Photograph: Justin Sloan
The United Nations failed to “prevent ethnic slaughter in places like Sri Lanka” said former US president Barack Obama in his memoir, ‘A Promised Land’, reflecting on his time at the White House.
“I read the U.N.’s 1945 founding charter and was struck by how its mission matched my mother’s optimism,” wrote Obama, reflecting on his early conversations as a child about the global body. “Needless to say, the U.N. hadn’t always lived up to these lofty intentions.”
“Like its ill-fated predecessor, the League of Nations, the organization was only as strong as its most powerful members allowed it to be,” he added. “Any significant action required consensus among the five permanent members of the Security Council—the United States, the Soviet Union (later Russia), the United Kingdom, France, and China—each possessing an absolute veto.”
“In the middle of the Cold War, the chances of reaching any consensus had been slim, which is why the U.N. had stood idle as Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary or U.S. planes dropped napalm on the Vietnamese countryside. Even after the Cold War, divisions within the Security Council continued to hamstring the U.N.’s ability to tackle problems. Its member states lacked either the means or the collective will to reconstruct failing states like Somalia, or prevent ethnic slaughter in places like Sri Lanka.”
The massacres in Sri Lanka took place during Obama’s first term as US president, as the Sri Lankan armed forces launched an offensive that killed tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. At the time, Obama came out on the White House lawn and called on the Sri Lankan government to cease the use of heavy weapons in the No Fire Zone. The government, led by the Rajapaksas, did not heed the call and continued with its offensive.
He called for “urgent action” and for the Sri Lankan government to “stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives” on May 13th 2009.
See extracts of his statement below.
“As some of you know, we have a humanitarian crisis that's taking place in Sri Lanka, and I've been increasingly saddened by the desperate news in recent days. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are trapped between the warring government forces and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka with no means of escape, little access to food, water, shelter and medicine. This has led to widespread suffering and the loss of hundreds if not thousands of lives.”
“Without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe. Now is the time, I believe, to put aside some of the political issues that are involved and to put the lives of the men and women and children who are innocently caught in the crossfire, to put them first.”
“I'm also calling on the Sri Lankan government to take several steps to alleviate this humanitarian crisis. First, the government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals, and the government should live up to its commitment to not use heavy weapons in the conflict zone.”
“Second, the government should give United Nations humanitarian teams access to the civilians who are trapped between the warring parties so that they can receive the immediate assistance necessary to save lives.”
“I don't believe that we can delay. Now is the time for all of us to work together to avert further humanitarian suffering.”
"We thank and welcome the categorical calls by President Barack Obama for the Sri Lankan Government to take toward alleviating the humanitarian crisis," said B Nadesan, the political head of the LTTE who was inside the final conflict zone at the time, in response. "The United Nations Organization and the Security Council has held back in their traditional humanitarian leadership role to take prudent measures and bring about a truce and safeguard Eelam Tamils. Now, the Eelam Tamils earnestly look forward to President Barack Obama to lead the humanitarian intervention."
Nadesan was executed by Sri Lankan security forces shortly afterwards, as he attempted to surrender, walking towards soldiers with a white flag as instructed.
Obama went on to note in his book that he “remained convinced that, for all its shortcomings, the U.N. served a vital function”.
“U.N. reports and findings could sometimes shame countries into better behavior and strengthen international norms,” he said. “Because of the U.N.’s work in mediation and peacekeeping, cease-fires had been brokered, conflicts had been averted, and lives had been saved.”
“Whenever I walked through the U.N. complex—my Secret Service detail brushing back the crowds of diplomats and staffers who typically milled along the wide, carpeted corridors for a handshake or a wave, their faces reflecting every shape and hue of the human family—I was reminded that inside were scores of men and women who pushed against boulders every day, trying to convince governments to fund vaccination programs and schools for poor children, rallying the world to stop a minority group from being slaughtered or young women from being trafficked. Men and women who anchored their lives to the same idea that had anchored my mother, an idea captured in a verse woven into a tapestry that hung in the great-domed General Assembly hall: Human beings are members of a whole In creation of one essence and soul.”