A Decade After Failing to Stop Massacres in Sri Lanka

What has the UN learned?

by Richard Gowan, World Politics Review, March 19, 2019

When faced with a crisis, U.N. officials grapple with two imperatives. There is the moral compulsion to protect the suffering. And there is the equal, and frequently greater, need to balance the interests of the power players involved. While outsiders lionize those U.N. leaders who make crystal-clear moral statements, insiders prefer those who find ways to co-opt and influence stronger actors…

Rather than spurring “the international community” to take crisis management more seriously, Sri Lanka foreshadowed a new generation of wars in which the U.N.’s leverage has been minimized. 

Sri Lankan protesters wave flags and burn an effigy of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outside the U.N. office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 6, 2010 (AP photo by Eranga Jayawardena).

Ten years ago this month, senior United Nations officials were hard at work equivocating over a crisis. A cynic might say that the U.N. exists in a constant state of equivocation. But in March 2009, its leaders were mired in an especially grim political mess—and handling it badly.

The cause of their troubles lay in northern Sri Lanka. After decades of civil war, the Sri Lankan military was carrying out a final offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel group with a long history of atrocities. As the decisive battle wore on, U.N. officials and journalists in the war zone reported that the army was also behaving brutally, killing thousands of civilians.

Their superiors responded nervously and indecisively. The top U.N. official in Colombo, known as the resident coordinator, assiduously avoided alienating the government. His advisers refused to give frank briefings on fatalities to the media or diplomats. At U.N. headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his advisers were equally tremulous. After U.N. human rights officials in Geneva drafted a clear statement on the crisis in mid-March 2009, Ban’s chef de cabinet replied asking for “some dilution of tone and rigor” in its comments on the death rate in Sri Lanka.

Ban’s adviser helpfully noted that “my point in all this is not to question in any way your undoubted need to sound a strong moral voice on behalf of the international community.” But he was doing just that. As facts about the episode surfaced following the Sri Lankan army’s conclusive victory over the Tamil Tigers that May—by which time some 40,000 people had died—the U.N.’s failure to speak out became a touchstone for debates about the body’s moral and political purpose.

Listen to Richard Gowan discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast.

The Sri Lanka story has shaped discussions within the U.N. system about the organization’s values for much of the ensuing decade. Responding to criticism of his performance, Ban attempted to put moral concerns at the center of his agenda in the last years of his term. His advisers set up an initiative, which they named Human Rights Up Front, or HRUF, to handle future crises better. Ban’s successor, Antonio Guterres, has also prioritized preventive diplomacy. Yet from Syria to Myanmar, the U.N. has struggled and failed to stop new outbreaks of violence and persecution.

In each crisis, U.N. officials have faced the same dilemmas that Ban’s team faced over Sri Lanka. Should they condemn the forces responsible for causing the suffering, or try to engage with them in private? Is there any way to persuade the dominant powers at the U.N., including the U.S., China and Russia, to put morality before power politics? Does it really make sense to think of the U.N. having a “strong moral voice” when the idea of an “international community” is fragmenting?

These questions, of course, long pre-dated the Sri Lanka debacle. U.N. staff members who reviewed the events of 2009 were able to compare their findings with earlier disasters in the Balkans and Rwanda. In those cases, too, political maneuvering and bureaucratic waffling had facilitated mass slaughter. Taking an even longer historical view, one sees the same dilemmas at work at the dawn of U.N. crisis management.

U.N. aficionados often point to 1956 as the year that the organization started to carve out a novel role in international security, with the deployment of its first large-scale peacekeeping force to manage the Suez crisis. That amounted to a major geopolitical achievement, helping Britain and France back out of their ill-advised invasion of Egypt, and Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold is still revered for his role in it.

Hammarskjold is also credited with crafting the idea of U.N. officials as independent “international civil servants,” following a higher cause than realpolitik. The ascetic Swede certainly inspired great ambitions for the U.N., some of them a little odd. American author John Steinbeck, for example, once lobbied him to set up a sort of multilateral aristocracy of international notables, modeled on the Knights of the Round Table, to advance the organization’s cause.

But Hammarskjold was a pragmatic bargainer, and there was a dark side to his diplomacy around Suez. While working to resolve the Egyptian crisis, the U.N. was grappling with how to respond to the simultaneous Soviet invasion of Hungary, which came in response to the revolution that year that had toppled the Soviet-backed government in Budapest. Many Hungarians believed that the U.N. would send troops to protect them from the Soviet army, but that turned out to be an illusion.

As the invasion unfolded, the secretary-general listened to his advisers, who were dismissive of the Hungarian cause. He refused to meet anti-Soviet representatives and let subsequent U.N. investigations of the situiation in Hungary drag on. One investigator ended up dying in mysterious circumstances in a park in Queens, and a small cadre of American right-wing conspiracy theorists insist that the U.N. covered up his murder.

That may be nonsense, but a recent archival study by historian Andras Nagy suggests that Hammarskjold ultimately concluded that “the prospect of working on behalf of the Hungarian people would jeopardize Soviet cooperation on the Suez crisis as well as other key issues such as nuclear disarmament.”

Very few U.N. officials or admirers today know anything about the organization’s response to the situation in Hungary. Yet it would prove to be a template for many future crises, including several unfolding today.

Private Arm-Twisting, Public Outrage

When faced with a crisis, U.N. officials grapple with two imperatives. There is the moral compulsion to protect the suffering. And there is the equal, and frequently greater, need to balance the interests of the power players involved. While outsiders lionize those U.N. leaders who make crystal-clear moral statements, insiders prefer those who find ways to co-opt and influence stronger actors.

There is a range of views among U.N. veterans about how to balance quiet arm-twisting with public statements of moral outrage over unfolding atrocities. But most smart operators would agree that it is necessary to juggle the two.

While outsiders lionize U.N. leaders who make crystal-clear moral statements, insiders prefer those who find ways to co-opt and influence stronger actors.

After the death last year of Kofi Annan, the widely respected former secretary-general, I argued on this site that he was a “politically canny” figure who was willing to pick fights with the permanent five members of the Security Council and was also adept at smoothing over differences with them. This may have been a little too generous: Annan has been accused of passivity during the Rwandan genocide, when he was in charge of U.N. peacekeeping. And the George W. Bush administration pushed his diplomatic skills to the breaking point over Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, Annan understood the realities of politics and how they intersect with the U.N.’s lofty ideals.

By contrast, Ban Ki-moon and his advisers responded to the Sri Lankan crisis with neither political acuity nor moral clarity. Officials in New York shied away from even sending a high-level envoy to try to resolve the crisis. While the existing U.N. leadership in Colombo dithered, New York never offered them serious political guidance. Ban felt that his hands were tied: The Security Council was split over how to handle the crisis and made no statement on it until May 2009. While Britain and France agitated for some sort of U.N. action, the newly-installed Obama administration’s attention was elsewhere, and Asian powers including India, Japan and China wanted the U.N. to stay quiet.

In the aftermath of the Tamil Tigers’ crushing defeat, Ban, a deferential and defensive diplomat, initially claimed that he had nothing to answer for. Facing criticism from inside and outside the U.N., however, he eventually commissioned an internal review of the U.N.’s performance in Sri Lanka. The resulting report, released in late 2012, was packed with scathing assessments of international officials’ individual and collective failures, buttressed by damning direct quotations from their correspondence. It fell just short of blaming Ban personally, but it amply illustrated the weaknesses of his institution.

The report initiated the important—if ultimately only partly successful—U.N. effort to overhaul its response to crises under the banner of “Human Rights Up Front.” This initiative, which Ban and Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson championed between 2013 and 2016, had three main planks. The first was a technical but wide-ranging effort to upgrade the organization’s internal systems for flagging emerging crises and ensuring that they got top-level attention. The second was a more ambitious, but rather less concrete, push to change the institution’s culture by training staff members on the need to defend human rights. The last, and most controversial, was a pledge to be frank with U.N. member states over looming conflicts and how to stop them.

Syrian authorities distribute bread, vegetables and pasta to residents of Douma, the site of asuspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, April 16, 2018 (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).

As I noted in a report with experts from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum near the end of Ban’s tenure in 2016, HRUF resulted in observable changes to the U.N.’s way of doing business. The message that all parts of the system should focus more on early warning and conflict prevention had some resonance. Around the U.N. and at the World Bank, officials started working on new dashboards of conflict indicators and other tools for identifying risk. Upon winning the race to replace Ban in 2016, Antonio Guterres indicated his desire to continue in this vein, promising a new “surge in preventive diplomacy.”

Since then, Guterres has tried to institutionalize this focus on prevention further, insisting that his senior staff consult frequently on looming crises and avoid the fragmentation that plagued Ban’s team over Sri Lanka. He has consolidated the departments covering political and peacekeeping issues in New York to merge their analytical resources. He has also redesigned the way that U.N. teams are set up country-by-country, in part aiming to give resident coordinators—like that benighted figure in Sri Lanka in 2009—more time and space to focus on politics and prevention. These reforms only kicked in this January, and U.N. officials are still wrapping their minds around new departmental structures and reporting lines. It will be a while before we can say if all the bother is worthwhile. But it looks like the U.N. system is at least trying to adapt to the lessons it learned from the Sri Lankan collapse.

‘Disturbing Paralysis’

This would be heartening, in light of the glacial way that multilateral institutions tend to change themselves, were it not for the dismal international political backdrop. Over the past decade, as the U.N. has talked more and more about preventing violence, global levels of bloodshed have risen markedly. Even by the time the Sri Lanka report came out in 2012, the Syrian civil war was gathering pace. Since then, the U.N. has been charged with tackling a series of conflicts in Libya, Mali, South Sudan and Yemen—in addition to multiple peace efforts in Syria—and it has often failed.

There is no great mystery as to why. In trying to learn the principles of HRUF in order to limit violence, the U.N.’s top officials have been swimming against a riptide of adverse political developments. Rather than spurring “the international community” to take crisis management more seriously, Sri Lanka foreshadowed a new generation of wars in which the U.N.’s leverage has been minimized.

This new environment is characterized by three recurrent factors that make it harder for U.N. officials to make political headway. The first is the fragmentation of conflict. Current wars frequently feature proliferations of warlords, militias and organized criminal groups that U.N. officials struggle to talk to. In many cases, these splintered actors also profess loyalty to transnational jihadist movements, making it even harder to have substantive negotiations with them.

The second factor is the willingness of embattled governments and militaries to use force to crush their opponents, whatever well-intentioned U.N. officials might say about human rights or morals. The Sri Lankan authorities’ disregard for such questions about values allowed them to run a merciless but militarily decisive campaign against the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Many other governments have wished they could do the same, and some have translated this wish into action. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad appears close to a final, appalling victory over his opponents after shrugging off multiple calls for a peaceful settlement to the civil war. In South Sudan, where the U.N. maintains a sizeable peacekeeping force protecting civilians, President Salva Kiir and his opponents have nonetheless persistently returned to war to settle their political differences.

Lastly, and most importantly, the big powers that give the U.N. its clout are increasingly unable to find enough common ground to make credible collective action possible. The rifts between China, Russia and the Western members of the Security Council that opened up over Libya and Syria in 2011 and 2012 have now spread to diplomacy over crises from Venezuela and the Central African Republic to Iran. With each dispute, the U.N.’s room for political maneuver shrinks, while U.N. appeals to morality or international humanitarian law sound increasingly hollow. International officials fret that the Trump administration’s distaste for multilateral values, captured in its decision to quit the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, is encouraging smaller states to treat the U.N. dismissively.

The Sri Lankan war foreshadowed a new generation of conflicts in which the U.N.’s leverage has been minimized.

These political tensions have infected the implementation of HRUF. China and Russia have been skeptical of the entire initiative, suspecting that it’s a cover for a Western values agenda, and persuaded other states to cut off funding for the main official working on its implementation in 2017. China has tried to cut the number of U.N. human rights officials more generally. Even the ostensibly anodyne notion of “prevention” has proved controversial in some corners of the U.N., as developing countries have accused the organization of shifting attention away from development priorities.

Ban Ki-moon’s own efforts to learn from the lessons of Sri Lanka sadly presaged many of these frictions. Even before the Sri Lanka report came out, Ban had begun to rethink his approach to crisis management. During the Arab uprisings of 2011, he began to speak up on behalf of civilian demonstrators. This was an honorable and well-received turn, and Ban went further in his statements on Syria as the war persisted, repeatedly criticizing Assad. In response, however, the Syrian president simply cut off contact with the secretary-general. Some U.N. officials felt that Ban had over-compensated for his previous timidity by speaking out so publicly, losing the chance to exert any influence on Assad.

Ban also spoke regularly on other crises—such as mounting violence in the Central African Republic and Yemen—in his final years in office, but the big powers paid him only intermittent heed. As he prepared to stand down in 2016, he decried the world’s “disturbing paralysis” in the face of “blatant inhumanity” in a statement issued jointly with the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. These words sounded like an epitaph to Ban’s search for political and moral clarity.

The Guterres Era

Antonio Guterres is a more adept political operator than Ban, with a better sense of how to bargain with big powers behind the scenes. He has spent his first two and a half years in office quietly working to ease intractable conflicts, including the worsening situation in Venezuela, often avoiding publicity. The need to manage ties with the anti-multilateralist Trump administration has proved a major distraction, and Guterres is said to be frustrated that the U.N. has not been able to score a clear “win”—stopping or ending a war—to boost its political capital.

The secretary-general is now also grappling with the legacy of a crisis that he inherited from Ban that painfully echoes the Sri Lanka story: The systematic destruction of the Rohingya community in Myanmar. The Rohingya crisis has in many ways encapsulated the challenges facing the U.N. in the current era of conflict. In 2017, six months into Guterres’ term, Myanmar’s military decided to launch a forceful, Sri Lanka-style campaign against the country’s Muslim minority after years of interethnic tensions. The operation, which involved driving hundreds of thousands of Rohingya into Bangladesh, was determined, quick and brutal.

Higher-level politics offered Myanmar some cover. China has always been ready to block serious U.N. action over the crisis, while the U.S. and its Western allies have been wary of any steps that could undermine the country’s recent progress toward liberalization. While many analysts saw the Rohingya crisis looming, then, there was very little political will in any quarter to take strong steps to stop it from escalating out of control.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shakes hands with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterresbefore a private meeting at the State Department, Washington, March 13, 2019(AP photo by Jose Luis Magana).

This also appears to have been true within the U.N. system. Senior U.N. representatives in Myanmar allegedly adopted a delicate approach to the Rohingya issue, avoiding a showdown with the government and military, and ignoring an internal report criticizing this strategy. (The U.N. has frequently disputed media coverage of the crisis.) Guterres was seized of the problem when he took office—one diplomat recalls the new secretary-general focusing on the crisis in early meetings in 2017—but could not find a way to head off the violence.

In September 2017, Guterres turned to public diplomacy, bluntly describing the anti-Rohingya campaign as “ethnic cleansing” ahead of the annual meeting of the General Assembly in New York. This made headlines but inspired only a limited response from the Security Council. Bogged down in confrontational diplomacy over Syria and other crises, the permanent members of the council have decided to keep their passions in check over Myanmar.

This is not to say the council has ignored the problem altogether. It has frequently discussed the humanitarian crisis, and ambassadors have visited both Myanmar and Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh last year. The pitiful state of the displaced, and the risks to the camps posed by disease and monsoon rains, clearly grasped the diplomats’ attention. The council has pressed for greater humanitarian aid.

But British diplomats, who lead negotiations on the issue, and their Chinese counterparts seem to have a more or less tacit agreement to avoid any blow-ups over political aspects of the crisis. Some other recent members of the Security Council, such as the Netherlands, have been highly critical of the U.K. for not taking a tougher approach. But as I pointed out in a recent study for the U.N. University, the Sino-British approach to Myanmar may indicate how the big powers will handle humanitarian crises through the U.N. in the current multipolar and confrontational global context.

Rather than try to hash out political solutions to future crises—let alone authorize military responses like the intervention in Libya in 2011—the Security Council may increasingly focus on the “least worst” solutions, such as facilitating humanitarian assistance, to keep tensions under control. In this scenario, U.N. officials’ space for political action will become further constrained.

The worsening political environment means that openings for effective U.N. engagement are likely to become rarer and more problematic.

This does not mean that this space will disappear entirely. As a series of recent studies by my colleagues at the U.N. University have shown, the organization’s envoys and resident coordinators do often engage in successful prevention and crisis management in conflicts below the Security Council’s radar. But in what amounts to an indictment of the council’s efficacy, these officials’ most productive technique is often to work with local politicians to stop conflicts from escalating to the point that the council notices them and their work becomes entangled in wider big-power brinkmanship.

Searching for Purpose

Guterres and his advisers continue to look for ways to navigate these storms. Guterres has appointed a long-time U.N. diplomat and expert on conflict prevention, former Guatemalan Ambassador Gert Rosenthal, to review the organization’s record in Myanmar. U.N. officials say there are new ideas under discussion to give HRUF new momentum—something the relatively new high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, is keen to promote. Guterres has also appointed Nicholas Haysom, once a close adviser to Nelson Mandela and more recently a U.N. representative in Afghanistan and East Africa, to look at ways to advance this agenda.

Yet however effectively the secretary-general manages these issues within the U.N. system, the worsening international environment means that openings for effective U.N. engagement are likely to become rarer and more problematic. The organization will repeatedly face versions of Hammarskjold’s dilemma over Suez and Hungary: When and how to make political trade-offs with divided powers to create a minimum of political space for U.N. action. And there will be more Sri Lankas and Syrias—cases in which strategic circumstances mean that the U.N. has almost no space to act at all.

Even in such cases, however, the U.N. needs to have some sense of its political doctrine and ethical obligations. How should the organization’s representatives behave in conflicts where belligerent actors massively constrict even basic humanitarian aid? Is there a moment at which U.N. officials should step up and condemn combatants, even if it limits their access to the suffering?

Ten years on from Sri Lanka, there are no hard-and-fast answers to these questions. Nor are there ever likely to be, at least in politically realistic terms. But the U.N.’s leadership needs to keep debating what their moral and political purpose should be and how to defend it.

Otherwise, the U.N. will simply be an institution that writes reports on its own failures.

Richard Gowan completed this article while working as a senior policy fellow at the U.N. University Centre for Policy Research. He has since become U.N. Director for the International Crisis Group, but these are his views alone. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardGowan1.


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