Ban Ki Moon’s face at a July protests in Colombo
The UN is like a latter day Vatican. Supposedly moral and impartial, but actual a political player with a standing army. They are inherently political. This is not a bad thing, it just means that they have to take sides. For a while they’ve been known for doing nothing (Darfur, Rwanda). Only more recently have they become known for doing ‘something’ (Libya, Cote de Ivoire). Why have they acted there, and why not in a case like Sri Lanka?
International politics isn’t pure right and wrong. When you make a choice you inevitably have to take sides. In Libya and Cote de Ivoire they had a visible and legitimate side to take. In Sri Lanka they didn’t.
I read this article in The Atlantic saying “The world failed to stop the government’s killing of thousands of civilians in the civil war that ended in 2009, but a new UN report could finally bring a reckoning”. The article is also telling in that it has a typo: “according to Alan Keenan, the International Crisis Group’s Sri Lanka.” The article doesn’t include a single Sri Lankan source, relying instead on diaspora Tamils and western analysts. Which is the problem. Those are not sides you can actually take. They have no legitimacy or even presence on the ground.
NATO airstrikes under a UN resolution take the side of Libyan Rebels. UN troops in Cote de Ivoire supported a legitimately elected President. Those were sides they could take that had popular support and thus they could act.
If the UN had intervened in Sri Lanka they would involuntarily taken the side of the LTTE. I know they don’t really support the LTTE, but that’s who would benefit. At that point the LTTE didn’t really have popular support in the north (they were shooting people trying to escape) and they certainly didn’t have it in the south. That was not a side the UN could take.
If there had been a popular Tamil uprising in the north, that would be another story. But there wasn’t. There was only LTTE dictatorship of a cause. If this had happened to popular protestors the UN could have done something, because there would have been a side to support. The LTTE, however, used those people as cannon fodder and on being sole representative. Even in protests and London, they insisted that people fly the LTTE flag. Whatever numbers they mustered, it didn’t help. No international organization could take their side and they certainly weren’t building support among anyone in the south.
So basically, that’s one reason the UN couldn’t and shouldn’t have intervened in the end of Sri Lanka’s war. Sinhala nationalists rely too much on the argument, but it is a fact that a lot of this was the LTTE’s fault. They slowly frittered away the legitimacy of any Tamil cause to the point that no one could take their side.
At the end of the day the UN is not an abstract moral entity and it doesn’t have abstract powers. It can only really intervene if there’s a side it can take, be it the Libyan rebels or Alassane Ouattara. It can only help those that help themselves. The LTTE and the Prabhakaran were not sides anyone could take. Indeed, they were a side that the UN should have probably stood more firmly against.