By the time the Israel-Gaza conflict had claimed 10 lives last week the United Nations Security Council had scrambled into an emergency session to discuss the crisis. Yet when as many as 40,000 Tamils were killed during the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, the UN didn’t hold a single formal meeting. Not at the Security Council. Not at the General Assembly. Not at the Human Rights Council.
That’s just one chilling observation in a damning report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that excoriates the UN for failing Sri Lanka’s civilians. Written by former UN official Charles Petrie and an expert panel, the report has sparked a fresh call by the Canadian Tamil Congress, representing the largest Tamil diaspora, for an international war crimes inquiry. It also vindicates Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s demand that Sri Lanka answer persistent concerns about war crimes and other issues.
The report slams the UN for its “grave failure” to advocate for those caught in the crossfire. Critically, the UN did not muster all the political influence and moral clout it had to keep the world fully informed, as Sri Lanka’s military crushed a Tamil Tiger-led secessionist rebellion. And while both sides committed crimes, except for one rare occasion the UN failed to publicly warn the government that it could be held responsible.
Instead, the Security Council and UN Secretariat were cowed by the Sri Lankan authorities, who enjoyed “the effective acquiescence of a post-9/11 world order” to defeat an enemy regarded by many as terrorists, says an executive summary that was deleted before the report was made public last week. UN officials pulled their punches, downplayed death tolls and allegations of government crimes, left the world in the dark, and generally fell short in helping the victims.
“The UN possessed the capabilities to simultaneously strive for humanitarian access (to war zones) while also robustly condemning the perpetrators of killings of civilians,” the report found. Yet “there was a continued reluctance among UN Country Team institutions to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist. In Colombo, some senior staff did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility – and agency and department heads at UN Headquarters were not instructing them otherwise.”
This systemic failure is appalling, coming long after the UN was thought to have absorbed the “never again” lessons from the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995.
No one expects miracles from the UN system. As we know from the Syria crisis, the Security Council can’t always stop bloodbaths. Bashar Assad’s Russian and Chinese enablers have blocked strong action. But even so, the UN has met repeatedly on Syria, condemned Assad and sent observers. In Sri Lanka it retreated into craven silence and looked the other way. That emboldened war criminals to ply their vicious trade.