British foreign secretary David Milliband spoke to a group of reporters at the New America Foundation this morning. The talk was ostensibly about new media strategies and diplomacy (Milliband blogs—the unthinkably modern equivalent of Hillary Clinton trying out Twitter), but quickly turned to the hot-button geostrategic issues of the day. Moderator Steve Coll, president of New America, asked Milliband about the ongoing violent conflict between the insurgent Tamil minority and the government in Sri Lanka: “If you were to estimate what is happening in the world right now that matters the most but is proportionally least known in the U.S., then I would nominate the events in Sri Lanka.”
Indeed. As Zachariah Mamphilly’s primer on the conflict for THE ROOT’s suggests, there is only so much faraway suffering that American audiences can process:
Five years ago, a devastating tsunami brought some attention to prolonged ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, but in general, the media, as is often the case with conflicts in the Third World, have little interest in complicated wars involving dark people killing other dark people. As a result, most Americans still have little awareness of the nearly-three-decades-long bloody war in Sri Lanka.
Recent reports offer no better news—following persistent reports of Tamil rebels defending the last of their land using civilians as “human shields,” Human Rights Watch likewise reports that the Sri Lankan government has sanctioned “at least 30 attacks on permanent and makeshift hospitals in the combat area since December 2008,” the most recent of which was last week.
Coll continued: “How do you assess responsibility between the government and the [Tamil] Tigers for this crisis, one, and two, what is it realistic to do in…cases of irregular war where civilians are being placed at risk, to hold accountable both state and nonstate actors?”
Milliband, who traveled to Sri Lanka with French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner in late April, tried to distinguish between types of accountability and divergent theories of interventionism, especially within the United Nations:
We couldn’t get it on the Security Council agenda because of the debate that remains very very acute between, broadly speaking, a sort of liberal internationalism, liberal interventionism that says a humanitarian crisis belongs on a Security Council agenda; and an argument that says the Security Council agenda is only for regional threats to peace and security and…[Sri Lanka’s crisis] is not a threat to regional security.
This latter thinking is the kind that Robert Kaplan destructs very convincingly in his latest piece for FOREIGN POLICY, called “The Revenge of Geography” in which he argues that
rather than eliminating the relevance of geography, globalization is reinforcing it. Mass communications and economic integration are weakening many states, exposing a Hobbesian world of small, fractious regions. Within them, local, ethnic, and religious sources of identity are reasserting themselves, and because they are anchored to specific terrains, they are best explained by reference to geography. Like the faults that determine earthquakes, the political future will be defined by conflict and instability with a similar geographic logic. The upheaval spawned by the ongoing economic crisis is increasing the relevance of geography even further, by weakening social orders and other creations of humankind, leaving the natural frontiers of the globe as the only restraint.
Milliband gave a lot of weight to this type of interconnectedness and asymmetry earlier in his talk. And yet, he denied the LTTE / Tamil Tigers the authority of complete blame. He called the irregular, factional, ethnically-charged Tigers “a murderous organization,” responsible for “26 years of misery” in Sri Lanka—but focused more on the now-rampaging government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “Democratic governments are held to higher standards than terrorist organizations. And democratic governments aren’t allowed to say that the ends justify the means. Democratic governments aren’t allowed to say that the battle to defeat terrorism is a reason for us to compromise on our own values,” he said.
Read against the geographic determinism of Kaplan, a focus on good government may not be the most pressing concern. As Milliband himself concluded:
Fifty thousand people are in a three-kilometer square area and that is, with a war going on, that is a definition of hell.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.