Colombo: The United Nations failed to protect civilians and halt rights abuses during the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, according to an internal review that triggered an angry response on Wednesday from Colombo.
The leaked report said the UN, under intense pressure from Sri Lankan authorities, did not make public that “a large majority” of deaths in the closing months of war in 2009 were caused by government shelling.
It also said that the Sri Lankan government’s “stratagem of intimidation”—including control of visas for critical UN staff—prevented the UN from protecting civilians in the conflict zone, the BBC reported.
Sri Lanka has faced severe international censure since its military campaign that crushed the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, ending decades of bloody ethnic warfare on the island.
Rights groups say up to 40,000 civilians were killed by government forces in the last few months of fighting, and the Tigers have also been accused of using civilians as a human shield.
“There was no intimidation,” plantations minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters in Colombo. “No such thing. How can you intimidate them? They don’t get intimidated by anyone.”
Samarasinghe, who is also the country’s special envoy to the UN Human Rights Council, said he did not want to comment directly on the report but added that Colombo was willing to address any shortcomings it raised.
“Maybe this (leaked) report is a fabrication,” Samarasinghe said, adding that Colombo had a good rapport with humanitarian agencies, including UN workers and that they had held regular meetings during the war.
“I chaired those meetings at the defence ministry and we addressed many issues and found answers,” Samarasinghe said. “We worked closely with the UN and others.”
But aid workers repeatedly complained of severe restrictions during the war and all international staff were withdrawn from the area in the final stages.
In the last week of fighting, a local Red Cross worker was killed in a shell attack.
Shortly after the government declared victory over the rebels, a spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) was expelled over comments about the “unimaginable hell” suffered by children caught up in the fighting.
Journalists were also barred from the war zone.
The leaked report said the UN withdrew from the island’s north in September 2008 after Colombo warned it could not guarantee the safety of aid workers, allowing the military to carry out aerial bombardments that also hit civilians.
“I have not heard anyone say that we asked them to go out (of the conflict zone),” Samarasinghe said.
The BBC, quoting UN sources, said that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was determined to act on the report’s recommendations and “learn lessons” about responding more effectively to new crises.
The review comes as the world body is struggling to agree on what action to take in Syria, where a divided Security Council has stymied attempts to ramp up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.
UN staff are also facing severe security difficulties that are preventing them from remaining in the field due to fighting in the conflict, which has left 37,000 people dead since March 2011, according to rights groups.
The latest report on UN operations in Sri Lanka also criticises senior UN staff in Colombo who “did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility”.
“Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN,” the draft report said, adding that the world body should “be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities”.
UN officials in Colombo declined comment on the internal review, but said it would be made public after Secretary General Ban Ki-moon received it later this week.
“When he does receive it and had read it, it will be made public,” the UN office in Colombo said.
Ban visited Sri Lanka shortly after the end of the fighting and extracted assurances from Colombo to probe war crimes. Colombo, however, has rejected any international investigation. AFP