Dr. Mukesh Kapila’s Keynote ‘Why do our global institutions fail to prevent & protect against mass atrocities?’ Part 1

On May 10th Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR), the Canadian International Council (CIC), and Gowling LLP organized a keynote talk by Dr. Mukesh Kapila titled ‘Why do our global institutions fail to prevent & protect against mass atrocities?‘. Kapila had led the UN Mission in Sudan from 2003-04; at the time the UN mission had overseen negotiations between Sudan and South Sudanese rebel forces while coordinating the largest humanitarian relief operation in the world. Previously Kapila had worked in the UK foreign office and the Red Cross in crisis zones such as Rwanda and Bosnia. Kapila explained that his experiences in Rwanda during the 1994 Genocide had solidified in him a commitment to be vigilant in preventing future mass atrocities and genocide at all costs. Nearly a decade later, in his 2003 deployment as the head of the UN mission in Sudan, he began to see dreaded reports of just such violence emerging in Darfur.

After confirming and documenting the genocidal nature of the violence in Darfur, a long term coordinated destruction of non-Arab villages across a region the size of France, Kapila detailed his attempts to raise the alarm with the Sudanese state, United Nations Aid Agencies, the diplomatic community, and finally directly with the United Nations’ HQ in New York. Here Kapila’s account goes into interesting details: western educated Sudanese elites in the interior ministry acknowledging the intent to draw out peace negotiations until the ethnic cleansing of Darfur was complete; of internal structural conflicts between different UN agencies such as WFP and UNICEF, and UN bureaucrats reluctant to leave their comfortable offices in Khartoum or risk their pensions by shaking the boat; details of diplomats ‘passing the buck’ by forwarding the detailed reports of genocidal violence to their respective national state departments; and finally details of how his reports back to UN HQ were simply lost in a shuffle of memos to the UN Security Council or simply ignored altogether.

Though Kapila’s experiences seem to imply that the UN is structurally incapable, through bureaucratic and political inertia, to prevent mass atrocities such as in Darfur, he saves his harshest criticisms for the UN leadership, especially Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General of the UN. Kapila make’s the argument that Kofi Annan’s tenure first as Assistant Secretary-General of Peacekeeping Operations from 1993 to 1996, and then Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006 make him individually accountable for the UN’s failures in 1994 Rwanda, 1995 Bosnia, and 2003 Darfur. Kapila links much of this to the lack of democratic accountability in global institutions. Even though Kapila reiterated several times that the problem lies with the political leadership, or lack thereof, with individuals such as Kofi Annan and not the actual structure or bureaucracy of the UN, one was left with the suspicion that Kapila may have been attempting to preserve any remaining goodwill in the UN bureaucracy. While still working through INGOs at the UNHRC in Geneva, in 2004 Kapila committed political suicide when he bypassed all the non-responsive regular channels in the UN and diplomatic community and went directly to the media about the atrocities occurring in Darfur. Kapila justified this strategy as ‘when the governments of the world ignore you, you must go directly to the people of the world’.

Temporarily skipping ahead here to two questions from the open discussion that expanded on this issue of leadership problems vs structural problems in the UN. A question was raised by a Eelam Tamil activist, of which there had been several in the audience, around the question of accountability for the UN’s failures being placed on Kofi Annan. The growing evidence (here, here, here and here) linking UN complicity with Sri Lanka’s war crimes and mass atrocities against Tamils in 2009 under the leadership of Ban Ki-moon, Kofi Annan’s successor, seems to indicate that the UN’s problems aren’t limited to the political failings of individual UN leader’s such as Kofi Annan. Another participant asked about how Chapter 6 and 7 of the UN charter relates to the question of preventing mass atrocities. Chapters 6 and outline the powers and responsibilities of the UN Security Council (SC), including circumstances that permit intervention and the use of force. The question was especially pertinent with Russia and China, permanent members on the SC, currently blocking UN action in Syria, and previously Sri Lanka. Kapila’s response was that ‘We must reclaim the United Nations’, and implement reforms that would decrease the democratic deficit and increase accountability; that we must approach this goal with creative solutions such as pressuring the UN SC with different forms of public pressure. Kapila gave an example that during the Beijing Olympics several groups pressured China from vetoing important measures (presumably Sanctions on Iran or North Korea, but this was unclear) by threatening to turn the Beijing Olympics into a public relations disaster with boycotts and abstentions. Unfortunately there wasn’t time or space to ask how democratic reforms could be achieved while an undemocratic institution such as the United Nations Security Council, an institution created specifically to preserve the political dominance of a handful imperialists that had emerged post-World War 2, remained functioning to undermine any democratic reforms. Kapila’s dismissive referrals early in his presentation about anti-imperialist concerns leads this writer to assume he may not have been very forthcoming on the topic.

The most interesting portion of the talk came when Kapila condemned liberal pacifism, did an unequivocal take down of the doctrine of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) for being impractical, and supported the right of groups facing existential threats to armed struggle in self defence. This was surprising stuff coming from a career British diplomat and UN bureaucrat. Much of his rationale came out of 3 points: No genocidal regime has been stopped without the use of some form of force; No unjust peace agreement has ever lasted, and that Bashir was simply stalling on a just peace agreement long enough to complete the ethnic cleansing of Darfur, now 10 years in progress; and that the doctrine of R2P has proven an absolute failure without ever being used successfully in the 10 years since its formulation. Kapila’s analysis of R2P’s failure was pretty straightforward in that he sees R2P as impractical. An example of this impracticality is that R2P has steps attempting to get an accused state’s compliance, steps with which a state can easily obstruct and delay the use of R2P by the international committee in the most urgent situations. The contradiction being that R2P is not needed when a state will comply, and it is in those instances that a state will not comply with international law that R2P is most needed. Kapila also distinguished an important issue in International law that where as it clearly recognizes rights of individuals and states to self defence, there exists a grey area around the right of groups to self-defence in the face of imminent threats such as genocide. Here Kapila called for the recognition of the right to armed struggle in cases a group faces an existential threat in the form of ethnic cleansing, mass atrocities, or genocide.

When an aid worker with an NGO working in Sudan raised the concern that political or military intervention in Sudan by the UN would lead to the government shutting down INGO relief efforts in Sudan, Kapila let loose in one of the best exchanges of the event: he responded directly that the humanitarian relief provided so far had been marginal and ineffective; that in essence solidarity was more important and that for the most part people’s survival depended on their individual/communal ability to cope. Kapila went on to add how at this stage with displacement of Darfuris mostly complete, Humanitarian Relief aid is now being used by Sudanese state to settle Darfur with new Arab population completing genocide. This lead to a cheer from African and Tamil sections of the crowd while the aid worker fell silent for rest of the event.

I will end the recap of the talk  here. I will post a second piece with commentary.

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