26 Apr 2011

Blame Russia and China for Sri Lanka failure, not UN’s Ban’

Ban Ki-Moon has come under attack for failing to push for a war crimes probe in Sri Lanka. But a former UN Deputy Secretary-General tells Channel 4 News Ban is powerless to defy Russia and China.

A former senior UN official has defended Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon after critics accused the UN chief of failing to take on China and Russia in pushing for a war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka.

Ban said he lacks the authority to personally order an inquiry into allegations of mass killings of civilians in the final months of the island nation’s bloody civil war in 2009.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch say he could set up an international investigation without the backing of the UN security council.

Critics say Ban is reluctant to take on China and Russia – veto-wielding permament council members who are against a probe into the Sri Lankan conflict – as he intends to stand for re-election for the UN’s top job and needs their backing.

But Mark Malloch Brown, who was Kofi Annan’s deputy in 2006, told Channel 4 News Ban is in an almost impossible position as a “new cold war of ideas” puts Western liberals on a collision course with China and Russia on human rights.

Ban said he lacks the authority to personally order an inquiry into allegations of mass killings of civilians in the final months of the island nation's bloody civil war in 2009

A 200-page report commissioned by Ban concluded that up to 40,000 civilians may have died in the final act of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the Tamil Tiger rebels. The report accuses the government of widespread shelling including targeting field hospitals, as well as other violations of human rights.

“It’s clear that for any Secretary-General facing re-election, he is walking in a political minefield.” John J Metzler

Three months after the conflict, Channel 4 News broadcast footage apparently showing government troops summarily executing Tamils.

Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa has urged supporters to rally on May Day against which the report, which the government says is based on false accusations from human rights groups and pro-Tiger members of the Tamil diaspora.

Ban said an international investigation would need the co-operation of the Sri Lankan government – something it has already rejected – or a Security Council referral likely to be vetoed by China and Russia.

Last week Ban appeared to call for Russia to support his expected bid for a potential second term in the top UN post after the end of this year, telling President Dmitry Medvedev: “I’d like to really count on your strong support, leadership and guidance in continuing my work as Secretary-General.”

A spokesman for Ban later denied he was asking for personal support, saying: “What he was asking for was Russia’s support for the full range of United Nations work on major topics.”

The former South Korean foreign minister has not publicly declared his candidacy for the election, but diplomats say he has made his intentions to seek re-election clear in private, and the United States and other key Security Council members have given preliminary pledges of support for a second five-year term.

John J Metzler, a veteran UN correspondent and lecturer in Asian Studies at St John’s University in New York, told Channel 4 News: “I believe he clearly seeks re-election, and he’s certainly within his rights to do such.

“He must balance the interests of the five permanent members of the Security Council. He must tread very, very carefully when it comes to humanitarian issues.

“It’s clear that for any Secretary-General facing re-election, he is walking in a political minefield, especially with issues like human rights violations. Many of these kinds of governments are going to say: ‘We are a sovereign state. We didn’t invite you to come here.’

“Ban Ki Moon has been a very active and positive force in keeping humanitarian pipelines open in Haiti or Pakistan after the floods. When it comes to something as sharp and upfront as Sri Lanka or Darfur…then they back away and they become political and they become very, very cautious.”

“It’s hard for a Secretary-General to prevail when he is in the middle of a field with elephants trampling around.” Mark Malloch Brown

Mr Malloch Brown said the issue highlighted a “new cold war of ideas” with Western liberal democracies calling for greater respect for the rights of minorities clashing with powers like Russia and China, which reject greater international scrutiny an affront to national sovereignty.

He said: “It is too much of an apparent war crime to go uninvestigated. But if he doesn’t have the support of the international community and if the Sri Lankans continue to not just stonewall but to actively campaign against him in the UN it would be in practical terms almost impossible to complete any inquiry.

“He may have fallen a fence before human rights would have wanted him to fall, but this was not something he was ever going to be able to bring to fruition.

“Sri Lanka could give anyone a masterclass in using the powers of the UN to its own political advantage. It is brilliant at doing this and ruthless at doing this.

“This is an issue that is clearly dividing the new east and west. And Sri Lanka is in a sense from the point of view of the east more important than what is happening in the Arab world.

“There is a meeting of domestic intelligence chiefs, which the Russians host each year, and at the one after what happened in Sri Lanka to the Tamils, the Sri Lankan security guys were there, and they got a standing ovation.

“There was a view that the Sri Lankans had proved that there could be a military solution – that you don’t have to follow this Western defeatist notion, as they see it, that you always have to deal with these terrorists. The Russians obviously felt that in Chechnya there was a military solution too.

“So Ban is up against this really tough, ingrained opposition, which captures the fundamental dispute with human rights in the global community at the moment. It’s hard for a Secretary-General to prevail when he is in the middle of a field with elephants trampling around.”