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How an Intruder in the General Assembly was Upstaged by a Foreign Minister

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By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS – Sri Lanka had its fair share of Foreign Ministers who made their annual visits to the UN during the General Assembly sessions in September when the world body traditionally hosted over 150 world leaders, including heads of state and heads of government.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister ACS Hameed had one of his memorable moments when an Eelam activist and lawyer from London, Krishna Vaikunthavasan, surreptitiously gate-crashed into the UN and tried to upstage Hameed by walking onto the podium of the General Assembly hall and momentarily took the speaker’s slot.

The incident, perhaps a rarity in the history of the UN, saw the intruder unleashing a diatribe against a member state accusing it of genocide and lambasting the government for committing war crimes against the Tamils fighting for a separate state in northern Sri Lanka.

When the president of the Assembly realized he had an interloper on his hands, he cut off the mike and summoned security guards who bodily ejected him from the hall and banned him from the UN premises. And as Hameed walked up to the podium, there was pin drop silence in the Assembly Hall.

As a member of the Sri Lanka delegation at that time, I was seated behind Hameed. But the unflappable Hameed, unprompted by any of his delegates, produced a riveting punchline: “Mr President”, he said “I want to thank the previous speaker for keeping his speech short,” he said, as the Assembly, known to suffer longwinded speeches, broke into peals of laughter. The intruder was in effect upstaged by the Foreign Minister.

Hameed’s canny sense of humor also went far beyond the confines of the UN. When he came under attack for staying in five-star luxury hotels during the UN General Assembly sessions in New York, he fired back at the Opposition MP in Parliament with a rejoinder dripping with sarcasm: “Where do you want me to stay when I travel overseas as the Foreign Minister?”, he asked. “in thosai boutiques?”

To put it in perspective, that would be like rooming at the Ambal Café in Hulftsdorf or Saraswathy Lodge in Bambalapitya. Or perhaps Saravana Bhavan in New York’s Lexington Avenue.

Hameed routinely pitched his tent either at New York’s Hyatt Regency, the Intercontinental Barclay, the Waldorf Astoria or the Palace Hotel—and he did it in style, like scores of other high-flying Foreign Ministers arriving for the UN sessions. A globe-trotter of near-biblical proportions, he was probably in Colombo only on transit, in between catching overseas flights.

Hameed was an unforgettable character in his heyday—enjoying every single moment of his tenure as Foreign Minister beginning 1977. And more so, because President JR Jayewardene (JRJ) never addressed the UN nor stepped into the UN premises (even while he stayed at the Waldorf Astoria in New York during his state visit to Washington DC in April 1983.) The reasons for shunning the UN remains a mystery.

With Sri Lanka holding the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) during 1976-1979, Hameed was constantly called upon to preside over some of the thorniest international issues of the mid-1970s: which of the two Cambodian factions had the rightful claim to the seat at the UN (the General Assembly session that day was held up for over four hours as he negotiated behind closed doors to help resolve the dispute, with backing from the UN’s Legal Adviser)? Was it Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge regime (1975-1979)?

And, in another dispute, should Egypt, which had signed the Camp David peace agreement with Israel in 1978, be driven out of NAM? There were also sharp divisions in NAM over the disputed territory of Western Sahara in the Maghreb region of North Africa and the split over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989).

As he sat in judgement, Hameed’s closest advisers during the General Assembly sessions included two outstanding career diplomats, Jayantha Dhanapala and Nihal Rodrigo, along with Ernest Corea, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Canada and later Ambassador to the United States.

Ernest was one of Hameed’s longstanding friends, having known him long before he became Foreign Minister, and was the only Sri Lankan Ambassador who addressed him by his first name: Shahul, throwing protocol to the winds.

As Ernest once told me : “Shahul faced many challenges in his life – one of them was a lack of physical height – but his biggest challenge was managing the Foreign Affairs portfolio for the Sri Lanka government. To the best of my recollection, he was the first Foreign Minister to hold that portfolio without the direct involvement of the Prime Minister’s/President’s office”. Previously, Defence and External Affairs were integrated into a single portfolio.

When President Jayewardene unhitched them, there was a fairly widespread perception, particularly in Colombo’s foreign policy establishment, that the whole business of foreign affairs was being downgraded. “Shahul proved them wrong”, said Ernest.

As part of the landscape in the UN Delegate’s Lounge, Hameed was seen holding court, even as he kept chomping at his cigar, probably the best from Cuba, which he picked up in Havana during his frequent trips to the Cuban capital, before Sri Lanka handed over the NAM chairmanship to Fidel Castro in 1979.

At home, Hameed had a tough task steering the NAM ship among sceptics like Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali, and of course, JRJ himself. Still, Hameed showed remarkable patience and persistence.

Perhaps his most joyous moment as Foreign Minister was when JRJ told Fidel Castro at the Havana summit that it was Hameed who enabled Sri Lanka to hand over NAM’s leadership to Cuba “untarnished and unaltered.”

This put to rest the speculation even within his own party that his days as Foreign Minister would be short. “The fact is that JRJ realized as few others did that Shahul had an intuitive feel for international relations. Those who had the privilege of working with him understood this. He had his faults. Who doesn’t?,” asked Ernest.

“I am not going to be counted among his critics who might want to let fly at him now that he is no longer with us. Rather, I would like to remind those of us who worked with him and others who observed him at work that he was outstanding in several areas”.

First, he was tri-lingual: in English, Sinhala and Tamil. This gave him a remarkable reputation among his peers. Second, he had a phenomenal memory and could at precisely the correct moment during a drafting session pull out from the recesses of his mind a word, a phrase or other salient reference that added substance and depth to a public policy statement. He was also insistent, as some of his colleagues were not, that a solid Sri Lanka/India relationship was an essential component of foreign policy, said Ernest.

“One more point needs to be stressed and this is very personal. He was an excellent extempore speaker. He could intervene in a debate to deal with a complex issue for which most of us were unprepared as if he was saying to himself: “Here’s that loose ball I was waiting for,” declared Ernest.

Armed with self-deprecating humour, Hameed funded the publication of a collection of cartoons that lampooned him. He particularly relished a cartoon which showed him sitting before a huge globe with the caption: “Let me see – what are the countries I have still not visited.” His initials ACS were spelled out as “All Countries Seen.”

An equally lovable cartoon in November 1978 showed a world-weary Hameed arriving at the Katunayake airport and innocently asking a passer-by: “My dear man, could you show me the way to Harispattuwa?,” his electorate in his hometown of Akurana, a majority Sinhala Buddhist electorate. And to have been elected over a very long period was a tribute to Hameed’s political relationship among his voters.

The cartoons were sketches from some of Sri Lanka’s celebrated artistes of the 1970s, including W.R.Wijesoma, Jiffrey Yoonoos, Mark Gerreyn and Amita Abayesekera.”One of the greatest gifts is the ability to laugh at oneself,” said Wijesoma in an introduction to the book titled “Mr Foreign Minister”, ” Mr Hameed is doing just that, and I believe he is having the last laugh.”

Oscar Wilde once made the distinction between two forms of torture: the rack and the Press. Ask any politician, said Hameed, and he would opt for the grisly torture chamber over the editorial offices and the news desks in Colombo.

This article is adapted from a newly-released book on the United Nations titled “No Comment—and Don’t Quote Me on that” authored by Thalif Deen. The book is available on Amazon and at the Viitha Yapa bookshop.



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President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer

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Health Ministry still deliberating pros and cons

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed health officers to inoculate children between the age 15 to 19 with Pfizer vaccine, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said yesterday.

General Silva added that the President had also instructed officials to inoculate children with special needs above the age of 12, with the Pfizer vaccines. He there are around 50,000 children with special needs.

General Silva said Sri Lanka would receive adequate Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. During the Presidential Task Force meeting, on Covid-19, it was decided to allow the Department of Motor Traffic, and the Land Registry to operate during the lockdown, which was extended until 01 October. However, a few hours before this statement was made, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath told the media that no decision had been taken on vaccinating children.

He, however, said that discussions were ongoing about vaccinating children.

“There are a number of discussions on this because this is a serious matter. We have also decided that when we vaccinate the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else,” he said.

The dates, the brand and other details would be announced once the Health Ministry was done with consultations with experts. Once the decisions were taken the Ministry would prepare guidelines which would then be made available to the public, he said.

“So, I urge the parents not to worry or panic. They can vaccinate their children once we issue guidelines. We will ensure that this will be done safely and with virtually no side-effects or shortages,” Dr. Herath said.

The Deputy Director General of Health Services also urged people not to be misled by claims that those who had been double jabbed and being treated at home were dying in increasing numbers. Some people with serious underlying issues could die even if they were double jabbed, he said.

“However, as we vaccinate an increasing number of Sri Lankans, the deaths and those who need ICU treatment will decline rapidly. Don’t be fooled by various unscientific claims. We are a nation that has universal vaccine rates and we should maintain that tradition with COVID,” he said.

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Sumanthiran demands immediate due process against Lohan

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Immediate legal action including arrest and prosecution must be taken against Lohan Ratwatte and others who were involved in the incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons, TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said on Thursday. He said Ratwatte’s mere resignation from one portfolio would not do.

“The Presidential Secretariat has issued a statement that Lohan Ratwatte has taken responsibility for the incidents that transpired at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. Although Ratwatte is said to have resigned from his post as Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, he continues to be a minister in charge of other subjects. This is not something we can accept,” he said.

The TNA MP said that the State Minister should be removed from all his positions immediately and the pistol he carried with him should be taken away from him.

“Otherwise, it’s a grave threat to the public at large,” Sumanthiran said. There had been other incidents where Ratwatte brandished his weapon in public spaces, he added.

The TNA MP said that an independent investigation should be held with regard to those incidents and Ratwatte and others involved in entering the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons should be arrested and charged.

“The police have still not taken any action in this regard. The question that must be posed is how he was able to carry his personal firearm inside the prison premises. Prison officials must answer these questions,” he said.

MP Sumanthiran said that given that the prisoners were wards of the state, their security was in the hands of the state.

“Therefore, this is a very serious incident. Action must be taken accordingly,” he said.

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Taking contradictory stand on 2015 Geneva Resolution

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‘Govt. seeking credit for accountability mechanisms set up by previous administration

UNHRC 48th sessions:

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena has alleged that the government’s stand on accountability issues at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is contradictory to its much publicised opposition to the Geneva Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the previous administration.

Sri Lanka co-sponsored 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015. The then Foreign Minister the late Mangala Samaraweera is on record as having said that the UNP-led government had President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to go ahead with the co-sponsorship.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s media spokesperson Gunawardena yesterday (17) pointed out that the government, at the ongoing 48th sessions of the UNHRC, has reiterated its commitment to key accountability mechanisms set up in terms of the Geneva Resolution.

Civil society activist Gunawardena, who also functioned as the Director General, Information Department during the previous administration said that the assurance given by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last Tuesday (14) should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from 30/1 resolution.

Prof. Peiris’ predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena announced Sri Lanka’s withdrawal at the Feb-March 2020 sessions.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) owed an explanation, Gunawardena stressed, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Stop playing politics at the expense of our international relations,” Gunawardena said, underscoring the need for what he called a national consensus on the post-war reconciliation process.

Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that FM Prof. Peiris in his address to the Geneva sessions discussed the progress in what he described as a domestic process in respect of accountability issues. Reference was made to the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). However, the FM conveniently failed to acknowledge that the OMP, OR and ONUR had been established in keeping with the 2015 Geneva Resolution that covered broader understanding of transitional justice.

The SLPP, while taking credit for the ongoing transitional justice process, continued to publicly reject 30/1, the very basis of the solution, Gunawardena said. “In other words, the SLPP’s actions are very different from their pledges before the electorate in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Referring to the assurance given by Prof. Peiris at the UNHRC that Sri Lanka Human Rights Council was carrying on its mandate, Gunawardena challenged the government to prove its sincerity by allowing no holds barred investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons on Sept 6 and 12, respectively.

The announcement made by the HRCSL regarding its decision to initiate an inquiry of its own in the absence of police investigation received public attention and appreciation, Gunawardena said.

Commenting on the declaration that Sri Lanka was engaged in an integrated process to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with international norms and best practices, lawyer Gunawardena urged the government to study the work done by the previous government in that regard. Referring to statements made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in that regard, Gunawardena said that the then Joint

Opposition quite maliciously rejected the move. “They should be ashamed of theirconduct,” relevant ministers and the Attorney General Department couldn’t be unaware of the agreement on new anti-terrorism law.

Gunawardena said that the SLPP administration shouldn’t hesitate to appreciate the previous government’s achievements. “We are quite pleased that mechanisms accepted by the previous government continue to be in operation even though the progress seems slow. However, the SLPP cannot deprive the UNP-led administration of the credit it deserved,” lawyer Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena urged the government to examine the report of the Committee appointed by then Premier Wickremesinghe to develop what he called the policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. He said that a politically motivated campaign derailed that effort whereas the Opposition propagated the lie the yahapalana government intended to deprive Sri Lanka of anti-terrorism law.

Asked to comment on the revelation of the SLPP government having talks with a group of civil society activists to explore ways and means to strengthening the reconciliation process, Gunawardena said that a 13-page Foreign Ministry note dated Aug. 31, 2021 addressed to Colombo-based diplomatic missions acknowledged the pivotal role played by the civil society. Having always accused the civil society of being part of a Western strategy, the same lot exposed their duplicity by meeting a group of civil society activists.

Gunawardena was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ministers, Basil Rakapaksa, Prof. Peiris, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ali Sabry, PC, and Namal Rajapaksa having separate meetings with SLCC (Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus) in the run-up to the Geneva confab. SLCC comprises 16 individuals.

Gunawardena noted the Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, too, in her hard-hitting Sept 13 statement on Sri Lanka referred to President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLCC.

Gunawardena said that in addition to the SLCC, another group styled itself as the Civil Society Platform (CSP) in a statement issued on Sept. 13 made its position clear on a range of accountability issues as well as stepped up pressure on the civil society. CSP consists of 30 organizations and 36 individuals.

Responding to declarations by FM Prof Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage that external investigations wouldn’t be acceptable, lawyer Gunawardena said that instead of rejecting the investigation the government should furbish whatever information in its hands or had access to the new investigative mechanism. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that the UNHRC authorized the fresh investigative mechanism at the 46th session with an overwhelming majority with 22 countries voting for the resolution, 11 against and 14 missing the vote.

Gunawardena urged the government to take a realistic view as Sri Lanka didn’t have time and space to engage in silly maneuvers. The bottom line was that the March 2020 announcement that Sri Lanka withdrew from 30/1 was nothing but a farce, Gunawardena said.

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