Leaked report speaks of its Mission’s reluctance to stand up for the rights of people

An internal United Nations report has blamed its own officials who were part of its Mission in Colombo for failing the organisation in its mandate to protect civilians in the last months of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. “Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the U.N.,” the conduct report concludes, according the BBC.

An April 2011 report by the U.N. Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka had held that upwards of 40,000 civilians perished, trapped between the government’s deliberate artillery shelling of ‘no fire zones,’ and the Tamil Tigers’ refusal to let them out of their control. The panel recommended that the UNSG “conduct a comprehensive review of actions by the U.N. system” relating to its central mandates – humanitarian aid and civilian protection.

“Senior U.N. sources say [Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon is determined to act on its wide-ranging recommendations in order to “learn lessons” and respond more effectively to major new crises, such as Syria, now confronting the international community,” the BBC said in its website.

From what is leaked to the BBC, also quoted by the New York Times, it appears that the report had assessed the situation on the ground and sifted through U.N. responses – in Colombo and New York – to each of these situations.

Despite a catastrophic situation on the ground, the report bluntly points out, in Colombo “many senior U.N. staff did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility — and agency and department heads at U.N. [headquarters] were not instructing them otherwise.”

It says there was “a sustained and institutionalised reluctance” among U.N. personnel in Sri Lanka “to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist.”

The report details how the U.N. failed to publicise authoritative data about the human toll as casualties rose. It criticises a decision to withdraw U.N. staff from zones where much of the killing later took place, because Colombo said their safety could no longer be guaranteed. The U.N. should “be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities,” it says.

The Secretary-General had initiated a review of U.N. actions regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates during Eelam War IV and its immediate aftermath.

The U.N., on September 24, 2011, had announced the appointment of Thoraya Obaid, former head of the U.N. Population Fund to conduct the review. Ms. Obaid, the first Saudi national to head a U.N. agency when she was appointed Executive Director to the Population Fund, was expected to start work in October 2011. But she declined to head the panel. Later, another official, Charles Petrie, was selected to head it. Instead of the mandated four months, the panel’s work took about a year.

Colombo’s denial

Sri Lanka, finding itself under fire yet again for its conduct during the final stages of the Eelam War that ended in May 2009, promptly denied it had forced the U.N. or acted against it in any manner.

“We consulted with the U.N. and there was no intimidation of U.N. officials. How can you intimidate the U.N., the USA, Japan or any other country? These are sovereign entities,” the President’s Special Envoy for Human Rights and Minister of Plantation Industries Mahinda Samarasinghe was quoted by Daily Mirror online, as having said in response to a question posed to him on Wednesday.

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