Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon receives Independent Review Panel on Sri Lanka report from ASG Charles Petrie. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe. Courtesy UN News Centre.

The BBC’s revelation on the leaked “penultimate” draft report of an internal UN review on UN’s handling of humanitarian crisis during the last stages of Vanni war in 2009, has justifiably invoked immense interest – on its content and implications – among Sri Lanka watchers and Tamil activists globally. Charles Petrie, former UN employee, led the review panel and he is expected to handover the final report to the UN Secretary General (UNSG) Ban Ki-Moon, in next few days. Despite the widespread excitement about this report, in this note, I would like to draw a rather depressing and different picture about UN’s legacy in peacekeeping and peacemaking, since the end of Cold War. That will demonstrate that the UN’s failure in Sri Lanka was not the first-one and definitely not the last-one, in the bloody history of UN. It is the unreformed UN system – primarily the UN Security Council (UNSC) – that is causing these repeated failures in preventing mass-atrocity-crimes and blaming the UN and its staff is misguided; it is the Permanent Five members of the UNSC that dictate how the UN responds to a mass-atrocity-crime and not by the career-concerned average human beings, such as Gordon Weiss and Benjamin Dix.

What’s happening now is that the case of ‘UN failure in Sri Lanka’ is going through a very familiar UN ritual of report writing and lessons learning phase, presumably Charles Petrie’s report will likely to be the final stage in the process of putting Sri Lankan case lay to rest.

Many of the excerpts of the leaked UN report mentioned in the BBC report as “highly critical” are in fact familiar language and tone for anyone accustomed to past UN reports, this review is essentially repeating the findings of inquiries into similar UN failures in the past; it is akin to many physicians repeatedly diagnosing the same disease, which is not treated for a long time. I have taken two excerpts of the UN report mentioned in the BBC report, in order to demonstrate that the same old stuff is being repackaged as a new report. Firstly, BBC report states that the leaked UN report “points to a “systemic failure”” in UN’s handling of humanitarian crisis in Vanni, not surprisingly there was similar observation among the findings of the Independent Inquiry into the actions of the United Nations during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, it states “The failure by the United Nations to prevent, and subsequently, to stop the genocide in Rwanda was a failure by the United Nations system as a whole.”1

Secondly, according to the BBC report, the leaked report states “engagement with member states regarding Sri Lanka was heavily influenced by what it perceived member states wanted to hear, rather than by what member states needed to know if they were to respond”. The Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations – generally known as Brahimi Report – published in 2000 has a strikingly similar statement “The Secretariat must tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear”.

The sad truth about this report is that it is adding few hundred more pages to the annals of UN failures that are already documented in many thousands of pages. This report will not penalize Ban Ki-Moon or his mediocre staff who served in New York and Colombo, who played the game safely. People like Gordon Weiss and Benjamin Dix will move on with their new incarnation, as Pippa Middletons of Royal Mullivaaykkaal.

The post Cold War UN legacy: A brief optimism followed by two decades of continuing complicity with evil

During the early 1990s, there was a renewed hope and optimism within the UN establishment that a peaceful and conflict-free world can be realized with the collapse of Cold War, this is amply explained in the report – An Agenda for Peace Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peace-keeping – of then UNSG Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In that report he states,

In the course of the past few years the immense ideological barrier that for decades gave rise to distrust and hostility – and the terrible tools of destruction that were their inseparable companions – has collapsed. Even as the issues between States north and south grow more acute, and call for attention at the highest levels of government, the improvement in relations between States east and west affords new possibilities, some already realized, to meet successfully threats to common security3

But sadly his leadership itself was bogged down with the UN’s handling of protracted conflict in former Yugoslavia, during its fragmentation. His independent approach and Francophile background earned him US fury that is well enough to block his re-election for a second term. Apparently one of his sins was not allowing the NATO to bomb Serbian positions in Bosnia4. Despite the catalog of UN failures during the 1990s, his successor Kofi Annan was comfortable in working with US and he was in favour of more interventionist approach to global conflicts. Under the leadership of Annan, the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) evolved through the UN system and eventually a watered down version of the doctrine was agreed at the 2005 UN World Summit. During Annan’s leadership, the UN faced many challenges in maintaining international peace and security – Kosovo, 9/11 attack, US led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq and many conflicts in Africa including Darfur. Being an insider of UN system, Annan’s autobiography, Interventions: a Life in War and Peace, may provide some answers to the problems and failures of post Cold War UN peace endeavours. In his review of Annan’s book, Jonathan Powell – Tony Blair’s former chief of staff – notes that Annan’s biography was “unnecessarily defensive”5; this may be due to his late realization that interventions alone cannot be relied upon for the prevention of conflicts.

The incumbent UNSG Ban Ki-Moon – campaigned for the office under the slogan of “promise less and deliver more” – is described by Alex Bellamy (a leading R2P scholar) as “an effective norm entrepreneur for R2P”. On the other hand, he is being criticized for his quiet diplomacy in dealing with authoritarian regimes. Despite the criticisms, Ban Ki-Moon managed to make limited but important institutional changes within the UN regarding mass-atrocity-crime prevention e.g. appointment of the Special Advisor on R2P. In his 2009 report, he made substantial conceptual clarification on the R2P practice. The BBC report states that the leaked UN “report does highlight the positive role played by some UN staff on the ground and the secretary general”. This observation of Ban Ki-Moon’s leadership in dealing with Vanni humanitarian crisis will be strongly challenged by his critics, especially by Tamil activists.      

The critics of the UN often ignores the fact that the UN has been operating with a chronic shortage of funding and man power in peace operations. The UN Security Council  (UNSC) and its veto wielding Permanent Five (P5) are the real locomotors in deciding UN’s response to a particular conflict and it is their political will and backing that can make or break a deal. The UNSG and other UN staff can play their roles only within the space sanctioned by the P5, with the knowledge of what had happened to Boutros Boutros-Ghali no UN staff – including UNSG – will dare to go beyond that space. It is worth reminding ourselves about, former special rapporteur on genocide, Juan Méndez’s public humiliation of being blocked from addressing the UNSC by then US ambassador John Bolton.

The real problem is the unreformed UNSC and its discretionary powers that will invariably lead to selectivity and inconsistency in UN response to global conflicts. Even an interventionist power such as US is refusing to signup for a legally binding obligation to the prevention of mass-atrocity-crimes; therefore it is important to view those UN failures in the framework of a self-interested and essentially a realist international politics perpetuated by the P5 and unreformed UN. On the other hand, it is absurd to expect that the staff of UN and other international agencies are motivated only by the purpose of world peace and protecting humanity, hence there is nothing to be surprised about the fact that the UN staff playing safely and practicing a “culture of trade-offs” in their handling of humanitarian crisis, whether it is in Sri Lanka or in Darfur.

The question of what kind of UN reform – including UNSC – that would bring about a sympathetic and robust response to mass-atrocity-crime prevention, is another contested issue. One of the vociferous reform calls comes from countries like Germany, Japan, Brazil and India for permanent membership at the UNSC, but their past behaviours don’t correlate with a robust and sympathetic response to an active conflict, for example in 2011, Brazil, India and Germany voted against the UNSC resolution-1973 endorsing the NATO intervention in Libya, therefore it is time to ask a difficult question, is it ever possible to take politics out of the decision making process regarding interventions and conflict prevention? Can the decision making process be guided by an algorithm? Where the UN is expected to do something, when the number of civilian deaths has reached a particular threshold, irrespective of geopolitical context. Making a decision on purely humanitarian grounds to intervene militarily in a distant conflict is fraught with many dangers.

Lord Castlereagh’s (British Foreign secretary, who architected the Congress of Vienna, after the defeat of Napolean) famous confidential State Paper of 1820 is still relevant on many aspects when it comes to militarily intervening in a distant conflict:

 “The principle of one state interfering by force in the internal affairs of another, in order to enforce obedience to the governing authority, is always a question of the greatest moral as well as political delicacy…It is important to observe that to generalise such a principle and to think of reducing it to a system, or to impose it as an obligation, is a scheme utterly impracticable and objectionable…This principle is perfectly clear and intelligible in the case of Spain. We may all agree that nothing can be more lamentable, or of more dangerous example, than the recent revolt of the Spanish army…but it does not follow that we have therefore equal means of acting upon this opinion……………… Besides, the people of this country would probably not recognise that our safety could be so far threatened by any state of things in Spain as to warrant their government in sending an army to that country to meddle in its internal affairs. We cannot conceal from ourselves how generally the acts of the King of Spain since his restoration have made his government unpopular, and how impossible it would be to reconcile the people of England to the use of force in order to replace power in his hands.

Even now with the advantage of modern surveillance facilities, it is still difficult for a potential humanitarian intervener to make a “clear and intelligible” picture about an acutely exacerbated conflict, where the situation is changing rapidly. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, in his report, An Agenda for Peace, makes it amply clear that “Preventive steps must be based upon timely and accurate knowledge of the facts…An increased resort to fact-finding is needed, in accordance with the Charter, initiated either by the Secretary-General, to enable him to meet his responsibilities under the Charter, including Article 99, or by the Security Council or the General Assembly. Various forms may be employed selectively as the situation requires”. But in Sri Lankan case, the problem was not about lack of verifiable information regarding humanitarian crisis in Vanni; instead it was a premeditated total war against the LTTE with the consent of P5, in order to destroy the organization completely. Based on their experience in dealing with the LTTE during the Norwegian facilitated peace talks, a controversial consensus had emerged amongst western powers, that is to eliminate the LTTE as a political and military force. Hence the ‘international community’, with an underlying naïve expectation that the Sri Lankan military would only deploy necessary and proportionate force, was ready to tolerate a certain level of civilian casualty. In that sense, Sri Lankan conflict is unique because a certain level of civilian destruction was anticipated by major powers that doesn’t warrant an intervention. On the other hand, attacking UN doesn’t make sense, because the UN officials don’t make serious decisions on the matters of peace and security, it is the P5!

When it comes to analyzing the UN response to Vanni war, leading R2P scholars are mostly evasive and in the case of Ramesh Thakur – who criticized Ban Ki-Moon for “having spent more time with autocratic leaders than any of his predecessors”6 – he nearly justifies the war as a R2P operation, parroting the! He writes:

The Tigers have been among the most ruthless terrorist organizations and were designated as such by more than 30 countries by 2009. They pioneered the use of women suicide bombers and invented the explosive suicide belt. They killed many civilians, including Tamils, recruited child soldiers and often raised funds from the Tamil diaspora community through extortion…The notion of a responsibility to protect places the responsibility first and foremost on the state itself. Given the Tigers’ nature and record, it was not unreasonable for the government to acquire the capacity and demonstrate the determination to defeat the Tigers as part of its responsibility to protect. Proponents of the responsibility to protect cannot advocate the international use of force against government troops engaged in atrocities against civilians, but not permit governments to use military force to protect their people from atrocities being perpetrated by terrorists. Pacifists can decry, renounce and denounce all use of force. Those who accept that the use of force is sometimes necessary cannot deny that option to governments engaged in fighting a brutal insurgency that kills civilians without compunction.7

It is well evident that when it comes to Sri Lanka and Tamils, Ramesh Thakur’s liberal cloak falls off and revealing his Indian ethnocentrism, his rant against the West is more virulent than Wimal Weerawansa.

The problem with the normative doctrines like R2P is that they are highly abstract principles, for example R2P as a normative doctrine doesn’t have an identity of a specific conflict or people, all it says is:

Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it. The international community should, as appropriate, encourage and help States to exercise this responsibility and support the United Nations in establishing an early warning capability8

Because of this abstract nature, even North Korea spoke supportively of R2P during the General Assembly debate on R2P in 2009. Castlereagh was not mincing the words, Great Britain, he said, “is the last government in Europe which can be expected, or can venture to commit Herself on any question of an abstract character…This country cannot, and will not, act upon abstract and speculative Principles of Precaution”. This dilemma is still very much relevant to the contemporary world politics.

Since the UN is not a separate entity outside of its memebership, it is essentially operating on the basis of member states’ consent, it is fundamentally a misguided approach to attack the UN for its failures and not bothering to identify and critique the structural problems that are causing these repeated UN failures in preventing mass-atrocity-crimes, such as ethnic cleansing, genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The US led western powers, tormented by the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan wars, are increasingly reluctant to commit troops for land warfare for saving strangers in distant parts of the world. Therefore it is increasingly evident, that the major powers of the world will act to stop mass-atrocity-crimes in distant lands, only if it is advantageous for their national interests e.g. Libya.

Even though the doctrine of R2P was originally envisioned as a comprehensive approach to prevent mass atrocity crimes, because of the intense opposition from global south – including Russia and China – it ended up largely as a preventive measure. The Canadian sponsored International Commission on State Sovereignty and Intervention led by Gareth Evans proposed measures that will create alternative options for authorizing a military action against a state in order to prevent a mass-atrocity-crime from happening, that may lead to a diminished role of UNSC in the matters of world peace security, therefore it was rejected in total by the P5. Therefore presently what we have is a ‘legalized hegemony’ of the victors of Second World War and cosmopolitans’ attempt to take politics out of the decision making process of UN humanitarian crisis management had effectively failed in 2005, when a watered down version of R2P was agreed at the UN World Summit. The stark reality is not every mass-atrocity-crime will attract a favourable response from ‘international community’; hence the potential for a future Mullivaaykkaal occuring is abundantly possible.



1. The Report of the Independent Inquiry into the actions of the United Nations during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, 15.12.1999.

2. Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, 2000. (

3. UNSG (Boutros-Ghali), An Agenda for Peace Preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peace-keeping, 1992. (

4. &

5. Powell, J ‘Kofi Annan has nothing to apologise for’ Newstatesman, 11.10.2012


6. Thakur, R, ‘The model of a mediocre secretary general’ Ottawa Citizen 28.09.2009. (

7. Thakur,R ‘West shouldn’t fault Sri Lankan govt tactics’, The Daily Yomiuri, 12.06.2009.  (

8. 2005 UN World Summit outcome document, paragraph 138. (