ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 30, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 18

Jumbo team fumbles into diplomatic jumble

By Our Diplomatic Editor

The visit of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and an entourage of some 65 to the 62nd United Nations General Assembly sessions was riddled with diplomatic faux pas and procedural blunders.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and first lady Shiranthi, who arrived at the Kennedy International Airport in New York were not received by anyone from the United Nations, the United States Government or even by a local authority representative. This was the case when they arrived in Los Angeles too. Instead on hand to receive them were Sri Lankan diplomatic staff and their families in both cities.

President Rajapaksa could not secure any meeting requested through official channels with dignitaries from the US, France, UK, Germany and Canada. Instead, he ended up meeting only Heads of State of countries that were canvassing for some UN bodies or other high posts, such as Iceland—UN Security Council candidature, Malta whose nominee is vying for the post of Commonwealth Secretary General. Of course it was not too difficult to meet with some heads of state without a ‘busy’ official agenda in NY, such as, the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahamedinejad and Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas. Then he also had to travel 10,000 miles to meet with Indian Foreign Minister, Pranab Mukherjee and Norway’s Minister for International Development, Erik Solheim. Both meetings were in Los Angeles.

A Major part of President Rajapaksa’s programme, both in both New York and Los Angeles included meetings with Sri Lankans, such as members of the Buddhist clergy, Sri Lanka Freedom Party associations and visits to temples. Even the Sri Lankan Ambassador to UN, Prasad Kariyawasam was sitting in the front row of President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLFP association in New York.

The delegation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was pruned down to just one in order to accommodate others. Most of the members of the Sri Lanka delegation (around 65 at the last count) failed to show up at the UN. They were out on private jaunts – to Niagara Falls, Atlantic City casinos, visiting long lost friends, relatives, keeping appointments for medical checks or simply going on sight seeing tours – all at taxpayer’s expense. When he was asked at the UN press conference about the strength of the Sri Lankan delegation, Foreign Minister, Rohita Bogollagama cut it down to 39. “Do you think it is too high?, he asked an American reporter who fired the question at him. Still, Bogollagama unwittingly gave the whoe show away. “When I walked down the corridors of the UN,” he told the reporter, I was thinking we were invisible in this environment.” No truer words were spoken. Yes, the Sri Lankan delegation was “invisible” because most of the so-called delegates who came on the junket never turned up at the UN at all. Visibility was thus zero. The only official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs present at the UN is someone who is to retire in a month’s time; a clear violation of the administrative code of the Sri Lankan public service, which says that someone with months to go for retirement shall not undertake official travel. Of course this appeared to be a clever ploy to accommodate just one officer, who was extremely keen to have a reunion with her sister living in New York.

It was Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona who wrote President Rajapaksa’s speech for the UNGA. He wanted to do it himself because President Rajapaksa had rejected the initial draft sent by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations last year. So without seeking any input from the Sri Lanka mission in NY, which is the usual practice Kohona gave a draft to the President just a day before the delegation took wing. The final text read out by the President was a heavily amended version of the Kohona draft. Foreign Minister Bogollagama was to suggest drastic changes to his not so friendly Foreign Secretary’s draft. Then Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Co-ordinating Secretary, Sajin Vaas Gunawardena wanted many sections of the Sinhala text amended. They were mostly to target a local Sri Lanka audience. This in turn resulted in more changes to the translated English text.

The Presidential media unit went into a frenzy with the President getting to speak on the first day. However, a closer look at who else spoke on that day shed some light—after US President George W. Bush it was the leaders of Ghana, Kazakhstan and Honduras. Then there was Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Republic of Macedonia, Malawi etc. The big mistake made by the Sri Lanka delegation and even the UN mission was to stick to the first slot in the afternoon. Now anyone who has a basic knowledge of UNGA (or even other such fora at which there is a lengthy list of speakers) would not want to be the first to speak after a long break as delegations return to their seats at their own pace. This was clearly evident when President Rajapaksa spoke as there were a very high number of ‘blue’ (empty) seats. Now only if the Sri Lanka side had taken a closer look at the afternoon speakers list, they could have swapped with another to ensure a bigger audience for the President. They could have slotted President Rajapaksa among the many ‘big name’ countries that spoke well after him that particular afternoon, such as, Iran, Afganistan, Germany, Italy etc.

Presidential media unit press releases had a very positive spin on the meeting with the United Nations Secretary General, in the absence of UN saying anything. Ban Ki Moon had told President Rajapaksa that more UN teams must be welcomed to Sri Lanka while ensuring that such delegations were extended all appropriate courtesies. He said they should also be alllowed unimpeded access to areas and institutions. He did not want a repetition of the Sir John Holmes episode where a Cabinet Minister called him a terrorist. Sri Lankan delegates had only nodded, with Bogollagama doing the most head movement. There were also issues relating to the media.

The delegation just concentrated on the Sri Lankan media whilst in the US. They turned down down many invitations from major American networks for interviews, such as ABC (President Rajapaksa turned down the very first interview for a programme on South Asia), CNN and FOX.

Foreign Minister Bogollagama did not like the Los Angeles leg of the visit and hence wanted another programme to spend a few more days. That is before the President went over to Los Angeles. He first tried Canada. The Canadians turned down the request saying they had ‘other things to do’. Then he tried Washington DC and the Americans said, no thanks as “there’s nothing new to discuss.”

While much is said about the expenses in NY, LA too has cost a thumping sum but without any official significance. In New York, it was carnival time at the Ritz Carlton Hotel where the 65 delegates were holed up. Despite a handsome per diem allowance by the Government everyone was told they could charge their meals, phone calls, laundry and entertainment to the room bill. This naturally facilitated the delegates to pocket their allowances (which are meant for incidental expenses). A couple flew in from London at the eleventh hour to join the delegation could not find accommodation at the Hotel.

So, one of the President’s security officers was asked to vacate his room and share another room with a second security officer. The overwhelming majority of the delegate’s had personal limousines both for official and private travel. When the final count is made, the total bill for the delegates could be staggering.

The highlight of the week was a late night argument between a Minister and his wife on the 17th floor of the hotel which set off alarms among the security detail. The two were engaged in verbal battle – not in their room – but in the corridors of the hotel floor where the President himself was occupying a room. The domestic dispute – and the high pitched screaming – was in full view of the security officers who were maintaining round-the-clock vigil on the President’s floor. “It was a disgrace,” said a delegate who was within hearing distance of the shouting match. It was a virtual first for the high-class Ritz Carlton.

The visit to Los Angeles was to accommodate the invitation extended by Consul General there and cousin of President Rajapaksa, Jaliya Wickremasuriya. The latter was was also keen to take President Rajapaksa to the abodes of the two brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil.

The Hotel in Los Angeles for President Rajapaksa and his entourage was the ‘Peninsula Beverly Hills’ in fashionable Beverly Hills. The Cost per single room is nearly $ 600 per night while the presidential suite costs $ 4000 per night With a near 20 member delegation, there were two nights stay in Beverly Hills. Heavy costs were incurred on hire of limousines. The programme included visits to Lankarama Buddhist temple, Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara, Dinner hosted by Consul/Cousin Jaliya Wickremasuriya, a 30 minute meeting with LA County Board of Supervisors at their office, a 30 minute meeting with LA Mayor, Lunch with President of LA World Affairs Council, LA Sheriff comes to see our President, Interview of President by by Asian Tribune and Sri Lanka Express and meeting a Sri Lankan gathering organized by Consul.

Foreign Minister Bogollagama is upset at the entire turn of events, the fact that MR couldn’t meet with any important world leader. Though the Foreign Ministry announced in a press release before his departure, President Mahinda Rajapaksa could not meet US President George W. Bush. Nor could he seize a photo opportunity during his reception. His visit to DC too has been undermined because Nick Burns had already called on President Rajapaksa in New York.

On the sidelines of the General Assembly, Sri Lanka’s high powered delegation took upon itself the onerous task of doing a little campaigning to gather votes for an upcoming election at UNESCO where Sri Lanka is seeking a renewal of its membership in the Board of Directors of the Paris-based UN agency. At a meeting between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama took a flying leap into the conversation to ask Abbas for his vote. There was embarrassment written all over the faces of both the Sri Lankan and Palestinian officials present. The country's Foreign Minister was ignorant of the fact that Palestine is not a full fledged member of the United Nations-- at least not until last week-- and therefore had no voting rights either at UNESCO or at the United Nations itself.

Mercifully, the Palestinians were diplomatic enough not to expose Bogollagama's ignorance, but instead nodded their heads at his bizarre request for votes from a country that is not an internationally recognized sovereign state. Perhaps it is time that Bogollagama was given a crash course in international affairs before his next visit to the United Nations.

Protocol wise, the President did nott fare well either. Despite the monumental efforts of the Sri Lanka embassy in Washington, Rajapakse was able to get an appointment only with the third in command at the State Department, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nick Burns.

The president failed to pull off an appointment either with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or her second in command John Negroponte, Deputy Secretary of State. On the other hand, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, far below in the political totem pole, succeeded in meeting with Rice, his counterpart in the US. Just goes to prove that Sri Lanka is still a political non-entity in the world of international diplomacy.

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