The narrative of the last stages of the war to defeat terrorism in Sri Lanka has led to much comment both in Sri Lanka and abroad, and is now the subject of an investigation by the UNHRC. The position taken up by those who proposed this investigation, and Sri Lanka that has strongly and determinedly opposed it, gives rise to the need for a much fairer analysis of what really took place, beyond the positions taken up by those who have become the antagonists - namely the UNHRC and Sri Lanka, with the former having the support of the UN Secretary General and the countries of the West, mainly led by the USA that supported the probe.
The debate that preceded the decision on this probe, despite objections of a large section of the UNHRC, including the world's largest democracy and Sri Lanka's closest neighbour India, that was closely engaged in the long efforts to defeat terrorism, and knows much of the reality of this conflict, was largely based on two reports that studies the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka, with clearly two divergent positions.
One of this was the United Nations Secretary General's Panel of Experts (PoE) Report, which is better known as the Darusman Report, taking off from the name of its from its chairman, and the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which was the Sri Lankan Government's move to realize the urgent need to strengthen peace and bring about reconciliation, after nearly three decades of brutality faced by the people. This narrative also gives much importance to the reports of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna UTHR-J), which was an important source of information on the conflict during its final years, and held in high regard.
Search for truth
Important, though almost hidden in this search for the truth of what took place in Sri Lanka, and the situations that affected the civilian population, especially the Tamils of this country, in this bloody and tragic final stage of seeking to defeat and eliminate terrorism from this country, is the role of the United Nations, which is tasked with the protection of civilians in situations of conflict and ensuring the protection of human rights and humanitarian values in the midst of conflicts, both between or among states, and between states and non-state actors. The situation in Sri Lanka was the latter, where the conflict was between the Sri Lankan Government, the state actor and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) the non-state actor - that pursued terrorism as the main aspect in its agenda of separatism.
"Narrative iii" or the Third Narrative, released in Colombo last Friday, is an important effort to address the "Issues of Truth and Accountability" in "The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka." A joint endeavour by the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Human Rights Agencies (CHA), two important Non-Government Organizations well recognized for their independence of thought and action, this takes a dispassionate view of events and goes beyond and deeper than both the UNSG's Darusman PoE report, and the LLRC Report - which has earned much compliments from those most critical of Sri Lanka, too - in identifying the major issues that faced the people, the Tamil civilians most affected the final stages of this prolonged conflict.
This narrative certainly points out the many shortcomings of the Darusman approach to the issues involved, that has little relevance to the actual mandate of the United Nations on dealing with issues of this nature, and also goes further than the LLRC in identifying the problems faced by the State, NGOs and human rights activists at this stage of the conflict with focus on the safety of civilians and the search for reconciliation. What is most important is that this narrative looks very deeply at the role and functioning of the United Nations, and its relevant organizations in addressing the issues of the protection of civilians, in a situation where there is the least doubt that they were being used as human shields by the LTTE, from the time of the fall of Kilinochchi to the Sri Lankan Security Forces in 2008. This is a most revealing and exhaustive study of the functioning, or rather the dysfunctioning, of the UN in any interpretation of its mandate in dealing with such issues of humanitarian importance.
UN in focus
The final section of "Narrative iii" is on the "The Accountability of the UN and its Agencies," which deals in great detail in the conduct of UN organizations during and immediately after the war to defeat the LTTE. It has three sections - one discussing the standards and best practices applicable to the UN in armed conflict, including non-international armed conflicts; another section delves into the chronology of the UN decision making process during the final stages of the war, paying special attention to the UN's own Petrie Report, and the third section assesses the conduct of the UN and critically examines its decision-making during the period of review.
Limitations of space prevent me from placing all of the relevant findings of Narrative iii here. I will, therefore, give some important extracts that reveal the immense shortcoming of the UN and its agencies and personnel in dealing with the situation that prevailed in Sri Lanka. The section on "Chronology of Decision Making" deals with several important areas of UN activity. Under "Protection of Civilians" it states:
"In 2007, the GoSL launched its military campaign in the Wanni to capture the remaining territory held by the LTTE. During the next 18 months, the fighting gradually intensified and in September 2008 the government informed the UN that 'it could no longer guarantee the safety of staff in the Wanni.' In fact, on September 3, 2008 an incident took place where several artillery shells hit within the Kilinochchi close to UN compounds. The same night, UNHCR and WFP received written communications from the SLA informing them that the government could not guarantee the safety and security of aid workers within the Wanni and that any movements would be at their own risk. According to the findings of the Petrie Report, the government's announcement came after 'many months during which the UN perceived the government to be trying to restrict the access of NGOs to the area.' (My emphasis)
"There appears to be a slightly differing account emerging from the minutes of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA). Incidentally, this Committee was referenced only once in the entire Petrie Report and not even once by the UNSG's PoE (Darusman). The Resident Coordinator attended the CCHA meetings and his updates and observations are recorded in the minutes. There appears to be no justification for the lack of reference to these minutes as a source of information in assessing UN conduct during the final stages of the war, nor any justification for the lack of any attempt to refute the information flowing from the CCHA minutes. The CCHA meetings were attended by the Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights, Ambassadors of the USA, Germany and Japan, the Head of the Delegation of the European Commission, representatives of relevant UN agencies such as UNHCR, OCHA and WFP, the Chairman of the NGOs Committee, the Commissioner General of Essential Services, Government Agents and Senior Officials of relevant Ministries. According to the CCHA Meeting minutes of September 8, 2008, a decision had been taken by the government to relocate the UN and INGOs to Vavuniya. According to the UTHR report in October 2008, a UN statement dated September 9, 2008 had 'little hint of protest or alarm' and acknowledged 'the announcement by the GoSL that they can no longer ensure the safety of aid workers in the (W)anni, and their request that UN and NGO staff should relocate to government-controlled territory.' The UTHR report also referred to the fact that the UN readily complied with the government's request in just eight days, despite the fact that the government had given UN staff three weeks to evacuate. The UN's attitude to its protection mandate was perhaps best captured in a statement on September 10, 2008 by Gordon Weiss, UN spokesman in Colombo:
"It is the prime responsibility of the government to provide security to humanitarian workers and if they cannot give it to us then we will leave...The UN cannot do anything about the safety of the civilians as this is once again the responsibility of the government." (It is relevant to note here that Gordon Weiss is the author of a book that has made many false and unsubstantiated allegations against Sri Lanka, about the final stages of the battle against the LTTE - My comment).
"The Petrie Report does not comment on the inordinate speed in which the UN evacuated without even attempting to negotiate with the government. It states that within three weeks, the UN withdrew all international staff, effectively ending UN assistance operations from within the Wanni. Another curious piece of information cited in the UTHR report was the Peace Secretariat's statement in early October that the government wanted UNHCR and WFP to continue work in the Wanni. According to the statement: 'When (the UN staff) were guaranteed safe passage to Wanni in mid-September, all of them refused the offer on security grounds. Sri Lankan NGOs were the only ones to travel.'(My emphasis).
The Petrie Report also states that 'the relocation of international staff out of the conflict zone made it much harder for the UN to deliver humanitarian assistance to the civilian population, to monitor the situation and to 'protect by presence'. Yet this position remains at odds with the UN Spokesman's statement on September 10, 2008. (Referred to earlier.)
Provision of humanitarian assistance
The Petrie Report mentions the complex and demanding context in which humanitarian assistance was delivered to the Wanni from October 2008 onwards. It was also observed that there was 'competition between UN agencies for visibility at the expense of providing the assistance needed.' (My emphasis)
"It is unclear as to whether the food supplied during the time (September 2008 to May 2009) resulted in starvation-a matter that perhaps requires further scrutiny. However, the UN PoE's finding is inconsistent with WFP's own views expressed as late as May 2009. The WFP appeared to have a held the view that there was no food shortage whatsoever. In a statement released on May 4, 2009, Aseb Asrat, the Deputy Country Director of WFP refuted what was described as 'baseless assumptions of inadequate food supplies to the civilian hostages in the 4.5 sq.km No-Fire- Zone'. It was claimed that there was 'no let down in food distribution to hostages in the NFZ' and that '(s)ince February till end of April, the WFP in collaboration with the GoSL has send over 3000 MT of food supplies'.149 The statement reads as an outright contradiction of the UN Joint Humanitarian Updates and other prevailing views on food shortages. In this context, there appears to be serious inconsistencies in the UN's decision-making during the final stages of the war." (My emphasis)
Protection of civilians during the war
"As evident in the UN Spokesman's statement on September 10, 2009, the UN's approach to protection appears to have been somewhat cynical. There are perhaps two explanations for the UN's failure to discharge its overall responsibilities in respect of protection.
First, its operational scope in terms of protection was overly broad, which led to the dilution of priorities. Protection was defined in incredibly broad terms to include psychosocial care, food and shelter gaps, recreational activities, and staff training. As pointed out in the Petrie Report, the fact that protection was defined so broadly 'obscured the very limited extent to which the UN's protection actions actually served to protect people from the most serious risks.'
Second, the UN lacked a strategic approach to minimising civilian casualties. This lack of strategy was particularly evident during the period between March 2008 and January 2009. During this vital period, the UN remained unable to formulate a comprehensive plan aimed at convincing civilians to move into government-controlled areas."
"The low levels of civilian casualties (in the earlier stage) were largely attributable to the military tactics adopted by both sides-where the government engaged mainly in precision attacks and the LTTE engaged in conventional warfare and refrained from using human shields. The situation changed dramatically in January 2009 when the territory held by the LTTE became smaller and the concentration of civilians within that territory was much greater. The UN did very little during the preceding ten-month period to encourage civilians to crossover to government-held territory." (My emphasis)
"Reports were being constantly released of civilians moving with the retreating LTTE-some out of coercion and others out of their own volition. The government's strategy of encouraging civilians to move into government-controlled territory may have been unconvincing, given the influence of the LTTE and the general (though in most cases, passive) support the LTTE enjoyed during the time."
"The foregoing analysis attempts to put into perspective the UN's conduct in Sri Lanka during and immediately after the final stages of the war.... The critique... intends to uncover some of the institutional failings of the UN in relation to essential standards that guide its conduct during an armed conflict. From this perspective, the UN clearly failed in its protection mandate.
"In conclusion, what emerges from UN decision-making during the period of review is a distinct institutional culture of trade-offs. The Petrie Report points to this culture and observes that in the case of Sri Lanka, the UN staff consistently preferred to err on the side of caution in responding to the crisis. This general indecisiveness was fundamental to the UN failure on numerous counts. It may be necessary to acknowledge the fact that remedying the UN bureaucracy and institutional lassitude may be a more long-term challenge to overcome. Thus in reviewing UN policies in the short-term, it is perhaps vital that the deployment of competent personnel, with appropriate experience and expertise and with the capacity to think strategically within the context of armed conflict, be prioritised at all levels."
For full text of "Narrative iii" visit: