Tribune 1 December 2012
United Nations SG Ban Ki Moon has often quipped that the acronym for his title, SG, stands for “Scape Goat”. Events both in Goma in the Congo and the kickback over the recent Sri Lanka report could reinforce that feeling. They certainly highlight the weaknesses of the international organisation.
The UN can only function if its member states want it to. As Ban’s predecessor as Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, used to lament, the UN has no army of its own. It relies on others to provide troops, whose professionalism is not always guaranteed. Nor it just a case of developing world contingents not caring to risk themselves. The troops who seem to have acted as traffic cops for the Rwandan rebels who took over Goma bring back sad memories of the Dutch contingent that handed over Srebrenica to Ratko Mladic and his thugs.
Rwanda has achieved a sort of historical symmetry all of its own. The previous murderous government was actually sitting on the UN Security Council while the latter was being totally ineffectual over the mass killings of Rwandans. Now, while a UN report blames Rwanda for effectively running the M23 rebel group that has just taken Goma, the country itself is preparing to resume a seat on the Security Council in the New Year. The recent elections to the Human Rights Council manifested the same UN problem, in which almost all the regional groups but particularly Africa, operate on the Buggins’ turn principle which avoids elections and results in completely inappropriate candidates being appointed unopposed. The results are appalling.
One might have mixed feelings about Venezuela’s Bolivarian record – but Hugo Chávez’s government consistently supports murderous regimes against international scrutiny, while Ethiopia and Kazakhstan, also elected unopposed, have abysmal records in their own right.
Sri Lankan diplomacy has always been masterful in its cultivation of international allies. Prominent among the non-aligned, it maintained relations with all sides during the Cold War and still does now. So its conduct of the war against the – admittedly unsavoury –Tamil Tigers has been ignored by most other governments. The UN found that, in the closing days of the war that defeated the Tamil rebels, there were indeed war crimes committed, but among member states no one has a dog in the fight, in former US Secretary of State James Baker’s memorable phrase.
The UN Security Council refused to take action about the unfolding disaster, since no members seriously wanted the issue raised. After all, even nations which used to talk about human rights had decided that the importance of war against terrorism overshadowed mere details like human rights. In Sri Lanka, various UN agencies repeated the Sarajevo syndrome.
As long as the perpetrators allowed some humanitarian aid through, why would they consider human rights an issue? In response to human rights groups, the UN set up a Panel of Experts, which detailed the wholesale violations of international law by both sides. When Sri Lanka refused to investigate the allegations in any meaningful way, Ban went ahead with yet another inquiry into what the UN should have done.
The government of Sri Lanka has blustered since, and its supporters want to know why Ban had the temerity to keep the issue alive instead of burying it at the crossroads – or wherever the tens of thousands of disappeared Tamil civilians ended up. In the meantime, there has been the deafening sound of silence from the member states, which did not discuss the issue in the Human Rights Council, the General Assembly or the Security Council while it was going on and have shown no great eagerness to push the issue since.
With the United States vetoing a statement simply calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, and Russia and China still providing diplomatic cover for Bashar al-Assad’s bloodshed, it is perhaps hardly surprising that Sri Lanka feels entitled to bluster against Ban and the UN for his persistence in asking the country to honour its own promises to investigate. To his credit, Ban has stood his ground on all those issues. To their discredit, the so-called great powers on the Security Council have ignored him and the victims Whenever they deem it expedient to do so.