Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Guardian

The tragic final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 have received renewed attention lately, with a mention in ex-US president Barack Obama’s new book and a panel discussion on lessons from that time as well as the more recent conflict in Myanmar. On Human Rights Day it is worth looking at one of the most pressing problems in the world: what the international community can, and should, do to protect civilians. Understanding past failures might help in building a better future, especially as millions of people in various parts of the globe are in grave danger.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was agreed on this day in 1948, it reflected the hope, in the wake of horrific cruelty and suffering, that never again would anything similar happen. Yet sadly there have been repeated instances since then of violations on a major scale. The United Nations has often been criticised: the determination expressed in its charter “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” has at times seemed hollow.

Each situation is unique. Yet in this light, perhaps what has happened in Sri Lanka can be seen in a wider context, of instances when lapses within and among countries have left large parts of the population exposed to devastating harm and loss. It may then be possible to move beyond defensiveness, ethnic nationalism or other forms of communalism, instead seeking to learn and get better at protecting people now and in years to come.

Learning from what went wrong

After the defeat of the Nazis and their allies in 1945 and as various former colonies moved towards freedom, any naïve dreams of uniting all peoples and governments in protecting the defenceless were soon dashed. Politicians still stoked up tensions for their own purposes, sometimes targeting minorities, women and the poor. Meanwhile the self-interest of major powers and corporations and rivalry between the Western and Soviet blocs meant that each tended to downplay concerns about human rights violations by their allies and associates.

Times changed, yet problems continued. Horrendous events in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s reminded the world just how vulnerable civilians could be. In 2005, governments agreed their responsibility to protect their own populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and helping each other uphold this commitment. They also declared that they were prepared to take timely and decisive action, in line with the UN Charter and in cooperation with regional organisations, when national authorities failed to protect their people. The UN also tried to be better prepared to take preventive action, working with states where possible, rather than waiting until a situation deteriorated. But large-scale violence continued.

In a memoir published in November this year, “A Promised Land”, Obama wrote that, “Even after the Cold War, divisions within the Security Council continued to hamstring the UN’s ability to tackle problems. Its member states lacked either the means or the collective will to reconstruct failing states like Somalia, or prevent ethnic slaughter in places like Sri Lanka.”

Also last month, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect organised a panel discussion on UN response to atrocities: a conversation with Ambassador Gert Rosenthal and Mr Charles Petrie, now available online. Both had been asked to examine in depth at what the UN had done or failed to do in conflict situations. In an informative and thought-provoking if sombre discussion, staff member Savita Pawnday asked them about their findings.

Former UN official Charles Petrie described his experience of being asked to look into why the various UN agencies present in Sri Lanka in 2008 to 2009, in the last stages of the war, failed to keep civilians safe. In 2011, a panel of experts had found credible allegations that both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam committed a range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity and called for further investigation. He described how, in addition to the main report, they gave the Secretary General a seven-page confidential report on the gravity of the UN’s failure, which was seen as an organisational low point. He took on the task of looking into what went wrong and considering lessons for the future.

He found that, as well as individual lapses, with various agencies at work each with a different focus – humanitarian, development, human rights – and not all of whom saw protecting people as their priority. A new structure with greater freedom for overall UN representatives focused on the Sustainable Development Goals is now in place, perhaps allowing a more coherent response in future if the situation in any country seems worrying.

He also described how, while some UN employees (including mid-level staff) showed real concern for the people at growing risk, some senior staff showed poor leadership, doctored reports and later failed to cooperate in understanding what happened. While a theme throughout the seminar was of the need to be pragmatic as well as principled, political calculation on the part of some managers seemed to outweigh responsiveness to human need.

There was also the effect of the way in which overseas governments might interpret situations in the light of their own strategic needs and what they saw as pressing issues for them. For instance Western powers had been caught up in the war on terror and initially perceived what was happening in Sri Lanka through that lens.

Later Gert Rosenthal, formerly Guatemalan permanent representative to the UN, was called upon to examine what went wrong in Myanmar, where members of the Rohingya minority were subjected to mass killings and displacement. Here too international perceptions were skewed, in this case by a “fairy tale” of a straightforward advance from military dictatorship to democratic government. The transition from military rule to partial democracy, in which Aung San Suu Kyi – a much-admired leader who had spent many years under house arrest – played a key part, had been the focus.

Fragmentation again played a part. But there were also genuine dilemmas about whether quiet diplomacy might be a more effective approach than openly challenging the new leadership when things went badly wrong.

Better UN structures and emphasis on conflict prevention and early intervention may be helpful in dealing with the conflicts which continue to cause such suffering and loss in different parts of the world. Yet the UN, including the Security Council, is still affected by divisions within the international community, where different global or regional groupings often fail to work together to keep the vulnerable safe.

Moving forward

Recommendations from panellists for the UN and wider international community included getting better at taking heed of early warnings. Also the value of talking with perpetrators of abuses and trying to understand their logic was suggested. No organisation is monolithic and there may be some people or sections with whom it is possible to engage, as well as others connected with them who might have some influence.

It may also be useful to find a range of ways to make broadly the same point. For instance some people are suspicious of the language of human rights, especially because of the hypocrisy of some Western governments when their own practice falls short. If the same values can be conveyed in other ways, well and good.

The online discussion and other recent coverage of what happened during the civil war, especially at the end, is sobering, though perhaps learning from this might help keep others safe somewhere in the world. There have been occasions when Sri Lanka has been ahead of the game in aspects of human rights or building international relationships which could benefit disadvantaged people. Perhaps one day, a way forward there can be found to help those who now feel marginalised and afraid (from ethnic and religious minorities to the destitute and prisoners) to feel instead that they are safe, secure and respected and to heal divisions. Sri Lanka might then again become a positive example to the world.