Sri Lanka’s Fifty Years at the UN

Reminiscences of a Former Diplomat –– II

(Part I of this article appeared last Thursday)

by Bandu de Silva

Sri Lanka’s Entry to U.N. Delayed

Sri Lanka had to lie low for seven years leaving Britain to take up her case for admission at the UN Security Council sessions every succeeding year without success, with the Soviet Union repeating her devastating refrain of ‘Nyet’ every time. Several attempts at a ‘package deal’ was thwarted by U.S. opposition to the inclusion of some Soviet satellites, particularly, Outer-Mongolia in the package. The Chiang KaiSheck regime itself which occupied the Chinese seat in the Security Council opposed the creation of Outer Mongolia, which was always considered part of China.

That Sri Lanka was caught up in the international power game was clear from the way the issue was finally resolved as part of a horse deal between western powers and the Soviet Union. We were admitted to the UN organisation not on honourable terms as an independent country on its own right but under a package deal which ensured the admission of Outer Mongola sponsored by the Soviet Union as a member. However, that did not remain a blot on Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka did not remain a Granada. She asserted her place among the comity of nations even before she was admitted to the UN.

Sri Lanka’s performance at the General Assembly sessions of 1955 was not the best indicator of what Sri Lanka’s future role would be, but there were other developments both nearer home in Asia and at the UN, which indicated the options Sri Lanka had. On the Dutch invasion of Indonesia which had declared independence, Sri Lanka was the first country to respond by closing her air port to Dutch air craft flying armed forces to Indonesia. The Agreement with Britain on the use of air base did not interfere with the government’s decision, though it cannot be said if there was any pressure from Britain on behalf of the European ally.

There was, however, a delay in the response on the part of Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake to the Indian Prime Minister, Jawahalal Nehru’s call for an Asian leader’s conference over the Indonesian situation. Whether this was due to the Sri Lankan Prime Minister’s wish not to get too involved in the matter after imposing the ban on the use of ports is not clear. It is, however, a fact that Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was nominated to represent the country only after reminders by Prime Minister Nehru about the delay in nominating a representative.

The role that Mr. Bandaranaike played at the New Delhi Conference is all history now, but some doubt remains as to whether his leader would have wanted him to go that far. D. S. Senanayake was more for non-involvement in international politics. He was more a down to earth home-politician than an internationalist and it is said that he even eschewed the opportunity given to Sri Lanka to host some regional offices of international organisations on the ground that it would lead to a rise in cost of living of the average man!

There were other developments like the Colombo Conference and the Colombo-Plan of economic cooperation which were to determine Sri Lanka’s future role in regional politics. Mr. Bandaranaike, who had formed his own political party in opposition to the UNP had an international agenda which was different from that of the UNP which carried the prospects of the country moving away from overt commitment to the West and in the direction of non-alignment in power politics which dominated the international political scene at the time. His rise to power immediately followed Sri Lanka’s admission to the UN.

Sri Lanka had opened up trade relations with China (later with the Soviet Union as well) in 1952 amidst opposition from the US and sold rubber to China which was a strategic item tabooed under the US sponsored UN Resolution. This was in the context of the-dual problem the country faced on account of US. war stock-piles of rubber being released to the detriment of the industry in producing countries and the world shortage of rice arising partly on account of China purchasing the entire production of Myanmar (Burma).

Afro-Asian Solidarity

At the UN, new forces were gathering in the form of Afro-Asian solidarity following the Bandung Conference. This informal group remained a strong lobby in shaping the policy of newly independent nations and that is where Sri Lankan policy got merged with Afro-Asian interests. The Suez affair in which Mr. Bandaranaike took a keen interest, earned Sri Lanka an important role at the UN, when the Colombo powers selected Mr. Bandaranaike to represent their collective opinion on the Suez affair. Mr. Bandaranaike even met the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, his University contemporary, on the way to the UN.

At the same time, Sri Lanka became a vociferous critic of Soviet action in suppressing opposition in Hungary. Though the government had not formulated its position over the Hungary issue, her articulate Permanent Representative, Sir Senarath Gunawardene, who had seen the Soviet opposition to Sri Lanka’s admission to the UN and one who would speak on any brief, decided what Sri Lanka’s stand should be. This may have caused some flutter in Colombo where the leftists were coalition partners in the government. Sir Senerath was shortly afterwards replaced by Sir Claude Corea.

Professionalism in Foreign Service

The shortage of professional manpower at the Foreign Office did not impede the work at the UN at the initial stage. A dedicated band of young Foreign Service professionals some of whom had exposure at conferences like the New Delhi Conferences, the Colombo Conference, and the Bandung Conference, brought their collective experience at the policy formulation level and found themselves capable of matching up with the new challenges and prepared extensive briefs on all agenda subjects before the General Assembly at successive sessions.

Of the second generation men, suffice it to name a few like NNMI Hussain, A. T. Moorthy, C. Gunasingham, Y. Duraiswamy who formed the Foreign Office team and were no second to the best anywhere in the world. I recall, when we were trainees, we were asked by Neville Jansz, who was the head of the Foreign Relations Division to read the reports sent by the first three diplomats from their overseas posts. As trainees five of us and others who joined later formed the initial supporting group of resource personnel.

While the Foreign Office provided the expertise for the UN Committees, Mr. Bandaranaile chose some prominent personalities, both men and women, to be the spokes persons at the Committees. One of them I recall, was Mr. E. R. S. R. Coomraswamy. Another was Mrs. Ezlyn Deranniyagala, whose choice was catastrophic. At one stage Dr. G. P. Malalasekera, disowned what she said on the Committees and even reported her to the Prime Minister for her disparaging remarks on the Africans at the UN. Obviously, she had come under the influence of some of the Western delegates and disowned the Afro-Asian group.

I have read her reports and the Permanent Representative Dr. Malalasekera’s comments on them. Despite these, she did not cease to be member of the Sri Lankan delegation for sometime. So strong were the family ties which determined the selection! As Foreign Service personnel matured this exuberant and all round costly display of Sri Lankan talent was abandoned and real professionals from the Foreign Service manned these slots at the UN. That helped to produce a number of experts at the UN. like the late Ben Fonseka, Nihal Rodrigo, B. A. B. Goonetileke, Palihakkara and Prasad Kariyawasam. As years went by the Foreign Ministry gained firm control over its representatives and close two-way consultations were firmly established with Francis de S. Jayaratne and later Shirley Amerasinghe taking over affairs at the UN.

Some Important Issues

I was in the small team, all new recruits, led by Neville Jansz which prepared for the Conference summoned by Prime Minister Nehru over the Suez invasion and later for the UN General Assembly sessions in 1956. Suez invasion took high priority. For the first time Mr. Bandaranaike had an inkling of what the youngsters whom he earlier downgraded could perform. The question of restoring to the Peoples’ Republic of China its legitimate place in the UN and on the Security Council also received much attention and enthusiasm of policy formulation. Congo became another vexed issue over which initiatives on the part of Sri Lanka which had become a member of the Security Council, was called for. Vietnam too became a hot subject on which Sri Lanka cut a figure at the UN in addition to other initiatives she took.

There were a number of other issues over which Sri Lanka took initiatives which have to be excluded for want of space. It was as a leading member of the NAM and its chairman subsequently that Sri Lanka’ role came into greater focus. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Indian Ocean Peace Zone proposal was adopted by the UN General Assembly and Sri Lanka was appointed as Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee. The late Ambassador N. Balasubramanium. steered the difficult sessions of the Committee which was plagued by lack of overall agreement of super powers but the Committee could not make progress.

Sri Lankan Professionals’ Contribution

to the UN

It was on the contribution leading to the successful conclusion of the Convention on the Law of the Sea under the chairmanship of Ambassador Shirley Amerasinghe that Sri Lanka left a lasting imprint at the UN, which will stand good in future selection of Sri Lankans to the UN and its, bodies. A similar contribution was made by eminent Judge Dr. Christie Weeramantry to the International Court of Justice, where his dissenting opinions on several important issues have earned much recognition, The position stated by H. S. S. Nissanka, that Dr. Weeramantry’s application was submitted by Australia is incorrect.

His application was supported by the Sri Lankan National Committee and formally submitted by the Sri Lankan government under President R. Premadasa. It is correct that Dr. Weeramantry had the full backing of the Australian government throughout. Dr. Gamini Corea, who served as Secretary General of UNCTAD was in a class of his own.

Other Sri Lankan representatives whose valuable contributions to the UN have been recognised are Ambassador Chris Pinto, former Legal Adviser of the Foreign Ministry and Dr. Rohan Perera, present Legal Advisor. The impressive contributions of Sri Lanka’s men who served on the U.N. Secretariat like Dr. N. Jasenthuliyana, who was the head of the U.N. organisation on Outer Space Law, Prof. Suriyakumaran, who distinguished himself in several fields, and Dr. Jayantha Dhanapala who functioned in the role of Under Secretary on Disarmament and Nuclear weapons till recently have to be noted.

Reference to Sri Lanka’s role at the UN would not be complete without consideration of the work at its European office in Geneva. Here, in the last two decades Sri Lanka has been active in the UN Human rights Commission and the sub-Commission. Successive representatives at this Commission have made their contribution to its work and it would not be fair to ignore them. Our knowledge of the work done there depends on the nature of publicity received. I cannot for instance forget the initial work of Ambassador Tissa Jayakody, which was followed by Ambassadors Susantha de Alwis, Jayantha Dhanapala and several others including Ambassador B. A. B. Goonetileke and Prasad Kariyawasam.

There were others like the late Dr. H. W. Jayewardene, who made immense contributions. It was not only in Geneva that canvassing went on against a resolution being passed on Sri Lanka at this Commission but in individual capitals of member countries of the Committee. Credit must go to Ambassadors in those Capitals who prepared the background for the success at Geneva. I think Dr. Nissanka’s observations on this matter are far too much one-sided in heaping the accolades on one individual.

The writer was former Sri Lankan Ambassador to France and several European countries and to UNESCO, The Vatican and Iran. He was also in charge of recruitment and training in the Foreign Ministry and later Director-General.



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