David Petrasek: Activist, Scholar and Mensch

by Ram Manikkalingam

David interviewing Fatou Bensouda, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.

It was December 1999. Two years before the attacks on the Twin Towers by Al Qaeda. I landed at Geneva airport and checked into my hotel. I was on my way to Colombo. I had stopped in Geneva to meet David Petrasek. I had never met him before. But I knew that he was working on a project on the human rights violations of armed groups. Human rights activists in Sri Lanka were struggling with the violations of the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers controlled territory and ran a de facto state in the North. While people on the ground in these areas were dealing with the oppressive rule of the Tigers through small scale resistance or highlighting their violations, there was no coherent international framework in human rights to confront the violations of armed groups, other than the laws of war. But these dealt with fighting and its impact on civilians and soldiers, not with the behaviour of non-state armed groups in other situations.

States were wary of conceding that these groups controlled territory and managed quasi-governmental functions. Doing so would be an admission of weakness on their part. An admission that they did not control all of their sovereign territory. And many international human rights organisations, not to mention legal instruments laid primary, if not sole responsibility, for violations on the state. This was a legacy of the struggle against one party dictatorships in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships Latin America. But this was a far cry from reality. The lived experience of people in large swathes of Latin America, Asia and Africa was different. Many armed groups were not necessarily seen as freedom fighters struggling against oppression, but often as oppressive violators of human rights, themselves.

At that time, I was working at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. I was looking for innovative and interesting initiatives that connected local challenges to international efforts in the area of peace, security and human rights. I heard about David’s initiative and decided to meet with him on my way home to Colombo. David looked at the silences in human rights work – what were policy makers, human rights activists and scholars not talking about – either because of political bias, academic fashion or political correctness. David could not have predicted that two years later, on September 11th, 2001, the issue of armed groups, their funding, and their actions, not to mention, their impact on world politics literally exploded on the international security and human rights scene. But David was already prepared as a thinker and an activist.

He had led and organised an intellectually insightful and carefully crafted discussion on the issues of human rights approaches to armed groups that has stood the test of time. This document was a result of engaging with the scholarly literature, the concerns of activists and policy makers, and even the issues raised by members of armed groups, themselves. More than twenty years later, you can still return to this text, and it appears as fresh and relevant, as when I first read it. This was just one of David’s many initiatives. David has written and led projects on how human rights intersects with business, voluntarism and foreign policy with equal erudition and practical sense. My (belated) support for David’s efforts to understand human rights approaches to armed groups, was only the start of a long and wonderful personal collaboration with David.

A couple of years after we met, I went to work for the then President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga, on the peace process. It was a complicated time in Sri Lanka. We were in the midst of “neither war nor peace”. We had negotiated a ceasefire that was fraying at the edges. There were serious violations of human rights in the midst of the ceasefire. The Tamil Tigers were recruiting children and limiting movement of people out of the territory they controlled. The state still enforced an embargo on the Tamil areas. People living there only knew military rule – either that of the Tigers or the state. The Norwegians were mediating the process. They also had a ceasefire monitoring team led by military experts. This team was grappling with human rights violations on the ground and efforts to move towards political talks about autonomy. The President I was going to advise, was in the midst of a power struggle with the then Prime Minister about how to manage the peace process. She was adamantly opposed to the Tamil Tigers, while being a strong supporter of Tamil autonomy. To many, this was a contradictory position. But I understood and agreed with it. While most human rights activists might have criticised the idea of working for a president who is in the midst of a political power struggle, engaged in a tense tussle with an armed group and leading an army that was accused of human rights violations, David supported me.

He was not a purist. He saw my practical involvement in a messy peace process as an opportunity to make a difference, and understood that you couldn’t do that by being above the fray of politics. Not once did I feel like David judged me for the inevitable compromises I had to make in the position of a political adviser. Do you push for stronger military action to marginalise the Tigers and strengthen the Tamil democratic parties’ call for autonomy, or do you engage the Tigers on development and reconstruction to draw them into a political discussion to reduce violence? In politics, like in life, not all good things come together.

I trusted David’s judgement (and his lack of the self-righteous kind), that at a moment when the peace process was in the doldrums, I invited him to come to Colombo to help the government explore options and ideas. David visited Sri Lanka, met with the President and a few of her key advisers to discuss ways of making progress. As usual David was clear, forthright and nuanced in his advice. He understood human rights is not an abstract concept reflected in formal international settings, where the great and the good of the world gather to call for justice, but is the result of thousands of struggles by myriad individuals and institutions, making use of the fleeting opportunities and temporary spaces that emerge as political leaders and governments vie for power and influence.

If my debt to David, had ended there, it would have been considerable. But this was only the beginning of a much more intense collaboration that took off shortly after I left my post as a senior adviser to the President, when her term ended. As a private citizen with security withdrawn and the Tigers on my tail, I left the country. With the help of a close friend in Amsterdam, I was fortunate to get a position teaching international relations at the university there. While it was rewarding to teach graduate students and to use this opportunity to organise my ideas, intellectually, I did miss the excitement of dealing with the politics of conflict – engaging and debating with political and governmental leaders, as well as military commanders and leaders of armed groups. I turned to David for advice about what to do next.

While David began his professional life in human rights at Amnesty International, at that time, he was working in Geneva for an organization engaged in international mediation – the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. He encouraged me to form my own organisation – the Dialogue Advisory Group – to work on mediation between governments and armed groups. It was a critical professional moment for me, where I went from working for a peaceful resolution to the war in my country to understanding that some of my experiences and knowledge could be of use to others struggling with similar challenges in theirs. David gave me the confidence that what I had learned in Sri Lanka could also be used in the Basque Country, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Libya and the Congo, where we have since been working for over a decade.

David was a firm universalist. He believed in the universal value of human life and the lives humans lived in all their diversity. He understood that a very central part of valuing the universality of people’s rights, was that they could desire and demand very different things. Some of us may seek material satisfaction, others spiritual, and still others love, aesthetics or knowledge. He loved and appreciated this crazy world we live in, even as he was committed to the equality of all human beings. Not once did you feel that David was trying to impose his order on things – however small or big. He had this knack of eliciting from you how you saw the world, what you would want from it, and how you would like it to be. Drawing on your decent side, while diplomatically ignoring your less decent one, David quietly moved you in the direction of a better world for everyone – even your enemies and rivals – before it was too late for you to resist. It was this knack that made David a consummate bridge between the worlds of human rights and conflict resolution. He was the only person I know who was fully and genuinely steeped in both worlds. He had worked directly in promoting human rights at Amnesty International, where he spent many years and now he was working in promoting peace.

David drew on his own experience to help me get the Dialogue Advisory Group off the ground. He served on our advisory board from its very inception. He was instrumental not only in what we worked on, but also how we worked. He understood that private actors could, and indeed had a duty to, “rush in where official actors fear to tread”. As conflict became complex and the lines between war and peace, humanitarian efforts and counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism and making peace blurred, official actors like the UN, not to mention states, were facing suspicion and wariness among many groups in the world. It would be harder for diplomatic, political and security reasons for senior officials to travel and meet with the leaders of armed groups. Diplomats, leaders, and commanders, from both governments and armed groups, were looking for more informal channels to get their messages conveyed and engage in a political dialogue. At the same time, the realist in David understood the limits to the role of informal/private actors like us. Armed rebels were not fighting to get the recognition of NGOs, however wide their reach or influential their connections. In the end, to successfully conclude any peace process an official imprimatur from the UN or any other inter governmental organisation or a state was important, if not critical.

David helped us get accustomed to talking about human rights protections in our peace efforts.  This is an area of some contention between human rights activists and peace mediators. The former give priority to human rights, and are loath to compromise human rights standards in the pursuit of peace agreements. They argue that peace without equality, and civil and political rights, was not a peace worthy of pursuit. Peace makers on the other hand, justify their avoidance of human rights on the basis that they are preventing there being future victims of violence. Because war leads to violations of human rights. While parties may debate different conceptions of human rights, these are not irreconcilable when they are forward looking. But when commanders and political leaders are called to account for past behaviour the challenge of integrating human rights becomes particularly acute.

Dealing with this challenge inspired one of our key initiatives – the Amsterdam Dialogue – where we bring together practitioners and scholars of human rights and peace to discuss how to overcome it. David had a depth of knowledge and an extraordinary understanding of the mechanics of both promoting peace and protecting rights.  He attended everyone of our annual dialogues, invariably chairing the concluding session of the two-day seminar. (One spin off from this was the DAG-3QD Symposia on peace and justice, which David kicked off with a critique of military intervention to protect human rights). He kept the Amsterdam Dialogue both conceptually clear and practically useful. David had a distaste for networking without substance or for discussions without intellectual or practical impact. He both understood the power of ideas, and the importance of combining power with ideas.

As a professional, an academic or an activist, in the area of human rights and armed conflict, while you are compelled to engage with the work of a scholar-practitioner like David Petrasek, there is no requirement to trust, like, collaborate, and dare I say love, someone, in order to do so. There are many people we work with in our daily lives, because they have intellectual, political or social influence. You do what you have to, to get the job done, and then you move on. In David’s case, it was the opposite.  Quite apart from his contribution intellectually, politically and socially, you wanted to be friends with David.  You were drawn to him because of his innate human decency that shone through with such sincerity. I can’t count the number of times, people have told me, the only reason they trusted me was that I am David’s friend.

And David was a wonderful friend. He took me skiing, when I had not been in more than twenty years.  And kept me company – no doubt laughing to himself – as I tumbled down the slopes. He knew the cheapest and best sandwich shops everywhere. He could recommend where to eat hoppers (appam) in Scarborough – the now Tamil suburb of Toronto – where he grew up. And was thrilled to see the signs in the Scarborough hospital that said “Tamil is spoken here”. He could spend a whole weekend restoring his beautiful canoe at his home in Ottawa, where he spent the final decade of his life. He loved teaching international law at the University of Ottawa and working with Open Global Rights. It gave him an opportunity to bring together his love of the world, people and ideas. His students were the lucky beneficiaries of his passions. We missed him in Europe and Sri Lanka. But he was very much a part of our communities, participating in seminars, editing our writings, and proffering advice.

I called David about a week before he died. We reminisced. He described how as a youth from Scarborough he had this vague sense of a world out there that he wanted to explore. As a law student working in a legal clinic supporting refugees, he began to engage this world indirectly. This was not enough. He wanted be a part of it all. He went on to work with Amnesty International in London – travelling to Sri Lanka on his first field visit. Then he went on to work in the UN, and in different organisations, always promoting peace and protecting human rights wherever he worked. David told me he knew he was dying, but did not feel like he was. His last words to me was that he had led the life he wanted. It was a hard conversation to have. But as always with David it was also inspiring.

David with the author in Amsterdam