June 6, 2009

The UN Challenge

Ban Ki-moon told the UN Security Council on Friday, “Whenever and wherever there are credible allegations for the violations of international humanitarian law there should be a proper investigation. I'd like to ask the Sri Lankan government to recognize the international call for accountability and full transparency.”

Ban is taking a risk, albeit a necessary one, by calling for an investigation in Colombo. Evidence of war crimes is likely to be found on both sides. The Tamil resistance shouldn't be prosecuted if the government is exonerated, for this inequality would negatively contribute to reconstruction and reconciliation. Ban will also run into a wall with the Sri Lankan government.

During a speech in May, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa declared, "It is my duty to protect the people of this country. I don't need lectures from Western representatives."

Rajapaksa further demonstrated how interconnected the geopolitical world is: "We have seen how Afghanistan is bombed. Those who come to preach to us [have] seen how Afghanistan is bombed. It must be made clear that before accusing others, you must have the strength to know what you do yourself."

Doubtful that America predicted it would lose credibility in Sri Lanka because of Afghanistan, but that’s another story.

Ban Ki-moon will be lucky to get an investigation team into the country, let alone conclude its inspection, analyze the results and punish those found guilty. Sri Lanka’s response to war crimes allegations is common though; Israel recently gave Ban the same cold shoulder by denying visas and entry to South African judge Robert Goldstone. He and his 15 member UN/HRW investigation were forced to enter Gaza through Egypt. Israel says it won't cooperate in any way, just like Sri Lanka.

Since Sri Lanka and Israel already mirror each other, Ban should demand the same from Israel as he is from Sri Lanka - “accountability and full transparency.” Doing so would create a great challenge for the UN. As a result, the world could witness a test in comparative geopolitics. Not comparative in the traditional sense, but the comparison of how two states are treated by the global community.

The future will bring its judgments, innocent or guilty. What is known right now is that Israel has an aura of protection that Sri Lanka doesn't. While American officials attempted to stall an aid package to Colombo, Israel faced no consequences for its heavy-handed tactics in Gaza and Lebanon, where war crimes allegations still echo. Scrutinized by many Muslim states, the perception of a double standard damages Israel, America, and the UN.

Earlier this week, Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told the Jakarta Post, "We are not trying to compare the situation in Sri Lanka and that of Gaza. But we see the calls for rights probe are political. Why did they reject or respond unenthusiastically to the initiation of rights violations investigations into Israel's assault on Gaza."

Faizasyah wondered what many Muslims are already thinking.

Ban would thus be wise to pursue each investigation with equal vigor and judge the results with equal justice. Israel and Sri Lanka are equal states, the Palestinians and Tamils equal people. No more covering up evidence; Ban should make a full release of the UN’s findings in Gaza and Sri Lanka.

But ultimately Ban’s dilemma may end up on President Obama's desk, being a big UN supporter himself, and he could turn it into advantage or disadvantage. His administration has sent its first message by pushing for an investigation in Sri Lanka while staying silent on Gaza. His speech in Cairo was greeted with the same reaction in every Muslim state - nice words, now back them up. War crimes could be his first real test.

Every strategy Obama discussed in his speech will take time to unfold. Israel and Palestine won't be solved for years, neither will Afghanistan, Iran is years from nuclear weapons, Africa will keep violently churning. Meanwhile Goldstone's report on Gaza comes in August and offers a clear view of the UN and America's notion of justice.

If a report on Sri Lanka follows soon after, the UN, specifically America, must ensure that equal treatment is given to both war zones. In the aftermath of his speech, President Obama can't afford to marginalize the Palestinians any more than they already are.

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