Former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations and present Chairperson, Intergovernmental Working Group on the Rights to Development, Human Rights Council, Geneva, Tamara Kunanayakam, says the government and the Ministry of External Affairs has no direction or clear orientation to follow and she was pushed to step down due to a ‘deliberate’ action played on her by the foreign office.
“I got caught in the middle of a power play run by a ‘cartel,’ she told Ceylon Today.
Following are excerpts:
Q: You were an outstanding diplomat who defended Sri Lanka during your tenure as the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, Geneva. But, you seems to have ‘fallen from grace’ now. Were you a political victim?
A: No, I don’t consider myself as a political victim. There were differences, and we all have our differences. In the case of the GOSL /the Foreign Ministry (FM), there was a change in orientation in the foreign policy. When the change took place I was not aware of it. I joined the Foreign Service to defend the non-aligned policy because I believe in it. I am not a career diplomat and I don’t have to accept any orientation to agree or not, with their decisions. I have my own values and principles.
I left the UN and joined the Foreign Service because of the non-aligned policy. Sri Lanka should have closer cooperation with the Latin American region, Africa and Asia, because they are our historical allies and we are a founder member of the Non-Aligned Movement. I want to be that way, especially when we are targeted by the Western countries because they have a strategic interest in the country, and that’s why I joined.
So when I was in Geneva, there was a sudden change from non-aligned to aligned, whereas I was instructed to follow the non-aligned strategy. I was unaware of this. In 2012, the delegation that came from Colombo with senior FM officials took a different line, which I was not aware of. I discovered it during the course of the session of the Human Rights Council when the US draft resolution against Sri Lanka was coming up. I discovered from other diplomats of other countries during the session that we were negotiating with Washington. I was told ‘don’t negotiate and don’t even ask for the draft of the US resolution that is going to be tabled because they would think we are interested in negotiating.’
So, I did not talk to anyone and I was clear with our position. There was actually no need to align with them as there were no bombs exploding and peace prevailed and there were no huge gross systematic violation compared to other countries. To negotiate for something else the West put us in a weaker position they wanted. This is the way the Human Rights Council functions. When Sri Lanka was in the agenda, to me, it was evident it was truly political and they did not have the interest of the people of this country at heart. I also knew in the UN System an initiative was coming from Washington to impose a new international law calling the responsibility to protect it, which is completely in violation of the UN Charter. This was, in fact, to legitimize the external intervention into any country. So it was clear to me and we had to defend ourselves against this multi-national system – the only system that forces small countries like us to have equal relationships with the powerful.
Why were you not told about the agenda and why did you come to know through other diplomats that Sri Lanka was having talks with Washington?
A: There was a different faction within the FM and also within the government. I was caught in the middle of that power play. There was this ‘cartel’ or ‘mafia’ who ‘hijacked’ the State apparatus. They had other interests that are not the interests of Sri Lankans. These elements were powerful forces that were functioning within various institutions of the State, and the FM was one. The FM is very important when it comes to all external relations – even economic and financial relations have to go through the FM. This petty group wants to take control of that, in order to have access to various other sectors’ power, which are finance and economic ultimately. They want to gain and maintain power.
The J.R. Jayewardene Government branded you as a terrorist agent supplying false information on the 1983 riots to World Vision International. How did you end up being a diplomat defending allegations against the present Sri Lankan Government on alleged human rights violations?
A: I don’t see any contradictions as to what I said then and now. I always acted based on principles and policies. In 1983, the Tamils were targeted for political and electoral reasons. There were economic crises and there were JVP insurgency too. So there was a threat to the power and they found the Tamils as the scapegoat. If that happens now I would take up that position again. I consider myself Sri Lankan. If each one considers themselves by their race, where will we all stand? I was in Cuba and I worked for Sri Lanka. At the UN I found we were being unfairly treated. In the war that was fought against the separatists there were Tamil groups that were killed by the LTTE. I was against all these. I was never an Eelamist, but people found it convenient to brand me so. I was even physically threatened by the LTTE in Geneva in the 80s.
What was your experience serving at the UN?
A: In Geneva I worked a total of 15 years in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), UNDP and the ILO. I have a bigger picture about what was going on in the UN. I defended Sri Lanka on the multilateralism. I realized while working there that countries tried to use Sri Lanka because we were an easy target. However, we had not done our homework, and so we were isolated. I think my aim was to defend all these.
How is Sri Lanka known by the UN/Geneva?
A: We are known as a ‘single issue’ country because we go by saying ‘we did not do that’, ‘we have not killed anyone’ ‘we are not a Sinhala-Buddhist country’… that sort of thing. Rather than that we never took the issues of common interests. There is a battle going on with the non-aligned countries and Sri Lanka does not play a part in that because we don’t want to offend London and Washington. We have been playing on the fence and also known to be a country that cannot be relied on. When I was there I think I managed to change that image. I never in any statement said that ‘we did not do that, we did not kill etc’. All I said was we should fix local remedies before going to international remedies. I advocated to first exhaust the internal remedies before reaching for an international mechanism.
So what went wrong while all was going great for Sri Lanka?
A: In March 2012, many came to know that there were two groups. I was the permanent representative, but I was on my own basically. We had the Foreign Minister and the Special Envoy for Human Rights. But the Foreign Minister was not the head of the delegation, which should not be the case under the UN protocols. It should have been the Foreign Minister.
The Special envoy was making the official statement on behalf of the country, while the Foreign Minister was seated behind. I was not anywhere to be seen and I did not even have a seat to sit. There were nine ministers, including MP Sajin de Vass, Mohan Peries, along with Ministry Secretary, Kshenuka Seneviratne. They were all fighting to be in front of the camera, to be seen in Sri Lanka. They were not interested in what was going on there. They were entertaining the local gallery. Many saw this happening. Our Justice Minister, Rauff Hakeem, was told by the Foreign Ministry that he should be introduced to an Asian diplomat, who was also a Muslim. But, the Asian Ambassador told me that they were a secular country and that they don’t address persons based on religion. He told me if Sri Lanka wanted to talk to them, it had to be the UN representative and not any ministers.
Another African Ambassador told me that K. Seneviratne had contacted him. As you may know she was the ambassador before I was there. She should not have come again after leaving the office. No country sends a former envoy when another one is present there because then there would be confusion. She left just two months before I joined and then appeared with the team for the March Geneva session in 2012. Many who knew her thought she was still the ambassador. She shouldn’t have spoken to the African Ambassador. I was calling a meeting with all the ambassadors, including that African Ambassador. But, he told me he already spoke to the ambassador and I asked who it was and he quoted Kshenuka and refused to hold meeting with me again.
There were many such incidents that took place there that were totally confusing. At the same time, I also heard that Khenuka had a private email via which she had contacted Washington and they had sent her the draft resolution and called for an interaction on the draft before the March 2012 Geneva session. I did not know about this. This is prior to coming here to discuss the strategic plan to face the US resolution. Then I asked the minister, copying to President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga asking for instructions now that the draft has been sent to Kshenuka. But the FM or the President were not aware of the draft resolution being sent to Kshenuka. Panicking, all embassies received instructions ‘no negotiation with the US’.
Why do you think she did that?
A: I think she did it deliberately.
Why did Washington contact her on her private email?
A: US and UK Ambassadors were close to her. She was very much friendly with them, partying with them also. She did not inform me because she did not want me there.
Who was backing Kshenuka and why such events took place?
A: I think they wanted the US to introduce a resolution against Sri Lanka. If not, why did they do the things they did and weakened ourselves? Even to say ‘don’t worry Tamara will be out when the resolution is passed’? It seems they anticipated the resolution.
Was Geneva, a UN body, watching all these?
A: Yes. They knew what was going on. The Indian Ambassador said they came to know that Sri Lanka is negotiating with the US. She told me, ‘If you are negotiating with them, then there would be issues. India will not support a developing country. If you do this, you will lose support.’ On the day before the resolution, the Indian Ambassador told me to tell the minister about their draft and the edited US draft with the word ‘in consultation’. I told him over the phone. Again, the Indian Ambassador told me to tell Minister Peiris that this draft is only known to India and the US and not to publicize the matter.
When I told this to the minister, he said he knows about the Indian wordings in the US draft and he also said that it has been circulated to all. Within half an hour, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe made an official statement that India is backing Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu was up in arms and the matter reached the Indian PM office. The Indian Ambassador called me and asked if something was wrong with us. She said the decision was then going to be a political decision on Sri Lanka and they would have to think in terms of Tamil Nadu. The Indian delegate told me ‘tell that man’ to decide if he is defending Sri Lanka’s interest or Washington’s. So we lost their vote.
Based on this scenario, can you be referred to as a political victim?
A: I think so, but not at personal level. Just that they did not want me there. I was a non-aligned advocate and they were for aligned – they had vested interest with the rich countries. There was an internal struggle in the FM. Business and personal interests. The audit on Geneva office shows that too. The group needed this infrastructure to make money through these channels.
Isn’t it the duty of Monitoring MP Sajin de Vass Gunawardena to support a foreign mission, if they fail to perform?
A: I don’t know what role he is playing. Only the President knows and perhaps the FM. I have not heard of such positions because he is just a MP and we don’t have to deal with him, but I hear he takes decisions and not even the foreign Minister.
What is the audit report of the Geneva office, the end results which is still to be revealed?
A: There are irregularities in the audit report, which has been exposed.
What are your claims on the audit based on your official residence?
A: When I checked in, I wanted to see all the financial records whether it was in order, but I saw several billings and notes contradicting the inventory. Mainly in the procurement process. There were quotation of furniture, vehicle, travel tickets purchasing, renovation of the house, etc. It read there was a sofa but there was only a table. When I asked where is the sofa they pointed out at the table that was in the house.
So what did you do?
A: I checked. There were things that were not in the house but in the inventory. You can’t have a table instead of a sofa. The house had been renovated with no proper estimate. The contract had no estimation. The company that wanted the mission to move out elsewhere is the company that carried out the renovation and this company raises funds for LTTE propagandas. I told the President I have an issue about the audit and the security of the residence. I wanted an audit carried out and specifically told the President that I don’t want the MEA to do it and the President sent a group from the Finance Ministry. They came immediately. The Defence Ministry sent a team to look into the security issue.
Who undersigned all the bills pertaining to the Geneva office finance?
A: The MEA.
Why did not other ambassadors before you notice such irregularities?
A: No one cared about it. I do because I have a background and I am strict about such matters.
Do you think the President is unaware of these things?
A: He has many tasks to look into. These are nitty-gritty matters for him.
Where is the audit final report?
A: It is with MP Sajin Vass. It has been taken up in Parliament. But, the group is defending Thurairajah, the LTTE fundraiser, who is responsible for renovating the mission building in Geneva, instead of correcting what is in the audit report. Why are they defending Thurairajah? He has his lawyers to defend him. What Sri Lanka should do is expose the irregularities and find the persons behind it.
Do you want to act on the audit report?
A: It has to be done by the MEA.
After the resolution was passed how was your status in office?
A: I was not getting any official mails. They wanted me out before September 2011, but they did it by 2012. At the September 2011 session of the Human Rights Council, we had succeeded in forcing the US and Canada to withdraw the draft resolution on Sri Lanka. The Canadians, acting on behalf of Washington, had already tabled the resolution. If adopted, it would have put Sri Lanka on the Council’s agenda at its March 2012 session. Its withdrawal was a singular victory for Sri Lanka. So, it intrigues me why Kshenuka Seneviratne and Sajin de Vass wanted me out, why they intervened in the affairs of the mission and re-assigned our best diplomats to transport and serving tea to the delegation from Colombo. Why, right in the middle of the session, they tried to have recalled one of them who, despite the pressures, did a remarkable job. Why they then sent this person to a punishment station because, according to ministry sources, ‘without (this person’s) help,’ they could have ‘put me out already in September 2011,’ and, why during the March 2012 session of the Council they told certain mission staff ‘you will see there will be a resolution against Sri Lanka at this session, and she will be out!’
Will you take up any FM post if offered by the government?
A: No way, at present circumstances.
When will you accept?
A: The moment the government shows keen interest on its people and not themselves.
Do you regret working for the government?
A: I would have continued if I was allowed to serve the Sri Lankans which they did not allow me to. I continue to work in the interest of Sri Lanka still, which I do though I don’t directly work for this country. I serve the interests of the developing countries now.
Why didn’t you step down when matters turned bitter and expose then?
A: Well I did step down. While serving the mission we should work for the country and we take oath that we would maintain the country’s dignity and integrity.
What ails the Foreign ministry?
A: There is no direction. The orientation of the government is not there. There is no clear direction on the government policies on various sectors. You cannot carry a coherent foreign policy. That has been hijacked. Also, huge debt, poverty and unemployment, and crashing education system have not been people friendly.
Photo by Vimukthi Embuldeniya