and fax from DEW Gunasekara, who wrote both on his behalf as well as that of his party. Currently Minister of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, DEW is the leader of the Communist Party, but more pertinently he was the International Affairs Secretary of that party when I first knew him more than three decades ago. Revealing that the Cabinet had been meeting, monitoring the Geneva HRC proceedings real time, with President Rajapakse expressing optimism at the result, reminiscing that he had known me from my days as an undergraduate at Peradeniya, and making a poignant reference to his late friend and my father Mervyn, comrade DEW correctly summed up the Geneva outcome: “it was a historic session reflecting the growing role of the new world balance of forces”. None can do a Kosovo on Sri Lanka: wrong century, wrong continent, wrong country.

(These are the strictly personal views of the writer)
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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Moshe Dyan said…
Hon Dayan Jayatileke,

We are very proud of you. Until now I thought turning a threat into an opportunity only existed in text books. Now I know better.

SL's resolution was more constructive and action oriented than destructive and blame passing.

Thank you, Sir.
Sybil said…
Congratulations for the fantastic work you have done so far...however don't take it easy just yet...David MilliBrain (or Sillybrain?) and the Co will not take the hint. The situation in Sri Lanka gives them a good opportunity to cover up all the dirty things they are doing at home so vigilance is needed. They are obviously busy getting HRW and AI to do the dirty work now.
manuri said…

Words are not enough to thank you for what you and your team did for little sri lanka at her hour of need.

We were praying for you at the time of the vote thinking that you are there and you will pull sri lanka through.
and Yes you did it

Isn't it interesting to see that history always picks up the right individual to do the job at the right time.

I can forget about the west but I will never forget this free media deshapriya with a 'diploma in journalism ' the only sri lankan who spoke against this little land we call home no matter where we are in the world.

Tears came to my eyes when I saw two sons of free education given by her mother one fighting for her and the other(S.O.B)fighting against her.

thanks you once again but the 'diplomatic terrorism' is not over yet.

one thing that stuck me while I am reading your account is that 'Who this Mahinda Rajapksa really is?'

a simple man from the village has grown up to 'larger than life'figure

This is the very mystery of this universe,the very mystery why we humans come to earth.

It is true that 'God spend a little more time on certain people before they are sent to the earth to serve the people'

and Sri Lanka is the finest example

Thank you once again sir,