The UN hacks off its own toes

Kath Noble, courtesy of the Island, 21 November 2012, where the title isThe UN’s plan for making white people feel better”

Last week I felt like I had been transported back in time. We were back in those awful first six months of 2009, when I was by turns horrified at the plight of the people caught up in the fighting in the Vanni and disgusted with the way in which the international community was responding.

Of course, we all wanted to stop the war. I hate violence. But as I argued then and continue to believe, at that point, the only way the war was going to stop was with the defeat of the LTTE. Prabhakaran would not give up on Eelam. He was going to continue his vicious campaign against the Sri Lankan state and all its communities until he was caught or killed. Our task, therefore, was to minimise the damage. We had to try to ensure that it was done with as little death and destruction as possible.

The UN has inadvertently confirmed this hypothesis. In the report of the Internal Review Panel into its actions in Sri Lanka in the final stages of the war, which was released by Ban Ki-Moon last week, it says that it had realised by the end of January that the LTTE was going to lose. And it did the right thing. It worked out a plan for a surrender.

This could have saved a lot of lives.

Some people are very keen to find out how many. The UN count, according to the quite reasonable criteria that they employed in what were very difficult circumstances, is 7,737. I think that even a tiny fraction of that number would have been too many.

The surrender plan was put to the LTTE at the beginning of February, but it was rejected. The LTTE had lost both Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu by then, but Prabhakaran would not relent. He rejected it again in April, even after having lost most of his senior commanders at the Battle of Anandapuram. He was trapped inside the No Fire Zone, but still he would not accept the inevitable.

Some people no doubt consider that heroic. But it was the biggest crime in the history of the conflict.

Prabhakaran wanted a massacre. His strategy was to create a humanitarian disaster so extraordinary that the international community would feel compelled to intervene. He must have known long before it dawned on the UN that he would not be able to hold out against the Sri Lankan forces. He was no idiot when it came to war.

He wasn’t so stupid when it came to international politics either.

I said at the time that the international community was not going to get involved in Sri Lanka. But many people thought otherwise.

The West had by then established a pattern of ‘humanitarian wars’. It had dropped enough bombs on Serbia in 1999 to make Slobodan Milosevic withdraw from Kosovo. Then in 2001 it had set about trying to wipe out the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in 2003 it had invaded Iraq and finished off Saddam Hussein. The attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the post-9/11 War on Terror, but they were sold to the Western public as struggles against governments that not only posed a danger to the rest of the world but also suppressed their own people. Those wars were still going on when Prabhakaran was holed up in the No Fire Zone, but they had already achieved regime change. And Kosovo was his dream come true. In 2008, it was declared an independent nation.

Western politicians had other motives for intervening, but they always talked about fighting to save the world from a repeat of Rwanda. Prabhakaran thought that Western forces might be persuaded to come to Sri Lanka too.

For this, somebody somewhere certainly deserves blame.

The UN contributed to the misconception, but the really guilty parties are, of course, those in the West who started these ‘humanitarian wars’.

It would be comforting to believe that we can always prevent killings if only we try hard enough. Nobody likes to feel powerless. However, in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Kosovo, ‘humanitarian wars’ killed more people than they saved. If Western forces had set foot in Sri Lanka, the result would have been exactly the same.

That is why when I said that the West would not intervene in Sri Lanka, I said it with relief. Rwanda was a very special case.

If the West had not abused the memory of Rwanda so often, Prabhakaran might have chosen a different tactic. He might have abandoned the idea of holding onto territory. Instead of retreating into ever smaller areas of land, dragging with him at gunpoint those 300,000 plus civilians, conscripting more and more of them with every passing day and sending them to the frontlines to die, while compelling the rest to cower in bunkers with too little to eat and limited medical supplies as his cadres fired from among them at the Sri Lankan forces, bringing down on their heads such a devastating rain of bullets and bombs, he might have gone back to the jungles and waged a guerrilla war. (Of course, he might still have done exactly the same thing, on the basis that there’s nothing like a massacre to mobilise future generations. He clearly didn’t care as much about human life as the rest of us do.)

The Internal Review Panel report criticises the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka for his lack of political understanding in dealing with the Sri Lankan state, but it fails to recognise that it still hasn’t answered the question of how to deal with Prabhakaran.Yet this was the million dollar question!

The UN knew that the LTTE was going to use civilians as a human shield in 2008. The report admits that the LTTE repeatedly tried to use the UN’s presence in Kilinochchi as protection for its activities, positioning its facilities next to UN offices despite agreements to the contrary. It also acknowledges that the UN had to leave behind its 17 national staff when it officially withdrew from the Vanni in September because the LTTE was holding their 86 dependants hostage. In 2008, the UN knew what an impossible situation the Sri Lankan forces were facing.

What could it have done better, then, in 2009? How about persuading David Miliband and all the other Western politicians who stuck their noses into Sri Lanka that the responsible course of action was to tell Prabhakaran that he had no option but to surrender? No, that isn’t even mentioned as a possibility.

The ‘master plan’ that the UN’s experts have come up with after six months of work makes exactly the same mistakes the international community did at the time. It ignores the LTTE.

Instead of making it clear to Prabhakaran that he was on his own, which at least might have encouraged him to think again, the Internal Review Panel report proposes that the UN should have increased its pressure on the Sri Lankan forces.

It argues that the UN should have publicised the casualty figures that it was gathering via sms and highlighted its belief that most of the deaths were occurring in shelling by the Sri Lankan forces. It says that the UN should have been more forceful in warning the Sri Lankan state against committing war crimes. This would have saved lives, the report claims. But how? No doubt people like Gordon Weiss would have felt better if they had done so. But what would it actually have changed? At the beginning of February, the UN was sure that about 1,000 civilians had been killed in a period of three weeks. This had increased by a little more than 1,500 in another four weeks to the beginning of March.

By this stage, as we surely all remember, there was already tremendous pressure on the Sri Lankan forces. The LTTE’s propaganda machine had its genocide bumper stickers out, and it was stage managing protests around the Western world.

In the next six weeks to late April, the UN’s body count had gone up by another 5,000. Of course I agree that this is appalling. But stopping people getting killed is not just a matter of being very upset about it.

Pressure is only a good thing if it is pushing in the right direction. What the international community did was to give the Sri Lankan forces every reason to think that the West was about to try to stop them ending a generation long conflict. I simply donsee how intensifying this effort could possibly have encouraged them to adopt a more careful approach. Logically, it could only have made them think that they had better hurry up and find Prabhakaran before he could be offered yet another chance to escape.

If we have to relive those miserable days, let us at least come up with some genuinely useful insights.

Kath Noble’s column may be accessed online at http://kathnoble.wordpr She may be contacted at

1 Comment

Filed under accountability, authoritarian regimes, Eelam, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, martyrdom, mass conscription, military strategy, news fabrication, NGOs, power politics, prabhakaran, propaganda, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, UN reports, world events & processes

One response to “The UN hacks off its own toes

  1. Not quite the style of writing i like to read but Kate Noble does make some valid points here.

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