UN 'failed civilians of Sri Lanka'

Sri Lanka has been engulfed by civil war, between their Government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) for 40 long years. And yet hardly anyone knows about it. During the last stages of this war in 2009 the Sri Lankan army went on its final offensive; triggering a last brutal confrontation between the two sides. The government side, not surprisingly, prevailed aided by its size and technology as well as the world's indifference.

For the civilians caught in the crossfire (in the northern districts of the tiny Indian Ocean island) during these final months, their last shred of hope rested with the United Nations - established in 1945 to "maintain international peace and promote cooperation in solving international economic, social and humanitarian problems". However, the UN did anything but this during those final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war.

After the UN personnel left the north of the island, the Sri Lankan government pressed on to defeat the LTTE without any regard for the Tamil civilians that were caught in between. While there can be no concrete way of determining how many died during the last five months of the civil war, the UN has stated that a death toll of 40,000 civilians is credible, but it could in fact be closer to 70,000.

This insurmountable death toll has come back to haunt the UN in the form of an internal inquiry commissioned by the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. The "highly critical" report was leaked to the BBC last week, and according to them it states that the UN may have "failed in its mandate to protect civilians" in the last few months of the war.

This UN investigation into its own conduct during the last months of the conflict says the organisation should in future "be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities". It identifies failure in a number of areas, and describes the internal UN crisis-management structure as "incoherent".

"I fear this report will show the UN has not lived up to the standards we expect of it and has not behaved as the moral conscience of the world” - Edward Mortimer, Former senior UN official.

After the leaking of the report to the BBC, a reluctant UN in New York had to publish the document to the public. But according to Frances Harrison, the former BBC correspondent of Sri Lanka and author of 'Still Counting The Dead', the UN chose to publish the document "without its powerful executive summary that set the conflict in the context of post-9/11 global attitudes to terrorism that tragically skewed the reporting of the bloodshed. Internal communications show senior UN officials struggling to portray the proscribed terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers, as the ones primarily to blame for the killings."

She carries on to state that " the latest UN report documents how UN staff members were in possession of reliable information that showed that the Sri Lankan government was responsible for the majority of deaths. And that two-thirds of the killings were inside safe zones unilaterally declared by the Sri Lankan government purportedly to protect civilians. This was information (that) senior UN managers decided not to share with diplomats when they briefed them."

Surprisingly, the UN did not allow its staff to tell the world what they'd seen, or what they had conduced regarding the deaths of civilians. Instead, matters were talked between the UN and the Sri Lankan government "privately." The resident co-ordinator even wrote "privately" to Sri Lanka's Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that "all the shelling came from the government lines" and urged them to protect civilians.

Information was flooding out of Sri Lanka via Tamil doctors, priests, NGO works and local UN employees held hostage by the Tigers. Some brave lower-level UN staff members, that set up a task force in Colombo to collect and verify casualty data even after the UN at large had left the island and wiped its hand's clean of the situation, had confirmed nearly 8,000 civilian deaths before it became "impossible in late April 2009 for people under heavy fire to leave their bunkers to verify information".

The report's executive summary said: "some have argued many deaths could have been averted had the Security Council and the Secretariat, backed by the UN country team, spoken out loudly early on, notably by publicising casualty numbers." But it has come out that when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethm Pillay, struggled to use the UN's casualty figures to speak out about the potential war crimes by the Sri Lankan Government , internal UN communications reveal that Mr Ban's then chef de cabinet, Vijay Nambiar, implored her to tone down her statement."

Frances Harrison further stated that, "other UN diplomats are cited in the report trying to wriggle out of accepting the casualty data their own staff prepared, undermining it by questioning its reliability. Never mind that these figures were much more carefully checked than death tolls cited for Syria or Afghanistan."

Another point outlined in the report touches on the fact that the UN did not see the prevention of civilian deaths as its responsibility. Many senior UN staff who had been stationed in the capital Colombo, as the conflict was drawing to an end, have even been quoted saying that they "did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility." Overall, there was a "sustained and institutionalised reluctance…to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist."

Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond, during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians. With the secretary-general stating that the UN will employ another panel to ensure that the lessons in Sri Lanka are not repeated in another conflict, critics have raised the point that the "UN made similar promises after it failed to react to genocide in Rwanda", and they also fail to learn from Sri Lanka with the current situation in Gaza and the genocide of the Rohingya in Burma.

Let there be no doubt: While rebel fighters committed their own crimes, a sovereign government brutalised and killed its own civilians. The Sri Lankan government believes that they have triumphed and got away scot-free. The only way for Ban Ki-moon to restore the UN's tattered credibility on Sri Lanka now, is to call an independent investigation into the brutal slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians in 2009. They need to set the record straight.

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