War crimes allegations and the ‘international’ Crisis Group

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The latest war crimes report on Sri Lanka has come from the relatively new political formation that calls itself the “International Crisis Group.” The ICG first came into Sri Lanka’s media spotlight in 2007 when its president Gareth Evans, a former Foreign Minister of Australia, delivered the annual Neelan Tiruchelvam memorial lecture in Colombo.

The ICG’s war crimes allegations one year after the war’s end, and its demands for an “international inquiry,” are generating as much controversy as its advocacy of the doctrine of “R2P” (“Responsibility to Protect”) did at that time. Evans then wanted the Sri Lankan government to call off its military action against the LTTE, arguing that the Tamil Tigers could not be defeated militarily and predicting an imminent genocidal bloodbath that, according to the ICG, could justify unilateral foreign intervention (not excluding the possibility of coercive military action) to prevent it from happening. The argument was that Sri Lanka was a situation “ripe for R2P.”

Perhaps Evans would have liked events that unfolded to have vindicated his position and brought about international recognition of his organization and its pet theory, and to go down in history for changing the course of international relations forever. Maybe Sri Lanka appeared to be the ideal ‘test case’ to create a precedent to this end. But contrary to Evans’s prediction, the Tigers WERE defeated militarily and nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians were rescued by the Sri Lankan forces from the clutches of a terrorist group that was using them as a human shield.

A quick look at the ICG’s website and its orientation in international affairs would seem to show that External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, who is on a visit to the US, is quite right to question this organization’s moral authority to prescribe a course of action for Sri Lanka, beset with challenges as this country is at present. It would appear that the ICG is less interested in learning from its analytical blunders than in pushing ahead with its agenda. That agenda appears to be, from available information, to assert the right of certain Western powers to intervene, diplomatically at first, but militarily also if necessary, in situations that they (the self-appointed Western powers) decide upon, in order to “prevent conflict worldwide.”

If the “R2P” doctrine advocated by the ICG had been floating around some years ago, it is interesting to speculate whether the former US President Bush would have invoked it to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. After all the “Responsibility to Protect the People of Iraq” would have sounded so much nobler than the rationale of “Going around in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction!”

The ICG’s interpretation of the word “international” is highly problematic to start with. For all practical purposes, the word “international” (as in “International Community”) for the ICG seems to mean “U.S. and Western Europe.” By some strange oversight, the Majority World has been left out of the International Community when it comes to deciding who intervenes in a conflict situation, when, in what part of the world, why, and in what manner. It seems to go without saying for the ICG that the “West knows Best.” Perhaps this should not be surprising since most of ICG’s funding (54% according to its website) comes from western governments, the rest being from private institutions and individuals.

While the ICG’s website has reports for a number of developing countries and regions (in Africa, Central Asia, North East Asia, South Asia, as well as Iran and the Gulf, the Balkans, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon etc, etc) that advise them on how they can better conduct their affairs, there are no reports for the US or countries of Western Europe. The concerns about human rights violations also seem to be highlighted selectively. For instance the most recent report on Afghanistan dated May 12 2010. never bothers to question the helpfulness (from Afghanistan’s point of view) of the presence of US-led NATO forces there in the first place. There is no mention at all about the 2,400 civilian deaths that occurred in 2009. The ICG’s most recent report on Iraq, dated February 25.2010, has no hint of the illegality of the 2003 US-led invasion, that was not sanctioned by the UN. Again there is no mention at all about civilian casualties.

It would appear that the ICG’s concerns with regard to the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are mainly about how best the foreign forces in those parts can “tidy up their act” and become more efficient in “bringing about stability,” than about human rights or possible war crimes. Regarding the issue of ‘stability,’ the report on Afghanistan says “lack of consensus between Kabul, Washington and Brussels has hobbled the Afghan military’s capacity to respond effectively to threats confronting the state.” It would seem to follow from this that the ICG attributes some importance to the stability of the ‘nation state’ as a unit in the international system. But here again its “concern” is selective. While the ICG is apparently concerned about threats posed by the Taliban to the Afghan state, this concern does not seem to extend to the Sri Lankan state, whose stability was under threat from the world’s deadliest terrorist organization, the LTTE, for three decades.

The report on Iraq refers to the instability of the pre-election situation and the responsibilities of the international community, which the ICG defines as “primarily the US, EU and UN.” (does this imply that the U.S and E.U. lie outside the U.N.?) The ICG’s odd definitions of the international community, both explicit and implicit, give rise to questions as to how “international” the organization itself is. They also lead to some skepticism about the image it seeks to project of itself, as some sort of “universal do-gooder.” Wouldn’t the ICG have spared people a lot of confusion if it had dropped the “international” bit in its title, and instead given some hint of its agenda by calling itself the “Western Alliance for Bullying Small States,” or the “Neo-imperialist Project for Policing the Third World,” or some such thing?

The writer is a senior freelance journalist

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