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A couple of years back one of the more thoughtful of our career Foreign Ministry officials tried to put together a book on Sri Lanka’s international relations. This was an excellent idea in a context in which we do not reflect or conceptualize when dealing with other countries.

However it turned out that hardly any Foreign Ministry officials were willing or able to write for such a volume. Still, with much input from academics, the manuscript was finalized. But then the Minister decided that it needed to be rechecked, and handed it over to his underlings at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, where it has lain forgotten since.

Recently I retrieved from my archives the two pieces I was asked to write, and am republishing them here –

 

Sri Lanka needs to be aware of both facts and principles in dealing with Post Conflict Reconstruction. The facts are simple, and we must recognize that the world at large is aware of them. First, we need aid and assistance for reconstruction. Second, that assistance will be more readily forthcoming if we make significant progress towards reconciliation. Third, reconciliation will be judged in terms not only of what government says, but also the responses of the Tamil community.

These three facts are I think readily recognized by government, and there is no essential difficulty about working in accordance with them. There is however a fourth fact that we need to bear in mind, which is that some elements in the international community believe that the attitude of the diaspora is the most significant element in assessing Tamil responses. This is potentially an upsetting factor, and we have to make sure we deal with it convincingly. Similar to this is a fifth factor, that assessments made in Colombo are often used by salient elements in the international community to judge what is happening with regard to reconciliation and the responses to this of the Tamil community at large. Again, this is a factor that government must take into account.

In one sense this should not be too difficult. A similar situation obtained even with regard to the conflict. We needed assistance to deal with the threat of terror, and in obtaining this we had to make it quite clear that we looked to a military solution only for military matters, ie the secessionist military activities of the LTTE. The solution to the problems of the Tamil community had to be found through negotiation as well as sympathetic understanding. We were also able to show that the Tamil community in the affected areas was not indissolubly tied to the Tigers, inasmuch as once liberated they participated actively in elections in the East, and they took the opportunity in the North (as they had done in the East, in a military campaign that saw no civilian casualties except in a single incident which the LTTE precipitated) to escape from the LTTE as soon as we were able to provide such an opportunity. The simple fact that many of the younger cadres disobeyed orders about firing on civilians, and came over willingly, makes clear the positive response of the affected Tamils.

During the conflict we had to contend with the opposition of much of the diaspora, and also the hostility of Colombo society, both the political opposition and many elements in what is termed Civil Society. We were able to overcome this however, first because of the close relationship our military had built up with security personnel all over the world who recognized the threat presented by terrorism, secondly because we were able to respond forcefully to misinformation. In this regard we must study and replicate significant incidents with regard to international cooperation. The assistance we received with regard to military intelligence and vital equipment cannot be recorded here, but we must ensure that our future diplomats study how our Mission in Geneva dealt with the threat presented by civil and political hostility through several sessions of the Human Rights Council. The manner in which our Ambassador at the time built up a coalition of principle, encompassing almost all countries in Asia, and most of those in the Middle East, Africa and South America must be an example to all those involved in multilateral relations in the future.

We were also able to limit misinformation about the situation. This was vital because adverse perceptions of Sri Lanka were based on half truths and downright falsehoods, and we ensured that these had limited impact. Regular briefings on the situation in the field, with mechanisms to monitor the humanitarian situation and coordinate assistance, made it clear that Sri Lanka was quite capable of looking after its own people.

This was vital, because it relates to the principles we need to uphold in our relations with the outside world. These have to do with Sovereignty, and it is still not well enough understood how close we came to losing our sovereignty during the conflict. We cannot be too careful in the future about the simple truth, rather on Jane Austen lines, that other countries will seek to control us, not just in terms of the old games that powerful nations played in Colonial and Cold War times, but also more insidiously, sometimes not aware themselves of how they seek to dictate in terms of their own predilections.

With regard to Sri Lanka, such efforts to take charge came in several forms. The first and most worrying was the overt attempt made to suggest that Sri Lanka was ripe for the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine to be applied. This was a principle which had been adopted by the UN General Assembly in the wake of international perceptions with regard to events in Rwanda, and before that in the former Yugoslavia. However the principle as laid down made clear the need for Security Council resolutions, affirming that existing governments in a particular country were no longer able to prevent crimes against humanity. These were obvious violations such as ethnic cleansing and genocide, but of course the proponents of the doctrine, who saw themselves in a Proconsular role in enforcing the doctrine, began gradually to suggest that they could deduce by themselves when such crimes were about to take place.

In 2007, there were efforts to prepare Sri Lanka for such a fate. The new breed of international Civil Servants, who went in and out of Civil Society, as the Indian ambassador to the Human Rights Council characterized them, got together to set up an R2P Centre in Sri Lanka, and began putting forward suggestions that Sri Lanka needed to be protected. A shady character called Rama Mani was brought in, primarily because of her work with regard to the R2P doctrine, as Head of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies by Bradman Weerakoon and Radhika Coomaraswamy, both of them close confidantes of the Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe. With no reference to the Board of ICES, she made ICES a local Centre for the international R2P Centre in New York, where Radhika Coomaraswamy sat on the Board, claiming that she had been asked to do this by the UN Secretary General, though she resigned soon enough after the scandal broke. Rama brought Gareth Evans to Sri Lanka, to make waves as she put it, and he suggested that Sri Lanka was moving towards an R2P situation, making emotive claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the process.

It turned out that he did not know what he was talking about, for he had to ask his agent in Colombo, Alan Keenan, who was part of a network that included Rama Mani and Charu Latha Hogg of Human Rights Watch, to explain what was meant. Keenan claimed that the Tigers had engaged in ethnic cleansing in 1990. Even he had to grant that, far from attributing this to the Tigers, the speech suggested that ethnic cleansing was occurring at the time of speaking in Sri Lanka because of the government. Significantly, though Evans was delivering the Neelan Tiruchelvam memorial lecture, he made no mention of the fact that it was the Tigers that had killed Neelan.

Fortunately government responded swiftly to these blatant threats, helped by the fact that Rama Mani had run the ICES finances into the ground. Her visa was cancelled and she had to leave, and that I believe also heralded the end of the efforts by Gareth Evans and his ilk to hijack the R2P doctrine. Interestingly enough, there were efforts by the Canadian High Commissioner at the time, Angela Bogdan, to save Rama Mani, with blatant interference in the internal problems of ICES. She actually tried to blackmail the ICES personnel who were critical of Rama Mani (though they were not aware at the time of her international gamesmanship). Unfortunately the Foreign Ministry failed to call in the lady to question her about her conduct, which was a pity – but in those days Bradman Weerakoon was still powerful, and had indeed assured the section of the international community with whom he dealt that he would ensure that Rama Mani could stay.

The Foreign Ministry failed too to study the situation, and work out what was going on. This is symptomatic of a dispensation that believes simply responding to crises is adequate, and that does not engage in research and informed discussion to identify trends, use them if possible and combat them if necessary. Thus, some study might have identified the connection between Ms Bogdan and the then United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, who subsequently succeeded Gareth Evans as head of the International Crisis Group for which Alan Keenan still works. Louise Arbour has continued to be negative about Sri Lanka and significantly one of her protégés in Canada, the Iranian dissident Pavalam Akhenaten, had applied in 2009 to the Canadian Foreign Office to have him nominated to the War Crimes Tribunal which he believed the UN Human Rights Council was trying to set up against Sri Lanka.  While nothing may come of the ambitions of the ladies and their sidekicks, it would make sense for Sri Lanka to be aware of the connections, but I suspect there is no mechanism in our Ministry of External Affairs to monitor and record such possible threats.

R2P was only the obvious manifestation of a trend that the more prominent members of the international community had pursued in assisting, as they saw it, Sri Lanka in its troubles. The bottom line was the assumption that Sri Lanka was not the final arbiter of its own destiny, and those who provided assistance were entitled to make the final decisions. This approach was even put down in black and white, when the European Union tried to dictate terms with regard to what they termed modalities of aid. It was claimed that humanitarian agencies should hold the balance between the two sides in the conflict. This effort to equate an elected government with a terrorist movement was forestalled when, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I took seriously my role as Co-Chair of the relevant sub-committee, together with a member of the international community. My predecessor had hardly attended meetings, which allowed the professional aid givers a free hand, and they took advantage of this. Indeed they tried to suggest that I could not reopen questions that had been agreed previously, but I had politely to point out that the matter was not one for negotiation. Interestingly enough, they seemed to lose interest in the committee after that.

This assumption that foreigners knew what was best for Sri Lankans had unfortunately been encouraged by some elements in our government at one stage. When the Ceasefire Agreement was negotiated in 2002, the assumption seemed to be that the international community would act as a safety net in case the Tigers became too aggressive. Such a supposition is utterly naïve. In international relations, there can be no assumption about permanent interests. Countries are likely, giving the best possible reasons for whatever they do, to act purely in their own interests, and we cannot assume that they will support an undivided Sri Lanka simply because that seems to us the right thing to do. Even without the example of Kosovo before us, where guarantees that Serbia would not be divided meant nothing in the end, we must understand that the Tigers, had they established control of a substantial area, would have been in a position to make offers that could not be resisted.

The government of 2002 however allowed free rein to the supposition that there was parity between the government and the Tigers, and this became the norm amongst humanitarian actors. Though some senior elements in the international community understood the primacy of an elected government, we failed to make this clear, which allowed more junior members to treat the state simply as one part of the equation.

Two factors compounded the problem. One was that, in the massive onrush of aid workers, the dominant mindset was that of people who had worked in areas where government did not function well. There is ample anecdotal evidence for the fact that many foreigners thought the needs of Tamils in conflict areas were served primarily by them, and secondly by the Tigers, with government coming a very distant third. There was the French ambassador who, more thoughtful than most, noted that till he came to Sri Lanka he did not realize we provided health and education and other services throughout the North. There was the Head of UNICEF who talked of LTTE legislation, and assumed that that had primacy in areas the LTTE controlled. There was the senior OCHA official who admitted that he and many of those he was supposed to supervise had worked previously in Africa, and had not understood the strength of official Sri Lankan systems.

The second factor that weakened our position was the diffidence of Sri Lankan officials. When faced with domineering foreigners, they tended to give in. Thus I found that the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, which was supposed to ensure coordination of aid activities, was basically drafted by foreigners with hardly any consultation of government officials. When I took over as Secretary to the Ministry, I found that generally the Plan was presented to us with a deadline of a few days, and we were expected to endorse it, after which it was presented as a joint appeal.

I managed to put a stop to that, and there was some consultation, but in the end I failed – and indeed said so, to a UN official who told me that I had won. All I had succeeded in doing, I pointed out, was to get the UN system to agree that government had to be consulted. In actual fact hardly any consultation took place and, with the UN urging swift acquiescence to meet its own deadlines, planning continued to be done by others. And I must admit that, though I did my best to change the system, the slow responses of many government departments made this very difficult.

Symptomatic of the abdication of input and supervision was the manner in which the International Organization for Migration functioned. I had upset its head in my efforts to ensure accountability, and he complained about me to the Foreign Ministry, which called me in to complain. I was told that I had asked IOM to clear all its projects with me.

This was not the case, and I suggested that the Foreign Secretary read my letter. That simply pointed out that IOM should not engage in projects without government concurrence, and that it should therefore clear its projects with relevant Ministries. The Secretary granted that this was a sensible position, but one of his officials took umbrage that I should have got involved, since the IOM agreement was with the Foreign Ministry. I suggested then that they look at the agreement, but added that, since I was Secretary of the Ministry that coordinated humanitarian assistance, it was well within my powers to check.

The agreement indicated that IOM was at liberty to work in all areas relevant to its mandate, but that it should provide copies of any project agreements to the Foreign Ministry. I inquired very simply how many such copies the Foreign Ministry had, and was told none. My case was made, and I suggested that the Ministry ensure a proper mechanism for monitoring the activities of such agencies. I believe nothing of the sort has been done – though, as a footnote, I should add that the head of IOM, who was a sensible man, proceeded after that to send me copies of all his project documents, till I pointed out that it was unnecessary if he kept the Foreign Ministry involved. Needless to say, he did entirely what he wanted, with no supervision or collation on the part of the Ministry, and I think it was just our luck that he happened to be positive in his approach to Sri Lanka, or at least seemed so.

That, I fear, is still the position in general with regard to the bulk of international assistance. Even before the Ministry of Disaster Management lost both its Human Rights mandate and its coordinating role with regard to humanitarian and other related assistance, the task had in effect been taken over by the Northern Task Force. However, engaged as it was with much more vital development work, and development assistance, its capacity to coordinate basic humanitarian assistance proved weak. Long after I had given up my official position, I was asked to check on some reports in this regard, and found many of them inadequate, lacking in basic information as to outcomes and funds expended. More significantly, I found that the projects themselves continued to be set up arbitrarily, with little of the coordination and careful targeting that we had tried to advocate over the previous period.

I believe the work I did in this regard was appreciated, but the Task Force was not able to continue with such careful monitoring, and I gather that assistance continues to be provided on an ad hoc basis, with government not taking the lead to ensure conformity with its own priorities. This is a pity, because it means, in the first place, that the ownership of the resettlement process is seen to belong elsewhere, and government does not get credit for the enormous work it had done to lay the foundations for progress in this area. Even worse, because information is so scanty, when there are failures, blame is laid at government’s door, and there is no way to deal swiftly with any problems that might arise.

In short, where reconstruction should also contribute to reconciliation, that has not taken place. Because there is insufficient communication between government and donors, because plans are not put forward clearly, with due attention to the factors I noted at the beginning of this paper, because the importance of active social and economic participation is not sufficiently explained, funding continues to be used for a range of minor projects that are not used to ensure a holistic positive effect. Assistance still appears as patronage from external sources, whereas it should be seen as a tool to fulfil programmes that government promotes in collaboration with the beneficiaries. For this purpose we need better trained and more articulate officials, who are partners in the programmes, but we allow such officials to become mere functionaries, agents of others and not lead figures in the reconciliation process.

What we need then is more training, with familiarization sessions for all those who are involved in aid programmes. The Ministry of External Affairs should take the lead in this, but it should involve Treasury officials as well as project directors in relevant Ministries. It would also help to develop contacts with Sri Lankan Non-Governmental Organizations, since their expertise in invaluable, and their staff should build up creative relationships with government counterparts. As it is, they see themselves often as the tools merely of foreign agencies, which contributes to a culture of dependence.

I believe our officials have the capacity to ensure national ownership of such programmes, and certainly many of those I worked with on the CHAP had an admirable approach. But whether this will be true in a few years, as senior officials retire, is not so certain. We need therefore to ensure proper training now, so that the expertise we have will not fade away in time.

This is the more important, in that there are other areas where the erosion of government sovereignty can be more insidious. Much has been made recently of the manner in which some elements in the international community wish to work, in their aid programmes, not with government but rather with the Non-Governmental Sector. This is not something we should object to in itself, since obviously those who give aid must decide how they wish to give aid. We must also recognize that sometimes government is not efficient and working through the private sector, or civil society, is more effective.

However, we have to make sure that the reason for working with such agencies is not the establishment of alternative centres of authority. For that reason, indeed, it would make more sense to encourage working through the private sector, rather than through agencies that set themselves up in opposition to government. But the bottom line should be that all assistance should be transparent and accountable, for the purpose of achieving objectives that are agreed to by government. Some of these objectives can include monitoring the activities of government too, and there should be no intrinsic objection to that, because we all need monitoring. But it should be clearly in the interests of the people of Sri Lanka, not abstract notions that might come into conflict with the democratic process or national sovereignty.

Unfortunately the manner in which money is given to what are termed advocacy organizations is shadowy, and many of them simply ignore national law. Some have established themselves as companies, but they rarely work in accordance with Company Law. Others act as distribution agencies, but the manner in which they select beneficiaries is very shadowy. Certainly during the conflict period we saw the establishment of several organizations with interlocking directorates and more recently, they have even started to give each other awards in order to shore up their own credentials.

It would be a mistake to suppose that these agencies are either purely altruistic, or else deeply villainous. Many activists began with good intentions, but were then led astray by the money and authority which they rapidly acquired. Some enjoy the status they have acquired, the endless foreign travel, the primacy at social gatherings to which officials are rarely invited. It should be noted too that government officials sometimes avoid such gatherings, which allows those whose agenda is different a field day. It is important then for government to ensure better interaction with potential donors, and the development of its own plans to promote good governance and other principles which donors are concerned about.

My argument then is that, in order to maximize the productive role of the international community in post  conflict reconstruction, we need to be much more systematic in our approach. We need to train personnel to work harmoniously, on the basis of facts we recognize and the principles we uphold, with the international community, bearing in mind the different priorities and predilections of its different components. We need to ensure coherent planning, that not only takes into account, but also makes clear, the interests of the principal beneficiaries of the reconstruction process. We need to promote reconciliation in the fullest sense, in our reconstruction initiatives, and make clear the full involvement of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, with consultation of those members of the diaspora who are positive in their approach. And we need to make it clear that activities that promote conflict, in particular through misinformation, will be monitored, and that there will be no opportunity to conflate these with the reconstruction programme.

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