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Tamils seek probe after U.N. faults itself in Sri Lanka war report

Sri Lanka fighting
Sri Lanka fighting
A photo from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense is said to show troops walking among debris inside the war zone as they evacuate Tamil civilians from the area around the city of Mullaittivu. (Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense / AFP / May 17, 2009)

Mark Magnier

NEW DELHI — A major Tamil opposition party in Sri Lanka called Thursday for an international investigation after a U.N. report criticized the international body’s own failure to protect civilians during the waning days of a brutal war in 2009.

The moderate Tamil National Alliance said the report confirmed its longstanding belief that extensive killings and detentions of civilians took place, something the Sri Lankan government has denied.
“No one can say that these allegations should not be investigated,” Tamil National Alliance spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran told the Agence France-Presse news service. “Now that the U.N. has come with this report, we want action.”

The U.N. report ordered by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and released Wednesday criticized the international body’s role in the Sri Lanka conflict.

The internal review concluded that the U.N. failed at multiple levels — including the U.N. secretariat, the Security Council and staff on the ground in Sri Lanka — to carry out its responsibilities. These included standing up for noncombatants in the final months of the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a brutal insurgent group commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

The U.N. also, under pressure from Sri Lankan officials, failed to disclose publicly that a “large majority” of the deaths in the final months of war were caused by government shelling, the report said.

“I am determined that the United Nations draws the appropriate lessons and does its utmost to earn the confidence of the world’s people, especially those caught in conflict who look to the organization for help,” Ban said in releasing the report.

The report lent credence to claims by international human rights groups that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed by government forces. In the final weeks of the conflict, surrounded Tamil Tigers sought in desperation to use an estimated 350,000 locals as human shields even as government troops allegedly continued shelling the area. “Other sources have referred to credible information indicating that over 70,000 people are unaccounted for,” the report said.

Human Rights Watch, an international civic group, said the U.N. should follow up with concrete measures to ensure it prevents mass civilian deaths in future conflicts.

“Basically, the U.N. pulled out when the Sri Lankan government said ‘We can’t protect you,'” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the group’s Asia division researcher. “There was dereliction of duty by the U.N. If they had stayed, there would have been more pressure on the Sri Lankan government.”

But Human Rights Watch also credited the U.N. with commissioning the report knowing it would present the world body in an unfavorable light.

Rajiva Wijesinha, an advisor on reconciliation to the Sri Lankan president, said if anything, the report discredited the U.N. by showing how much misinformation emerged from various levels. “Some people were really propagating myth rather than reality,” he said. “What it shows is that a lot of stuff was hearsay.”

International criticism over the slow pace of Sri Lanka’s own internal human rights investigations — including suggestions that key allegations are being referred to the army so it can essentially investigate itself — was unfounded, he added.

Any call by countries such as the United States for an investigation into war crimes is politically motivated, Wijesinha said.

Many steps taken by the country’s armed forces, including the Sri Lankan navy’s rescue operation for civilians, weren’t acknowledged abroad, he said.   

“We were at fault in not pointing out our positions better,” he said. “We should’ve done a better job telling our story.”



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