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Failure to Act: UN Releases Report Examining its Conduct During Final Days of Sri Lankan Conflict

A UN internal review panel released a report (external link, PDF) highly critical of the organization’s actions during the final five months of the conflict in Sri Lanka between the government and separatist rebels. During that period, January—May 2009, thousands of civilians were killed and wounded as government forces advanced on the stronghold of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—a group designated as a terrorist organization by the US and other governments. The Sri Lankan Army’s advance and the LTTE’s use of civilians as human shields resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being caught between the warring parties. The report examines the failure of various UN bodies to adequately respond to the crisis as the human toll mounted, and evidence emerged of potential violations of international law by both parties.

The report delves into several areas where the UN efforts constituted a “grave failure” to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians under threat. It is particularly critical of internal deliberations that proposed watering down public statements about the risks that civilians faced, by not releasing casualty figures or attributing deaths to the Sri Lankan army’s use of heavy weapons. While recognizing the extraordinary work and courage of a few outstanding staff members operating in-country, the report is unequivocal in stating that the UN system failed to develop an effective strategy to respond to early warning signs of mass violence and subsequent violations of international humanitarian law.

These events and the loss of 40,000 civilian lives in Sri Lanka underscore the continued need to develop effective early warning systems and coordinated responses to mass atrocity situations, both recommendations of the Genocide Prevention Task Force, a body that was co-convened by the Museum. The report specifically notes that the differing perspectives among member states on the meaning and implementation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) mired discussions in debate rather than focusing them on action. This revelation highlights the need to understand the political and practical impediments to implementing R2P in difficult environments. This subject is currently under investigation by the R2P Working Group co-chaired former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former Presidential Special Envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson. Its report is due out in early 2013.

Read the UN report (external link, PDF).