UN failed gravely in Sri Lanka - internal review panel

Last Updated: Wed, Nov 14, 2012 18:40 hrs

* UN chief says must learn from report of UN failures

* As many as 40,000 civilians killed in 2009 conflict

* Sri Lanka says didn't intimidate UN officials

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 14 (Reuters) - The United Nations failed to call proper attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians during the bloody final stage of the government's war against Tamil Tiger rebels, according to a U.N. report released on Wednesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon responded to the report by a review panel he set up to evaluate the U.N. response during the phase of the Sri Lanka war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by saying that the world body needed to take lessons from its findings.

"The report concludes that the United Nations system failed to meet its responsibilities - highlighting, in particular, the roles played by the Secretariat, the agencies and programs of the U.N. Country Team, and the members of the Security Council and Human Rights Council," Ban said in a statement.

"This finding has profound implications for our work across the world, and 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," he said.

A previous U.N. report on the war, which ended with the LTTE's defeat in May 2009, said that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the last months of the conflict after they were trapped on a narrow strip of coast in northeastern Sri Lanka, caught up in the crossfire between the LTTE and the army.

The new 128-page report focuses on the United Nations' performance during the war.

"The panel's report concludes that events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the U.N. to adequately respond to early warnings and to the evolving situation 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 of the U.N.," the report said.

"The tone, content and objectives of UNHQ's (headquarters) engagement with member states regarding Sri Lanka were heavily influenced by what it perceived member states wanted to hear, rather than by what member states needed to know if they were to respond," the report said.


The panel, which was headed by Charles Petrie, a former U.N. official, said its findings and recommendations "provide an urgent and compelling platform for action."

"The U.N.'s failure to adequately respond to events like those that occurred in Sri Lanka should not happen again," it concluded. "When confronted by similar situations, the U.N. must be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities."

It is not the first time the world body has criticized itself for failing to protect civilians during a conflict. The United Nations reached similar conclusions after it failed to act during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1995 massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, Bosnia.

Sri Lanka's government rejects allegations that it committed war crimes at the end of its quarter-century fight against the separatist LTTE rebels. It also rejected suggestions in the report that it had intimidated U.N. officials.

"No, that's nonsense," Mahinda Samarasinghe, special representative of President Mahinda Rajapaksa on human rights, said in Sri Lanka.

"There were no intimidations like that. How can we intimidate (the) U.N. or U.S. ambassador or the EU ambassador who was there, or the Japanese ambassador? These are the personalities who represent countries which are sovereign." (Additional reporting by Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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