United Nations

UN Leadership Under Fire for Colluding with Despots

September 7, 2009 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

First came the Economist’s scorecard giving Ban Ki-moon a very embarrassing 3 out of 10 for his handling of civil wars and “speaking truth to power”. [1] And then the leak of a damning report on his performance from a senior Norwegian diplomat, which singled out his performance in Sri Lanka as an example – “The Secretary-General was a powerless observer to thousands of civilians losing their lives and becoming displaced from their homes… The moral voice and authority of the Secretary-General has been missing.” [2]

But the UN’s failure in Sri Lanka is not that of the Secretary-General alone. He did at least speak out, in May, both about the unacceptably high civilian casualties in the last phase of the war and, most clearly, about the appalling conditions in camps where up to 280,000 civilians are now being held Yet he has lamentably failed to follow up since, and the UN as a whole has failed badly on at least three counts which sets the scene for why so little is being done about the civilians imprisoned today:

a) By refusing to disclose its own estimates of numbers of civilians killed [3] or to publicise its concern about deteriorating conditions in the camps, it is making itself complicit in the Rajapaksa regime’s brutal and illegal policies, encouraging the Government to further suppress dissenting voices and ensuring that local and international NGOs have little choice but to self-censor.

b) The Secretary-General has failed to actively support his own High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions who have called for an investigation of war crimes committed by all parties during and since the conflict. Nor has he spoken up when the ICRC was forced by the Government to downscale its role totally prematurely.

c) The UN has also failed to protect its own locally recruited staff, two of whom were arrested and reportedly tortured several weeks ago [4] but this is just the tip of the iceberg of tolerating staff being bullied into silence, the latest being a highly respected UNICEF official. [5]

At best, Vijay Nambiar, a veteran Indian diplomat, and the Secretary General’s Chief of Staff who was tasked with being the lead UN person for Sri Lanka, is considered to have responded too late and with too little sustained effort. Contrast, for example, the extended time that Richard Holbrooke spent in former Yugoslavia and is now spending in Afghanistan “bashing heads”. And Kofi Annan spent 6+ weeks in Kenya to secure the deal which averted the civil war. [6]

With India strongly backing the Government of Sri Lanka, and given that Vijay Nambiar’s brother, Satish, is a public admirer of the Sri Lankan defence chief [7], there are very serious questions to be asked about Ban Ki-moon’s choice.

And as worrying, the UN’s top official in Colombo is reported as saying “some of the criticism of the government …have been unfair” and that “you have to give the government credit”, which was then promoted on the UN World Food Programme site. [8] According to aid workers in Sri Lanka, “the UN has consistently failed to use its considerable potential influence to push focused advocacy points either in private or in public” and “the UN has taken the stance that if the government orders it to stop an activity; it must do so or risk becoming irrelevant to the humanitarian effort (i.e., be expelled from the country). This risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – the UN is becoming irrelevant, or worse, complicit, because it fails to advocate effectively for a humanitarian response that meets international norms.”

UN officials argue they cannot challenge sovereign governments because this would be “political”, but this is clearly absurd – the UN agencies often challenge governments by highlighting facts and assessment that contradict government positions. This seems to have been forgotten in Sri Lanka. For example, the Government says, “There is no problem of malnutrition of children in camps for displaced and we need no advice from the UN.”. The reality is that “prevalence of global acute malnutrition of 35.6% (i.e., around a hundred thousand people suffering serious hunger for a protracted period) and severe acute malnutrition of 8.8%.’ What did the UN say: “‘Nutrition Cluster will not need to pursue information on malnutrition levels in Menik farm as Ministry of Heath will make findings of recent nutrition survey public. Document will be circulated. Food Cluster lead will inform when available.” There have been many other examples of UN officials downplaying events and spinning language so that local officials can do what they consider to be their job – to do as much good as possible without upsetting the Government.

More practically, UN officials argue that the Government expels individuals and agencies who are critical. But this again reflects the “tone at the top” which places such high premium on avoiding confrontation – that makes it very easy for a government like the one in Sri Lanka today. Aware that their more outspoken colleagues have been told to leave and not been supported by the UN HQ, there is a strong concern that local UN staff in Sri Lanka have succumbed to a Sri Lankan form of the “Stockholm syndrome”. [9]

One UN HQ official also argues that Ban Ki-moon and the team are doing the best they can, given the lack of interest by USA and France and the full support for Sri Lanka from China, Russia, India, Iran with soft political support of Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia, and many others. This is clearly a big challenge but one which he could address by better empowering/challenging his respected colleagues like Navi Pillay, Francis Deng and Philip Alston to do more in their technical spheres of influence. And has all the authority he needs to appoint a special representative for Sri Lanka who has the influence to build the alliance for change. It is not in India or China’s interest to help create a Sri Lankan version of Palestine/Tibet.

Like all of us mere mortals, Ban Ki-moon can also learn and improve his performance. No one doubts how hard it is to be the UN Secretary General. Moreover, he is well suited to sponsor an “Asian solution” to the coming crisis of thousands in camps which are already “awash with raw sewage”. Ken Saro Wiwa noted that forcing humans to live in a situation where excrement is in their face (actually, in this case, in their water supply) is a form of genocidal abuse. And the people who die from these diseases in these camps will be dying because they are UN protected and UN people. [10]

The UN should stop colluding with this right now. The time to act is now – the monsoons are 4 weeks away and the time for excuses is long past. If UN staff have lost the confidence, courage, or credibility to be part of the solution, they should resign or be replaced. That is Ban Ki-moon’s challenge now.

[1] https://www.economist.com/international/2009/06/11/the-score-at-half-time

[2]  https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/31/AR2009083103911.html?referrer=facebook

[3]  https://web.archive.org/web/20090724223444/http://www.amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/sri-lanka-un-must-publicize-civilian-casualty-figures-20090529

[4]  https://web.archive.org/web/20090622071724/http://www.nowpublic.com/world/un-says-two-its-employees-arrested-sri-lanka-updates

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/06/sri-lanka-expels-unicef-official

[6] https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2008/0808/p25s06-woaf.html

[7]  https://web.archive.org/web/20090430031239/http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20090427_04

[8]  https://web.archive.org/web/20100402054510/http://www.wfp.org/content/un-backs-sri-lanka-refugee-camps

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_syndrome

[10] “Unpeople’ is a phrase coined by British historian Mark Curtis. He defines them as those whose lives have been deemed expendable, worthless, in the pursuit of foreign policy goals. Although he focused on British foreign policy, clearly the same applies to Japan, India, Brazil, and the UN.