Eighth Neelam Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture
International Centre for Ethnic Studies
29 July 2007
()Today more than ever, on this eighth anniversary of his assassination, Sri Lankans and those in the wider international community need to remember and be re-inspired by Neelan Tiruchelvams life and achievements. While we can no longer benefit directly from his remarkable intelligence and learning, his boundless energy, his political commitment, and his optimism, we do still have his spirit living among us in the ideas and institutions he gave us, and in the example he set for us of an engaged intellectual and a principled politician.
()In my travels since 2005, I have become fairly accustomed to hearing suggestions from the representatives of a number of countries, not least in Asia and not excluding diplomats from Sri Lanka that while they had not been prepared to break consensus and oppose R2P language outright in 2005, they had been less than pleased to see its inclusion in the World Summit Outcome Document. R2P, I have been told more often than I like to recall, is simply another name for humanitarian intervention, providing a means for powerful countries, and in particular the West, to intervene in the internal affairs of smaller countries. But I have to say that, even having been immunized to this extent, I was more than a little taken back when the head of the Crisis Group office in New York reported to me a conversation two weeks ago, in which the head of mission of a major country in the Arab-Islamic world said to him: he concept of the responsibility to protect does not exist except in the minds of Western imperialists.
What has gone wrong here? Why is there so much continuing resistance to a principle which has seemed to so many others to be an important breakthrough, capable of resolving an age old debate in a practical and principled way? Is there anything that we of a cosmopolitan mindset to pick up my earlier reference to Neelan Tiruchelvams extraordinarily decent, civilized and balanced approach to these kinds of issues can possibly do to get this debate back on the rails and generate the kind of response that this haunting issue of preventing genocide and mass atrocity crimes demands?
()This leads me to ask finally as I guess a number of you in this audience will have already been asking yourselves, and are about to ask me what has all this to with Sri Lanka, here and now? Is this horrible, apparently intractable conflict that took Neelan Tiruchelvams life, and has taken the lives of so many scores of thousands of others properly described as an R2P situation? And if so, what follows from that? Whose responsibility is it to do what?
Since the resumption of hostilities last summer, both the government and the LTTE have been careful to keep their military actions, and their terror and counter-insurgency operations, within certain limits. While more than 4,500 have been killed over the last 20 months, and both government and LTTE forces have repeatedly violated international humanitarian law, the recent violence has not crossed the boundary into mass atrocity or obvious genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity. The violence has been contained just this side of full-scale disaster and internationally-recognized catastrophe.
()All this makes it hard to argue that Sri Lanka is anything but an R2P situation. It may not be one where large scale atrocity crimes Cambodia-style, Rwanda-style, Srebrenica-style, Kosovo-style are occurring right now, or immediately about to occur, but it is certainly a situation which is capable of deteriorating to that extent. So it is an R2P situation which demands preventive action, by the Sri Lankan government itself, but with the help and support of the wider international community, to ensure that further deterioration does not occur.
()I hope it will be apparent from what I have said about the R2P principle, including how it might be applied to the present traumatic situation here in Sri Lanka, that this is a complex, multi-dimensional concept, which is genuinely aimed at helping countries find their way, with international support, through apparently intractable internal situation and that it is simply grotesque to describe it as a tool of Western imperialists. ()
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