International Justice Tribune (RNW)
In his recently published book ‘The Cage’ former United Nations spokesman Gordon Weiss is critical of the UN and points to evidence of the government of Sri Lanka committing war crimes. As the UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka during the conflict, he experienced first-hand how the UN was unable to fulfill its duties. RNW asked him about the role of the UN and the lack of accountability in Sri Lanka.
Could you give a brief account of what happened with the UN in the last phase of the war?
As the last phase of the war gathered pace, and as air attacks began on the nominal capital of the Tamil Tigers (Kilinochchi) in 2008, the government warned the UN that it should pull its staff out of the north. There were government air strikes and those came dangerously close to UN positions in Kilinochchi. Our staff were spending time hiding in bomb shelters. They were unable to effectively carry out their duties, which were largely to distribute humanitarian aid. So the UN complied with the government request and pulled out. From that point onwards there was effectively no international independent presence inside the northern region, except for the International Red Cross. They have a history of not talking about the things that they see when they’re working behind the lines. But the UN was certainly no longer there and no longer capable of making judgements on what was going on. Thereafter it had to rely on the government, and the government alone for access to Tamil areas to deliver humanitarian aid. Whether the UN ought to have stayed, despite the attacks is a moot point and something that an accountability investigation needs to answer rather than me.
In the last part of the war, did the UN fail?
My position on this is that simply by virtue of the number of people alleged to have been killed and the fact that the UN was on the ground, you have to look at it and say ‘well, something went wrong’. Now to what degree it was a UN failure or not, is a matter of debate. I think the UN could have done more, it ought to have done more. But of course the ultimate responsibility for this rests with the warring parties, not with the UN.
Is the UN accountable?
I think the UN has to be accountable for the way that it managed its operations in Sri Lanka and for the stand that it took in various instances. Was it correct for them to pull out their humanitarian operation in September 2008, when they were warned to do so by the government? Was it right for them not to take on the government of Sri Lanka publicly about its use of heavy weaponry? Was it right or wrong of the UN not to have said anything about the attacks on medical points and hospitals, which we also knew was going on? So there are many questions that are still open. The UN has promised an investigation into what happened and into its own role. We have yet to see whether the Secretary General is going to make good on that promise.
In Sri Lanka there has not only been a war with the Tamil minority, but also within the Sinhalese population. Is there justice in Sri Lanka for any of the victims?
I think that’s part of the problem. What happened in 2009 in the final stages of the Tamil-Sinhalese war was predictable, because there had been such large bouts of violence unleashed against people in Sri Lanka by the government in previous administrations. So there’s a history of it and there’s also a history of a lack of accountability. Almost nobody has done jail time for the crimes that were committed in 1971 and in the uprising in 1987-1990 when tens of thousands of Sinhalese were killed. So there is a long and very profound history of a lack of accountability, a lack of rule of law and a lack of justice for crimes that were committed in the name of the state.
Do you some Tamils will pick up arms again?
During riots in 1983 the killing of Tamils is what really led to this insurgency. So the killing of tens of
thousands more, if that many were killed and I think that’s true, I hardly think that that is going to cure the Tamil grievance. If I were a Tamil I would feel very gloomy about the prospects of any real future in Sri Lanka. But I think any sort of armed uprising is very futile and I doubt if that is considered by anyone with their head screwed on.