Sir Adam Roberts on "Democracy, Sovereignty and Terror"

Jun 25, 2013

Roberts discusses his book on Sri Lankan statesman Lakshman Kadirgamar, who fought against the terrorism of the Tamil Tigers and was assassinated by them in 2005. Roberts also answers questions about the legacy of colonialism and about his work and thoughts on civil resistance and nonviolence.


JOEL ROSENTHAL: I have the honor of introducing our guest today—and it really is an honor. But I realize that he's not really a guest. He's a friend, and, even closer, he is a member of the family, and I have some empirical evidence to prove that.

Last year, Adam and I had met at The Hague, and the occasion was the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Palace Foundation, which was one of the Carnegie legacies. In addition to building the Peace Palace, there was a foundation established to make sure that it would function properly. When we were there, we got to talking. Actually, that's one of the reasons we're here today. He told me a little bit about his book on Lakshman Kadirgamar.

But Adam also shared with the audience there—and I'm going to take the liberty of sharing it with you, a most extraordinary photo from 1912. It's a 1912 photo that has in it not only the Carnegie family—Mr. Carnegie, Mrs. Carnegie, the Carnegie daughter—and, maybe, Adam, you could say a few words about it—but also a good selection of the Roberts family. It's a quite extraordinary story. I hope I'm not putting you on the spot, if you might just say a word or two about that.

Actually, I've run across a lot of Carnegie memorabilia, photos, paintings, little trinkets, and so on. But I've actually never had this close a connection to Andrew Carnegie himself. So you are not only a guest and a friend, but truly a member of the family.

Adam is playing an important role in the Council's history in the next year. As you know, we're in our Centennial year; we're celebrating our 100th anniversary.

We've had a couple of events already, including the one at The Hague. The next one will be in Edinburgh and Dunfermline in October. We'll be visiting the birthplace of Andrew Carnegie. We'll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Carnegie U.K. Trusts in Dunfermline, and also hosting a public symposium in the Scottish Parliament building.

And then, almost a year from now, we will be in Sarajevo putting on a public symposium commemorating the events that led to the beginning of World War I. It will be an international commemoration. Adam has been very, very helpful in inspiring us to make the most of that occasion. And then, next October, we'll actually have our official celebration here in New York, in October of 2014.

The occasion of our meeting today is a discussion of the book that Adam put together on Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Sri Lankan statesman [Democracy, Sovereignty and Terror: Lakshman Kadirgamar on the Foundations of International Order]. I just have two words to say about it.

I was delighted to have this opportunity because the life of Lakshman was really an exemplary life of "ethics matter," the idea that for him the challenge was responding to terrorism. My understanding is his response was it must be responded to in the context of the rule of law, and that the rule of law has to be understood in the context of democracy, and that's the ethical foundation for how we might think about responding to terrorism.

The other part is the idea we have "ethics matter" as our motto, but sometimes I think—particularly if you're an academic and you're studying international relations theory—we sometimes lose sight of the fact that people matter, individual people matter, they make a difference. I think the importance of this book and this talk is that examples like this should not be lost to history and should be passed along.

With that, I'm going to turn it over to Adam. I hope he'll say a word about the photo before the book. Thank you all for coming.


ADAM ROBERTS: Thank you so much, Joel. I've never had an introduction quite like that.

The photo is very poignant for me.

Andrew Carnegie at Aberdeen University, 1912 with his family and Sir Adam Roberts family

The two bearded gentlemen in it, one of whom is Andrew Carnegie and the other of whom is my grandfather, George Adam Smith, look almost identical. But they were not identical. My grandfather was a Presbyterian theologian and a Biblical scholar, and there was Andrew Carnegie, the cutthroat businessman and all of that. They came from two completely different worlds. Indeed, Andrew Carnegie was rather suspicious of a great deal in British politics and life, and especially of the English. At least my grandfather had the merit of being Scottish and not English, so that exonerated him a bit from the imperial taint.

It's a classic case of opposites attract. They really found each other very interesting people, precisely because they were so different. And of course, there was a mutual interest there. Andrew Carnegie was seeking to give money for a good cause. As we all know, giving away money is actually as difficult as earning the stuff. It requires enormous judgment to do it right. He had to find institutions and individuals who could assist him to make the right judgments and to implement his plans. My grandfather was good at that.

They worked together, among other things, on the Carnegie scholarship scheme, which is still very active in Scotland today. It was at that time the main funder of students in Scotland.

The photo also shows my mother; she's one of the girls in the picture. It also shows one of her brothers: he and another brother died in the First World War. So there's a peculiar poignancy in that photograph, but it is not, of course, at all untypical of families at the time.

So there are all kinds of meanings in that picture.

Now, what I want to do in my initial remarks today is to say a little bit about the book and how I came to write it; a bit about Kadirgamar himself and the issued that he raised, which you correctly identified, of a particular approach to the problem of combating terrorism; and a bit about how the Sri Lankan War ended and the controversy surrounding it.

There's one thing that may strike you as extremely odd about the cover of the book. You may think I'm suffering from terminal pomposity when you see it. That is the word "Sir." It so happens that I was fortunate enough to be given this title. But I would never dream of using it in anything I wrote. I would regard it as in bad faith to do it. So why on earth is it there on the cover of the book? The answer is a curious one. I have a former student, called Adam Roberts—no relation. He is married to another former student of mine, and they live in New Delhi, and he is the South Asia correspondent of The Economist. He writes extremely well, among other things, about Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan politics.

He once had the good (or bad) fortune, when checking in at a hotel in Colombo, of finding that he had the form you have to fill in all prefilled with my credit card details, and some flowers nicely arranged in the room, and fruit. [Laughter] Adam, bless him, is so honest that he came clean and saved me from bearing the expense of his stay.

So I was concerned that things I had written in this book might earn me the honor of an assassination threat from one or another of the forces in Sri Lankan society, and I didn't want him to be assassinated on my behalf. Hence the "Sir" in the title.

There's a twist to this story, incidentally, which is that he has since written extensively about war crimes in Bangladesh and the issue of whether certain individuals there should be tried for war crimes. Since I've written a lot about the laws of war and war crimes, he said he was worried that I might get blamed for what he had written there.

So if each of us gets assassinated for what the other has written, there's a certain justice in it. [Laughter]

Now, how I came to write this book. I first got to know Lakshman Kadirgamar when I was working on the Buddhist opposition movement in 1963 against Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam. It was a very interesting civil resistance movement, for reasons I won't burden you with now. I heard that there was a report for Amnesty International about it. I was told who the author was, and I wrote to him in Colombo to ask if I could see a copy. It was Lakshman Kadirgamar who had done it. He said, "Yes, of course, you can see it." Fine. And I duly saw it.

Over 30 years later, I discovered that he has become the foreign minister of Sri Lanka. I had never forgotten the name, I had been so grateful to him. Then I discovered, extraordinarily, that he was a former graduate student of my own college, Balliol College, in Oxford. We had never known each other at the time, but he had been there.

So I invited him to come back to Oxford, and we renewed what had previously only been a pen-pal acquaintanceship, and I found him an extraordinary figure, extremely alert; knowledgeable about the body of literature there was on terrorism—now we're talking about the late 1990s and early 2000s. By this time he was well at home in his job of being foreign minister; aware, because he was a Tamil himself, of the likelihood that the Tamil Tigers would want to kill him because he believed in the unity of Sri Lanka. Indeed, there had been explicit threats against him from his very first year as foreign minister. (He took up the job in 1994.) We got on extraordinarily well and discussed a lot, all aspects of the problem of terrorism.

In due course, Balliol College made him an honorary fellow. Later, he invited me to go and give some lectures in Sri Lanka, which I did in 2005, and spoke at various institutions in Colombo. I hasten to add that my fare was not paid by the Sri Lankan government. I'm very leery about accepting that kind of assistance.

And again, he knew then that he was likely to be assassinated. There had been many more warnings. He had to have exceptional security, and he hated it, as people do who are forced to accept such security. I remember him lingering, chatting, while there were all sorts of soldiers indicating their anxiety that he was standing there chatting when he should get into a bulletproof car quickly and get off.

Anyway, later that year they got him. I felt that, for somebody who had approached the problem of terrorism with some depth and profundity, and who had been very unusual as a foreign minister who really did his homework and really thought through his speeches and writings, somebody should collect his work and put it together. I did that knowing that the world is not waiting for the wit and wisdom of a stray Sri Lankan foreign minister, that the book was never going to sell many copies. But I just felt, as an act of piety really, that I owed it to him.

Now, one of the big issues raised by his career is undoubtedly the belief that terrorism should be combated, but you should combat it using your head and historical awareness.

He was, by the time he was foreign minister, as interested in the world of strategy as he was in the world of law. He had been a professional lawyer most of his life, but he didn't suffer from the professional deformation that sometimes hits lawyers, of believing that there is only one way of looking at problems. That was one of the reasons I found him a sympathetic character.

No one that I know was tougher on the problem of terrorism than he was. One of the documents in the book is a speech he made to the Sri Lankan Parliament criticizing the ceasefire that had been agreed with the Tamil Tigers in 2002. This speech was in 2003. He said that the ceasefire was not working and it was time that it was abandoned. He gives extremely good, cogent reasons—there were more than 16 of them—as to why this ceasefire with the Tamil Tigers was not the right approach.

He was tough in other ways, too. He succeeded—and this is one of the reasons the Tamil Tigers could never forgive him—in getting a number of foreign governments, including those of the United States and the United Kingdom, to declare the Tamil Tigers a proscribed organization. Now, I am not in general an enthusiast for proscription of terrorist organizations, and I was a persistent critic of the completely stupid British decision in the 1970s to list the African National Congress of South Africa as a terrorist organization. But I could at the same time see the very great strength of his criticism that the British and American governments were allowing émigré Tamil organizations to raise really significant funds to support the Tamil Tigers and their arms purchases. He sought to stop such assistance. Some of the speeches he made about that were extraordinarily prescient.

There is one in 1998 at Chatham House, which is also in the book, which is an extraordinary speech, because he says, three years before 9/11, that we are actually going a bit soft in allowing some foreign terrorist organizations to set up business in our territory. Why is it soft? Well, one reason was that they might ultimately threaten us. They may not appear to be threatening us now, but they may ultimately do so. He also argued that we needed to change our definition of terrorism from one that was purely a definition of a threat to the British state to one that was a threat internationally as well. He was actually two years ahead of the change in British law that eventually took place on that subject.

How was he so tied in with this British legal debate? It's not that the British government listened to a Sri Lankan foreign minister in Chatham House and said, "Oh yes, we must do that." He did the work. He studied what was going on in UK political life and among British lawyers. He was a member of the Inner Temple in London himself. Because of those connections he could see which way things had to move. He showed an interesting combination of hard work, perspicacity and intellectual toughness.

The underlying thought behind his view of the Sri Lanka conflict was a very simple one, that he did not believe that secessionism could work effectively in Sri Lanka—or, indeed, necessarily in many other countries. Secessionism produced its own problems. In particular, you've only got to glance at a map of the ethnic composition of Sri Lanka to see that, as ever, peoples are not neatly laid out on the map, that there would be huge problems of non-Tamil minorities within the Tamil-held territory, and vice versa.

His conviction that the maintenance of the Sri Lankan state was an important cause was, I think, a perfectly reasonable one. He combined it with an explicit and repeated recognition of the need for flexibility, and he believed, indeed, in negotiating with the Tamil Tigers, even though he also believed in proscribing them.

And, wonderfully, in 2002 he supported the de-proscription of the Tamil Tigers. This is a logical confusion but an excellent one. He supported the de-proscription within Sri Lanka so that the government could talk with them about finding a negotiated solution or at least a properly-negotiated ceasefire, even while he advocated that proscription elsewhere. And he got the United States and other governments to accept that there could be that logical error in order to make possible a practical policy.

So he was very much in favor of flexibility, of looking for federal solutions and the like. But at the same time, there was an underlying steely toughness there. He went and spoke at military institutions, training institutions, about the importance of observing the laws of war and human rights law in combating terrorism and the reasons why it mattered. Some of his speeches were a little bit lawyer-like. Others were more down-to-earth. But, either way, he was completely clear on where he stood and where he thought Sri Lanka needed to stand.

And likewise in 1996, faced with accusations, which were not without basis, about torture in Sri Lanka, he set up the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, whose job was precisely to investigate all such accusations. So he was an alert and tough operator, and he believed in responding to international criticism.

Now, a very quick word about the conclusion of the war and the controversy surrounding it.

Just to clarify my own position, I do think that some war crimes were committed in the last phase of the war. Let me be quite clear about that. I accept that there were some. I don't believe the killing of civilians as such is every time a war crime. It may occur in circumstances where it's a ghastly consequence of a range of other legitimate military activities. But there were events in the last stage of the war that, as far as I can judge from the various reports that there have been on them, constituted war crimes. So I do not believe in letting the Sri Lankan government off the hook. But I do believe that there are a number of factors that need to be understood in this connection and that have not entered the public debate. I'll just mention two.

One is to do with the inherent problematic nature of safety zones. The Sri Lankan government unilaterally declared two precisely delimited "No Fire Zones" in the area held by Tamil Tiger forces in the northeast of Sri Lanka. This unilateral declaration was on the basis that these areas would be safe for civilians to gather in, and would be immune from attack.

Then, what happened is that Sri Lankan forces moving along the coast towards these areas pushed the Tamil Tiger forces towards those safety zones and, for whatever reasons, the Tamil Tiger forces then established themselves in the safety zones. That may have been done out of calculation that they would be safer there. It may have been out of the calculation that this would enable them to carry out a sort of kind of "lawfare," as it's called, where their presence would induce the Sri Lankan armed forces to fire into the areas, and they could then claim that the Sri Lankan forces were violating a safety zone and make a fuss about that. Or the Tamil Tiger forces may have been actually compelled to go there by the advance of the Sri Lankan armed forces. All of those things are possible. Maybe there was a mixture of all three.

But what I'm suggesting is that there is an inherent problem of safety zones, not dissimilar to what we experienced, and what Giandomenico Picco and others know of, in the case of the Bosnian War, where a safety zone can become a source of extreme danger for those in it, especially if there are inadequate or no arrangements for giving practical effect to its status as a safety zone.

If I may quote for a moment from the testimony of Médecins Sans Frontières, the individual who has written about the last phases of the war, Fabrice Weissman, "Sri Lanka. Amid All-out War," published in the book Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed, of which he was one of the editors: "As the rebel territory shrank, the Tigers used increasingly violent means to dissuade civilians from fleeing to government-controlled areas." The Tigers—and these are his words—"forced the government army to choose between two ills: slow down or even halt the offensive, or commit war crimes."

I think there's some truth in that. It was a hideous situation. We might all think that, faced with that ghastly alternative, it would have been better to slow down the offensive. But one has to bear in mind something else here. This war had been going on for a quarter-of-a-century. It was clear that this was the point at which there was a possibility at long last of ending the war. There were governments outside, including my own government, who at this point publicly and conspicuously advocated ceasefire. I think if you were in the position of the Sri Lankan government, you would find a problem in being asked to initiate another ceasefire when they had had three major ceasefires already in the war, none of which had lasted. One can understand the search for victory.

The second thing that I want to say about this last phase of the war—and I think it has been underestimated—is the government claim is also problematic. If I am critical of the claim that sees the end of the war largely as a problem of the criminality of the Sri Lankan forces without also paying attention to the difficulty of the situation, I think it's also true that the government version simplifies, albeit in a different way. Here's a pro-government statement. It actually comes from a pro-government paper in May 2010, but it very much reflects the view that President Rajapaksa has taken:

"May 18 [the day of the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009] is a red letter day in the annals of Sri Lanka's history when the nation celebrates the first anniversary of the eradication of terrorism. . . . The true sons of our soil have achieved infinitely more than the so-called superpowers—crushing terrorism, and that too against the most brutal terrorist organisation in the world. The whole world was spellbound by that magnificent victory."

Now, to my mind that statement is preposterous, for several reasons. One reason is that actually, for about four or five years, it had been very evident that the tide was turning definitively against the Tamil Tigers. I'll conclude by identifying five factors that suggest that the tide had turned:

Firstly, the Tamil Tigers had failed to repair their relations with India following the killing of the former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and indeed 18 other people, by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber back in 1991. The Tamil Tigers had a genius, which some terrorist organizations do have, for shooting themselves in the foot. And indeed, the killing of Kadirgamar was another such act, because that action in 2005 was the final step, as we know from WikiLeaks, that induced the European Union, never a body to act quickly on any issue—to proscribe the Tamil Tigers.

Secondly, that international isolation of the Tamil Tigers by the late 2000s included proscriptions by India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, the European Union, and others. So the noose was tightening on their fundraising activities and all of that.

Thirdly—and I think it's an underestimated factor—that curious character called "Colonel Karuna" (whose real name is Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) had defected from the Tamil Tigers in March 2004, taking his troops with him. He had been commander of the Tamil Tiger forces on the east coast of Sri Lanka, where they had a separate enclave. Colonel Karuna's defection split the Tamil Tigers' military machine into two, and it never fully recovered. It also did no good for the morale or reputation, because they had denied they were using child soldiers. When Colonel Karuna took his forces out of their redoubts and into government-held territory, lo and behold, large numbers of them were under the age of 18. So that was an exposure of fraud as well.

Incidentally, the value of flexibility in handling terrorist issues was evident in that act by Colonel Karuna: he said on a number of occasions that he got the idea of defecting when he had realized in the course of negotiations with the Sri Lankan government that there might be life after insurrection, that there might be better things to do than live perpetually in wartime conditions. So the very participation in negotiation may have had that larger strategic effect.

Fourthly, the Tamil Tigers had, with their usual genius, antagonized large numbers of farmers by cutting off their water supply from the Mavil Aru reservoir in July 2006, leading to a military response by the Sri Lankan government. I was in Sri Lanka at the time when that episode was going on. Some 50,000 people had fled that area.

In connection with this episode there was an example of the problematic nature of international attempts at participation in peace efforts in such conflicts. Norwegian mediators had been extensively involved in Sri Lanka in connection with the 2002 ceasefire. Members of the Norwegian-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, taking part in a ceremony to reopen the reservoir, praised the statesmanlike qualities of the Tamil Tiger leadership in reopening the sluices. So it appeared that the Tamil Tigers were receiving praise for undoing a mistake that they should never have committed in the first place. You can imagine the feelings of the people on the Sri Lankan government side when that happened.

Finally, after 2005, the year of Kadirgamar's death, all the military momentum was on the government side, whether it was in the period of a technical ceasefire still continuing or after January 3, 2008—the date on which the Sri Lanka government officially withdrew from the Ceasefire Agreement. For example, the Sri Lankan armed forces captured Sampur, which is near the naval base at Trincomalee, in a close-fought battle in September 2006.

So what happened in 2009, the final defeat of the Tamil Tigers, was not something that should be seen simply as a great, heroic, sudden victory. It was a considerable achievement, and one which Kadirgamar would have worked for and welcomed, but it was also the culmination of a process that had been going on a long time. So I think in a way both sides in this debate, by focusing on the events in the last weeks and months of the conflict, have over-simplified their respective cases.

Underlying this, one of the legacies in Sri Lanka is a worrying degree of governmental and public distrust of human rights organizations. It is deeply ironic that the figure Lakshman Kadirgamar, who conducted the first-ever international investigation in another country for Amnesty International, should, by the time of his death, have been in a situation where international human rights organizations were deeply distrusted in Sri Lanka because it was suspected that they privileged human rights over other considerations such as ending the war–-or even, to put the criticism more crudely, they allowed human rights considerations to lead them to take sides to an extent that seemed to many Sri Lankans to be deeply damaging. So there is a problem there about how human rights are conceived, and pursued in the midst of conflict, that needs to be addressed.

Thank you very much.


QUESTION: It's a wonderful account. You certainly sold me a copy of the book. It is something I very much look forward to reading.

I'm quite interested in the issue of secession, just and unjust secessions. I was wondering whether you could characterize for us the kinds of terms that the government offered to the Tigers and what you thought of the terms that they put on the table. Were they well designed, poorly designed? How can we account for the failure of this particular offer?

ADAM ROBERTS: I can't claim to be an authoritative expert on all the issues that were on the table in negotiations, which were by their very nature confidential. All I can say, which is an inadequate answer to your question, is that there was public willingness to discuss various federal/confederal arrangements and that this very quickly ran into a number of obstacles.

Although I think probably the Tamil Tigers' insistence on having a separate state was the principal obstacle, there were, you won't be surprised to hear, some other obstacles, including the Sri Lankan government, where not everybody was in favor of making large commitments to a new confederal system, because the state had inherited a rather unitary conception of Sri Lanka from the colonial administration.

One of the problems of Sri Lanka is maybe the transition from colonial to post-colonial was almost too smooth. I don't know what the British thought they were doing, but—unusual for a colonial power—they actually introduced universal suffrage there, men and women, everybody, in 1931. So there was this notion of a unitary state.

Many of those who contributed to British thinking about constitutional matters, from the 19th century onwards, were of what you might call a liberal persuasion, whether we're talking about John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, or in the 20th century Leonard Woolf, and many others. In all cases, they tended to see it as inevitable that Sri Lankans—or Ceylonese as they then were— would become, as it were, one people, rather than seeing them as having internal divisions that need to be respected and protected.

Of course, the result of not providing explicit guarantees for language rights was that when there was a new Sri Lankan state with a particular version of nation-building in mind, which reflected some of the sort of Millean-Benthamite-Lasky ideas—when that new state came into existence after decolonization, what was done was that new laws were passed privileging the Sinhala language. This was not surprising when nearly 75 per cent of the population were Sinhalese, but nonetheless it was seen as a deep threat by the Tamil minority, especially as Tamils had traditionally provided large numbers of the clerkly class and jobs in government. So the Tamils felt deeply threatened by the new post-colonial dispensation.

Then there was the logical absurdity of, after having done the disastrous constitutional thing of privileging the Sinhala language, then saying in a 1987 constitutional amendment—I forget the exact words, but it's words to the effect of "the official language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala. Tamil shall also be an official language." Now, what that actually means is anybody's guess. But the sense of threat, in my view, was a primary cause of the Tamil insurrection that had begun in 1983.

Kadirgamar, too, took that view. Although he wasn't afraid to call the movement a terrorist movement, which it largely was, both internally and externally, he did not believe, in that or other cases, that calling it terrorist meant you didn't have to think about the causes of its existence and the need to address those causes.

That's a rambling answer to your question.

QUESTION: First of all, thank you very much. I actually wanted to ask you about this quite extraordinary article in this morning's op-ed section of The New York Times about this being the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of Britain from Kenya and the case that is now being decided in the British courts to give compensation 50 years later to the Kenyan victims of what has been publicly acknowledged by the British government, for the first time I gather, as torture by British soldiers at the time.

I thought, since you're here today, that you could say something briefly about this, what kind of resonance this has in Britain. Of course, we're living with much of the same issues in the United States. In fact, that article ends up with sort of a question about whether 50 years from now the United States will be paying future family members of those in Guantanamo for the torture, as it's widely regarded, inflicted on them. So I wonder if you could say a few words about what's happening in Britain on this issue.

ADAM ROBERTS: Perhaps I can begin by saying I have a family interest in Kenya. My son is married to a Kenyan Asian. That has taken me to Kenya a couple of times to meet my wonderful extended family. I've got more relations now. I have at least doubled the number of relations, and probably more, because, as you know, Indian extended families are something.

On a visit to Kenya earlier this year I visited the British Institute in Eastern Africa, which is I'm proud to say the British Academy, which I have the privilege of heading, supports. That institute, which is located in Nairobi, had a significant part in revealing the horrors. One of the UK historians who has worked there, David Anderson, was the person who did most to expose the hitherto hidden papers that revealed in terrifying detail British complicity in torture. I'm very proud to have had that indirect association with coming clean on the historical record. David Anderson is an excellent scholar, very serious and thorough, and it is precisely because of his recognized qualities that this was seen as an important contribution to our understanding of a grim feature of our past.

I think it's right that these things should be exposed and dealt with. There are, naturally, those who would like to sweep them under the carpet. But that creates an inherently dreadful situation where completely different views of history prevail. Those who have suffered in large areas of Kenya, especially in the Kikuyu areas north of Nairobi, they would have a completely different view of history from ours, and mutual understanding can't arise from that situation. So I think that that's a positive benefit from it.

On the question of whether 50 years from now the United States would be in the same position, I think it might happen before 50 years, because this is an issue which already now more is known about the problems of the "War on Terror" than was known at that time about the crimes of UK colonialism in fighting what was seen at the time as African terrorism in Kenya.

In the ongoing War on Terror, it seems that at least some—by no means all, but some—of the long-term detainees may have continued to be held for the reason that they can't be charged because there is no satisfactory evidence against them that could be offered in a court of law. Indeed, in some cases there may also be a problem in releasing them precisely because of what they will be able to tell about how they were treated. So they are being held, and they might get captors into serious trouble were they to be released. So there may be a perverse incentive in the War on Terror to do that.

I won't say that's true of all cases. Clearly, there are some cases of those who have been interned who have had deep involvement in terrorist activities. But if we're thinking in terms of where apologies may be needed, where compensation may be due, it's cases like that that are likely to be particularly difficult. I don't think it will be 50 years before that comes up.

QUESTION: Adam, our mutual friend, Margaret MacMillan–-who, for those who don't know, is warden of St. Antony's College, Oxford—she told me recently she's on sabbatical and working on a book on the causes and origins of World War I, which is the most-written-about subject, I'm told, in the history of history.

Do you believe that the academic and scholarly world will reach at some point a consensus on what really were the crucial factors that led to the overture of World War I? I don't want to ask you about the conduct of the war, but the beginning of the war?

ADAM ROBERTS: A consensus view will be very difficult to achieve for a simple reason, that the war had many causes. There have been lots of different theories. With students, I've always found one of the best subjects to get them engaged in the field of international relations is simply to ask them to identify the different theories about how World War I was caused.

It is amazing the number of theories. There's the Leninist theory about imperialism leading to war. There's the arms-race theory—and there was an arms race and there was a war, so it's at least plausible. Then all kinds of theories to do with dictatorial governments being more inclined to wage war than liberal ones. There's the view of my former tutor, A. J. P. Taylor, that it was war by railway timetable. One can go on and on. I think there's always going to be a scope for reinterpreting the causes of the war.

I was just talking to Joel about one aspect of the war that is particularly germane now for us to consider: this was an anti-terrorist war. The act of the Serb terrorists who killed an Austrian archduke led to the Austrian government saying, "We want to stamp out the hornets' nest. We will go into Serbia to stop this terrorist-supporting state." So it's a "war on terror" war as well.

I believe in the multiplicity of causes. Disasters when they occur usually have multiple causes. It usually requires more than one thing to go wrong. Whether we're talking about an air crash or any other kind of disaster, usually it's several things that have to go wrong. So there is always going to be a bit of a mélange of factors to consider.

QUESTIONER: Where do you put your weight?

ADAM ROBERTS: I do not put it on the Leninist theory, you'll be surprised to hear, because I think it is very, very hard to prove the connection between the Leninist theory and the actual events of the outbreak of the war. It's hard to see that the big corporations were the cause of the war.

It is true that colonial rivalries played into the cause of the war, and particularly so in light of the very particular way in which Germany perceived the colonial issue. Indeed, one part of the origin of both world wars is the German perception that here were these other European powers making hay, having a lovely time making money in the extra-European world—or, at least as the Germans believed it, making money. To us or the French it seemed that it was always about to make money but never quite had done so at any given time. But that's by the way. The problem with the Leninist theory is that it is very hard to establish what precisely the connection was between the characteristically Leninist view of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism and the actual events of the summer of 1914.

And did America enter the war because of big business or because of other factors? I think the answer has to be other factors.

So that's one theory I don't particularly support. But of the others, I think every one has a part to play in contributing to our understanding of the causes of the outbreak of war in 1914.

QUESTION: You mentioned the sense of insecurity of the Tamils who had been civil servants during the colonial period. I was wondering, as one looks at colonial empires—whether it's the British, the French, or smaller ones like the Belgian—how all those empires who manage vast numbers of people have often relied on minority groups to establish their rules. How much do you think a number of conflicts that we see today are legacy conflicts, where the division between a minority group and a majority group is not something that was necessarily there for centuries, but rather that's something that was exacerbated by the management of power by the colonial powers?

QUESTION: The pugnacious part of me would like to take you on about Sri Lanka, not least because of my involvement with Tamils today and their reports of the systematic abuse of human rights to this day, with which I'm sure you're sympathetic and indeed aware.

But anyway, my question is about something perhaps more positive, which is your extraordinary work on nonviolence, which I wholeheartedly support and have tried to advance in different ways. But I wondered how we can overcome—I want you to speculate for a second—the problem that nonviolence is seen as somehow a marginal discourse, that it is seen as some kind of weak alternative to the armed use of force?

How can we make it a central part of state strategy, or indeed strategy in general, given two factors? One is its extraordinary moral value and persuasive force, and perhaps success rate, which your recent book I think talked very rigorously about; but secondly, the fact that the range of nonviolent tools is now much greater than perhaps it has been in earlier times, particularly when we're looking at things like cyber warfare, but also the extraordinary opportunities offered by the Internet and the shared information that we now enjoy?

QUESTION: I did want to ask a question about Sri Lanka. This extraordinary gentleman whom you've honored obviously represents a kind of deep commitment to liberal constitutionalism, which you find a lot in South Asia, certainly in India. My very superficial exposure to Sri Lankan officials hasn't exposed me to much of that. If anything, I have found Sri Lankans to be extraordinarily brittle, defensive, self-righteous, extremely defensive of their alleged democratic freedoms.

So I'm wondering, if that's even remotely a fair characterization, what became of that streak of constitutional liberalism which is in this one gentleman but perhaps not very broadly represented in Sri Lanka?

ADAM ROBERTS: Wonderful contributions. To an extent, each of the contributions was not only a question but also a statement and one with which I have a large measure of agreement.

The question about colonial powers and minorities—it is probably in the nature of colonial powers that they seek alliances with particular groups in society that may be close to them or may simply enable them to acquire power and authority in a society. Colonialism always depends upon local alliances. Indeed, that is often why it is there in the first place. That often leads then to a subsequent post-colonial legacy where a society is divided between those who are perceived to have been collaborators and those who are perceived to have been the heroic freedom fighters. That can create divisions that are enduringly hard to overcome.

In the case of Sri Lanka, there were many Tamils who were worried about independence for the reason, as it were, that subsequent events may have been seen as justifying, that it would lead to a Sinhalese dominance over them, that they had been saved from in the period of British control.

So I can only agree with you that I think that is a structural problem of many societies. One finds the same issue in a different form in the composition of armed forces in colonized societies.

And indeed, to this day in most countries—it's not true particularly in the United States, but, for example, in the UK, traditionally larger numbers of our armed forces have come from Scotland than the proportion of Scots in the total UK population would suggest. That's for lots of reasons, including the limited employment possibilities there may be in Scotland. So this seems to me to be an absolutely enduring issue of colonialism.

If you think of many peacekeeping involvements that the UN has had, including those that you were in charge of, at least some of the crises that led to such operations being needed had their origins in the ethnic or sectarian rivalries that flowed from that earlier colonial period.

As for the question about Tamils and human rights abuses today, you are right to indicate that the government treatment of Tamils today—and, indeed, of not just the Tamils but of journalists and various other categories of people—is extremely worrying. Were I to talk about the same issues in Sri Lanka as I've just talked about, I would certainly not forbear from mentioning that issue. How can we overcome the perception that civil resistance is seen as a weak phenomenon? How can we make it more central to discussions of state strategy?

I think the biggest danger there is one of claiming too much. If we present civil resistance as offering a solution to all problems—and it sometimes is presented in that way—then we run into skepticism.

For example, in the book you kindly mentioned, we emphasize very much how striking it is that in many cases of successful campaigns of civil resistance, those who were resisters and avoided the use of violence in their campaigns do not then go on to advocate all-around Gandhi'ism, as it were, as the basis of state policy. They recognize that running a state is a different proposition from running a campaign for change, or even revolution. I think that they are right to make that distinction. It's partly right because there's always a very strong feeling, when a society has been under foreign occupation, that they want to be defended, rather than liberated, next time. They've had enough of the catastrophe of foreign control.

Thus, it's not surprising that East European states wanted to join NATO after they had got rid of communist control. That aspect—as it were, the "pull" aspect—of NATO expansion is something that is, in my view, scandalously ignored in much of the discussion about NATO expansion, as if it was up to us to decide in an Olympian manner whether it expanded and how, when in fact the "pull" factor was very, very strong.

People like Václav Havel, who had been absolutely clear on the need for nonviolence in the struggle against communist rule—and the Poles, Wałęsa and others—were equally clear that they wanted to join NATO. So I'm against over-claiming for what civil resistance can achieve.

I think that that issue arises also in connection with the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring is a marvelous illustration of the power of civil resistance. But it's also, my God, an illustration of its limits. Think of the way in which in Bahrain it has been virtually defeated—probably has been defeated—by the Saudi intervention and by the government simply refusing to give in.

In a way, the success in Tunisia and Egypt, the initial success in getting rid of two dictators, led to the false, easy, even lazy assumption that "do the same in other countries and you'll get the same result." In Bahrain, for example—and in the absence of a very clear leadership structure—the resistance didn't focus consistently on negotiating with the regime because it was widely thought the regime might well be replaced. And yet, it was in the logic of their campaign that they needed a new constitution—one that would recognize certain rights of the Shia majority. And that would require negotiation.

So I think that the delusion that you can achieve all by nonviolence or bring down regimes easily can itself lead to enormous problems. Actually, Tim Garton Ash and a Middle Eastern specialist Michael Willis are doing a book now about civil resistance in the Arab Spring. I fear that this lesson is one that is going to emerge rather centrally from it.

One needs to think very toughly about the circumstances where it can succeed and the circumstances where it might need to be pursued in a different way, or there might need to be more willingness to engage in negotiations, or more need for unified leadership. That was, of course, a particular lack in the Syrian case.

And finally, your very good question about whatever became of constitutionalism in Sri Lanka. It was partly that sense that Sri Lankan politics had become thuggish that got Lakshman Kadirgamar interested in going into politics. He made in 1994 a very interesting statement, "Why I Decided to Enter Politics," and he made that statement on television and radio and in a number of other fora. One of his comments was about the decline of standards generally in public life. He was concerned about the extent of bribery and corruption, which was huge in Sri Lanka—and, for all I know, may remain huge. And he also commented explicitly on the amount of violence in public life.

He had very good reason to know it, because of the fate of a friend of his, Lalith Athulathmudali, who had also been a president of the Oxford Union when Lakshman was a student at Oxford. They had both been president of this great debating society that is a sort of model of parliaments and of parliamentary procedure. It's a remarkable achievement that both of them in the late 1950s, Sri Lankans at Oxford, got elected by their fellow students to this extraordinarily prestigious position.

Lalith Athulathmudali had been assassinated in 1993, just over one year before Lakshman entered politics. We don't know by whom: one theory is that government forces may have been involved. He had been a minister in the government. There is a picture that shows both them at the Oxford Union, and they were both on the committee at the same time, just two brown faces among all the white faces. It's just an awful, haunting thought that both of them subsequently died violent deaths.

In 1994, Lakshman's sense that standards had gone down and that violence was taking over, entering the heart of Sri Lankan politics, was very strong, and Lakshman was determined to do something about it. Of course, the habit of violence is extremely hard to tackle.

There is some evidence that in 2004, Lakshman was considered a possible alternative to Mahinda Rajapaksa for the post of prime minister. It's a fascinating thought. Both were lawyers as well as politicians. It was probably preordained that Rajapaksa would win, because he was from the majority population and Kadirgamar was from a minority population. Also, Kadirgamar was a foreign-educated intellectual, he probably spoke better English than he did Tamil , and so on. So the outcome is perhaps not surprising.

But it is interesting to think of it as a choice of two courses for Sri Lanka—and in a sense it was a choice that Lakshman confronted continuously over 11 years in politics. I think that this choice at many points boiled down to exactly what you ask about, the difference between a rather, frankly, thuggish view of the way to conduct politics and a view which is more imbued with Western liberal ideas—but ideas which, although Western, are not without attraction in Sri Lanka. Sadly, the thuggish view has tended to prevail.

JOEL ROSENTHAL: It's now time to adjourn. But I just want to thank you. I think this conversation has been a wonderful way to honor the man, his legacy, and honor your work as expressed in this book. We have to put an artificial ending on it right now, but these issues will certainly continue in this room and in this Council for a long time to come. So thank you very much.

You may also like

JUL 9, 2024 Article

The Rise of Preemptive Bans on Human Microchip Implants

As the impact and influence of chip implants increases in the U.S., it's time to raise ethical and legal questions about this technology.

JUL 2, 2024 Podcast

Cybernetics, Digital Surveillance, & the Role of Unions in Tech Governance, with Elisabet Haugsbø

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen speaks with Elisabet Haugsbø, president of tech union Tekna, about her engineering journey, resiliency in the AI era, and much more.

JUN 27, 2024 Podcast

AI, Military Ethics, & Being Alchemists of Meaning, with Heather M. Roff

Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen and Heather Roff, senior research scientist at the The Center for Naval Analyses, discuss AI systems, military affairs, and much more.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation