The United Nation’s internal report on its role during the final stages of the prolonged civil war in Sri Lanka was unusually critical of the Secretariat and highlighted major shortcomings in the UN’s response to the fighting.
The report, which was leaked to the BBC days before its official release on Nov. 15, forced top UN chiefs to admit to a mea culpa of sorts. It was commissioned after recommendations from an earlier report by an independent panel of experts to address accountability in Sri Lanka. That report revealed that extensive civilian casualties resulted from action by both the Sri Lankan government and the separatist rebel group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in 2008-2009, in which as many as 44,000 people may have died and war crimes may have been committed.
While the report attributed many deaths to the Tamil Tigers, as they are known, it found that the government should also be held accountable for instances of human-rights violations, more so than previously believed.
The UN’s inability to protect civilians in the final throes of the 26-year conflict also reveal fundamental flaws in its office on prevention of genocide, since it did not act emphatically on the unfolding crisis.
The newest internal report, written by a panel led by Charles Petrie, a former UN official and diplomat with French and British citizenship, focused solely on the role of UN in the conflict’s waning stages. The panel wrote that a variety of actors throughout the Secretariat were reluctant to criticize the Sri Lankan government, despite their awareness that government shelling was leaving large numbers of civilians dead. The panel wrote further that there was a decided lack of political interest in the conflict among the Security Council and UN member states. In fact, the issue was never discussed in any major forum at the UN, the earlier report confirmed.
Susana Malcorra, chef de cabinet in the UN Secretariat – third in command after Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Jan Eliasson, his deputy — said in a press conference on Nov. 15 that Ban would form a high-level committee to investigate and carry out the panel’s recommendations. That formulation, headed by Eliasson, began in early December.
The 2012 report indicated that in Sri Lanka, a strong human-rights response was subordinated to a humanitarian response as UN staff members feared that criticism of the government would hamper their work and result in reduced access to the victims. The report also revealed, however, that humanitarian access was already severely limited, in particular after the UN withdrew its office from the Vanni region, where hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of them women and children, were trapped and left vulnerable to the warring factions.
The lack of any strong human-rights interest at the UN regarding Sri Lanka was partly caused by the failure of the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide to generate such attention. Established in 2004, the office is mandated to collect and analyze information to make recommendations to the Security Council on how to prevent or halt genocide and to promote consensus-building on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, meant to protect civilians in conflicts.
Both the special adviser on genocide prevention, Frances Deng, from South Sudan, and the special adviser on R2P, Edward Luck, an American, were conspicuously quiet on Sri Lanka. On May 15, 2009, Deng released a statement calling for both sides to end the conflict. Deng also wrote an editorial in The Guardian, saying, “Since the start of the conflict in January 2009, seven thousand civilians are reported to have been killed and thousands more maimed by heavy shelling by the Sri Lankan military and shootings by LTTE fighters.”
The Petrie report says further that Deng “raised concern with the Government and the Secretary-General over the situation but favoured quiet diplomacy and told the Government he would ‘not speak out.”
Any R2P approach was similarly muted: “The concept of a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was raised occasionally during the final stages of the conflict,” the report says, “but to no useful result. Differing perceptions among Member States and the Secretariat of the concept’s meaning and use had become so contentious as to nullify its potential value. Indeed, making references to the Responsibility to Protect was seen as more likely to weaken rather than strengthen UN action.”
On the one hand, Deng’s writings and preference for “quiet diplomacy” were not enough to place Sri Lanka on a human-rights agenda at the UN. On the other hand, the persistently contentious definition of what constituted an R2P response to the crisis meant that such an option was quickly dismissed. The prevention of genocide office was therefore paralyzed by its reluctance to take a strong approach, despite that doing so was its main duty.
The report’s panel ultimately found that “with its multiplicity of mandates and areas of expertise, the UN possessed the capabilities to simultaneously strive for humanitarian access while also robustly condemning the perpetrators of killings of civilians,” and recommended that the “the Secretary-General should use the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as a ‘convening’ initiative to invite Member States to receive and consider information on the human rights aspects of a relevant crisis situation.”
The UN spokesman’s office told PassBlue in an e-mail that “the report makes two things clear: that the UN’s failure was a systemic one resulting from a combination of different factors rather than one single problem; and that a key aspect of the systemic failure was a lack of clarity on the institutional responsibilitywithin the UN for raising human rights and humanitarian law concerns.”
Organizing the new committee to review the Petrie report’s recommendations have started, with Eliasson’s office asking relevant heads of UN departments, offices, funds and programs to nominate representatives to participate. The group is expected to finish its deliberations in the second quarter of 2013.
Other steps have already been taken to resolve the systemic issues named in Petrie’s report as well, Malcorra said at the Nov. 15 press briefing. In particular, the spokesman’s office later noted the introduction of the Department of Political Affair’s “horizon screenings” briefings to the UN Security Council (which have become infrequent); the secretary-general’s UN Operations and Crisis Center; and the secretary-general’s Special Circumstances on Non-Mission Settings.
All three measures are meant to improve coordination and information-sharing in the Secretariat, although none of them reinstates human rights and international humanitarian law as a priority for decision-makers. The spokesman’s office said that the follow-up process, however, “will help ensure more clarity on how the UN can better identify and lead on such human rights issues.”
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Alice Volkov has a master’s degree from the Graduate School of International Affairs at Australian National University in Canberra. She wrote her thesis on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the intervention in Libya in 2011. Recently, she was an intern with the South Asian Human Rights Documentation Center in New Delhi. Her areas of interest also include strategies for preventing mass atrocity crimes; international development practices relating to the governance sector; and criminal justice reform. Volkov received a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in history from the University of Melbourne.