Dossier on UN failure to protect human rights in Sri Lanka

Nov 19, 2012--An internal inquiry by the office of the Secretary General of the United Nations into the UN's conduct during the bloody war by the Sri Lanka government against the Tamil minority in that country was recently leaked to international press. Below is a commentary published in the Globe and Mail daily in Canada about the report and its conclusion there was a "grave failure" of the United Nations to protect the rights of Sri Lankan citizens, notably the Tamil national minority.
Canada's government is claiming on the world stage that it is concerned about human rights in Sri Lanka. It has recently taken its distance from United Nations policy in Sri Lanka and it has seemingly reduced its previous, unqualified support for the government of the country. But at home, the Canadian government brands Tamil and other victims of the Sri Lanka government as "terrorists," it has implemented a mandatory detention policy for refugee arrivals, including placing them in prisons upon arrival, and it has cut medical services for refugees. Canadian doctors are speaking out forcefully against the cuts to refugee health care. See web links further below to a dossier of articles on these subjects.--Website editors.
‘Grave failure’ demands UN answer
The Secretary-general needs to appoint an international war-crimes investigation to set the record straight – and, for that, he needs the backing of member states, says author Frances Harrison
It’s been called Ban Ki-moon’s Rwanda moment: a little reported war on a tiny Indian Ocean island where tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered, waiting for the United Nations to come and rescue them.
What happened in Sri Lanka in 2009 has come back to haunt the UN with the leak of an internal inquiry commissioned by the Secretary-General. The independent report concluded that the UN’s own conduct during the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war marked a “grave failure.” There was damning criticism of senior staff, who “simply did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility.”
Would the entire report have seen the light of day if a draft hadn’t been leaked to the BBC? A reluctant UN in New York had to publish the document, but chose to do so without its powerful executive summary that set the conflict in the context of post-9/11 global attitudes to terrorism that tragically skewed the reporting of the bloodshed. Internal communications show senior UN officials struggling to portray the proscribed terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers, as the ones primarily to blame for the killings.
But the latest UN report documents how UN staff members were in possession of reliable information that showed that the Sri Lankan government was responsible for the majority of deaths. And that two-thirds of the killings were inside safe zones unilaterally declared by the Sri Lankan government purportedly to protect civilians. This was information senior UN managers decided not to share with diplomats when they briefed them.
Four months before the end of the war, the UN received incontrovertible evidence of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government from its own staff. Two international employees, including a former military officer, were caught up in an attack on a civilian safe zone while delivering aid. At 3 a.m. on Jan. 24, 2009, the UN team reported to headquarters that “the decapitated body of the 18-year-old daughter we had spoken to earlier in the evening landed at the entrance to our bunker. One WFP [World Food Program] driver was hit in the back of the head with shrapnel. … The scene at first light was devastating; within 20m of our location lay 7 dead & 15 seriously injured. 1 dead infant was in a tree under which the family had sheltered and the 2nd decapitated infant
Frances Harrison, a former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, is the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War (published in Canada by House of Anansi). was hanging from the wire perimeter fence.”
They continued to come under a virtually uninterrupted barrage of artillery fire from government lines. In the morning, they had to clear body parts off their vehicle.
Surprisingly, the UN did not allow its staff to tell the world what they’d seen. Instead, the resident co-ordinator wrote privately to Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saying all the shelling came from the government lines and urging them to protect civilians, but adding: “The LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] bears responsibility for this as they have not permitted civilians the choice of departing and likely have fired from areas in the nofire zone.”
That January food convoy proved to be the last time the UN went into the war zone. Some brave lower-level staff members set up a task force in Colombo to collect and verify casualty data. Information was coming out by telephone from Tamil doctors, priests, NGO workers and local UN employees held hostage by the Tigers. The UN team compiled casualty lists but only verified a death if there were three independent sources. In this way, the UN confirmed nearly 8,000 civilian deaths before it became impossible in late April for people under heavy fire to leave their bunkers to verify information. The UN’s report now says it was a rigorous methodology following best practice.
But that wasn’t what senior UN officials said at the time. When the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethm Pillay, struggled to use the UN’s casualty figures to speak out about potential war crimes by the Sri Lankan government, internal UN communications reveal that Mr. Ban’s then chef de cabinet, Vijay Nambiar, implored her to tone down her statement. Other UN diplomats are cited in the report trying to wriggle out of accepting the casualty data their own staff prepared, undermining it by questioning its reliability. Never mind that these figures were much more carefully checked than death tolls cited for Syria or Afghanistan. Or, for that matter, the general death toll the UN always cites in official documents of 100,000 killed in Sri Lanka during the whole course of the war.
The executive summary that was removed before publication rightly said: “Some have argued many deaths could have been averted had the Security Council and the Secretariat, backed by the UN country team, spoken out loudly early on, notably by publicizing casualty numbers.”
As the author of a book of survivors’ stories from the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka, I found this dry bureaucratic UN report surprisingly upsetting. I have sat through days of interviews with people who struggled to tell me the full horror of what they’d experienced in those months. A Catholic nun whispered her story for hours as if the evil she’d confronted couldn’t be spoken out loud. A farmer’s wife now in Ireland shook so severely that her chair and the curtain behind her vibrated as she told how, during lulls in the shelling, they’d climbed out of the ditches in which they hid and buried their neighbours’ body parts.
Worse still was watching a mother sob herself to exhaustion after she told me how she feared her teenaged daughter had been raped and killed after surrendering to the army. She said she wished the girl had been blown up in front of her because at least she’d have known what happened.
These stories are repeated thousands of times. Another UN report said a death toll of 40,000 in just five months was credible; this inquiry says it could even be 70,000. The suffering during the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war was unprecedented, even by the cruel standards of decades of conflict in that country. The UN SecretaryGeneral needs to appoint an international war-crimes investigation to set the record straight – and, for that, he needs the backing of member states.
Frances Harrison, a former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, is the author of Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War (published in Canada by House of Anansi).
(and), Britain’s Cameron urged to follow Harper’s lead on Sri Lanka rights abuses
British Prime Minister David Cameron is being urged to follow Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s example and threaten to boycott next year’s Commonwealth leaders’ summit in Sri Lanka. Mr. Harper’s threat – intended to spur changes in Sri Lanka’s dismal human-rights record – was held up Thursday by the British House of Commons’ foreign affairs committee as a positive example for Cameron to emulate. “It’s a position we agree with. We think that he’s right to qualify it by saying that unless there’s an improvement he won’t attend,” Richard Ottaway, the British Tory MP who chairs the committee, told The Canadian Press from London.
The all-party British parliamentary committee urged Mr. Cameron to follow Mr. Harper’s lead in its report on the future of the 54-country Commonwealth, which is plagued by the dubious human-rights failings of many of its Third World members.
Mr. Ottaway said if Mr. Cameron joins Mr. Harper, the threat might actually force the Sri Lankan government to properly investigate atrocities committed by its forces. “I’d like to think if he’s joined by David Cameron, and we say to the Sri Lankans, ‘unless you improve your human-rights performance, we will be boycotting the heads of government meeting,’ that in itself will result in an improved performance by Sri Lanka and it will be possible for prime ministers Harper and Cameron to attend.”
Mr. Cameron has yet to respond to the committee’s recommendation.
The Harper government and human rights groups are calling on Sri Lanka’s government to independently investigate war crimes allegations by both sides, including its own forces against Tamil rebels and civilians in the dying days of the country’s 27-year civil war in 2009. The long internal conflict, largely ignored by the outside world, pitted the largely ethnic Sinhalese majority government against minority Tamil rebels, the Tamil Tigers, which have been labelled terrorists by Canada and other countries.
Though both sides stand accused of committing atrocities, Mr. Harper has said Canada will boycott the 2013 Commonwealth summit if the Colombo government does not take the war crimes accusations against it more seriously.
A United Nations report this week [released on Nov 14] offered scathing self-criticism of the world body’s inability to protect the estimated 40,000 Tamil civilians who were killed in the government’s final, crushing offensive to end the civil war. The report said the UN was guilty of a “grave failure” to prevent civilians from being killed.
The report illustrated how UN staff in Sri Lanka repeatedly caved to pressure from Sri Lankan authorities to play down evidence of mass atrocities against civilians. It also said the Sri Lankan government intimidated UN staff in a variety of ways.
This latest round of UN soul-searching comes after Sri Lanka’s own internal inquiry into the end of the civil war largely absolved the government and was criticized internationally as a whitewash.
Earlier this year, Canada co-sponsored a motion at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which calls on the Sri Lankan government to fully examine allegations of summary executions, kidnappings and other atrocities by government forces and the Tamil Tiger rebels.
In a statement Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird made no direct mention of the UN’s failings, focusing instead on how the report detailed “a litany of human rights violations” endured by the Sri Lankan people. “Sadly, the Sri Lankan government continues to fail victims and survivors alike,” Mr. Baird said. “The measures it has taken to date simply do not go far enough, as this report clearly lays out.”
The Harper government reversed its stand on Sri Lanka after winning a majority government in 2011. Prior to that, it was firmly on the government’s side, and opposed to the Tamil cause because it had listed the Tigers as a terrorist organization.
Thousands of Tamils took to the streets of major Canadian cities in 2009 to protest the government’s silence on the atrocities in their homeland. That woke the Conservatives to fact that Canada is is home to the largest Tamil diaspora in the world. An estimated 300,000 Tamils now reside in Canada, many in the Toronto area.
The Canadian Tamil Congress acknowledged Thursday the lead the government is now taking to press for an independent international investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka. “We hope the Prime Minister and the government will make the decision not to attend, and to boycott the meeting in its entirely,” said Gary Anandasangaree, the group’s spokesman.
Special Series: Three years after Tamil asylum seekers land on our shores, the Times Colonist's Katie Derosa (Victoria BC) investigates Canada's refugee policy move to the right, including the following stories :
* Taking a harder line on refugees
By Katie Derosa, Times Colonist November 17, 2012
* Mandatory detention for refugee claimants has already proved to be a failure, critics say
Canada has adopted a system that proved costly in Australia and didn’t act as a deterrent
By Katie Derosa, Victoria Times Colonist November 17, 2012
* Risking all to escape: One Tamil woman's story
By Katie DeRosa, Times Colonist (Victoria BC), November 18, 2012