First let me say it is a very great honour for me to have been asked to deliver the annual lecture which commemorates the life of one of Sri Lanka's finest sons, Lakshman Kadirgamar. Lakshman hosted my first visit to Sri Lanka in 1997 and I was immediately struck by his intelligence, his wisdom and his passion for his country.
Throughout my association and friendship with Lakshman, there was a constant theme; the fight against the cruel, heartless policy of politics through terrorism. Here was a man who was ahead of his time; who in the 1990s was, as foreign minister of Sri Lanka, committed to confronting the scourge of those who would kill innocent civilians to promote a political cause. This was well before the events of September 11 2001; but the evil of attacking innocent Americans through suicide bombing and assassination was no worse than attacking Sri Lankans in their own land with very similar techniques.
When Lakshman was murdered so callously in 2005 I wept for him; a great man who fought evil and whose memory and whose struggle must live on.
Sri Lanka was the first foreign country I ever visited. I was a very small child when my parents decided to take my sisters and me to Sri Lanka - or Ceylon as it was then called - for a two week holiday. We travelled here and back from Perth in Western Australia by sea.
|Downer delivering his key note speech. Pic by J. Weerasekera
Although I was only four years old at the time, I remember the impressive formality of the famous Galle Face Hotel, my sister's birthday party at a wonderful old hotel called Mount Lavinia, the fortune teller on the beach at Colombo who told my pregnant mother her next child would be a boy (she was a girl), and the intense excitement of a small child on seeing elephants and monkeys, both alien to Australia.
And I remember decidedly foreign people looking kindly on children.So Sri Lanka has a very special place in my heart.....
I want you to know that I think there is no political or religious cause which justifies terrorism. There is a false and foolish and evil saying that today's terrorist is tomorrow's freedom fighter. Today's terrorist is today's and tomorrow's murderer. No cause is so great that it justifies deliberately murdering innocent men, women and, in particular, children. As you know here in Sri Lanka, if those who use terror as a tool of politics think they can win ,they will continue the struggle. If they are persuaded they can never win, eventually they will lose enthusiasm for the cause. All decent people must vigorously oppose terrorism as a tool of politics.
But for a long time they will challenge conventional power with alternative tools and that represents a new challenge for the world.
In an era of such breathtaking change, statesmen need to review and re-evaluate constantly their own national institutions as well as the global institutions which form the backbone of what we call multilateral diplomacy.
At the heart of multilateral diplomacy is the institution I now work for — the United Nations.
Set up as the horror of the Second World War was drawing to a close, the United Nations was the child of idealists like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. They wanted to end war forever. New international laws would be written, the rights of individuals would be drawn up and promoted, the dignity of humankind would be underwritten by generous aid programmes and the peoples of the world would be able to determine their own destinies not have their destinies determined by other far distant rulers.
For the global public, all that seems today a far off dream when they contemplate the conflicts and poverty which seem to envelop the world.
Yet the truth is somewhat different. The vision of the founding fathers of the United Nations has at least partially been realised. Poverty as a proportion of humanity has been reduced significantly over the last half century; there are almost no inter-state conflicts - although there are many arguments and there are tolerable tensions between states — and the numbers killed in conflict are well below the numbers suffered in the 1950s. Progress is being made. Even the new challenges we face today such as terrorism, climate change and environmental degradation are being addressed and in some places addressed well.
This is not a case for being complacent about the work and work methods of the United Nations. Quite the contrary. The global community supports the ideals of the United Nations and it wills it to succeed. To succeed, the United Nations, like all institutions which are effective, needs to evolve with the times....
Reform of the Security Council, if it were to happen at all, would certainly not be some global panacea to all the world's problems. There is a lot more to do. The United Nations and the international community more broadly, has to build up the legal capacity to intervene in the interests of humanity when people are suffering from genocide and mass murder. We cannot just sit by again and watch on our TV screens people being massacred as they were in the Balkans or Rwanda. I don't go to the movies very often but I did see a film called Hotel Rwanda about UN insouciance as 800,000 people were murdered.
In my time as foreign minister of Australia there was one dramatic occasion when we were able to get UN authorisation to intervene militarily to save human lives; that was East Timor. When violence erupted in East Timor in early September 1999 , Australia and others begged the Indonesian President to allow a UN authorised peacekeeping force to intervene to restore order. We assembled the military means to do the job and then mounted a massive diplomatic campaign to get approval to do the job.
Simultaneously, we begged the five permanent members of the Security Council to authorise the peacekeeping force. Some, like Britain, were immediately supportive. The United States gradually came onside but China and Russia would not support any authorisation of a peacekeeping force without the ready agreement of the Indonesians. The Indonesian President did eventually agree, the peacekeeping force was authorised by the Security Council and we were able to stop the suffering of the East Timorese people.
In the same year, the Western powers wanted to intervene militarily to stop the murder which was taking place in Kosovo. Night after night Western television viewers were subjected to scenes of violence and brutality in central Europe. The Western public was demanding action to stop it.
The Russians would not agree to a Security Council resolution authorising NATO — predominantly the US and the UK — to send military forces to stop the violence.
In the age of instant media coverage of any crisis anywhere on earth, this put Western democracies in a difficult position. They could stick to the letter of international law and let the Kosovars suffer and face the wrath of their own electorates. Or they could, in effect, flout international law, intervene and win the applause of grateful voters.
In the end, as you know, they followed the instincts of their electorates and there were no legal consequences. Thousands of lives were saved but, technically, international law was flouted. This episode weakened the authority and credibility of the UN because, as was so often the case in the past, the UN would not act to stop the killing.
If the UN is ever to become the true guardian of international peace and security, then the members of its Security Council will have to become more willing to authorise action to stop excessive violence. It was done, albeit a little slowly, in the case of East Timor. And when it wasn't done in Kosovo, the UN was by-passed.
The UN is built on the foundations of national sovereignty. For many member states, national sovereignty is an absolute. Yet if the UN is to become truly effective, its members will have to recognise that in certain circumstances humanity is more important than sovereignty.
This has, in part, been already accepted by the adoption by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005 of the doctrine of "responsibility to protect". At the heart of this doctrine is a simple proposition. All nations have national, sovereign rights but those rights bring with them responsibilities; responsibilities to look after their citizens' welfare not murder them. Under the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, in certain egregious situations the international community can justify the transgression of a nation's sovereignty. This is an important step forward but the ultimate test will come when the Security Council is required to take a real life decision, not just endorse a general principle.
And it still doesn't answer the question of whether uninvited intervention without UN authorisation is ever justified. In some circumstances I think it is. Certain specific criteria have to be met, though. First, the situation has to be so extreme that a large number of lives would be lost without intervention. Secondly, those contemplating intervention should only do so if they are satisfied intervention, including military intervention, would make matters better, not worse. That is an important consideration. It is possible the presence of foreign troops, for example, could exacerbate not improve a situation.
Intervention need not, of course, be military. Diplomatic intervention can be effective and appropriate. Given its relative neutrality, the UN is ideally placed to play this role but individual countries and regional organisations can also be effective. SADC and in particular South Africa have directly intervened diplomatically in trying to solve the internal political crisis in Zimbabwe. They have been relatively successful, at least in recent times. You yourselves have seen Norway trying to resolve your own internal problems, although so far less successfully.
My overall point is this. We live in an age of mass communications where the public, wherever they are, watch unfolding dramas and catastrophes on their television sets night after night. When they see horrific violence such as we saw in the Balkans right in front of their noses, they demand action. Fifty or more years ago they would have been unaware of all but the most major of events. This change in the dynamic of public perceptions has to be dealt with. The new doctrine of responsibility to protect is as much born out of the information and communications revolution as it is a response to natural compassion for human suffering.
Some in Sri Lanka may view the doctrine of responsibility to protect with suspicion. Is this just an excuse for uninvited international intervention in the conflict between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE? My answer to that is twofold. First, although the violence is disturbing it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be put in the same category as the mass killings and ethnic cleansing of the Balkans during the 1990s. The level of violence doesn't meet the benchmark needed to justify dramatic international action.
Secondly, uncalled for intervention is not necessarily going to make matters better. This is the important second condition for intervention. Mediators may be able to help but it would be a very special person who could come in from the outside world and fix your problems.
Reform of the Security Council and the evolution of the responsibility to protect are important changes needed to make the UN more effective.....
Now for some of you these issues must sound a little esoteric. My point is, they are not. They are central to the United Nations being able to live up to the expectations of the global community particularly in the task of trying to resolve conflicts and stop emerging conflicts. Lakshman Kadirgamar would have liked to see the UN take on the issue of terrorism more vigorously than it has. After all, the UN cannot even agree on a definition of terrorism. But we should not despair. We should, all of us as an international community, work to build better institutions to make our world a safer and more prosperous place.