The Pearl

#SGinSL: Going off-script for his legacy & feeding Sri Lanka’s ‘nationalists’

By Ramesh Ganohariti & Thilina Panduwawala

Self-criticism – a positive quality of a leader

During the UN Secretary-General’s visit to Sri Lanka, while delivering a speech on “Sustainable Peace and Achieving Sustainable Development Goals”, at the Hilton Colombo on 2nd September, he went off-script several times and most strikingly compared the Sri Lankan civil war to the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica. (Here is the text and the video for comparison). As highlighted by the Sunday Times, such a comparison “caused glee among pro-LTTE campaigners who have long pressed the UN to categorise the military defeat of the terrorist group as ‘ethnic cleansing’”.  The speech carried much praise for the government’s reconciliation efforts and democratisation process. And many great ideas, such as increasing the number of women CEOs in Sri Lanka, were brought up. But his few sentences off script overshadowed all that.

This article will not dwell into whether the conflict in Sri Lanka can be defined as a ‘genocide’, thereby becoming comparable to Rwanda and Srebrenica; and instead we will leave the discussion of this question to legal experts. This article dwells into why Mr. Ban Ki-Moon might make such a statement, why he should have avoided saying what he said and what the next UNSG might want to learn from the matter.

Just another parable

Following end of most conflicts or UN missions where there has been criticism towards the UN for its lack of action, the UN delivers a statement that it has failed and that it would ‘never again’ let such an atrocity to be committed. It is well know that the UN was quick to admit its lack of involvement to prevent the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica. However, there are numerous other examples where high-ranking UN officials have made similar statements.

For example, in August 2016, the UN claimed that it played a role in the 2010 Cholera Epidemic in Haiti, which left of over 10,000 people dead. Last year, Mr. Ban has also admitted that the UN Security Council was failing to bring an end to the Syrian conflict, and a year on, the conflict continues and limited collective action has occurred. The UN mission in the DRC acknowledged that it reacted too slowly to stop the murder of at least 30 civilians in June 2014. It also admitted that UN peacekeepers in Sudan (2011) should have been more visible during fighting between northern and southern regions of the country. While the UN should be commended for being able to tell the truth, there are other instances where the UN has remained quiet. One of the most prominent examples is the UN Mission in Kosovo, whose members have been under investigation since 2006 for human rights violations, are yet to be made accountable for their actions.

In the above examples, the UN has failed through the lack of initiative and protection given by peacekeepers who were present on the ground during the conflict. Thus, over and over again showing the need for greater accountability and stronger mandates for the protection of civilians. Also, the UN seems to have failed in settling ongoing conflicts in the Central African Republic, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and the longest conflict from the last century – the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

From another angle, the UN admitting its failures and the repetition of the ‘never again’ statement may have lost its normative power and has simply become another parable. So, maybe we are giving this statement too much attention?

A statement from a leader searching for a legacy to leave behind

Mr. Ban Ki Moon’s tenure as the Secretary General will come to an end on 31st December 2016. His visit to Sri Lanka is part of his final set of official visits as UNSG. With him US President Barack Obama will also be ending his term as President. So, in a sense the end of 2016 marks the end of an era of global governance. Both of them have been blamed for being ‘soft’ on issues and crises. For the UNSG Sri Lanka was one of those issues that he was blamed for not getting involved in and preventing an alleged ‘genocide’. For the President it has been the Middle East as a whole. Both of them would like to draw attention and highlight the progress they have achieved despite their apparent ‘softness’. It is also part of them trying to leave a lasting positive behind for history to record; a normal tendency of any leader of clout.

#SGinSL should be seen in this light. His tenure began with the human rights issues in Sri Lanka burdening his agenda. And now he is ending it with Sri Lanka having achieved significant progress, which he set aside much of his speech on Friday to mention. But he made many forget this the instance he went off script to mention Rwanda and Sri Lanka in a similar light of ‘never again’. It highlights how global leaders with liberal ideals tend to forget the domestic political realities of different states.

‘Nationalism’ is easily fueled by ‘interventionist statements’

Just because the current Sri Lankan government is supportive of reconciliation as advocated internationally and backs liberal conceptions of post-conflict policies, does not mean the population carries the same notions. The reason the government is in power largely because people wanted to get rid of the previous regime. The political future of the UNP or SLFP depend upon the voters of the South who are yet to understand the gravity or necessity of internationally credible reconciliation.

What they do understand is that Sri Lanka is no Rwanda. They have an immense pride in the history of their country and would not welcome such a comparison, especially by a foreigner who has typically been portrayed a ‘puppet of the West’ in Sri Lankan society. ‘Nationalistic’ politicians of the opposition will use this small part of the speech to harp on the dangers posed by the ‘spineless’ foreign policy of the current government. Such ammunition is the last thing the government wanted the UNSG to provide to the opposition.

Thus, this could add to the reasons why the government is disliked by voters of the South, endangering its ability to stay in power and see the proper implementation of its reconciliation efforts. That could turn back the progress achieved so far and also remove Sri Lank from a legacy of success to a legacy of failure for Mr. Ban. The next UNSG might not even focus on Sri Lanka as much as he had done. Syria, Yemen, Kashmir, Ethiopia, Venezuela are all issues that loom large and which will affect the next SG’s legacy.

Lessons for the next UNSG

Interventionist statements are required for situations as those in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the Rwanda of the 1990s. The state structures in those countries failed. The state itself deliberately followed policies of genocide or attacking its citizens, in these contexts. Democratic governments have not been present at these points of crisis. So the people of those countries were not to blame for the policies of the state.

In contrast, Sri Lanka was a democracy and had a functioning state structure throughout the 30-year civil war. Yes, there were tendencies towards nationalism and the civil war did mean that governments had full electoral legitimacy mainly in the South of the country. But a majority of the population did vote to appoint the governments, including the one that ended the civil war in 2009. Thus, when the UNSG or any international figure states Sri Lanka followed genocide type policies, the blame also falls on most of the people of Sri Lanka. Not only is the state’s policy being questioned here, but the decisions of millions of voters at the ballot box are being questioned.

Hence, the ‘nationalist’ backlash created by interventionist statements is greater in the case of Sri Lanka. The same holds true in other countries where governments have been democratically elected. Recently Philippine’s President Duterte warned he will quit the UN if it continues to intervene in domestic issues of human rights and anti-drug policies. He is considered the first President of that country to be from outside the Manila political elite and hence has large grassroots democratic support. Openly critiquing his policies only tarnishes the credibility of the UN in Philippines, which holds true for Sri Lanka as well.

The best approach to follow is policy advocacy while avoiding statements like Mr Ban made last Friday in Colombo. The UN’s specialized agencies in Sri Lanka have been doing that and their best left to do that without reducing the apolitical credibility they have built over the last few years. Since the end of the war Sri Lankan society has begun to see UN Sri Lanka as a positive influence on its future. The sustaining and improvement of that position in society is vital for the success of its agencies’ policy advocacy.

Anyhow, The International Cauldron would like to thank outgoing UNSG Mr. Ban Ki Moon for the service he has rendered to the world during his tenure and wish him all the best, especially for a possible run at the Presidency of South Korea.

UNSG Sri Lanka Visit

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