Tamara Kunanayakam – ‘Inspirational Woman of the Year’
Tamara Kunanayakam was the recipient of ‘Inspirational Woman of the Year’Award in this year’s ‘Top 50 Professional and Career Women Awards’ organized by Women in Management, in partnership with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group. The 50 winners from Sri Lanka and the Maldives received their awards at a glittering ceremony held at Hotel Taj Samudra on Friday. Ms. Kunanayakam, best known for her defence of Sri Lanka’s independence and sovereignty as Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva 2011-2012 when a resolution was brought against the country at the Human Rights Council, said “the fact that I won this award, for me is a recognition of the values and principles I stood for.” The Daily Mirror talked to her about the less-known aspects of her background and career. Excerpts from the interview:
Tamara Kunanayakam receives the award from Dr. Rohantha Athukorala, Chairman – Panel of Judges
How do you feel about winning this award – were you surprised?
Could you say something about the influences in your personal life that shaped these values?
At this moment, my thoughts are with my parents. They were my inspiration. Education and humanist values were their legacy, not property, material things. We had no cars, no fridges, phones. I was warned (as the only girl in the family) that I would have no dowry. By education they meant in the broadest sense, culture – in the sense that Cuban freedom fighter and national hero Jose Marti said: “Being educated is the only way to be free.” Being free not in the abstract sense, but fighting for a more just and free society.
These values are the exact opposite of the values on which currently society is organized. Today our economic and social system is based more on individualism than collective interests, on competition not solidarity, profit and greed not social wellbeing, war not peace. Exploitation …of natural resources, destruction of the environment. Family background had a lot to do with these values. My father was a leader of the GCSU (General Clerical Services Union). He was a patriot who fought for freedom from British colonialism – one of the leaders of the 1947 general strike, with T. B. Ilangaratne (president of the GCSU). At the time he was working as Chief Clerk at the Labour Ministry. He was the one who announced the strike – all the staff in the ministries started to walk out, office by office, floor by floor. Bala Tampoe talked about how it started spontaneously and then spread like wildfire. By the second day the government (colonial) administration was almost completely paralysed.
Did it lead to changes?
This was just before independence. So definitely it had an influence. No one talks about the workers involvement in the struggle for independence. On my mother’s side, my grandfather also was one of the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) in Badulla. He was against Dominion Status and fought for full self-rule, unlike some others in the CNC. These were the values I was raised with, all the decisions that followed – regarding study, professional life, were determined by these values.
In Sri Lanka you are best known as the Ambassador to the UN in Geneva 2011-2012, and in Cuba before that. But there are other aspects to your background that many are not aware of – i.e. your work in the UN Working Group (UNWG) on the Right to Development (RTD), your education and training in Europe as an Economist?
My work as PR was only one year out of 35 years of professional experience. It’s important that I decided to study Economics – I am an Economist. I was keen to understand how society / the economy are organized, in order to understand poverty, exploitation, the difference between western economies and developing countries. Why are countries that are rich in resources in Africa and Asia, poor?
My father died while I was doing my O/levels. After my A/levels my mother made a sacrifice by giving me $100 (about Rs 10,000 at the time – very little) to travel overland to Europe. I left because ‘standardisation of education’ had begun, a quota system was introduced. It would have been difficult as a Tamil in Colombo to get a place in University. I travelled overland through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. From Istanbul I hitch-hiked through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Austria, and ended up in Geneva, Switzerland. I was lucky to get a job to spend for my studies.
Was it possible to find work without difficulty, as a migrant in Europe…?
This was in 1972 and it was easy to find work. While hitch-hiking I got a ride with someone from the World Council of Churches (WCC) who asked me to come and see if there were any vacancies there. They had a job in the editorial department where they wanted help with proof-reading and in their bookshop. They moved me up to help organize youth participation in the 5th General Assembly of the WCC in Nairobi in 1975, where I led a group of 150 youth from around the world. At the WCC, I was exposed to issues such as racism and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
I decided to study in Germany because their education teaches you to think things through. It is not the conclusions but how you arrive at them that’s important. … For three years I studied Economics at the University of Heidelberg, then returned to Geneva and joined the prestigious ‘Graduate Institute for International Studies.’ I wanted to specialize in International Relations, to understand how the conditions of ordinary people, in the country and the factory, were linked to decisions taken at an international level, and why people continue to be poor. It was the time of the Third World Debt Crisis. Mexico nearly defaulted on its debt. I needed to understand these mechanisms. I studied four fields – 1) International Finance and Trade, 2) Public International Law, 3) International Institutions and 4) History of Diplomatic Relations. I was privileged to be among the alumnae of this Institute which included seven Nobel prize recipients, one Pulitzer prize winner, a UN Secretary General (Kofi Anan), a former High Commissioner for Human Rights (Sergio Vieira de Melo) and two heads of state.
“Throughout my life I’ve been guided by values and principles of social justice, solidarity, equality”
“The aim of ‘good governance’ or ‘Yahapalana’ is to transform the nature of the State”
“I am an Economist. I was keen to understand how society / the economy are organized”
“The State is there for the people – for access to health, education, jobs. ”
“In the UN and in my research at different times I was focused on transnational corporations, mostly agri-business”
“I have decided to dedicate this award to all the unsung heroines who are among the main creators of our nation’s wealth
“Changes are being introduced to the political system, in addition to economic dependence”
Yahapalanaya’ means ‘good governance.’ The term ‘good governance’ was coined in the late 1980s by the IMF, WB and the US Treasury
Countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America were concerned about why human rights had become a weapon against victims
At that time the Non-Aligned Movement was very powerful, Asian and African countries had become independent
What about your UN experience?
I was elected to chair of the UN Working Group on Right to Development in 2011. Before that I worked for 15 years in the UN – first at UNDP, where I was in charge of the programme to promote a New International Economic Order (NIEO). Then I wanted to work with real people. I spent several years with academic institutes and NGOs, in the field, in the Philippines and Indonesia, to understand indebtedness of peasants and how it was linked to decisions at international level, implemented by state governments. These people were so deeply in debt they were forced to go to money lenders, paying enormous interest rates. Sometimes when they could not pay their daughters would be taken for two years to the capital to work as prostitutes. I have seen these girls, in two years they are finished. They can’t go back totheir villages, often they attempt suicide.
In the UN and in my research at different times I was focused on transnational corporations, mostly agri-business, because the majority in developing countries depend on agriculture for a livelihood. It is because agriculture is so exploitative that small farmers become indebted and move into big cities, ending up in slums, as prostitutes and domestics. There is a huge imbalance between cities and countryside.
In 1989, I joined the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – because I was involved in the ‘Human Right to Development’ which was advanced by the Non-Aligned Movement. It is a multi-dimensional right which includes not only civil and political rights but also economic, social and cultural rights. And it is based on values – it questions the development strategies that produced the inequalities and injustice, within countries and between countries, between North and South. … I became involved in this debate in the 1980s. For me it brought together all the values that I stood for.
What level of international support was there for these ideas?
At that time the Non-Aligned Movement was very powerful, Asian and African countries had become independent. The NAM was concerned that political independence was not accompanied by economic independence. … the economies of countries were still run by colonial powers, still producing primary commodities for the industrialized countries. The system reinforced that unequal international division of labour. The RTD says you must create the national conditions, and a pre- condition is a just international order – which is the NIEO.
“I am talking about our women working as domestics in backward petro-monarchies of the Gulf – much of our foreign exchange comes from these workers. The foreign exchange we use to buy luxury cars, to pay back interest on debt – that’s where it’s coming from”
What were the highlights of your contribution to the UN?
In the UN itself, I was in charge of the RTD and Economic, Social and Cultural rights programme. I was invited to join the UN (I didn’t apply) by the Asst. Secretary General, to be in charge of RTD. … I was in Geneva coordinating a group that I founded called ‘South Group.’ Countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America were concerned about why human rights had become a weapon against victims.
I became the Secretary of the UNWG on RTD, which is a civil servant’s role. In 2011, I was elected chairperson of the working group, which is a political role. As Secretary of the working group I did the first study of the UN Secretary General on the Impact on the Enjoyment of Human Rights of World Bank Structural Adjustment Programs and Policies. Another first was (the study on ) the Impact on Human Rights of the Activities and Methods of Work of Transnational Corporations. Those two studies led to the establishment of two working groups of the UN: 1) The Working Group on Structural Adjustment Programmes and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (of which I was the Secretary). 2) The Working Group on the issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises.
Did you not find it ironic that you won an award that was partnered by the World Bank, whose policies you were critical of?
What I have done is not secret; it’s in the public domain. As Secretary of the working group I worked with Joseph Stiglitz who resigned from the WB and was very critical of it. The WB participated in the working group I chaired, they made interventions, so they know me. As chairperson, I was involved in negotiations with the WB, IMF and NGOs. … The fact that I won this award, for me, is a recognition of the values and principles I stood for.
The ‘Women in Management’ awards are meant to celebrate the achievements of women. Would you comment on Sri Lanka’s women, their role in the economy and their importance?
I have decided to dedicate this award – which it is an extraordinary privilege to receive – to all the unsung heroines who are among the main creators of our nation’s wealth, but who continue to work in slave-like conditions. I am talking about our women working as domestics in backward petro-monarchies of the Gulf – much of our foreign exchange comes from these workers. The foreign exchange we use to buy luxury cars, to pay back interest on debt – that’s where it’s coming from. Then there are the women in Free Trade Zones. That’s a misnomer because the only thing ‘free’ is the freedom to exploit. And the women in the plantations, still daily paid, miserable wages, the main foreign exchange earners of this country.
“To make developing countries (DCs) more accessible to western capital, they needed to open up and create conditions for them to invest – not to improve people’s lives but to increase profit, exploit resources and cheap labour and take profits out of the country”
As an Economist by training, what is your comment on the current trajectory of the Sri Lankan economy, with the ‘yahapalana’ government increasingly opening up to the West?
‘Yahapalanaya’ means ‘good governance.’ The term ‘good governance’ was coined in the late 1980s by the IMF, WB and the US Treasury – the ‘Washington-based institutions.’ Those same institutions have been promoting export oriented, foreign debt-dependent development strategies. This resulted in more inequalities, poverty, unemployment, under-employment. More workers depending on the informal sector, less pensions, increased inequities within countries and also between North and South. This created more social unrest. … To make developing countries (DCs) more accessible to western capital, they needed to open up and create conditions for them to invest – not to improve people’s lives but to increase profit, exploit resources and cheap labour and take profits out of the country. … Upto the end of the 1980s they imposed conditions that were economic, but from the late 1980s they began to introduce conditions that were of a political nature. This is what they call ‘good governance.’
‘Good governance’ is always coupled with ‘democracy,’ democratization,’‘human rights’ and ‘rule of law.’ Actually it is a refashioned free-market discourse. … Changes are being introduced to the political system. Now, in addition to economic dependence they are taking away political independence.
Is this a recent development that came with the yahapalana government – or did it start earlier?
There is a qualitative difference between then and now. The aim of ‘good governance’ or ‘Yahapalana’ is to transform the nature of the State, through institutional reform and reform of the laws, from one that serves national interest, the interest of our people, to one that serves foreign capital. This is what the IMF/World Bank means by establishment of the ‘rule of law,’ a term that crept into the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution that our Yahapalana government committed itself to! Foreign capital is looking for long-term guarantees, governments will come and go, but the State will remain. But of course, that cannot be done within the present Constitutional framework, and so the need to change the Constitution. This is what is called a ‘soft’ coup d’etat!
The State is there for the people – for access to health, education, jobs. They want to reform the remaining shrunk State, to re-orient it to serve foreign capital by creating conditions for investors to come in. All this is happening in the context of a global systemic crisis. They are desperately trying to find a way to prevent the collapse of their banks, companies. What remains of the shrinking State will be converted into a repressive State. According to the World Bank Report 2002: “Good governance requires the power to carry out policies and to develop institutions that may be unpopular among some, or even the majority of the people.”This shows that ‘good governance’ demands measures that are directed against the expectations of the majority of the people. That’s why people are on the streets!