For more than 25 years, Sri Lanka was embroiled in a bloody civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. By the time the conflict ended in 2009, more than 70,000 people had been killed, and hundreds of thousands had been injured or displaced as a result of the war, according to a report from the U.S. Department of State.
While an accurate civilian death toll may never be known, a 2011 United Nations investigation revealed that up to 40,000 civilians had likely been killed in the final five months of the conflict alone; others have suggested, however, that this figure could be even higher.
Now, according to a leaked draft of a "highly critical" internal United Nations report acquired by the BBC, it appears that the UN may have "failed in its mandate to protect civilians" in the last few months of the war.
"Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warnings ... during the final stages of conflict," the report, put together by an internal review panel, concludes.
According to the BBC, former senior UN official Charles Petrie, who headed the panel, has said that the leaked draft "very much reflects the findings of the panel." He is reportedly now in New York to present the report to Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general.
From the BBC:
The UN's investigation into its own conduct during the last months of the conflict says the organization should in future "be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities".
It identifies "systemic failure" in a number of areas, and describes the internal UN crisis-management structure as "incoherent".
The report also said that many senior UN staff who had been in Sri Lanka's capital Colombo as the conflict was drawing to an end "did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility." There was, instead, a "sustained and institutionalized reluctance…to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist."
This is not the first time in recent weeks that the UN's failures in Sri Lanka have been brought to the world's attention.
Earlier this month, a writer for Groundviews, a citizen journalism website based in Sri Lanka, discussed the UN internal review:
[S]ince the time of the war the conduct of UN in Sri Lanka has been under criticism for failing to live up to its protection mandate and to ensure upholding of humanitarian principles, of which it is the custodian. For many of the affected people, UN became an irrelevant actor at best and complicit one at worst during a crucial time when they were most vulnerable...
The United Nations and its various bodies, which were set up to prevent precisely such atrocities failed in their mandate to protect these civilians. They let politics, negligence, vested interests and plain incompetence come in the way of prioritizing the lives of children, women and men in Sri Lanka.
The Groundviews writer, known only as "Vidura," points out that accountability for the atrocities committed and the negligence shown during the war should also lie with Sri Lanka's government.
According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report on the Sri Lankan civil war, Sri Lanka "has made no progress toward justice for the extensive laws of war violations committed by both sides during the long civil war, including the government’s indiscriminate shelling of civilians and the LTTE’s use of thousands of civilians as 'human shields' in the final months of the conflict."
"Since the war ended the government has not launched a single credible investigation into alleged abuses," Human Rights Watch says.