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50 years of Sri Lanka in the United Nations

Immediately after gaining independence in February 1948 Sri Lanka, then "Ceylon" applied for membership in the United Nations. Applications from 16 countries including Sri Lanka got blocked at the U.N. Security Council due to the veto power used by the USSR.

Sir, John Kotelawala, the Prime Minister used the story of veto to discredit the local Marxists. When the USSR submitted a list of applicants including Sri Lanka, the USA vetoed it. However, Sir John was silent over the veto used by the USA.

Outside the United Nations General Assembly building in New York, the Ceylon national flag is hoisted for the first time while a Ceylonese official stands beside it and a hurriedly gathered team led by Annesley de Silva, Ceylon Trade Commissioner in New York, took their seats in the General Assembly building behind the name board marked ‘Ceylon” on 14 December, 1955 (A United Nations Photo lent by the United Nations Association of Sri Lanka).

Finally as a result of a negotiated settlement Sri Lanka gained membership in the UN on December 14 1955-exactly about 50 years ago. From 1956-1972 Sri Lanka functioned in the UN System under the name "Ceylon"; with the 1972 Constitution "Ceylon" was changed into "Sri Lanka".

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike after the landslide victory in 1956 took immediate measures to open Sri Lanka's UN office in New York. Things were not easy at the United Nations where a Cold War was carried on - both super powers were using their intelligent units ruthlessly - the CIA and the KGB to gain political supremacy.

Even in Colombo the Foreign Ministry was not well organized and it was understaffed. Although an application for membership was sent to Secretary General of United Nations Sri Lanka was not prepared to function as a member. In fact there was hesitancy in Colombo for fear of losing the "rice-rubber" deal with China, if Sri Lanka got the UN membership.

In 1954 Asian Powers met in Colombo. As recorded by G.H. Jensen, an authority of Asian Affairs, Sir John was not enthusiastic when Pandit Nehru offered his good offices to gain UN membership for Sri Lanka.

1956 to 2005

From 1956 there were several international crises that were referred to the United Nations. How Sri Lanka as a member of the United Nations responded should be looked into. Voting records of the General Assembly and the Security Council are good indicators of the behaviour of member countries and also they reveal actual foreign policy that member countries have followed with regard to world crises.

Sri Lanka's voting correlations with Afro - Asian countries were very high, compared to U.S.A. the U.S.S.R. and the UK. Africo-Asian countries formed a caucus and consulted each other before taking decisions at the United Nations. That was started by the Indian Representative at the UN in the late forties. This consultative group got enlarged with the birth of Nonalignment Movement in 1961.

During the early days of UNP rule from 1948-1956 Sri Lanka's foreign policy was guided by the British. This practice was done away with by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

For instance, in 1956, over Algerian and Hungary questions and other issues such as readmission of China into the United Nations, Sri Lanka voting correlations with the UK were nil. In 1956, there were eleven roll calls over the Suez Question and Sri Lanka over 6 issues voted against UK. This trend of having very low voting correlation with the UK continued and it further supports the point that S.W.R.D did not allow Sri Lanka to be guided by the UK on foreign police matters.

From 1960-1965, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike's time, Sri Lanka became most active at the United Nations fora and continued the policies set by her husband. Her decisions were observed even by the world press because she had to function as a member of the Security Council. She also functioned as a leader of the Nonaligned Movement working in consultation with the Afro-Asian leaders.

On July 21 1960, the day Mrs. Bandaranaike came to power, the Congo problem was at a very critical point. International tension was gathering momentum as a result of breakdown of the Russo - American summit conference due to alleged spying by American aircraft over the Russian territory.

Sino-Indian boarder clashes in 1962, escalation of the Vietnam War provided for Sri Lanka opportunities through which to contribute positively to reduce world tensions particularly through the United Nations.

Dudley Senanayake, the Premier did not deviate from the policies of his predecessors during the period from 1965-1969.

International crises

It is interesting to note how Sri Lanka, under different party leaders, responded to international crises. In this paper it is not possible to discuss all the crises but we will be taking up one or two under different leaders, such as Sirimavo and J. R.. At the annual sessions of the General Assembly the world leaders delivered prepared speeches and what is important here is what they did at the United Nations fora.

Sues crises

News of President Nazar's nationalization of the Suez Canal Company on July 26 1956 reached S. W. R. D. immediately but did not take much time to realize the dangers of this act. First he discussed the crisis with Pandit Nehru and suggested having a meeting of Colombo powers.

He instructed Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative R. S. S. Gunawardena to up hold Egypt's rights to nationalize the Suez Canal Company. Further he suggested having a conference of countries using the canal.

All the efforts made by the international community, such as London Conference, were failures. On November 1st, 1956 Suez issue came to the General Assembly for the first time.

Sri Lanka got a chance to voice her views on the subject. Over Suez question there were 11 resolutions and Sri Lanka voted for all of them.

S. W. R. D. attended the General Assembly, not only as the Prime Minister but also as the representative of Colombo powers. His effort to resolve the Suez Crisis, pleased the Arab countries. Sri Lanka was appointed as a member of the Suez Advisory Board.

Hungary questions

In mid 1956, the political stability in Hungary began to deteriorate. Russian troops entered Hungary on October 22nd, 1956 at a time when the Suez issue was a burning question as shown earlier. On October 24th, the situation in Hungary was critical. Russian prevented taking this question to the Security Council by using her veto right. However, the U.S.A. was successful in bringing the issue to the General Assembly on November 4th 1956.

There was no response from Pandit Nehru and Bandaranaike. Both of them gave their reasons for inaction. They said there was no information for them to act. At the U.N. General Assembly there were nine resolutions on the Hungary question.

Both India and Sri Lanka abstained from voting on the 7 power resolution number 1015-ES II. It was supported by the U.K. and U.S.A.. The USSR voted against it. Sri Lanka voted for Cuban Resolution No. 1127 which was supported by the U.S.A. and the U.K. while India abstained. Resolution No 1128 was co sponsored by Sri Lanka along with India and Indonesia.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's speech at the General Assembly on November 22nd 1956 explained various problems that the member countries like Sri Lanka had to face in responding to world crises.

United Nations General Assembly appointed a fact finding special committee on Hungary and the Sri Lankan Representative R. S. S. Gunawardena was appointed a Secretary of this committee. Pro Russian forces in Sri Lanka accused R. S. S. Gunawardena of being an American stooge. By June 1958, S. W. R. D. removed R. S. S. from the U.N. and Sir Cloude Corea was appointed to the United Nations. Hungary crisis remained unresolved for a long time.

Congo crisis

Congo, a region of Central Africa, was a Belgian colony. In 1960 it gained independence and colonial forces left the country. There was a serious break down of law and order and for the protection of Belgium citizens staying in Congo, Belgium armed units were flown back to Congo. Prime Minister Patrick Lumumba and President Kasavutu on July 12th, 1961 reported to the UN Secretary General asking for help to establish law and order.

Sri Lanka was handicapped by lack of information as there was no embassy in Central Africa. Sir Cloude Corea provided information that he could gather from the United Nations and briefed Mrs. Bandaranaike. Cold War entered the Congo issue. The UN sent 3,500 troops to maintain law and order. Sir Cloude Corea took the initiative to bring forward Sri Lanka-Tunisia resolution number S/4405.

This was unanimously adopted by the Security Council on July 22nd 1961. This resolution had lot of political wisdom. But it could not avoid unfortunate incidents like killing of Lumumba. Being a member of Security Council Sri Lanka responded well to reducing tension in Congo. (for details see - Sri Lanka's Foreign Policy PP 136 to 144).

Indo - Pakistan issue of 1971

It has become a tradition for Sri Lanka to maintain cordial relations with India and Pakistan which consisted of two territories, 1,000 miles apart. At the general election in 1970, Pakistan Peoples' Party led by Zulfiqar Ali Bhuto secured a majority of seats in the Pakistani Parliament. The Awami Legue led by Mujibur Rahman Swept to power in East Pakistan. This resulted in a breaking away of East Pakistan, West Pakistani rushed its army to prevent the break up.

Over this war, a US solution of seven points forwarded to the Security Council was vetoed by the USSR. Mrs. Bandaranaike held several Cabinet meetings to decided on the couse of actions that Sri Lanka should follow.

At the General Assembly Sri Lanka's Representative Shirly Amerasinghe submitted a three-point solution, but it was unacceptable to India. Mr. Amarasinghe without voting rights took part in the debate on the war at the Security Council on December 15th 1971. On December 25th 1971 India granted diplomatic recognition to East Pakistan which took the name Bangladesh. Sri Lanka was silent till 50 countries granted Bangladesh diplomatic recognition.

On March 3rd 1972, Mrs. Bandaranaike announced her decision to grant Bangladesh recognition. She was followed by USA on April 1972.

Holding of American diplomats

Mr J. R. Jayewardene defeated Mrs Bandaranaike's regime in July 1977 and became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. Under the new constitution of Sri Lanka he became the President with a five sixths majority in Parliament and also occupied the chair of the Nonaligned movement.

American diplomats of Teheran were kept hostage by militant students - followers of Ayatolla Khomeini - in November 1979.

This issue became a burning question at the UN. President Jayewardene sent his Foreign Minister A. C. S. Hameed to Iran to find a solution. Dr. Waldheim the Secretary General informed the Security Council of what he had heard from Mr. Hameed whose individual efforts were a failure.

During the last 50 years of the UN the most important issues that Sri Lanka took up were the proposal to make the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace. All the big powers, USA, USSR, and the UK and their supporters opposed the proposals.

Mrs. Bandaranaike appeared in the General Assembly in October 1971 and formally put forward the proposal to declare the Indian Once Peace Zone.

Sri Lanka was appointed Chairman of the Indian Ocean Peace Zone ad hoc committee which made several resolutions but still the proposal remains a dead letter. (For details see Sri Lanka Foreign Policy PP 216-235).

Several Sri Lankans through their contributions at the UN have become distinguished people - Shirly Amerasinghe, V.J. Fernando, Sir Claude Corea, have left behind their legacies.

Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala through his skills and devotion to the principles of the United Nations Charter is now getting ready to contest for the post of Secretary General of the UN. He will appreciate President Mahinda Rajapakse's blessings and support in this hour of need. Let all the Sri Lankans extend their blessings to him.



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