Days of the stars and tripe
So that is what happened. Last Sunday this newspaper carried a news story telling how Sri Lanka came to make that dangerous and unforgivable political and diplomatic faux pas at the United Nations last month.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is cited in The Sunday Times as saying that a particularly damaging paragraph in his speech to the General Assembly was not meant to be an endorsement of the United States' war on Iraq but a comment on the failures of the United Nations.

The Prime Minister, the news report said, conceded that the "wording of his speech could have been better crafted to leave out any misunderstanding and said the original text had been hurriedly recast after the UN Secretary-General's own speech where he called for reforms in the UN mechanism for settling world disputes."

Having read the Prime Minister's speech as it appeared on the printed page, it appeared to have two distinct sections. The first one-third or so of the speech dealt with the usual pleasantries connected with an annual General Assembly address.
The rest of that section is about the Sri Lankan peace process and an appreciation of the help of the international community in this regard.

There seems an unfortunate lacuna here too. While some countries are thanked by name - such as India, Japan, Canada and the US - and European Union, there is no mention of Thailand which facilitated the initial talks by providing a venue and logistical support for more than one round of discussions.

Be that as it may, the rest of the speech - two-thirds or more - is devoted to remarks about the United Nations, its successes and failures and the need for reform.
One could rightly assume that the Prime Minister did not head out to New York with only the first one-third of a speech relating to the peace process and intended to make up the rest after listening to Kofi Annan.

Those who have read the speech carefully would be struck by the historical details, some of which are antecedent to the establishment of the United Nations, such as President Roosevelt's 1943 Christmas Eve broadcast. Then there are observations on the birth of the UN, the outline of the UN drawn up at Dumberton Oaks, the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank and IMF) GATT and other remarks pertaining to the structure and operation of the UN.

These are surely observations and comments that were in the original text. They are too historical in nature to have been added after the Secretary-General's speech.
After all, as Mr Wickremesinghe states, that particular offending paragraph was added when the text was hurriedly redrafted to incorporate some observations following Annan's address.

If so, what did the original draft contain, because the peace talks occupy only a third of the speech and it would have been much too short to serve as a General Assembly address.

The speech contains three references to Annan's address. One para begins: "Today's problems, as the Secretary-General has reminded us….". Another begins "In the words of the Secretary General….." and the third states "The Secretary-General's report has identified….." and sets out to name some defects of the UN system which have been known for many years and is not something that the Secretary-General discovered only the other day.

What is troubling is, why such an important speech had to be "hurriedly recast". And who was responsible for it? If I remember correctly, Kofi Annan addressed the Assembly on Monday September 22 and Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday 26. Let's assume the gap was only three days. Does it require that much of time to bring Mr. Wickremesinghe's speech up to date? It was not like writing an entirely new speech. Even that would not have taken 3-4 days.

One does not need to have spent decades acquainting oneself with what happens on such occasions to realise that the original speech with all its background material has been updated only, not entirely rewritten. We are told that the speech has been taken out of context. When taken in the proper context it was not intended to be supportive of the US invasion of Iraq but a criticism of the UN system.

Therefore a closer study of that paragraph that has created this furore is not only necessary but also justified in order to clear any apprehensions. "Take for example the profound issues surrounding Iraq. There are members in this hall today who believe passionately that the United States and their allies were wrong to intervene in Iraq. Then there are those of us who feel that the United States and their allies had no choice but to intervene, that the failure of the United Nations had created the need for a world policeman however reluctant it might be. But Iraq is more than the divergence of views on a major issue. It shows the inadequacy of the present collective security system."

One need not be an expert in linguistics to understand that paragraph.It is clear. It is precise. There are two opposing views in the hall. One believes that the US was wrong to intervene. The other believes the US had no choice but to intervene. And we, of course, are on the side of the gods from Washington. It is as simple as that. If anybody thinks that para is not crystal clear, he needs language learning.

Now, if it is claimed that the intention was not to express our support for the US and UK war on Iraq but to draw attention to the failure of the UN mechanism for settling disputes, it could have been very easily achieved without this obvious gaffe.

Delete those sentences about two sides and who believes in what and what not.
Then it would read "Take for example the profound issues surrounding Iraq. They show the inadequacy of the present collective security system."

If that is the point Ranil Wickremesinghe wanted to make, all the speech writer had to do was that. Then there would be no need for subsequent remarks about wrong interpretations.

The speech writing shows a lack on understanding of international affairs. We referred last week to America's burgeoning imperialistic ambitions in the last decade or more. It is historically false to say that the failure of the UN resulted in the emergence of the US as the dominant international power. It was the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire that left the US as the sole superpower.

If one wishes to level criticisms at the failure of the UN then Israel not Iraq should top the list. Israel has defied Security Council resolutions since 1967. And who has helped Israeli defiance? The US, that has probably used its veto more times than any other permanent member of the Security Council. The same US which has now violated the UN Charter, the Geneva and Hague conventions and several treaties and thus reduced the UN to "irrelevance".

This seems to have eluded our erudite spin doctors. We ought to realise that the world of international diplomacy is too delicate and complex to be left to party faithfuls and hangers on before an even more serious faux pas does not land Sri Lanka in a bigger mess.

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