The UNís butterfly effect

By Kath Noble

The United Nations has done a lot of foolish things in Sri Lanka over the years, but the response from its Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings to Sarath Fonseka’s interview in the Sunday Leader is amongst the dumbest.

There was no reason for Philip Alston to do anything. Whether or not we believe that the Defence Secretary ordered field commanders in the final stages of the war to execute senior members of the LTTE if they attempted to surrender, which is what Sarath Fonseka claimed, he offered no evidence. He didn’t even have a very persuasive explanation for making the allegation. A journalist embedded with the troops in the Vanni had mentioned it, he said, presumably having been told by Shavendra Silva or an officer under his command, unless Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was in the habit of giving instructions from Colombo via loudspeaker. Sarath Fonseka hadn’t bothered to investigate while he was Army Commander or Chief of Defence Staff, despite the seriousness of the matter, choosing instead to make it public during his election campaign. How curious. What’s more, by the time Philip Alston got around to typing his letter, a clarification had been issued reassuring the world that soldiers had not killed anybody illegally.

None of that really matters. What is important is that even the most intellectually challenged of us could have predicted that the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings demanding an explanation for his comments from the Government was going to influence voters in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
This country is still at war, mentally speaking. Most people are so grateful for the defeat of Prabhakaran that they would defend the leaders responsible no matter what they were accused of, especially if the accusers are foreign. It is perfectly understandable. The war went on at great cost for a very long time and Sri Lanka didn‘t get much help from abroad to finish it. On the contrary, the Government had to fight almost as hard on the diplomatic front as it did in battle with the cadres in the Vanni. This won’t be forgotten quickly.

The Government knows this very well. Indeed, it has used every statement about war crimes to its advantage, convincing people that there is still a threat to be faced.

Only the most paranoid elements of the JVP would suggest that Philip Alston actually intended to bolster the President‘s campaign. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, we can only conclude, is worse than an idiot.

It is yet another example of the failure of the group that self-identifies as the international community to understand how it can help the people it wants to. The unforeseen consequences of its actions regularly work in the opposite direction to the one in which it hopes to push the country.

Going through the latest report by the University Teachers for Human Rights about the final stages of the war reminded me of a similar thought I have been attempting to share with such people ever since the awful days in which those hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped by Prabhakaran in Mullaitivu.

Unlike what often seems to be the majority of people in Sri Lanka, I believe the main concern of the foreign governments who shouted themselves hoarse at that time was exactly what they claimed. This is not because I accept the idea of their inherent benevolence, which would be naïve in the extreme, but because nobody has come up with a sufficiently convincing reason for their wanting to prolong the existence of a terrorist organisation that also caused problems in their own countries, both directly through violence against their citizens of Sri Lankan origin and indirectly due to its involvement in drug and gun running and the like. The international community, as I may as well call it myself so that its members know who I mean, was interested primarily in saving the lives of Tamils.

At worst, it wanted to avoid looking unmoved. This was the only thing it achieved.

It may actually have killed people. Although most of the world knew perfectly well that the United Nations wasn’t going to send troops to impose a ceasefire, for entirely selfish reasons that I explained at the time, this was not the case here. Large numbers in Sri Lanka on both sides of the conflict thought there was a fairly good chance, however they viewed the prospect of an international rescue mission. Part of this misjudgement was due to the experience with India two decades ago, but much stemmed from the noisy rhetoric of the West. People thought its leaders were serious.

Most importantly, this included the LTTE. We cannot know what strategy Prabhakaran would have followed if he had understood that he was alone in his struggle, but there is a chance it would have been less bloody. The idea of keeping civilians back as a human shield was to make advances by the Army so costly that the Government would be forced into negotiations. So many young people were plucked from their families and sent to the frontlines with less training than a Colombo security guard to increase the death toll still further. It was pretty grim, and the anger it provoked amongst Tamils on the ground was unprecedented. At the very least, Prabhakaran’s field commanders might have felt more inclined to challenge him if they’d known that help wasn‘t on the way.

This idea is supported by the report of the University Teachers for Human Rights. They blame the Government for not making better use of the crisis in which the organisation found itself after the fall of Kilinochchi, but it could have been a lot easier.

The Government wasn’t sure how far the so-called international community would go either, come to think of it. Whether Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would have planned a more careful offensive if he had known that he had all the time in the world is difficult to say, but things could hardly have ended up more rushed.

Coming back to investigations of war crimes, we find ourselves in a rather similar position. Outside Sri Lanka, the majority of people find it very hard to believe that a case will ever be pursued seriously. Here the reverse is true.

This means that proper discussion of what happened in the final stages of the war isn’t possible. People will continue to talk of a humanitarian operation that killed a lot of terrorists but not many others. They will be unable to admit the obvious fact that all conflicts are terrible and appalling things happened in this one as well. They will have to go on pretending that their strategists were more brilliant than all the others. Nobody will be allowed to say ‘never again’, even. The victims will have to keep quiet. It will go down in local history as a thoroughly positive experience.

There can be no doubt that this will make reconciliation more difficult. Those who were present in the Vanni know how they suffered, after all.

It seems particularly unfortunate now that Sarath Fonseka is standing against Mahinda Rajapaksa for the presidency, thereby depoliticising the issue. They are equally responsible for what happened in the Vanni, whoever we think deserves most credit for the overall victory, so the Opposition would not be able to use any negative stories to promote itself at the expense of the Government. We know that the UNP would not have done any better, from past experience. It could be a genuinely national debate.

Philip Alston ought to be working to support the genesis of such a process, rather than helping to ensure that it never happens. His mandate as the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings is an important one, and there are many ways in which he could help Sri Lanka to improve its record going forward, but he won’t get very far without using his brain. Good intentions simply aren’t enough.
Let the United Nations pay attention, too.

The article was published in Theo Island News Paper 30.12.09
Re-publication with permission from the auther.