A seat in the UNESCO Executive Board: What it is all about

By D. G. B. de Silva

(former Ambassador and Delegate to UNESCO)

All sections of the Media reported on the selection of Sri Lanka to the Executive Board of UNESCO at the on-going session of its General Conference. The government newspaper, Sunday Observer called it a “Hat Trick” while another newspaper remarked that Sri Lanka was elected on all three occasions under the UNP regimes. Another quoting from the Press Communique of the Ministry of Human Resources, Education and Cultural Affairs gave credit for this success to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s policies. It is not my intention to downgrade the success of Minister Karunasena Kodituwakku, whose personal contribution to the success has to be acknowledged though in his modesty he may have wished to play it down, but with my long experience at UNESCO I would like to say that all these claims made in the news reports and the Press Communique as the cause of Sri Lanka’s success this time have to be taken with a pinch of salt. That is what any government’s claims made through most Press Communiques deserve. This is not the first occasion that bureaucratic twists misrepresented the truth. The desire to gain recognition for themselves than for those on behalf of news releases are prepared is a well known bureaucratic game.

Those responsible for the Press Communique are perhaps not aware of the UNESCO Constitution which makes out clearly that a person is elected on his/her own merits as much as he/she represents the country. (The exception in practical application is only in the case of the African Group where the group follows a strict rule of rotation irrespective of the quality of the candidate). When Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike’s government tried to oust Fred de Silva from the Executive Board. UNESCO reminded the government that he had been elected on his personal capacity and not as a representative of the government. The rules have since been altered to provide that the person elected holds office both in his personal capacity and as representative of the government. It was using part of this provision that President R. Premadasa staged a Coup to replace Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne who was elected by an unprecedented majority by his favourite, Dr. Ananda Guruge. The Executive Board never accepted this situation where by an elected member was withdrawn by a government and another introduced through the backdoor. It showed its disavowal when he contested the Presidency of the Board, again after impressing President R. Premadasa that he could win. It was only Ambassador N. Balasubramanium then political head of the Foreign Ministry and I both as former Ambassadors to Paris and with long experience in electioneering at UNESCO who advised the President against the disastrous consequences which could ensue from Dr. Guruge contesting the popular personality, Geoff Whitlam former Prime Minister of Australia and a veteran UNESCO hand. We were over-ruled by the President. The result: a single vote cast in favour of Dr. Guruge. There is no need to guess whose vote it was. That too happened under the UNP regime.

The claim made that this was the third time in succession that Sri Lanka was elected does not present the reality. The Sunday Observer (12/10/2003) called it a “Hat-Trick”. What ignorance! The truth is that Sri Lanka failed more times to gain a seat on the Executive Board than it succeeded. The election of Fred de Silva in late 1960s was entirely a matter of chance and the result of skilful diplomacy of his then Secretary, the late Ambassador N. Balasubramaniam when he found one slot unfilled. I conducted the campaign of Esmond Wickremasinghe on two consecutive elections but he failed to be elected. That was despite his personal standing and making a substantial contribution to the debate on the Communications issue which later led to the creation of a separate Division at UNESCO devoted to Communication and Sarath Amunugama being appointed (elected) as the Division’s first Director, over which Esmond Wickremasinghe’s own contribution has to be acknowledged. Incidentally, Sarath Amunugama became the first and the only Sri Lankan to hold a Director’s post in the organisation though others have created false impressions in the country that they virtually ran the UNESCO.

This was because there was formidable competition within the Asia-Pacific group for the seats allocated to it. India always made a claim to a seat and never failed to gain it. India’s giant standing as a cultural colossus was always recognised. Pakistan to made successive bids not always succeeding. After these to giants, there was competition occasionally for a third South Asian seat among the smaller member countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. The ASEAN Countries always ensured that at least one of their members sat on the Executive Board at a given time. As a solid group abiding by group principles they refused to have any truck with quarrelsome members of South Asia. In this situation South Asian countries had to face election by the entire General Conference on a preference basis. This is where the external politics of an individual county and other alignments could also come into play.

One could understand the euphoria over Sri Lanka’s success this time but as an old UNESCO hand I owe it to that intellectual organisation that it should be defended from being downgraded to the extent that its members act in response to internal or external politics of any country; that is to give credit to any particular political party and its policies. It may be true that India, China, and Japan put their weight openly behind Sri Lanka. It is important to know if any of these three countries were among the contestants and if so whether the situation could have been different. Whenever India was contesting she went all the way against all candidates. That was the situation in 1980, the second time that Esmond’s election campaign was led by me and despite my open canvassing for Dr. Gopal of India at his request on the previous occasion. (I was Chairman of the Non-Aligned Group) and a Committee member of the Group of 77.

Another reason for our failures was that we did not receive the support of such solid group votes such as those of the African and Arab groups who always voted as a group. This was under the UNP regime. It was when we received this support in 1986 that Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne was elected to the Executive Board gaining the second highest number of votes in the whole election, not just among Asian candidates, as the present claim makes out. His margin over the next successful candidate was an unprecedented one. Whoever was responsible for the Ministry Press Communique should have done some home work before going on record making claims.

I am sure the Prime Minister would be highly embarrassed by the song and dance that has been made about his personal contribution or that of his policies when President J. R. Jayewardene who with his record and his own father, Esmond Wickremesinghe failed to ensure success on previous occasions. It was only when Dr. Nissanka Wijeratne contested the election to the Executive Board in 1986 that Sri Lanka won the seat convincingly after more than three previous unsuccessful attempts. The Sri Lankan Delegation led by him consisting of Dr. Stanley Kalpage, Dr. R. A. B. Amarasinghe and Dr. P. R. Jayewardene invited me to take over the election campaign (I was Ambassador to France at the time) as the Permanent Delegate Dr. Ananda Guruge was unable to make progress or for other reasons. It was the solid support of the Arab Group given to Sri Lanka for the first time that made the big difference. This decision was conveyed to me (and later to Dr. Nissanka Wijeyeratne) by my close friend Dr. Heider, the Iraqi Permanent Delegate, who chaired the Arab Group at UNESCO. One reason for this change of heart of the Arab Group, as explained to us, was the change in the person handling Sri Lanka’s campaign. Dr. Wijeyeratne considered this a compliment to me.

What has happened this time except that the Asia-Pacific group has backed Sri Lanka with three stalwarts, Japan, China and India supporting Sri Lanka, with obviously, many other groups making a positive vote. There is also a sympathy vote that a country gains after a massive electoral defeat. The failure of Sri Lanka’s candidate at the election to the Director-General’s post should be one of them. When Esmond failed to win the Executive Board seat he was elected to the Communications Committee with the largest majority. So was the endorsement of Sarath Amunugama’s appointment. There are other factors behind the scene. Though Sri Lanka is a small country, her achievements in the field of education had been always well recognised at UNESCO but that alone could not earn her recognition because expertise in education was no wanting and UNESCO also considered equal distribution of marginal seats once the stalwarts were assured of places.

It cannot be denied that attention of the international community is focused on Sri Lanka which is making an all out effort to bring about a peaceful solution to its ethnic problem, end the havoc it has caused and put the country in the direction of economic recovery. That situation is certain to gain some sympathy even among those who are more concerned with intellectual affairs. However, it would be reading too much into it to say that the world body voted for Sri Lanka because of Prime Minister’s policies. That is where the bureaucratic twist has distorted the truth.

Finally, one may ask what special benefit a country could derive being on the Executive Board. Is it no prestige more than any real benefits? Everything depends on the country’s outlook or in a wider sense, that of a geographical group’s outlook. In the first instance there has to be an active National Commission where the country’s intellectual cream, the scientists, other professionals, educators and those interested in culture and media could contribute to the collective thinking of a country. This was not happening except for a short spell when Esmond Wickremesinghe, as Vice Chairman tired to create that atmosphere. The basic shortcoming is that the National Commission rather than fulfilling UNESCO’s objectives has turned out to be a government run department. This is in contrast to other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea where the National Commission is a legally constituted entity. It was not till the beginning of 1980s that UNESCO’s Plans and Proposed Budgets were studied meticulously by professionals. It was during this period that important projects such as the Arthur Clark Centre of Technology and the Institute of Fundamental Studies and also the Cultural Triangle project and a request for a Press for printing cultural publications were submitted for UNESCO support. These and several other initiatives which were initiated by me on behalf of the government showed the potential that existed outside the traditional field of education for gaining UNESCO support. It also demonstrated that a country need not be on the Executive Board to accomplish them. Countries such as India, Indonesia and others lay more emphasis on the field of science and had scientists representing their countries at UNESCO. (India had on Atomic scientist in my good friend the late Dr. Maheswar Dayal). In any case without an integrated national policy frame work at the country level effectively fed by an active professional community what a country could gain by being on the Executive Board would be marginal.