Jan Eliasson: Even the UN Security Council failed on the Sri Lankan issue

un    The United Nations (UN) says even the UN Security Council (UNSC) had failed on the Sri Lankan issue during the final stages of the war.

Following are extracts from a transcript of Press Conference by UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson at United Nations Headquarters on the Rights Up Front Action Plan, held in New York,on 19 December:

Deputy Secretary-General:  There is a connection between the two subjects today and I will mainly brief you on the Rights Up Front initiative, but perhaps I should pick up where Farhan ended.

Let me give you a little background then.  By the way, there is a two and a half page summary of the programme with the six points action plan, et cetera, that you will see, which in precise form describes what we aim to do.  But the background is, of course… while I could have a lecture here with you, but I won’t.  The background is the UN Charter; the background is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the background is what happened in Rwanda in 1994; what happened in Srebrenica in 1995; and the Summit document which I, as chair of the present General Assembly, gavelled 16 September 2005 where “responsibility to protect” was adopted.

Unfortunately, we have seen tens of thousands of people killed since Srebrenica and in Rwanda.  In several situations we have seen millions of people displaced because of atrocities or risks of mass atrocities since then.  And when the Secretary-General got the report from the Internal Review Panel on UN Action in Sri Lanka — where Charles Petrie was the main author of that report — he asked me to take this work forward with the intention of making a very serious effort to react more systematically when we see human rights violations that could risk turning into mass atrocities.

The elements — I would simplify it by saying it’s mainly three points.  One is to make human rights awareness and knowledge permeate the UN system.  You know the formula we took up and adopted in 2005 — there is no peace without development, there is no development without peace, so none of the above with the respect for human rights.  Well, if that is the case, then we have to also bring in that human rights dimension into both the work on peace and security and development.  So it’s a matter of training and mentoring and putting this into the lifeblood of our UN staff — the human rights dimension.

Going back again to basically the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and then putting it into the context of the relationship between peace, security, development and human rights.  That element has very much one dimension because if you analyse, as we have done, conflicts in the last 50 years or so, you will find to a shocking and surprising degree that they practically always start with human rights violations. 

Well, if human rights violations is the beginning of something that can turn into mass atrocities and lead up to major operations on our side — political or peacekeeping — then you ask yourself, why shouldn’t we then be more firm and react at that stage when the human rights violations risk becoming mass atrocities?   

The second element is, of course, protection of civilians — we are talking about right now.  Actually, protection of civilians becomes an issue when we fail to take the early warning signals on human rights as seriously as we should.  Because, if we do not do it, then it turns out that you need protection of civilians when the fighting goes on and when the atrocities take place.  So it’s actually the same job but on a later stage.  And we can not promise, of course, that we will be able to stop all conflicts at that early stage.

The third element is an internal issue which has to do with how we are organized and how are we prepared to deal with situations when they turn into the risk of becoming mass atrocities.  Well then you have to make sure that we have the reporting, that we have the type of people who can do the work on the ground on human rights and on the political side.  And that, we came to the conclusion, as you may recall in the IRP [Internal Review Panel] Report on Sri Lanka, that we had a systemic failure of the UN system as a whole and that we need to show greater flexibility and come up with speedier action.  And that is the third element.

Question:  I wanted to be sure to ask, to try to figure out what the UN is actually learning from its systemic failure in Sri Lanka.  I have heard Ivan Šimonović say that the UN stayed silent in order to keep access in the country, but in fact in late 2008 the UN left Kilinochchi and other parts of the north, essentially having no presence there.  So, I am wondering:  why, if you can say more, why did the UN stay silent, and even today, I mean this month, there was a protest in Trincomalee, there was a crackdown by the Government — and I am wondering was it raised with Gotabaya Rajapaksa when you met with him?  What is the ongoing role of the UN in Sri Lanka?

And on South Sudan, can you confirm that the UN has asked Uganda to mediate between the two sides?  They have given a readout of a call, and I wondered if the UN has reached out to Riek Machar, and if not, is the UN too close to the Government in South Sudan to reach out to its opponents?  Thank you.

Deputy Secretary-General:  When it comes to what happened in the last phase of the horrible conflict in Sri Lanka in 2009, I want to refer to reports that were made at that time and to Charles Petrie’s report.  When he talked about systemic failure, he meant not only the Secretariat, but also Member States.  There was a responsibility not least from the Security Council’s side.  And we decided to accept those observations on the failures; I will not go further into that because we saw as our major task to take this very seriously and to take it one step further and draw lessons from Sri Lanka, but also Rwanda reports, military reports of the past, and say “how can we be more concrete?” and really, make a serious attempt to make sure that we send a message to Member States that we now have to increase the level of attention on situations that will arise in the future, out of this frustration of saying “never again”.  Just the fact that you say “never again” and have done so a number of times shows that we have failed, we continue to fail.  So actually, this is a pretty forward-looking… we haven’t spent more time than the earlier inquiries on what happened in Sri Lanka.  We have said we accept those reports and then: “what can we do to make sure that we do it better if it happens again?”

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