UNITED NATIONS. Magnanimous In Defeat,Dhanapala Evaluates His Loss



15 January 2007

Q: You ran an unsuccessful race for the post of UN Secretary-General. To what would you attribute your failure to secure the job?

A: In a personal statement issued after my withdrawal from the race, I indicated that I didn't feel the time was right for us to analyse reasons for my defeat. But, perhaps, it can be said that 1995 was the zenith of my career and the opportunity should have been seized during that time to field me as a candidate for a senior position in the UN system.

Today, three years after I had left the UN position as Under-Secretary-General, I did not have the visibility that an incumbent foreign minister like Ban Ki-moon had. Nor did I hold the positions that the other candidates held to be able to actively engage governments and be in the mainstream of diplomacy. That was probably one reason.

The other reason is that in today's globalised world, economic relations matter much more than ideology. And, if any proof was needed that the Cold War has ended, we saw it in this election for UN Secretary-General - with China actually voting in favour of the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea, despite the mutual security pact that South Korea has with the US, to say nothing of 40,000 American troops on South Korean soil. Times have changed and we have to acknowledge these realities.

I derived great satisfaction from the fact that an Asian was elected Secretary-General, because that had been a fundamental plank in the Sri Lankan campaign and in my own personal set of beliefs. I am also very happy that a national of a country that has acquired nuclear weapons was not elected, because that would have eroded the moral dimension of the Secretary-General's office.

Q: Could you analyse how the votes were cast at the election?

A: It's very difficult for us to analyse who voted for us. I believe that the major Asian countries in the UN Security Council voted for my candidature, but they also probably voted for other Asian candidatures. This meant that they were not conferring on me any special favour. The fact is that there were no negative votes against the South Korean and he was able to succeed.

What is disappointing, however, is that the Western countries did not appear to have voted for me. I would attribute that largely to my postures on disarmament issues. I have adopted a very honest position on nuclear disarmament and I have no regrets, whatsoever, on that. The countries that voted to discourage me came from NATO and they must have feared I would take an activist position on nuclear disarmament, had I become Secretary-General. They didn't realise that, as Secretary-General, I would have had to divorce my personal views from those of the UN.

Another reason attributed to my defeat was my age, but I think that was more a red herring than a real reason - because the President of Latvia was, in fact, older than I. Boutros Boutros-Ghali assumed duties when he was older than both the President of Latvia and myself.

As far as the Western group was concerned, it could also be that Sri Lanka is not a big investor internationally or a huge market for products. In this globalised world - in the same way that China was influenced to acquiesce vis--vis a Korean candidate -many Western candidates were more enticed by economic benefits than by the individual merits of a candidate. Nor did they consider his potential to lift the UN from its present state of ineffectiveness and the bad reputation it has acquired.

Several developing non-aligned countries are non-permanent members of the UN. But there again, the non-aligned ties that Sri Lanka has forged over a long period of time clearly mattered much less during the vote. Here is a sign of the times: that non-alignment and G77 links are less important now than other ties, established more recently, with countries offering benefits in terms of investment and markets.

In summary, I would think the trends of globalisation - and the fact that there was a candidate acceptable to all five permanent members - helped swing the decision in favour of the Korean and against me.

Q: An opinion has been expressed that India fielded a candidate just to cobble your chances. What role did India play in your defeat?

A: At an early stage - when I had accepted the late Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar's proposal to be a candidate - we did approach our South Asian neighbours and the only lack of enthusiasm we detected was in New Delhi. It was never clearly articulated as to why this was so. Had it been expressed, we could have discussed it with our Indian colleagues.

It was always rumoured that Shashi Tharoor had harboured the ambition and intention of running for the post. I believe that was one of the factors preventing the Indians from endorsing me. It could have been awkward if Tharoor had sought the sponsorship of another country such as the UK where he enjoys, I'm told, nationality.

But the fact that they waited until quite late in the process to announce Tharoor's candidature was unfortunate and it was certainly seen as a spoiler to my own candidature. Many countries asked us directly, at an early stage, what India's attitude was to my candidature. We were unable to produce the endorsement that the Thais had from ASEAN in respect of their candidate. If we had a South Asian consensus on my candidature, or on anyone else's candidature, I think that would have helped the region. South-East Asia had already been represented in this post through what was then Burma and it would have been logical for us to claim that it was South Asia's turn.

Q: Do you regret vying for the post?

A: I have no regrets whatsoever. When I accepted the government's offer to run as Sri Lanka's candidate, I knew it was a gamble. There was as much the prospect of success as there was the spectre of defeat. In a race, you must have the equanimity to accept both. I think I ran a successful race and I was able to present the issues as I wanted them to be presented. I was treated as a serious candidate, with respect; and I am grateful to the government for having given me this opportunity.

Q: Did the prevailing conflict situation in Sri Lanka impact negatively on your candidature?

A: Sri Lanka received considerable adverse international publicity at the time. I have said that I thought it was disproportionate and not commensurate with the situation in other parts of the world. There was, for example, continuing haemorrhaging in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir and other parts of India experiencing Naxalite movements. Sri Lanka, sadly, continues to attract a lot of publicity and I think that also was a negative factor.

Q: Did you receive any direct indication during your campaign that the situation in Sri Lanka might work against you?

A: Nobody asked me directly. However, I heard from the diplomatic missions campaigning for us that this was a factor. Certainly, some of the media reporting indicated that the Sri Lankan conflict was a factor.

Q: It was contended in some quarters that our diplomatic missions did not adequately support your campaign. Would you agree?

A: I think that's an unfair criticism. If you compare the Sri Lankan diplomatic machine with its Indian and Korean counterparts,, there is no way in which we could have competed. We have, perhaps, one-third the number of diplomatic missions that India and South Korea have. And due to under-resourcing, concurrent accreditation is also restricted to just one visit a year to countries such as Greece, Slovakia and so on.

Secondly, although Sri Lanka is well known internationally and has acquired a reputation - mainly through the successful foreign policy of the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike - we still suffer from the lack of peace and stability. We also don't have the economic prosperity that must go hand-in-hand with the reputation we have acquired in order to be taken seriously in the chanceries of the world. It's not surprising, therefore, that wealthier and bigger countries have greater influence, impact and ability to command attention both in the media and the international arena. That's a fact of life.

Q: How will Ban Ki-moon, the new Secretary-General, influence the manner in which the UN has been conducting itself?

A: I am confident in his wisdom. He has an Asian approach to international affairs - which, I think, brings with it qualities of patience, tolerance and prudence. For example, he knows the situation in East Asia very well, where we have the North Korean nuclear issue to deal with. I do not think it was a coincidence that the nuclear test of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea occurred immediately after the decision was taken to elect Ban Ki-moon as Secretary-General.

One can only hope, therefore, that his deep knowledge of the issue will help resolve it, although China will remain key in the resolution of this problem. I also feel it's fundamentally a problem between the US and North Korea, and much depends on the attitude of Washington.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: Now that I have been defeated in my quest for the UN Secretary-General's job, my preference is not to undertake anything full-time, but to concentrate on my existing international commitments. These give me a lot of satisfaction. I also would like to spend some time writing. I have, in the past, written mostly on international affairs. I would like to reflect on the UN in the next book I write.

I'm also thinking of relocating to Kandy, where my wife and I grew up. I continue to be a Senior Adviser to the President, but that's an honorary position. I'm very much on the periphery. I furnish advice and opinions, as and when necessary, on an ad-hoc basis.

(Courtesy Lanka Monthly Digest which voted Mr. Dhanapala its Man of the Year)