Colossal failure

UN staff ignored the atrocities being committed.

An internal report of the United Nations, which investigated its own actions in the closing stages of the war in Sri Lanka between the government and the LTTE, is a damning indictment of itself for many acts of omission and commission in a situation where it was expected to play a moderating and restraining role. The report, first leaked by the media  and later released by the UN, blames the UN staff in Colombo, their bosses at the headquarters, member states, the Security Council and the Human Rights Council of failing  to prevent the most despicable crimes and human rights violations by the Sri Lankan forces against civilians. It has concluded that  the entire UN system failed to meet its responsibilities when thousands of unarmed civilians were killed or attacked or persecuted.

The atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan army and the support for them by the government are well-known. The government is still touchy and paranoid about criticism, justifies everything done during the war and whitewashes all its actions. But the UN staff which was posted in the country was expected to ensure the safety of innocent people caught between a marauding army and a terrorist force. The report finds that the UN staff not only looked the other way when they came to know of the most terrible war crimes  but may even be said to have acted with partisanship. Figures of death were deliberately under-reported or blacked out, and there was silence when civilians were bombarded. India too was a party to what amounted to collusion and cover-up, in its roles as a UN member and a neighbouring country.

The report is an exercise in bold introspection and, as secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said, should have profound implications for the world body. There is unfortunately growing acceptance of the idea that everything is fair in war, especially in the war against terrorism. What the report reveals is that even the world’s highest moral and political forum, committed to uphold human rights and peace in all circumstances, got deflected from its course and aims and became a party to crimes, though not directly. The UN has failed elsewhere also in these respects but the Lanka report is the most sincere narrative and admission of its failure. It should help it to avoid such fatal pitfalls in future.

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