Last Sunday this newspaper said eyebrows were raised in Colombo over Palitha Kohona’s visit to the Middle East as chairman of a UN Committee investigating Israeli human rights practices in occupied Arab territories. It queried whether UN officials ‘entrapped’ Kohona into heading the committee.
It might not be generally known that from the inception of this Committee- with an official title too long to mention- 41 years ago Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) has chaired it. The first official visit of this Committee to Arab countries neighbouring Israel to hold on-the-spot hearings was in April or May 1970.
I was privileged to cover these sessions for the “Daily News”. I was the only Sri Lanka journalist there and my presence at the hearings was through fortuitous circumstances. I was on a stopover in Cairo on my way back from the German Democratic Republic, popularly known as East Germany, when I received an invitation from the Arab League to cover the forthcoming visit of the Committee to four Arab countries bordering Israel.
That was due entirely to Elmo Joseph, Counsellor at our embassy in Cairo, who took me to meet his counterpart at the Jordanian Embassy, an influential diplomat and a close relative of the then Jordanian Prime Minister Wasfi al Tal who was assassinated one year later by a Black September unit of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The chat with the Counsellor who was at the time the Jordanian representative in the Arab League, turned to journalism. He suddenly remembered the impending visit of the Committee and said he will arrange for the Arab League to invite me as its guest to cover the hearings. The UN selected this three-member Committee, the other two members being Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. Somalia was represented by its Ambassador to the UN. The Yugoslav representative was a professor of International Law. After 40 years I just cannot recall their names.
Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN at the time was the controversial and flamboyant Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe who had moved to New York from his posting as our High Commissioner to New Delhi. The silver-haired and sharp-nosed Shirley was easily distinguishable by the red rosebud he wore regularly in his buttonhole. He was selected to head this Committee which the West, especially the US, saw as an anti-Israeli move orchestrated by the Arabs trying to regain some mileage after the disastrous effects of the Six-Day War of June 1967 in which Israeli forces scored a decisive military victory.
It was a critical time for Shirley Amerasinghe whose name was being mentioned as a possible candidate for the UN Secretary-General’s post soon to be vacated by the respected U Thant of Burma. As far as the West was concerned Shirley was a tainted man. He was etched in the collective western mind as pro-Arab. Shirley the classicist’s verbal duels with the Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, a brilliant orator and fluent in 10 languages, was looked-forward to at UN sessions, according to UN-wallahs of the day.
Some of the non-aligned nations that were rooting for Shirley Amerasinghe as Secretary General were rather fearful that his chairmanship of a committee which was already characterized as anti-Israel in particular and anti-western in general, would ruin his chances in the run-up to a contest for the top job. In the event it never came to such an election and Shirley Amerasinghe was later to stamp his competence and tenacity by steering the fractious Law of the Sea Conference to its conclusion. After his death in 1980, the UN established a fellowship in his name for the sterling work he did on the Law of the Sea.
Watching Shirley Amerasinghe at work at close range was an absolute treat. During the hearings in Cairo two Egyptian soldiers gave evidence saying they were tortured by the Israelis after their capture and they carried physical marks of it. Okay, said Chairman Amerasinghe, so step forward and show us the marks. I happened to sit at the same table as the Committee, a few feet away. So I saw the marks as distinctly as the three committee members when the soldiers raised their trouser legs to display the marks on their thighs. Shirley Amerasinghe rose from his chair, peered over the table at the two darkened patches on their thighs and said “but you could have got that playing rugby.”
I am not sure whether many of those who were at the hearing knew very much of the game. But Shirley’s voice carried an unmistakable sneer and it certainly did not escape the notice of the several officials of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry who were present, for some of them visibly turned a couple of shades darker. Why he picked on these two soldiers I could not say. Was it because it became rather obvious as the hearing progressed that they had been running away from the battle front when they were captured or because Shirley was trying to shed some of his anti-Israel ballast as perceived by others. Or it might well have been because the bad day all of us had when we left Cairo for Luxor the previous day.
It was a Sunday morning when the whole UN team, some Egyptian officials and I flew to Luxor for the day hoping to get back to Cairo early enough for dinner and a good night’s rest before sittings resumed next morning. Having visited the Valley of the Kings and King Tutankhamun’s Tomb with me carrying Shirley’s photographic paraphernalia while the camera buff was shooting on his 35mm Leica (if I remember correctly), we returned to the hotel to refresh before flying back.
But then the Egyptians broke the bad news. A severe sandstorm in Cairo had closed down the airport and there would not be a flight back. While others would have been happy to stay overnight in Luxor and get back the next day though we had no fresh clothes, Chairman Amerasinghe was determined to go back to Cairo even if it was to be done on the back of camels. He was concerned because witnesses had been summoned to appear before the committee which was to resume at 9 am.
Egyptian officials were running hither and thither trying to find transport for nearly 30 of us. Eventually they told Shirley there was a night train that would reach Cairo by 7 am. Quite invigorated by the news he told them to reserve 1st class seats for us all. Half an hour or so later one official returned to say that it was not possible to reserve the seats. Why not, asked Shirley quite disturbed at the news. Well, said the foreign ministry official, it is because the railway authorities cannot say how many seats will be available until the train gets to Luxor.
At that Shirley exploded. “No wonder you lost the war,” he snapped and the Egyptians withdrew in some disarray. Eventually when the train did arrive at Luxor there were enough seats for all of us and we made it to Cairo by the scheduled time. Even then a now somewhat pacified Shirley could not but comment as he stepped on to the platform. “At least that they got right,” he remarked.
There is more to say about the remarkable Hamilton Shirley Amerasinghe during this mission that took me to Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan (and sadly not Syria) but that would take too much space to relate.
The writer is a serving diplomat in the Sri Lankan Embassy in Thailand