Sri Lanka’s war crimes: UN says sorry, will the government?

On Wednesday, the United Nations released a landmark report that indicted itself for its failure in protecting thousands of Sri Lankan civilians during the final phase of the Eelam War in 2009.

But this self-indictment, in fact, effectively exposes the Sri Lankan government’s complicity in the war excesses against its Tamil civilians, and its persistent efforts to block any form of international scrutiny or intervention.

The UN indeed admits to grave failures in the report, but doesn’t hide the fact its options to maneuver were seriously limited. AP

The most obvious sense that the report conveys is that of introspection by the UN, since Sri Lanka was its second Rwanda. But the process of introspection brings out the reality that the situation couldn’t have been any better because the Sri Lankan government was determined in its plan, which also included proxy attacks and intimidation of the UN and international community, and diplomatic games at the General Assembly with the help of a few member states. No marks for guessing who these states were.

Going by the report, some of the UN representatives in Colombo were certainly clay-footed and didn’t do their job well in standing up to the government’s wile and intimidation, while their bosses at their headquarters failed to back up.

But that is the vitiating and overbearing environment that the Sri Lankan government offered the UN and other members of the international community. As the report itself notes, Sri Lanka has been known for denying visas and threatening to revoke them, expelling several UN resident representatives as persona non grata, and even disallowing recruitment of new staff.

The report has been prepared by an internal review panel of the Secretary General (SG) Ban Ki Moon. Such a review had been suggested by a panel of experts, which had estimated that 40,000 people had died during the final phase of the war and advised the SG on accountability of the government and the LTTE in the conflict. The SG seized the opportunity and appointed a new panel to review the UN’s role during the conflict, particularly with a view to responding more effectively to such situations in future.

The UN indeed admits to grave failures in the report, but doesn’t hide the fact that within the choking government harness, its options to maneuver were seriously limited.

You can read the complete “Report of the Secretary General’s Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka” here:

Petrie Report

Let’s see how the UN introspection indicts the Sri Lankan government. Here are some highlights with paragraph numbers for easy reference:

On the indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan army on civilians and the UN Resident Coordinator’s inability to stand up

 24. According to the Panel of Experts report “From as early as 6 February 2009, the SLA [Sri Lanka Army] continuously shelled within the area that became the second NFZ (No Fire Zone), from all directions, including land, sea and air. It is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 330,000 civilians in that small area. The SLA assault employed aerial bombardment, long-range artillery, howitzers and MBRLs [unguided missile systems] as well as small mortars, RPGs [Rocket Propelled Grenades] and small arms fire ...”

The section further notes that the RC (Resident Coordinator of the UN) had indicated that about 3000 people could have died and in another meeting, he along with other officials highlighted the violations by the LTTE, but didn’t go into the government excesses.

On the attempts to surrender by the LTTE leadership, the government’s resistance and their possible execution

From early May 2009 as the LTTE was nearing total defeat, some of its members contacted senior UN officials to ask for their help in facilitating surrender. These contacts were initiated even as other LTTE leaders were advocating instead for a ceasefire and as late as 15 May some LTTE elements were still firing mortars at the Government from amongst civilians. The Chef de Cabinet asked the Government to allow him to fly into the conflict zone to witness a surrender and act as a guarantor of safe passage. The Government refused and the UN believed it could not attempt further follow-up.

By 18 May 2009 most of the remaining LTTE leadership was reported killed. The Government claimed they died in armed engagements, possibly at the hands of other LTTE fighters. Other credible sources said many were executed, including some who on the morning of 18 May had crossed into Government-held territory unarmed and with white flags.

Elsewhere in the report, the panel notes that several members of the diplomatic community and member states were willing to put pressure on the government to allow for the surrender under international humanitarian law. Some member states, however, said that the LTTE request came in too late. Will be interesting to note who the states were. The report doesn’t name them though.

On casualty figures

On 19 May, with the death of the LTTE’s leadership, the Government claimed victory in the war. The final phase of the decades-long Sri Lankan conflict was catastrophic. The Panel of Experts stated that “[a] Some Government sources state the number was well below 10,000. Other sources have referred to credible information indicating that over 70,000 people are unaccounted for.

 Abuse of UN staff, violation of their privileges and immunities

The conflict and its aftermath saw UN staff suffer abuses in contravention of their UN privileges and immunities, and of international human rights and humanitarian law. National UN staff prevented by the LTTE from leaving the Wanni lived through months of Government and LTTE shelling, and witnessed dependents being killed or injured. Staff were screened and interned in camps. At least two staff members were abducted and tortured by Government forces, and then formally detained by the police. Many NGO staff were also killed during the conflict. In March 2012, on UN premises in Geneva, members of the Sri Lanka Government delegation threatened and harassed NGO activists attending the Human Rights Council session.

On UN sparing the government from tough talk

The UN repeatedly condemned the LTTE for serious international human rights and humanitarian law violations but largely avoided mention of the Government’s responsibility. Senior UN officials said this was because information could not be verified. In fact, information had been verified to a good standard; indeed UN statements on LTTE violations, including the killing of civilians and holding civilians hostage, were based on information verified in the same manner. Numerous UN communications said that civilians were being killed in artillery shelling, but they failed to mention that reports most often indicated the shelling in question was from Government forces.

            The UN condemned the use of heavy weapons in general, and some officials appeared to believe that because such weapons were almost exclusively used     by the Government that this was a sufficient means of raising Government       responsibility. Some RC letters to the Government on a small number of incidents were more explicit in referring to Government attacks killing civilians. However, letters on the most flagrant incidents were sent only to the head of protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or to the ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ in general, rather than to a relevant and senior Government official, limiting the letters’ impact.

This report, even while being extremely unkind to itself, is in its plain-speaking best against the dangerous ways of the Sri Lankan government. Besides the highlighted portions above, the report is also explicit on disappearances, threats to rights- activists in Geneva during the UN Human Rights Council resolution, and the country’s violent past.

Every effort of the international community and the UN, in preventing the war excesses in 2009 and fixing accountability, has failed. Even a resolution against the country at the Human Right Council didn’t bear any fruit, thanks to some friendly member states including India.

Whether the UN meant it or not, the Sri Lankan government is certainly the collateral damage in this extraordinarily cathartic exercise.

After its failure in Rwanda, it was a thoroughly distraught and suicidal commander of the UN mission, Lt General Romeo Dallaire, who made the unavoidable confession in his “Shake Hands with the Devil.”  Tormented by the guilt of inaction and the pain of genocide, for him, it was the only means of reconciliation.

But this time around, the organisation itself has confessed.

The UN has courageously said that it has failed in preventing the death and suffering of thousands of people. Can the Sri Lankan government at least show some semblance of remorse?

“UN's efforts at accountability stand in stark contrast to the Sri Lankan government’s total lack of accountability over the deaths of tens of thousands of their own civilians. This is the real issue,” sums up Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka and author of “The Cage” which originally exposed the island government’s complicity.

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