UN has a second chance to right wrongs on Sri Lanka


THERE is little doubt that in 2009 the government of Sri Lanka pulled off one of the nastiest episodes of mass killing since the Rwandan genocide – and got away with it. Tens of thousands of civilians were massacred, with barely a trickle of Syria-like imagery emerging from the battle zone, The Australian reported.

In a new report released in New York, the UN has shouldered its portion of responsibility for this bloody catastrophe. It is a heavy burden indeed.

The Petrie Report predicates its scouring of the UN’s role on a vast and intricate web of evidence pointing to crimes committed by both government and Tamil Tiger forces. Of the two, government forces bear the greater culpability.

Despite a clear advantage over the near-vanquished rebels, the army bombed packed hospitals, used starvation tactics, executed civilian captives, raped and killed female guerillas and corralled women and children into “safe zones” before shelling them. When that was done, it interrogated and then killed the Tamil Tiger political and military leadership, along with their families.

The UN’s investigators conclude that the UN system faltered just when it was most needed, from the field level up to the powerful Security Council, where Australia is now taking a seat.

While many UN staff acted bravely and dutifully, other key staff forgot their first responsibility, the protection of life. Instead, according to the report, they favoured bureaucratic stratagems, trading off civilian lives against misconceived priorities. While the Sri Lankan government successfully shrouded the kill zone from the prying eyes of the international press, UN dissembling obscured it further.

For its part, the UN Security Council studiously ignored the warning signs so obvious in a civil war. Syria, now in the glare of international scrutiny as a result of media coverage, is a useful direct comparison.

In Sri Lanka in 2009, with a battlefield blacked out by the government, the gathering massacres were out of sight, and thus more easily kept out of mind. While the council has met dozens of times over the Syria crisis, and has sent in observers, in 2009 it failed to officially meet even once on Sri Lanka. It refused to consider the issue despite solid indications from UN personnel, diplomatic missions, satellite images and individual member states that something awful was unfolding. Did Sri Lanka read this as a nod to go ahead, whatever the cost?

For its part, the UN Secretariat failed on two fronts. First, as the Petrie report tells it, the Secretary-General’s team recoiled from telling the Security Council in stark terms what it didn’t want to hear. Then, as UN staff buckled under intimidation and threats from Sri Lanka’s government, the UN Secretariat withheld the kind of support its staff needed to push back.

When Australian UN humanitarian worker James Elder warned that children were being killed, a government official accused him of supporting terrorists. The government expelled Elder. That government official, Palitha Kohona, is now Sri Lanka’s representative at the UN. His deputy is a former general accused of mass killing.

For UN loyalists, the report pulls no punches, and is uncomfortable reading. It will almost certainly lead to reform, despite the cynics who believe that the UN is merely a talk-fest.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is making good on his commitment to full accountability in his realm. The fact that the report was written by insiders (Charles Petrie, a former UN diplomat, was supported by a team of brilliant UN staff), means its criticisms and recommendations are founded on a solid and largely disinterested familiarity with how the UN functions in a crisis, and how it ought to function better next time.

“Never again” might seem cynical, if it were not for the many who continue to work for the UN and who believe in that phrase, despite Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Sri Lanka.

But it is vital to remember that the UN’s mea culpa moment pales alongside the culpability of the government of Sri Lanka, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers. Theirs is a sovereign government, democratically elected, which chose a deliberate path that led to the commissioning of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In a post-9/11 world, the mere mention of the word “terrorist” apparently provided a licence to kill large numbers of Sri Lanka’s citizens. Given that the current government controls the crime scene, and has excluded all outsiders, the dead will remain uncounted for many years.

Yet the government of Sri Lanka gave a written guarantee to the Secretary-General that it would provide a true account of what happened at the end of the war. Indeed, next March, Sri Lanka is due to front the Human Rights Council in Geneva. There, the government will describe just how it has complied (or not) with its guarantee. And here, oddly, Australia has an additional if little-known role.

Some years ago, under the auspices of the Australian chapter of the International Commission of Jurists, Australian lawyers began listening to the stories of Tamil refugees arriving on our shores.

They deposed witnesses to the war and opened files. In time, these efforts morphed into the International Crimes Evidence Project, which is now led by the Sydney-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre. ICEP is probably now the single largest repository of evidence related to war crimes in Sri Lanka in the world. ICEP’s personnel includes veterans from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Next month, ICEP will hand a brief of evidence to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with evidence gathered and attested using the highest standards of international criminal law. While Sri Lanka is certain to argue next March that it has given a true account of the end of the war, ICEP’s brief will demonstrate otherwise.

The UN has a second chance at righting the wrongs committed in Sri Lanka, and Australia has a role, both through ICEP and our presence in the UN Security Council chamber.

Gordon Weiss was the UN’s spokesman in Sri Lanka. He is the author of The Cage and a founding adviser to ICEP.


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