Lanka denies intimidating UN over Tamil deaths

The Sri Lankan government has denied allegations that it intimidated UN staff at the end of the civil war.

The claims were made in a UN report leaked to the BBC, in which the UN accused itself of failing the civilian Tamil population in the final stages of the conflict in 2009.

The Sri Lankan UN ambassador said it was “absolute nonsense” to say a “small country” could intimidate the UN.

Palitha Kohona said his country had worked with senior UN officials.

Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told a press conference in the capital, Colombo, that he did not want to comment directly on the report.

But he said: “How can you intimidate them [the UN]? They don’t get intimidated by anyone.”

The UN’s investigation into its own conduct during the last months of the conflict concluded: “Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN.”

It said the organisation should in future “be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities”.

The report does highlight the positive role played by some UN staff on the ground and the secretary general, but it points to a “systemic failure”.

The final months of the war saw hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians – 330,000, according to the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) report of 2011 – trapped in the territory held by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).

As the LTTE retreated from the government advance, they forced the civilians to come with them. According to the PoE most, though by no means all, of the civilian deaths were caused by government shelling. The Tigers shot people trying to escape and continued forcible conscription. The government rejected the report.

The only international organisation left in the shrinking rebel zone was the International Committee of the Red Cross. Four days before the war ended the ICRC spoke of an “unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe”.

Most of the media were completely excluded from the north. Five doctors in the rebel area who reported the casualty situation to the media were imprisoned by the government and in July 2009 paraded before the media and mysteriously recanted, saying fewer than 700 civilians died from January to May – a figure much lower than that the government this year admitted to.

It questions decisions such as the withdrawal of UN staff from the war zone in September 2008 after the Sri Lankan government warned it could no longer guarantee their safety.

A Tamil school teacher now seeking asylum in Britain, said “We begged them [the UN], we pleaded with them not to leave the area. They did not listen to us.”

The teacher who did not want to be named, added: “If they had stayed there, and listened to us, many more people would be alive today.”

The UN’s former humanitarian chief, John Holmes, has criticised the report.

Mr Holmes said the UN faced “some very difficult dilemmas” at the time and could be criticised for the decisions it had taken.

“But the idea that if we behaved differently, the Sri Lankan government would have behaved differently I think is not one that is easy to reconcile with the reality at the time,” he told the BBC’s Newshour programme.

In September 2009, Sri Lanka expelled the country spokesman for Unicef, James Elder, who had updated the media on the plight of children caught up in the conflict.

Palitha Kohona, who was then permanent secretary at the Sri Lankan ministry of foreign affairs, accused him of spreading propaganda for the Tamil Tigers after he reported seeing babies with shrapnel and gunshot injuries.

The government and Tamil rebels are accused of war crimes in the brutal conflict which ended in May 2009.

The 26-year war left at least 100,000 people dead. There are still no confirmed figures for tens of thousands of civilian deaths in the last months of battle.

An earlier UN investigation said it was possible up to 40,000 people had been killed in the final five months alone. Others suggest the number of deaths could be even higher.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians remained in the war zone, exploited by both sides: forcibly recruited by Tamil Tigers or used as human shields; or under indiscriminate government fire.

On the day before the war ended, 17 May 2009, Mr Samarasinghe said: “Soldiers saved all the Tamil civilians trapped inside the war zone without shedding a drop of blood.” (BBC)