independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Sri Lanka war 'a failure for UN'

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said a report showed the UN system 'failed to meet its responsibilities' in the Sri Lankan civil war

A United Nations report has said inadequate efforts by the world body to protect civilians during the bloody final months of Sri Lanka's civil war marked a "grave failure" that led to suffering for hundreds of thousands of people.

The report was unusually scathing for an official UN critique. It accused UN staff in Colombo of not perceiving that preventing civilian deaths was their responsibility and accused their bosses at UN headquarters of not telling them otherwise.

A separate UN report released last year said up to 40,000 ethnic minority Tamil civilians may have been killed in the war's final months.

"This report is a benchmark moment for the UN in the same way that Rwanda was," said Gordon Weiss, a former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka. The report accused UN officials and member states of being reluctant to interfere and leaving the conflict in a "vacuum of inaction."

"The report concludes that the United Nations system failed to meet its responsibilities - highlighting, in particular, the roles played by the Secretariat, the agencies and programmes of the UN Country Team and the members of the Security Council and Human Rights Council," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.

The report was compiled by a committee headed by former UN official Charles Petrie. It investigated UN actions as the quarter-century war between the government, dominated by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, and minority Tamil rebels ended in 2009 in a wave of violence.

The BBC first reported on a draft of the report Tuesday. The draft, obtained by The Associated Press shortly before the final report was released, began with an "executive summary" that detailed the UN failure on the ground, saying that the political conditions after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the US made countries less likely to stop a government fighting against a group - the Tamil Tiger rebels - that many had branded a terrorist organisation. The executive summary was deleted from the official published version issued on Wednesday.

The draft report painted a picture of a UN operation reluctant to criticise the government or accuse it of killing civilians with artillery bombardments, out of concern the government would respond by limiting UN humanitarian access - even through UN aid workers were barred from the northern war zone in late 2008.

Top UN officials in the country repeatedly worked to soften statements to remove casualty figures and accusations of possible war crimes against the government, the official report said. When death tolls its staff was compiling were released, top officials dismissed them as unverified despite the rigorous methodology being used, the report said.

The UN representative for Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, said "The UN's dereliction of duty in Sri Lanka is a stark reminder of what happens when human rights concerns are marginalised or labelled as too political."

Press Association

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