Appoint Independent Inquiry Into Violations by Government and Tamil Tigers
November 14, 2012

The UN internal review identifies the tragic mistakes that led the UN to fail in its most basic obligations to civilians in Sri Lanka. It is a call to action and reform for the entire UN system. While Ban deserves credit for starting a process he knew could tarnish his office, he will now be judged on his willingness to implement the report’s recommendations and push for justice for Sri Lanka’s victims.

Philippe Bolopion, UN director

(New York) – The United Nations secretary-general’s internal review on UN action in Sri Lanka should lead to specific and concrete measures to ensure the UN takes all needed measures to prevent mass atrocities in future conflicts, Human Rights Watch said today. The “Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka,” commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and published on November 14, 2012, was a major recommendation of the 2011 UN Panel of Experts report on Sri Lanka’s armed conflict. The conflict was characterized by deadly abuses against civilians by both sides, Human Rights Watch said.  

The internal review found serious failings in the conduct of UN officials and institutions during the final months of fighting in 2008 and 2009 between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It concludes that “there was a continued reluctance among UN country team institutions to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist” and that in Sri Lanka “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.”

“The UN internal review identifies the tragic mistakes that led the UN to fail in its most basic obligations to civilians in Sri Lanka,” said Philippe Bolopion, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “It is a call to action and reform for the entire UN system. While Ban deserves credit for starting a process he knew could tarnish his office, he will now be judged on his willingness to implement the report’s recommendations and push for justice for Sri Lanka’s victims.”

The internal review, written by former UN official Charles Petrie, also found fault with the UN Security Council, Human Rights Watch said. The “absence of clear Security Council backing,” and its failure to even meet until it was too late, also explained why “the UN’s actions lacked adequate purpose and direction,” the internal review says. The review also emphasized, however, that “the primary responsibility for killings and other violations against the estimated 360,000 or more civilians trapped during the final stages of the conflict in the Wanni lies with the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE.”

The internal review paints a grim picture of UN actions in Sri Lanka. In early 2009 the senior UN official in Sri Lanka, Neil Buhne, “excluded his Human Rights Adviser from key meetings and from providing inputs on correspondence with the Government and UNHQ on human rights violations.” While some UN staff “showed commitment far beyond the call of duty,” in general there was a “failure to adequately confront the Government on its obstructions to humanitarian assistance” and the “unwillingness of the UN in headquarters and Colombo to address Government responsibility for attacks that were killing civilians,” despite considerable evidence.

While the internal review noted the dilemmas facing an organization that was trying to avoid being expelled from a country when its services were badly needed, it decried an “institutional culture of trade-offs,” concluding the UN had “the capabilities to simultaneously strive for humanitarian access while also robustly condemning the perpetrators of killings of civilians.”

The internal review criticized the UN for failing to learn from past tragedies such as the genocide in Rwanda. It found that many lessons from the December 1999 independent inquiry into the UN’s actions in Rwanda were forgotten in Sri Lanka, including the need for “political will” from the Security Council, a “leadership role of the Secretary-General,” “human rights competence of staff on the ground,” and the “importance of bringing human rights information to bear” at UN headquarters deliberations. The internal review also found that the UN leadership made the mistake of telling members states what they wanted to hear, rather than what they “needed to know if they were to respond.”

“The UN’s dereliction of duty in Sri Lanka is a stark reminder of what happens when human rights concerns are marginalized or labeled as too political,” Bolopion said. “The UN’s failure to learn from Rwanda shows that a mere report won’t solve these deep-seated problems unless there is the necessary political will and commitment to implement the report’s recommendations.”

The internal review described problems of UN institutions and agencies in Sri Lanka that should be addressed in other countries where civilians are at risk, Human Rights Watch said. The UN country team in Sri Lanka was described by many UN staff on the ground as “very passive” and “weak.” Some UN agencies were perceived as “quick to compromise on principles in the interests of increasing the profile of their agencies and gaining access to funding.”

Human Rights Watch said that the internal review should have requested further investigation of the responsibility of specific UN officials for the UN’s failure to protect civilians in Sri Lanka. However, it describes in its annexes troubling efforts by the then-chef de cabinet, Vijay Nambiar; the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Sir John Holmes; and the UN resident coordinator in Colombo, Neil Buhne, to downplay alarming casualty numbers that were collected by UN staff members with a “rigorous methodology” and “of a standard comparable to best-practice on information collection in other conflict situations.”

“The UN cannot just say that the system failed without explaining who was responsible for that system and taking appropriate disciplinary action,” Bolopion said. “Accountability starts at home.”

The internal review strengthens the call of the UN Panel of Experts for the secretary-general to create an independent, international mechanism to investigate violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by both sides to the conflict and recommend measures to hold those responsible accountable. The internal review noted that the UN Office of Legal Affairs advised Ban that he has the authority under article 99 of the UN Charter to establish such an inquiry. Instead, Ban sent the panel’s report to the UN Human Rights Council and said he would welcome a mandate by an “appropriate intergovernmental forum” to establish such an inquiry. 

The UN Human Rights Council called on Sri Lanka in March 2012 to “initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans,” but has not acted on the panel’s recommendation to set up an international inquiry.

In light of the system-wide failures of the UN to take all possible measures to protect the lives and rights of thousands of victims of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, Human Rights Watch renewed its call for Secretary-General Ban to create an independent, international investigation. Should he fail to do so, the Human Rights Council should establish such a mechanism when it considers a report by the UN high commissioner for human rights on Sri Lanka at its March 2013 session.

“The UN’s attempt to appease the Sri Lankan government while it was committing mass atrocities against its own population proved to be a deadly mistake,” Bolopion said. “The UN system can’t rewrite history and respond as it should have, but it at least owes Sri Lankan victims meaningful efforts to achieve justice.”