Sri Lanka: UN review reveals state war crimes, international complicity

December 3, 2012

A United Nations review into its handling of the Sri Lankan government's war against Tamils in 2009 has revealed the UN deliberately ignored Sri Lanka's huge-scale human rights violations.

Up to 50,000 Tamils were killed by Sri Lankan military forces in the final stage of the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and armed Tamil independence groups, the most prominent of which was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

After the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, about 300,000 Tamils were forced into prison camps, where mass executions, torture and rape allegedly took place.

Australian Tamil Congress spokesperson Sam Pari said at on November 23: “UN senior officials not only abandoned the Vanni region as the war escalated, but purposely avoided revealing casualty figures collated by its own staff, while knowing the death toll had entered the tens of thousands.

“Furthermore, the UN was found to have failed to mention that the majority of killings that took place were inside government-declared 'safe zones', and chose to hide the fact that the Sri Lankan regime was responsible for these civilian deaths, instead casting blame solely on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ...

“This recent internal review substantiates what the Tamil people had desperately tried to alert the world: the UN’s deliberate silence protected the Sri Lankan state from international criticism and allowed it to strategically conduct a genocidal campaign under the guise of a 'war on terror'.”

The UN released a heavily redacted version of a report on its conduct during the Sri Lankan conflict after a leaked version was released on November 13. However, exposed some of the censored material, showing efforts by top UN officials to provide cover for the Sri Lankan government. said on November 14 that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon argued against an independent investigation into Sri Lankan government crimes, despite being advised Sri Lanka's own inquiry was “unlikely to seriously address past violations”. also said former UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes “was against referring to war crimes, after having buried a report of over 2000 civilian deaths”.

A leaked version of the executive summary of the report, removed from the final version but published by, said: “Decision-making across the UN was dominated by a culture of trade-offs ― from the ground to UN headquarters (UNHQ) ...

“There was a sustained and institutionalized reluctance among UNCT [United Nations Country Team] actors to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist. In Colombo, many senior UN staff simply did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility ...

“The UN’s failure to adequately counter the Government’s under-estimation of population numbers in the Wanni, the failure to adequately confront the Government on its obstructions to humanitarian assistance, the unwillingness of the UN in UNHQ and Colombo to address Government responsibility for attacks that were killing civilians, and the tone and content of UN communications with the Government and Member States on these issues, contributed to the unfolding of dramatic events.”

The UN's actions reflect the disregard for the plight of Tamils by many governments across the world. Such supporters have provided cover for Sri Lanka's crimes by couching its actions in terms of “anti-terrorism” and ignoring the civilian casualties and subsequent abuses.

Sri Lanka is seen as a strategic ally for the West, given its geographic location near China and India.

The US government has also worked to stop a war-crimes lawsuit against Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa brought by Tamil activists, saying Rajapaksa has legal immunity from such charges, Tamilnet said on November 9.

The Sri Lankan government had tried to deflect criticism with its “Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC), whose government-appointed officials largely exonerated the government. Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader said on November 18 the LLRC's modest recommendations were slow in being implemented by the government, despite the report being completed a year ago.

The Sri Lankan government's ongoing abuses against Tamils are part of a long history of oppression.

The drive by Tamils to create an independent state, Tamil Eelam, in the island's north-east was caused by the racist and discriminatory practices of the Sri Lankan government, dating back to the country's colonisation by Britain.

The British used racism to turn the majority Sinhalese population against Tamils, dividing the struggle against colonial rule. Racism was amplified after the British handed over power to Sinhalese elites in 1948. Most Tamils were also excluded from many aspects of society ― Sinhalese was made the official language, keeping Tamils out of government jobs.

After decades of non-violent political struggle, rising mistreatment of Tamils ― including several massacres ― led to demands for independence and some Tamils formed armed groups. Some of these groups ― including the LTTE ― also engaged in violence against civilians.

Nonetheless, the LTTE became regarded by many Tamils as a protector against Sinhalese violence. It set up a de facto state in predominantly Tamil areas under its control until the Sri Lankan Army offensive that defeated it.

Having destroyed the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government is working to make Tamil independence unviable.

Many Tamils have been prevented from returning to their homes, with the government settling thousands of Sinhalese in formerly Tamil areas. Critics say this is a form of ethnic cleansing. Tamilnet provided an example on November 11, reporting government plans to send 25,000 Sinhalese to live in the Batticaloa district.

Meanwhile, 51,000 Tamils were “denied access to their fertile lands and houses in Valikaamam, Jaffna”, Tamilnet said.

Tamilnet also reported on November 10 the building of a Buddhist temple for Sinhalese settlers on an ancient site at Kuchchave’li, significant to the Tamils who were expelled from there. Many other similar cases have been reported throughout the country.

The Sri Lankan government is also notorious for its harassment of opponents from all ethnic groups, including widespread abduction and torture of activists.

Despite this, the Australian government has sent back more than 650 Tamil asylum seekers since August, said on November 28.

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