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UN slams its own response to Sri Lanka's civil war

The UN, in a 'scathing' self-critique released Wednesday, said that it failed to protect civilians in 2009, during the final months of the Sri Lankan government's battle with the Tamil Tigers.

By Peter James SpielmannAssociated Press, Ravi NessmanAssociated Press / November 15, 2012

This file photo released by the Sri Lankan military in May 2009 shows a battle scene near towards the end of the government's war with the Tamil Tigers. The UN released a report Wednesday saying that the world body failed to do enough to protect civilians in the war's final months.

Courtesy of Sri Lankan Government/Reuters/File

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A United Nations report released Wednesday said inadequate efforts by the world body to protect civilians during the bloody final months of Sri Lanka's civil war marked a "grave failure" that led to suffering for hundreds of thousands of people.

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The report was unusually scathing for an official UN critique.

The report accused UN staff in Colombo of not perceiving that preventing civilian deaths was their responsibility and accused their bosses at UN headquarters of not telling them otherwise. A separate UN report released last year said up to 40,000 ethnic minority Tamil civilians may have been killed in the war's final months.

"This report is a benchmark moment for the UN in the same way that Rwanda was," said Gordon Weiss, a former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka.

The report accused UN officials and member states of being reluctant to interfere and leaving the conflict in a "vacuum of inaction."

"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," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.

The report was compiled by a committee headed by former UN official Charles Petrie. It investigated UN actions as the quarter-century war between the government, dominated by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, and minority Tamil rebels ended in 2009 in a wave of violence.

The BBC first reported on a draft of the report Tuesday.

The draft, obtained by The Associated Press shortly before the final report was released, began with an "executive summary" that detailed the UN failure on the ground, saying that the political conditions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the US made countries less likely to stop a government fighting against a group – the Tamil Tiger rebels – that many had branded a terrorist organization.

The executive summary was deleted from the official published version issued on Wednesday.

The draft report painted a picture of a UN operation reluctant to criticize the government or accuse it of killing civilians with artillery bombardments, out of concern the government would respond by limiting UN humanitarian access — even through UN aid workers were barred from the northern war zone in late 2008.

Top UN officials in the country repeatedly worked to soften statements to remove casualty figures and accusations of possible war crimes against the government, the official report said. When death tolls its staff was compiling were released, top officials dismissed them as unverified despite the rigorous methodology being used, the report said.

When UN satellite images confirmed heavy artillery shelling in the war zone and showed far more civilians there than the government claimed, the top UN official in Sri Lanka downplayed the evidence in a letter to the government, the final version of the report said. At the same time, member states did not hold a single formal meeting on the conflict in its final months in the Security Council, Human Rights Council or the General Assembly.

"The UN set itself up for failure, in Sri Lanka," the draft report said, in another quote deleted from the final, official report.

The report also accused the government of working to intimidate UN staff, of withholding visas of those critical of the government and of planting false allegations against them in the media.

The UN representative for Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion, said "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."

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