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The politics of humanity and the reality of aid

Sri Lanka

Former humanitarian chief John Holmes has defended the UN’s highly controversial record during the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

In his newly published memoirs, The Politics of Humanity, Holmes casts doubt on whether there was ever any real possibility of securing an alternative outcome to the one in which an estimated 40,000 civilians died, many of them anonymously in the carnage of the final days of the 26-year conflict.

The scale of atrocities committed against civilians in Sri Lanka presented the first major test of the so-called ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P) doctrine – one which coincided with Holmes’ watch as the UN’s most senior official for humanitarian affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator.

The R2P doctrine emerged out of the pervasive ‘never again’ sentiment that followed the atrocities in Rwanda and Srebrenica when the UN Security Council passed the first resolutions on the protection of civilians in war.

Since then, UN protection roles have proliferated; safeguarding civilians has become central to UN peacekeeping mandates, and in 2005 every single UN member state endorsed a collective responsibility to protect the lives of civilians at risk of atrocities.

John Holmes is interviewed
Talal Al-Haj interviews John Holmes at the U.N in 2009 TA230773651, under a CC License

The challenges that confronted Holmes, and indeed the entire humanitarian community, in fulfilling this responsibility in Sri Lanka, were formidable indeed: an intransigent government hell-bent on final military victory over the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); deeply hostile territory for aid workers and a fiercely politicized and contested conflict in which both sides breached international humanitarian law and the human rights of civilians.

But Holmes’ account of his part in pulling out the entire international UN aid effort of the conflict zone is likely to do little to appease critics – coming as it did just months before the final offensive on the LTTE-held enclave in northern Sri Lanka between January and May 2009.

Also controversial is Holmes’ defence of his decision to withhold casualty numbers, choosing to remain silent about the scale of civilians in need of protection and the death toll. Not going public with how many civilians were at risk led to bitter recriminations and accusations of a cover up – including from within the UN itself.

In the memoirs, Holmes – a career diplomat of some 30 years’ standing – explains his choice to instead pursue a quiet behind-the-scenes advocacy: ‘My view was that a frank private dialogue was better than a furious public row. I could go out in a blaze of temporary glory of denunciation of the government – but I might well take the humanitarian operation with me.’

Critics are likely to be quick to point out that this is what happened anyway, when most aid organizations followed the UN lead and withdrew; and also that his actions were hardly consistent with the explicitly mandated responsibility of the ERC to advocate for people in need – still less with a responsibility to bear witness or act as moral conscience of the world.

It will also be difficult to reconcile this most controversial chapter of Holmes’ tenure as Emergency Relief Co-ordinator with the findings of a recently leaked UN report which condemned the organization for grave failure in its responsibility to protect ‘hundreds of thousands of civilians’ and for effectively providing a witness-free, ‘open season’ zone where belligerents could – and did – commit atrocities against civilians with impunity.

The Politics of Humanity: The Reality of Relief Aid by John Holmes is published by Head of Zeus. Holmes will be discussing the book with BBC World Affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge at the Overseas Development Institute on 20 March 2013.

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