The internal report of the United Nations on its role in Sri Lanka raises troubling questions about its strategies and actions during critical stages of the conflict in the island nation. It unmasks yet another failure of the world body in preventing mass civilian casualties despite overwhelming evidence that a catastrophe was imminent. Its failure was ensured by a determined government that assembled a formidable diplomatic and strategic barrier around its military objectives. Sri Lanka was able to pass off its use of disproportionate force against a cowering population caught between an advancing army and a ruthless terrorist force that needed a civilian shield, as a necessary measure to eliminate terrorism. In the report, Sri Lanka emerges none the purer, as it contains cogent evidence of how Colombo worked to stave off international scrutiny and brazenly hounded U.N. and aid agencies out of the conflict zone so that there were no witnesses to its undoubted excesses. The U.N.’s internal narrative reveals a weak system that did not have the stomach to stand up for the rights of the people it was mandated to protect. The government deliberately underestimated the population trapped in the Vanni region and issued patently false denials about targeting no-fire zones and hospitals. It carried on a campaign of intimidation and calumny against U.N. officials, detained its national staff, and shelled convoys carrying essentials for the trapped population.
The emergence of the report should also occasion a sober reflection on the most appropriate response to a worsening conflict situation. One cannot forget that in those crucial months between late 2008 and May 2009, the international community faced the classic dilemma of the post-9/11 world — how long does one look away, if at all, when a democracy is fighting a “terrorist insurgency”? Could the U.N. have been expected to be out of sync with the global mood? To many, humanitarian aspects were clearly subordinate to the objective of eliminating terrorism. At least two permanent Security Council members — China and Russia — and India added heft to the Sri Lankan camp, and the diplomatic odds were stacked against the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has promised that the U.N. would learn from its mistakes and strengthen its responses. The world body cannot afford to give the impression that justice and accountability for past impunity have been forgotten. After perceived failures in Bosnia and Rwanda, and possibly Syria, the U.N. needs to find ways of insulating itself from the diplomatic clout of key players. Publication of its damning internal report on Sri Lanka serves as the perfect occasion for a break with the past.