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Sri Lanka:Decision-making across the UN was dominated by a culture of trade-offs – from the ground to UN headquarters

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”Coming at the beginning of his second term, the Secretary-General’s decision to commission an internal review is an extremely courageous step. The Panel believes that the report’s findings and recommendations provide an urgent and compelling platform for action. The UN’s failure to adequately respond to the events in Sri Lanka should not happen again. When confronted by similar situations, the UN should be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities. In support of this effort, the Panel strongly urges that its report be made public.” 

Executive Summary: Assessment of the UN’s Actions in Sri Lanka

Between August 2008 and May 2009, as the war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) entered its final stages, an estimated 360,000 or more civilians were crowded into an ever smaller part of ‘the Wanni’ area of Northern Sri Lanka where many died as a result of sustained artillery shelling, illness and starvation. Almost 280,000 survivors were forcibly interned in military-run camps outside the area of conflict. The UN responded mainly through its humanitarian assistance and development frameworks; its political and human rights roles were limited. Despite the gravity of events, UN Member States did not formally consider the situation until the war ended. During the final stages, and the aftermath from May 2009 onward, the UN provided assistance to IDPs in internment camps, even as IDP rights and UN principles of intervention were not respected. Most IDPs were eventually allowed to return home. (Annex III provides a detailed account of events and UN actions)

In April 2011, the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts (POE) on accountability in Sri Lanka issued a report recommending a review of the UN’s own actions. In a letter to the Secretary-General, the POE described UN action as a low point for the organization as a whole, and said that some UN agencies and individuals had failed in their mandates and did not uphold the UN’s founding principles. Pursuant to the POE’s recommendation, the Secretary-General established an “Internal Review Panel on UN action in Sri Lanka” (the Panel), led by Charles Petrie, tasked with providing an assessment of UN action during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, identifying institutional and structural strengths and weaknesses, and making recommendations to ensure a more effective UN response in similar situations. The Panel began work in late April 2012 and submitted the present report at the end of September.

For the UN, the last phase of the conflict in Sri Lanka presented a major challenge. The UN struggled to exert influence on the Government which, with the effective acquiescence of a post-9/11 world order, was determined to defeat militarily an organization designated as terrorist. Some have argued that many deaths could have been averted had the Security Council and the Secretariat, backed by the UN country team (UNCT), spoken out loudly early on, notably by publicizing the casualty numbers. Others say that the question is less whether the UN should assume responsibility for the tragedy, but more whether it did everything it could to assist the victims.

The Panel’s conclusion is that events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warning and the evolving events during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians and in contradiction with the principles and responsibilities adopted by Member States and the Secretariat, agencies and programs.

Decision-making across the UN was dominated by a culture of trade-offs – from the ground to UN headquarters (UNHQ). Options for action were seen less as responsibilities and more in terms of dilemmas. Choosing not to speak up about Government and LTTE broken commitments and violations of international law was seen as the only way to increase UN humanitarian access. Choosing to focus Security Council briefings on the humanitarian situation rather than the causes of the crisis and the obligations of the parties to the conflict was seen as essential to facilitate Secretariat engagement with Member States. There was a sustained and institutionalized reluctance among UNCT actors to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist. In Colombo, many senior UN staff simply did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility; and agency and department heads at UNHQ were not instructing their staff in Sri Lanka otherwise. The UN’s failure to adequately counter the Government’s under-estimation of population numbers in the Wanni, the failure to adequately confront the Government on its obstructions to humanitarian assistance, the unwillingness of the UN in UNHQ and Colombo to address Government responsibility for attacks that were killing civilians, and the tone and content of UN communications with the Government and Member States on these issues, contributed to the unfolding of dramatic events.

UNHQ engagement with Member States regarding Sri Lanka was ineffective and heavily influenced by what UNHQ perceived Member States wanted to hear, rather than by what States needed to know if they were to respond. Reflection on Sri Lanka by UNHQ and States at the UN was conducted on the basis of a mosaic of considerations among which the grave situation of civilians in Sri Lanka competed with extraneous factors such as inconclusive discussions on the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ and Security Council ambivalence on its role in such situations. In the absence of clear Security Council support, the UN’s actions lacked adequate purpose and direction amid the many competing factors.

Most crucially, the UN did not use all the political and advocacy tools at its disposal. In particular, it did not keep Member States or the public fully informed. Nor did it warn the Sri Lankan Government or the LTTE of the consequences of their actions, including their responsibility for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Systemic failure in Sri Lanka can be distilled into the following: (i) a UN system that lacked an adequate and shared sense of responsibility for human rights violations; (ii) an incoherent internal UN crisis-management structure which failed to conceive and execute a coherent strategy in response to early warnings and subsequent human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL) violations against civilians, and which did not exercise sufficient oversight for UN action in the field; (iii) senior staff on the ground who lacked the necessary armed conflict, political and IHL experience to deal with the challenge presented by Sri Lanka, and who were given insufficient support; (iv) the ineffective dispersal of coordination of UN action and monitoring of human rights and IHL violations across several different UNHQ entities in Geneva and New York with overlapping mandates; (v) inadequate political support from Member States and inadequate efforts by the Secretariat to build such support; and (vi) a framework for Member State engagement with human rights and IHL protection crises that is outdated and often unworkable.

Overview of Recommendations

The Panel’s Terms of Reference imply that it should gather lessons from an historical event that has passed. However, the magnitude of the violence in the Wanni, following decades of strife and injustice, continue to be felt by Sri Lanka’s communities. Sri Lanka’s peaceful and stable progress will require a process of accountability and reconciliation and a political solution to the long-standing grievances of all communities, as well as a response to ongoing and new concerns, and prevention and protection in the future. Working closely with the Government of Sri Lanka, the UN needs to take on this further challenge.

This report’s recommendations for the UN system are designed to be politically feasible and resource neutral, while encouraging profound changes in the institution’s approach to similar situations in the future. The broad lines of the recommendations include the need to:

Restate the vision of the UN: The Secretary-General should restate a vision of the UN’s most fundamental responsibilities to include the defence of human rights. The vision should help frame strategy and policy responses by senior levels of the organization to situations of massive human rights violations.

Embed a UN human rights perspective into UN strategies: The UNHQ needs stronger capacity to include human rights, IHL and international criminal law perspectives in overall analysis and strategy for any situation. It should also have stronger capacity to build political support from Member States for addressing grave concerns.

Strengthen the management of the UN’s crisis response: To ensure coherent UNHQ oversight for UN strategy and action, the Secretary-General should strengthen management of the whole-of-UN response to situations of massive human rights violations.

Promote accountability and responsibility: All staff should be fully informed of, and have easy access to, procedures under which allegations of serious misconduct by staff can be reported and promptly investigated.

Improve UN engagement with Member States and building of political support: For every such crisis, the Secretary-General must have an array of options that will permit him to fully inform Member States and suggest appropriate actions.

Better address violations of privileges and immunities: When a Member State engages in sustained actions against UN personnel and institutions, including violations of UN privileges and immunities, the Secretary-General should review options for response by the Secretariat and invite Member States to consider what action they could also take.

Coming at the beginning of his second term, the Secretary-General’s decision to commission an internal review is an extremely courageous step. The Panel believes that the report’s findings and recommendations provide an urgent and compelling platform for action. The UN’s failure to adequately respond to the events in Sri Lanka should not happen again. When confronted by similar situations, the UN should be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities. In support of this effort, the Panel strongly urges that its report be made public.

INP

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