Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Banker Plans To Put UN Show on the Road (March 22, 2004)
"'When the truck comes into a city, I want it to blow people away.' A senior vice president at Morgan Stanley has designed a rolling exhibition—a sort of U.N.-mobile—that he hopes to put on the road before the end of the year."

Afghanistan Prepares to Choose a Government (March 15, 2004)
"The creation of a democratic culture and democratic institutions is the hard part. The ubiquitous international election monitors almost always arrive too late to see the confusion and intimidation that has preceded the opening of polling booths."

Putting ECOSOC Back in the Loop (March 8, 2004)
"The UN's Economic and Social Council sank into obscurity over the decades, upstaged by the Security Council, the General Assembly, and a host of agencies working on what should have been primarily ECOSOC's issues: development, health, and human rights."

Arab Women Leaders Exerting Growing Influence at UN (March 1, 2004)
"If leading Arab women at the United Nations seem to be in the background, that is no reflection of a meekness or deference to male-dominated cultures."

Saving the U.N. From Utah (February 23, 2004)
"What is it with Utah?... Some local politicians have become convinced that the United Nations has caused the United States to 'lose' every war since World War II."

As Chile Reaches High Development Level, UN Shifts Strategy (February 17, 2004)
"While the world may hear more from Brazil, a much larger nation in both land and population, Chile ... cannot be underestimated as a potential hemispheric leader or an important voice for the wider global South."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | March 29, 2004
from U. N. Wire Sri Lanka on the Edge Again

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—This relatively small island nation, on the road to recovery after two decades of civil war, will hold an election Friday that many Sri Lankans believe will decide whether ethnic conflict is really over or has only paused before plunging into a disastrous new phase. The United Nations has a big stake in the outcome.

Two years ago, an extremely violent guerrilla army, representing an aggrieved ethnic Tamil minority, and the Sri Lankan government, dominated by ethnic Sinhalese, agreed to a cease-fire. It was not the first time hopes were high that the years of bloodshed that had killed tens of thousands of people were finally at an end. By 2002, however, several important factors had converged to promise that this time there would be no turning back.

A new center-right government under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had been elected late in 2001 on a peace platform. A year of negative economic growth, the first in the history of this nation of more than 19 million—punctuated by a Tamil bombing attack on the country's civil airline fleet—made peace essential to fiscal survival and further development. A huge popular movement brought people to the streets in silent, solemn protests demanding reconciliation.

A heightened concern about terrorism worldwide led to unprecedented international attention to Sri Lanka, especially from the United States, which sent a series of high-level officials here. Norway became the mediator of long-term peace negotiations, and a monitoring group from the Nordic countries arrived. National economic indicators moved upward, inflation came down and tourists returned to a country with an exquisite natural setting, good health standards and high literacy rates for both men and women.

Within months, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office here in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, was planning for the return home of hundreds of thousands of people displaced from the country's north and east—the territory claimed by the ruthless rebel movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The 731,000 displaced people had fled from Sri Lankan military advances, ethnic cleansing by the Tamil Tigers, economic collapse or just plain fear.

The UNHCR had dilemmas to confront. Created to assist refugees who flee across borders, the agency has no legal mandate to help people displaced within their own countries. This predicament has been a subject of much debate for more than a decade, because civil wars now cause most of the world's displacement. Furthermore, short of a final peace agreement and demilitarization, the UNHCR did not want to send vulnerable people back to territory still often dominated by guerrillas.

Nevertheless, given the numbers of displaced people—plus many thousands of asylum seekers, failed asylum seekers and economic migrants abroad, and 61,000 refugees remaining in camps in India, where the UNHCR is barred—the agency decided to act.

"If the situation improved sufficiently in Sri Lanka for them all to come back, we'd need an enormous absorption capacity," said Neill Wright, head of the UNHCR office in Sri Lanka. "That speaks directly to why UNHCR has agreed to address the internal displacement part, which it did at the request of the government of Sri Lanka." International donors stepped in to pay the bill.

"Since the cease-fire, 356,000 IDPs [internally displaced persons] have been registered as returning," said Wright. "That's a huge number. So in 2002, UNHCR had to change its role, had to restructure, had to get more staff, had to not only look after the displaced but now those people who were spontaneously returning. We felt there was an obligation to everyone to assist them to return, to get restarted, to recover their self-respect."

The UNHCR, which had been working on refugee protection in Sri Lanka since 1987, asked donor nations for an extra $10 million to be used between October 2002 and December 2003.

"With that supplementary program we took on activities that are not UNHCR's normal mandated activities," Wright said. "We worked in the shelter sector—thousands of temporary shelters—we worked in water, in sanitation, in livelihood support. It was an emergency response to the returnees' needs."

At the same time other U.N. agencies were also making inroads. Among them, UNICEF took on the thorny problem of trying to stop the Tigers' forced recruitment of children, and free those in its custody. The World Health Organization completed an extensive survey of the regions that had been at war, so that health services could resume.

In Jaffna, the major Tamil city of the north, the mood began to change. People applauded the prime minister—the first to visit in decades—and learned to trust, albeit cautiously, the Sri Lankan army, some of whose soldiers are learning to speak Tamil. Commerce resumed and the Tigers saw they would have to compete for influence with the public instead of ruling with terror from behind the scenes.

Then things began to fall apart. The Tigers abruptly withdrew from peace talks last year, though maintaining the cease-fire. Early this month, the Tiger military leadership suddenly split, with the eastern commander, Vinyaramoorthy Muralitharan (a strategic genius known as Colonel Karuna) breaking with the organization's top leader, Vellupillai Prabakaran, and asking for separate talks with the Norwegians and Sri Lankan political parties.

Most devastating, however, was the decision of the country's president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, to dismiss the government of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, an old political rival. She leads the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, he the United National Party. Under a system devised by the late President J.R. Jayawardene, who was enamored of the French system of "cohabitation," the president and prime minister can belong to different parties.

Kumaratunga's widely criticized decision at this critical juncture was breathtaking in its willfulness. She accused the Wickremesinghe government of giving too much to the Tamil Tigers, who had begun to set up civilian offices in the hope of attracting development aid and some civilian political power. The United Nations and the Norwegians also came under fire for dealing with the Tigers as they tried to expand the peace and resettle refugees.

The United Nations' work of two years is now threatened. International donors fear instability, and both aid and investment in Sri Lanka are expected to drop. Worse, an array of Sinhalese nationalists demanding no cooperation at all with the Tamils—and in one party's case, no promise of minority rights—have entered the political mix. The president has allied her party with a former radical Sinhalese chauvinist movement with Marxist ideas and methods—Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, known by its initials, JVP—which twice during a quarter-century terrorized the south before renouncing violence. There is also an extreme ethnic nationalist, pro-Buddhist party fielding monks as candidates.

Since the majority of Sri Lankan Sinhalese are Buddhists, the Wickremesinghe government has been wary of alienating them and has often played down its successes and those of the United Nations and others in rebuilding Tamil areas and drawing Tamils, most of whom are Hindus or Christians, back into national life and development. The prime minister's approach has been low-key and steady, almost casual at times. Kumaratunga, daughter of two prime ministers, is a firebrand by comparison.

Wright defends UNHCR's contact with the Tamil Tigers. "The relationship that we've had with them stems from the fact that we have a mandate to protect, and you can't protect unless you have access to the people who need it," he said. "We will maintain a dialogue with anybody who is in control." But he added there has never been an intention to recognize the Tamil militants as an independent authority of any kind.

The Tamils realize they are in a new phase, Wright said. "They want an administrative role and they want donors to put in their funds and they want to get the credit for the funds going into their area," he said.

The UNHCR has "an enormous presence" in the Sri Lankan north and east, with a large staff on the ground, Wright said. He is now concerned that diminishing confidence in the country will soon have an effect on U.N. work. Resumption of fighting by either side—a divided Tamil movement or resurgent Sinhalese militants, could put an end to progress.

The International Monetary Fund, another part of the larger U.N. family, is already delaying funds for Sri Lanka. But more than money right now, said Wright, "What we need is a little luck."

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.