UN internal investigation draws parallel to that of Sri Lanka

Original Post | Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka | June 23 2012

The United Nations’ much delayed internal review of its own role and actions during the war in Sri Lanka and aftermath has given raise to many questions than it answers, as the review panel has not only deliberately left out key members of the UN international staff but also ignored crucial issues such as the LTTE white flag surrender fiasco and actual civilian death toll.

Asked about the UN review of its own actions in Sri Lanka, Martin Nesirky, Spokesperson for the Secretary-General has said on Monday that “the review started in April of this year and will be completed by July of this year or thereabouts”.

Mr Nesirky, when pressed for detailed answers, has also said that Thoraya Obaid who was initially announced to carry out the review had declined to take it up due to “a number of difficulties of a personal nature”.

According to informed sources, the current review panel, now headed by Charles Petrie, is focusing only on “the UN staff evacuation and the UN role in the Manik Farm internment camps”.

Witnesses left out

But crucial questions including the actual civilian death toll, which the UN initially said was little more than 7000 while the Expert Panel estimated it to be more than 40,000 has not yet been dealt with. Furthermore, the infamous “White Flag issue” which allegedly had the extensive involvement of UN Secretary General’s Chief Of Staff, Vijay Nambiar, still remains shrouded in confusion. It emerges clear from the recent developments that the UN panel is reviewing the role and the actions of the UN in Sri Lanka during the final months of the bloody war, without interviewing or investigating even the key members of the UN’s international staff members who were present in the Wanni until evacuated.

When the advancing government troops were locked in fierce battles with the fighting formations of the Tamil Tiger rebels, the government of Sri Lanka ordered the UN Staff stationed in the Vanni to withdraw immediately, warning that it could not guarantee the safety of its staff if they decided to stay on any further. Leaving hundreds of thousands of people to face the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the world’s history, eight international staff members of the UN and a few dozens of local staff left the Vanni in the morning hours of September 16, 2008.

Dismay and anger

Even as their evacuation was taking place towards the government-held areas in Vavuniya, fighter jets of the Sri Lankan Air Force carried out a few air raids, hitting targets barely a few meters away from the World Food Program (WFP) convoy on the A9 main highway that links the north from the rest of the island. One of the eight UN international staff members who were evacuated from the LTTE-held Vanni areas on September 16, 2008, told the JDS that he was completely caught by surprise when told that the UN review panel, headed by Charles Petrie, has already begun its operation  and is about to meet its deadline.

“I have neither been informed nor approached by this UN review panel. The UN did not tell me anything. I came to know about it only last week through a friend. One of my fellow staff members, who was working with me in the Vanni till being evacuated, also told me that he too has not been contacted,” the former UN staff member told the JDS on condition of anonymity.

“It would just be another report of the UN that would be put on shelf and will be gathering dust,” he said, pointing out the plights of many UN reports including the powerful UN Expert Panel Report on Sri Lanka’s war.

What is the point in investigating or interviewing alone the UN staff based in Colombo, leaving out the international staff members deployed on the ground? I don’t see any difference between the internal investigations of the government of Sri Lanka and that of this UN review panel,” he said, casting serious doubts on the motives of such exercise.

UN Panel Report

Coming hard on the UN system, the UN Expert Panel, headed by Marzuki Darusman, said that during the final stages of the war, “the UN political organs and bodies failed to take actions that might have protected the civilians”.

“Moreover, although senior international official advocated in public and in private with the government that it protects civilians and stop shelling of hospitals, United Nations or ICRC locations, in the Panel’s view, the public use of casualty figures would have strengthened the call for the protection of civilians while those events in the Wanni were unfolding,” the report released in March 2011 said.

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