Edward Mortimer, CMG, public domain, UN Photos

Interview with Edward Mortimer, Chair of the Sri Lanka Campaign Advisory Council

May 30, 2010 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice is launching a series of interviews to mark the first anniversary of the end of nearly three decades of armed conflict in the country. We wish to pay tribute to the countless victims who have suffered as a result of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war, and to draw attention to the serious ongoing humanitarian and human rights crises.

To kick off the series, we have interviewed Edward Mortimer, Senior Vice-President and Chief Programme Officer at the Salzburg Global Seminar and Chair of the Sri Lanka Campaign Advisory Council.

From 1998 to 2006 Edward served as chief speechwriter and (from 2001) as director of communications to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He has spent much of his career as a journalist, first with The Times of London, where he developed an expertise in Middle East affairs, and later with the Financial Times, where from 1987 to 1998 he was the main commentator and columnist on foreign affairs.

Speaking personally, why did you choose to get involved with the Sri Lanka Campaign?

I was contacted last year by an old friend who said he feared that something like genocide was happening in Sri Lanka. Having been involved in efforts to rebuild the UN’s reputation after the disasters of Rwanda and Srebrenica, I felt I had to at least look into the situation – especially as my good friend and former colleague Lakhdar Brahimi had publicly warned of “a slaughter waiting to happen.”

I got the strong feeling that the international community was doing much less than it could, partly because the media were being excluded and censored, but also because many governments had decided that the Tamil Tigers – a very unpleasant and violent insurgency group – had to be eradicated, and were not disposed to be squeamish about the casualties involved.

In other words, they went along with the collective punishment of the entire Tamil population for the crimes of the LTTE, in flagrant violation of all the humanitarian and human rights principles to which they had subscribed.

There are already many human rights groups and other NGOs working on Sri Lanka. Why did you feel that a new organisation was needed?

There are several excellent groups which deal with Sri Lanka in the context of a global mission. I really want to congratulate Amnesty International, for example, on the work it has done on Sri Lanka over many, many years, and also the International Crisis Group on its excellent recent report.

But, as with other conflicts that are convenient for the international community to forget or ignore – Burma, Sudan, Tibet – these groups find it helpful to have a dedicated voice on Sri Lanka, day in day out. Of course, there are also groups trying to do behind-the-scenes peace-building, and that too can be very important. But all my experience – as a journalist and having worked at the UN – is that this quiet diplomacy works best when there is pressure on the parties.

In Sri Lanka, there is no real pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) – the victors – because they have wiped out or jailed their opponents. So, someone has to play the hard cop. We set up the Sri Lanka Campaign to have this specialist role – putting pressure on those who can put pressure on GoSL but also collaborating closely with those already working on the country in the hope that we can add value.

Given the brutality of the past thirty years, and the ruthless conduct of both the LTTE and successive Sri Lankan governments, shouldn’t we be celebrating the country’s first year without armed conflict?

One year on, the situation remains desperate for thousands of people. Over 80,000 civilians are still languishing in camps, and many of those who have ‘returned home’ came back to rubble and poverty, with little hope for the future, not to mention food and basic services.

The bombing may have stopped, but attacks on independent journalists and human rights defenders haven’t. Collective punishment and the structural violence experienced by Tamils in the north and east of the country haven’t stopped.

And despite its claims and the commissions it has announced, the GoSL has done nothing tangible to bring about justice for victims.

How would you assess the UN’s record in Sri Lanka?

After the tragedies of Rwanda and Srebrenica, there was a lot of soul-searching within the UN, not least by Kofi Annan, who was head of UN peacekeeping before he was appointed Secretary-General. He commissioned an independent inquiry into the UN’s conduct in Rwanda, chaired by a former prime minister of Sweden, which was very tough on the UN Secretariat. In addition, Annan himself produced, at the request of the General Assembly, a very honest report on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, which acknowledged that the UN’s determination to be impartial had been distorted into a culture of neutralism and passivity and failure to confront the most blatant and systematic violations of human rights.

He tried to remedy these failings both by commissioning the Brahimi Report (2000), which provided for more “robust” UN peacekeeping and said the Secretariat should “tell the Security Council what it needs to know, not what it wants to hear”, and by warning the Security Council that it must be willing to confront gross violations such as happened in Rwanda and Kosovo, or else others would usurp its authority (Ditchley Foundation Lecture), 1998 and address to the General Assembly, September 1999).

This led to the formulation of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, eventually adopted by UN Member States at the World Summit in 2005, in whose Outcome Document states recognised their individual responsibility to protect their peoples against genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and their collective responsibility to take action, through the Security Council, when any state manifestly failed to protect its own peoples against those crimes.

But the UN’s record in Darfur, in Zimbabwe and in Sri Lanka does, I fear, leave one wondering how serious the world’s leaders were when they adopted that document. In Sri Lanka in 2009 particularly, despite early calls from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Secretary-General himself, the UN failed to move either the GoSL or the international community to prevent the massive bloodshed during the final stages of the war against the LTTE.

The Security Council was actually holding sessions on civilians in armed conflict in November 2009 and January 2010 when the situation in Sri Lanka was rapidly deteriorating, but although the country was mentioned, it never made it on to the Council’s actual agenda, as China and Russia argued that it was a domestic affair.

The Human Rights Council’s treatment of Sri Lanka was even more appalling – instead of condemning the flagrant disregard for humanitarian and human rights law, it ended up congratulating the GoSL on its despicable behaviour. Many members of the Human Council – from the global ‘north’ and ‘south’ alike – said they were influenced by the GoSL’s promise to set up a credible domestic mechanism to establish accountability. One year later this promise has clearly not been kept, and they should be asked to look into the matter again.

The two councils are, of course, political bodies made up of states so they must take the blame for this, but top UN officials certainly could have done more in applying moral pressure.

By participating in stage-managed visits to ‘show’ camps and providing aid to GoSL-run projects, the UN has been accused of propping up the internment camps and legitimising the government’s actions. While UN agencies have been doing vital work on the ground – in very difficult circumstances – the Secretariat should have intensified efforts to press for justice and reconciliation. The Secretariat also did not adequately defend UN staff – those working on the ground who faced intimidation, attacks and expulsion, as well as special rapporteurs and representatives, like Philip Alston and Radhika Coomaraswamy, who have reaped harsh censure for venturing criticism.

You have always been a champion of the ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P). You could say that the recent events in Sri Lanka, and the failure of the international community to respond to them, have made a mockery of that whole project. Is R2P dead and buried now?

Let’s remember what R2P is – the responsibility of each sovereign state to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, and the responsibility of all states collectively to take action if a state is unable or unwilling to do so. And let’s remember why states agreed to it – the shame of having allowed Rwanda and Srebrenica to happen. Yes, Sri Lanka has damaged it. So have Western powers, and Russia, by interpreting it speciously and selectively in an attempt to justify their actions in Iraq and Georgia, while failing to protect the Palestinian population in Gaza.

But this should not surprise us. In history, and perhaps especially in international law, it is all too often at best one-and-a-half steps forward, and one step back. But that’s no excuse for giving up. We cannot resign ourselves – and I believe the people of the world will not resign themselves – to letting Rwanda, Darfur and Sri Lanka remain the norm of international behaviour.

So, what can be done to make the international community care more about what has happened and is happening in Sri Lanka?

There is a lot more that could be done, but we need to work differently. Currently the Sri Lankan government is portraying itself as the plucky non-aligned, developing country that is standing up to the West and/or the North – the imperialists and neo-colonialists. Sadly, this works well today in the theatre of the UN, and of international diplomacy. But many of the countries whose governments have been supporting Sri Lanka are democracies – India, Brazil, South Africa and many smaller countries in the global South. So, it’s to public opinion and civil society in those countries that we need to take the argument. Do any of these countries have a national debate before they vote at the UN, or before they supply aid and investment to Sri Lanka? They should do, and the peoples of those countries should insist on it.

What more could the UN and the international community do?

There should be a proper international inquiry into war crimes committed by both sides. And countries such as the US should not be so quick to welcome the GoSL’s ‘Commission into Lessons Learnt’. But also, and separately, the Secretary-General should appoint a credible, full-time special envoy, to handle the whole range of issues in Sri Lanka with which the UN is, or should be, concerned.

Perhaps the most urgent of these is the need to secure immediate and regular access for the ICRC to the 10,000 or so people still being held – without charge, let alone trial – on suspicion of being combatants, members or collaborators of the LTTE. The lack of access to these people, combined with Sri Lanka’s long history of torture and other abuses, can only make one fear the worst. It is a classic human rights issue and as such should be a very high priority for the UN. It’s also very important that international and local NGOs be allowed to provide the services that survivors need, including psychosocial support – which the Sri Lankan government has cruelly prevented up to now.

Sri Lanka is a test case for the international community. The failure to prevent what has happened there, and to respond adequately once it did happen, casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of the current international human rights and humanitarian regimes. Even worse, we are told that other countries (such as Burma and Thailand) have indicated they might wish to adopt the ‘Sri Lanka option’ i.e., unrestrained military action with scant regard for civilian life as a means to deal with insurgencies and other violent groups. All those with moral authority, particularly in Asia and other parts of the developing world, should take a firm stand NOW against this insidious doctrine.

And finally, what can we as concerned members of the public do?

Sign the Sri Lanka Campaign petition, calling on the UN Secretary-General to act. Ban Ki-moon has thus far been too timid on Sri Lanka and he is much more likely to act if he knows he has support from around the world. So, it’s important that it does come from around the world, not just from the Tamil diaspora in a few countries whom the GoSL can easily dismiss, however unfairly, as mouthpieces or paymasters of the LTTE.

That doesn’t mean letting national governments off the hook. Some are very important: the US, the EU countries, India and Japan, but also countries like Brazil and South Africa that have hitherto supported the Sri Lankan government. So, ask your friends in those countries to sign up too.

And if you are thinking of going on holiday to Sri Lanka, ask yourself: can you really relax and enjoy yourself in a country, even a “tropical paradise island”, where so many people are so cruelly treated? If the answer is that you are not going just to relax but because you want to learn more about the country and its people, fine – but in that case do try to help the local actors who are working with the survivors.

Above all, don’t play the game of denial. Talk about the issue to anyone and everyone, especially Sri Lankans. Those who have suffered will be deeply touched that you care. And those who are in denial will be challenged, which is all to the good. There are extremist cultural, religious and political attitudes in Sri Lanka which need to be challenged. Now, surely, is the time for Sri Lanka to do away with the racism and oppression that have driven the violence for so long.

Oppression and brutality don’t cease to be wrong just because oppressors and victims have the same skin colour. They should be opposed in all cases, and I cannot accept that saying so makes you a “Western imperialist”. It’s simply a matter of refusing to stand by and watch other people being treated in a way you couldn’t bear to be treated yourself.