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Keep the victories coming

Listening to people talk since the vote in the Human Rights Council, anybody would think that Sri Lanka’s approach to international relations was now clear. Newspapers have been full of praise for Dayan Jayatilleka and the principles he has been advocating.

If they were genuinely convinced, I’d be delighted. I’ve always believed that a foreign policy based on solidarity with neighbours and the rest of the South was the only feasible strategy for a country like this. The West doesn’t work reciprocally with Sri Lanka, nor is there any incentive for it to do so. We like it if you grovel, but that doesn’t mean we will support you, unless we have some other agenda in mind. This is a small and poor country, let’s not forget.

Dayan Jayatilleka has been saying this for a long time. That he is also an eminently capable person made his selection as Ambassador even more welcome in my eyes, for Sri Lanka has lacked diplomats who are able to put the facts across with such authority in recent years.

But I’m afraid that changes of heart don’t happen overnight, especially not when it comes to foreign policy. Only weeks earlier, the Government had been thinking of bringing Dayan Jayatilleka back to Colombo without extending his term beyond the minimum of two years. Even fools who hand out visas to politicians that the Defence Ministry will later insist on deporting get that much, as do idiots whose strategy for handling difficult questions from the media is to claim ignorance of what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka. There is simply no comparison, as I saw for myself when I passed through Geneva to attend the World Conference Against Racism the other day.

There were quite a number of people who spoke up against this, but a sizeable group was blathering about the dangers of what they called megaphone diplomacy. Sri Lanka risked being isolated on the world stage, they said, alienating countries that should be kept as friends.

I’m sure that readers will remember the furore over the elections to the Human Rights Council last year, when Sri Lanka lost its seat to Bahrain. Despite it being pretty obvious that this was no major slight to the country, given that the number of votes cast for Sri Lanka would have been enough to win a seat for Europe in the previous round, a few imaginative agitators claimed that the result was an unprecedented disaster. Forgetting that in such matters voting blocs matter, it was suggested that statements made in Geneva had undermined the Sri Lanka campaign.

A story that has been doing the rounds ever since demonstrates how wrongheaded these assertions were. It also explains where the regular strategy of pandering to the West tends to fall down.

It is said that a member of the Sri Lankan diplomatic community took the British delegate aside just before the elections to say that Sri Lanka would vote for Britain whatever happened, and they would be grateful if the British delegate were to return the favour. That’s most awfully kind, our chap said, but no way. I like to think that he smirked at the naivety of his interlocutor. Of course it’s always nice to be generous, but this is politics. The Sri Lankan government ought to have been thinking of the future. As a result of this kindness, Britain made it onto the Human Rights Council with a margin of one vote over Spain, a country that has been far less nasty to Sri Lanka over the years. Considering the recent manoeuvring by the British representative, this was an enormous own goal.

If the elections had been held in Geneva, Sri Lanka might well have fared better. At least I doubt if Dayan Jayatilleka would have been involved in such a pointless bootlicking exercise.

Much of the fear of upsetting the West is quite unfounded in any case. We are talking about reasoned criticism based on an honest interpretation of facts, not mad ravings. Western governments may not like to be told when they fail to live up to expectations or why others don’t share their opinions on certain subjects, but our leaders are smart enough to recognise genuine attempts to highlight issues of concern, as opposed to malevolent attacks on our core values. What’s more, we aren’t that bothered by what you say. Being rich and militarily powerful, we know that you can’t do anything else.

Take the other incident that the megaphone diplomacy crackpots like to obsess about, when Dayan Jayatilleka proposed that the Human Rights Council should urge Britain to consider a referendum on the formulation of a written constitution, preferably republican. Howls of dismay were to be heard for months afterwards, as if the British government was going to hold this against Sri Lanka for years to come. In fact, we have undoubtedly forgotten that it was ever mentioned. It was only a suggestion, made in a forum that is designed for such things. What’s more, it was taken up by a group of countries, not just Sri Lanka alone. This provided the opportunity to make an important point, that the Human Rights Council exists to review problems in all member states. If the remark felt intrusive to some in Britain at the time, so much the better, because this may have helped our politicians to understand why Sri Lanka gets upset when we start pontificating.

Despite the success in the vote a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think that the attitudes of those who make foreign policy have changed. They are celebrating the win, happy that somebody got Sri Lanka off the hook, but the regular strategy continues to be pursued outside Geneva. Megaphone diplomacy will be bemoaned again before too long, by people who have not understood why speaking up in favour of the common interests of Southern nations is a necessary part of building meaningful relationships on the world stage. Indeed, they don’t even realise that it is with such a constituency that this country’s future lies.

Izeth Hussain started the campaign in this newspaper on Monday, suggesting that there was no need to be so mean to the West about its treatment of Sri Lanka in the last few months. He appears to think that it was quite reasonable of us to have expected genocide, demonstrating an amazing lack of confidence in his own people, and a rather touching belief in our good intentions. It seems that Westerners are particularly concerned to avoid killing lots of innocents, despite having been responsible for plenty of massacres ourselves. Well, thanks for the compliment. Perhaps Izeth Hussain would have shared these feelings with his counterparts if he had been the Ambassador in Geneva, offering to hold their bags while they gave Sri Lanka a good slap. I don’t think that it takes much imagination to predict what the outcome would have been in that case.

That said, the glow of victory risks preventing us from seeing reality as clearly as we should if the winning run is to be continued. Sri Lanka triumphed in a crucial vote, but there will be many other situations like this in future, albeit perhaps not at such key moments. Dayan Jayatilleka and his work in Geneva played an important role, but there is only so much a decent foreign policy and good diplomats can achieve. In the days to come, it may not be sufficient.

Countries who supported the Sri Lankan resolution did so not only on the basis that the West was interfering in matters that weren’t its concern, but also because they had been convinced through many weeks of lobbying that the Government had basically done what was necessary and should be helped rather than hindered in its efforts. This was possible because it was true. The Government had taken on the LTTE, an organisation that many countries were helped to see for what it was, and it had done so in a relatively decent manner. Facts were available to back up the diplomatic offensive. If this ceases to be the case, no amount of good work by the likes of Dayan Jayatilleka will be enough to ensure that Sri Lanka’s friends stay that way.

Kath Noble is a freelance journalist based in Colombo. She may be contacted by email at kathnoble99@gmail.com.

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