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Shocking report details the UN’s failure to protect the people of Sri Lanka

A United Nations (UN) report alleging the failure of the international body to uphold its responsibilities to protect civilians threatened by massive human rights violations during the Sri Lankan civil war was released on 14 November 2012, and quickly spurred impassioned reactions from civil society and UN actors. For many, the Report of the Secretary-General’s Internal Review Panel on United Nations Action in Sri Lanka confirmed their earlier claims that the UN did not act rapidly or robustly to protect the people of Sri Lanka. For others, the report was a shocking reality check that the international community still has a long way to go to build the necessary political will and capacity to respond to these deadly conflicts.

Large-scale civilian suffering during the civil war

The final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, from August 2008 until May 2009, saw a dramatic escalation of violence between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), known as the Tamil Tigers, who had been fighting to establish the state of Tamil Eelam in the north of the country since the late 1970s. Violence was concentrated in the Wanni, a northern region, and clashes trapped hundreds of thousands of civilians without access to basic necessities or humanitarian aid.

(…) With the end of the war in May 2009 came widespread calls to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the perpetrators of mass atrocities and UN efforts to protect civilians.  After a Panel of Experts, established by the UNSG, reported in April 2011 that many UN agencies and officials had not done enough to protect civilians, the UNSG created the Internal Review Panel on UN actions in Sri Lanka, which is responsible for the recently released report.

UN fails to protect Sri Lankan population

The report concludes that though the government and LTTE were primarily responsible for “killings and other violations” committed against the civilians trapped in the Wanni, the “events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN 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 UN.” (…)
According to the report, the low level of commitment to civilian protection in Sri Lanka was exacerbated by the inaction of Member States, who failed to take up the escalating crisis in the Security Council, Human Rights Council and General Assembly. (…)

Civil society and former UN officials clash over the report’s findings

Civil society organizations swiftly responded to the report, calling for accountability and to use the example of Sri Lanka as an impetus to strengthen UN protection capacities. On 14 November Amnesty International’s José Luis Díaz called the report a “wake-up call for UN member states that have not pushed hard enough for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes committed by both Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE in the last phase of the war.”  Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch agreed, stating that the report serves as “a call to action and reform for the entire UN system.”  Additionally, Bolopion noted that “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”. (…)

Report shows challenges in implementation must not lead to inaction

The Secretary-General’s report not only shows the need to uphold the responsibility to protect populations in Sri Lanka by preventing a culture of impunity for crimes against humanity and war crimes, it emphasizes the critical gaps that the international community must address to strengthen its political will and overall capacity to respond to emerging and ongoing situations of RtoP crimes.

With regard to the Responsibility to Protect norm, the report concludes that, “The concept of a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ was raised occasionally during the final stages of the conflict, but to no useful result. Differing perceptions among Member States and the Secretariat of the concept’s meaning and use had become so contentious as to nullify its potential value. Indeed, making references to the Responsibility to Protect was seen as more likely to weaken rather than strengthen UN action.” This finding serves as a sober reminder to governments, UN officials and the international community as a whole that though we continue to address important questions about how to implement the Responsibility to Protect, these disagreements must never hinder our commitment to react when populations are in dire need of assistance.  The report as a whole underlines the prevailing importance of the prevention of and rapid response to RtoP crimes and violations by highlighting a tragic example of the consequences when the protection of populations is not prioritized.

The initial establishment of the Panel and the Secretary-General’s decision to make its findings public show a commitment to holding perpetrators of the crimes committed in Sri Lanka accountable. However, as Human Rights Watch’s Philippe Bolopion said, “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 UNSG stated that the report’s findings have “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.”  We can only hope that this report will act as a much needed impetus to reform the system as a whole to better respond to protect populations from the most horrific crimes known to humankind.
 
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