Adrian Hamilton: This no time to despair of humanitarian intervention

All our pressure on Sri Lanka for a ceasefire failed to produce anything
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Sri Lankan government's victory over the Tamil Tigers has been total and totally ruthless. The civilian casualties of the last three months' assault alone probably amount to some 15,000. There's a million or so Tamil refugees now housed in camps, many of them likely to stay there for several years. A generation-old civil war has been ended with a brutality that would do credit to the Russians in Chechnya.

So much for all the clamour from the outside world for the Sri Lankan government to temper its final assault to save the civilians. The UN sent envoys, Gordon Brown's staff said that he had repeatedly called the President to urge moderation, President Obama came out and said it publicly. David Miliband and a EU delegation visited the island to get a ceasfire. And what was the result? Precisely nothing. Colombo went ahead regardless.

President Rajapaksa has his reasoning. To him this was a particularly nasty terrorist insurgency that had gone on far too long. Once the government had gained the military upper hand, it saw it not only as its right but its duty to end the conflict once and for all, whatever the casualties. Appeals for clemency from the outside were seen as stratagem to help the Tamil leadership escape by hiding behind civilians.

The answer, of course, is that, even in Sri Lankan terms, the bloodier the end, the more likely it is that anger and violence will fester in the next generation. In so far as the Tamil cause reflected a deep seated sense of oppression of a minority by a majority, the pursuit of total victory only stores up trouble for the future.

That in the final analysis is a matter for the Sri Lankans themselves, although the outside world has a right to a view and is perfectly entitled to express it. The really sobering thought that comes out of the Sri Lankan situation, however, is how little real influence the world at large, and the West in particular, has over countries even as dependent on outside trade, tourism and finance as Sri Lanka.

And it's not only there. If you consider virtually all the major troubles of the last few years around the globe – Darfur, Somalia, the Caucuses, Burma, Tibet and Zimbabwe – nowhere can it be said that outside pressure has had much effect. Aung San Suu Kyi has been put on trial for breaking the terms of her incarceration at home. The violence against civilians in Darfur continues. Somalia has descended to chaos.

The western world, it is true, has become disabused of the ideals of intervention after the experience of the invasion of Iraq. Not only did Iraq, and Afghanistan, show up all the difficulties of occupation by an alien force in a foreign country but it also demonstrated the limitations of the US, and still more the UK, in carrying out such ventures.

Nor, after the experience of Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea and Iran, is there much confidence in sanctions as a weapon to force policy reversal or regime change in other countries. If anything, all sanctions do is to reinforce the position of the authoritarian governments by increasing their power over diminished resources.

And yet, in despairing of the stick and losing faith in the carrot, the West is in danger of giving up altogether in its effort to influence events for the better around the world. That would be a tragedy, because direct intervention has proved so disastrous does not mean that you should give up caring.

Part of the problem lies in the extent to which international institutions were devalued under president Bush. The UN in particular has been deprived of either the political support or the means to act as an international police force or, more urgently, an international relief agency. At the same time, again under President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, outside intervention was presented in terms of a western assertion of moral right not merely part of a broad internal concern.

If we could build up the former and dispense with the latter, there is still a possibility that we might do some good in the world. Of course it is always possible that whatever the pressure or the inducements, the Sri Lankan government – just as the Burmese, Zimbabwean and North Korean administrations – would never have altered course.

But if we had concentrated on the humanitarian side of outside concern, if we had put our efforts behind the UN and not acted as a western force bent on telling Colombo what to do, and if we had put pressure more in the form of withdrawal of business than the threat of war crimes action, then we might have stood a better chance of mitigating the final onslaught on the Tamils.

It may have been futile in this case but it is the course we're going to have to follow if we're to get anywhere in the future.