Posted on June 12th, 2021


The Darusman Report (2011) which was commissioned by the UN Secretary-General pointed out that that there was a need for the UN to review its actions in the Eelam War IV. Clearly, it was felt that the UN had failed in its task of manipulating the Eelam war. Sri Lanka had won the Eelam war.

UN Secretary-General then established an Internal Review Panel under Charles Petrie, to review UN actions in Sri Lanka during the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka and after. The Petrie report stated that from 2003 to 2007, the UN had wanted to establish a human rights operation in Sri Lanka, but failed.

In 2007 and 2008, the UN Department of Political Affairs (DPA) in New York, considered various tactics in Sri Lanka, which included a political solution to the conflict, a special envoy, establishing a human rights field presence and ensuring accountability for past human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.

Out of these, UN  decided  in 2007, to focus on high-level visits by senior UNHQ officials who could present UN concerns and suggestions to the government .In 2007 alone Sri Lanka was visited by  * USG-Humanitarian Affairs , *Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs  *the Under Secretary-General (USG)-Humanitarian Affairs, *Head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights  and *the Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (RSG-IDPs).

USG-Humanitarian Affairs, conducted more visits to Sri Lanka than any other official, the Petrie Report   said.  However, the Government rejected most of the proposed initiatives, including the appeal by the UN for a field operation,  which meant a sort of peacekeeping mission.

The UN’s relationships with the Government were difficult, said Petrie Report, due to the Government stratagem of UN intimidation.”  Government of Sri Lanka had used visas to control UN staff critical of the government. The Government declared several Resident Coordinators persona non grata, or made them understand that their visas were at risk of being withdrawn, while also rejecting proposed replacements with previous experience in crisis situations.  The Government refused to give them visas when UN tried to send in more staff to deal with the humanitarian aspect of the War, continued Petrie Report.

In 2007 the Government formally launched its military campaign in the Wanni against the last remaining area under LTTE control. Over the following 18 months, the fighting gradually intensified and in September 2008, as the conflict entered its final stages, the Government officially informed the UN it could no longer guarantee the safety of staff in the Wanni.

 Within three weeks, the UN withdrew all international staff, effectively ending UN assistance operations from within the Wanni. The UN also tried to withdraw its entire national staff, but the LTTE prevented staff dependents from leaving, and many national staff consequently chose to remain behind.

The Petrie report also looked at developments at the apex of the UN system. By 2007, UN was discussing Sri Lanka at its Headquarters in New York. At UNHQ Sri Lanka was on the agenda not just of the Policy Committee but also of the Executive Committee on Humanitarian Affairs (ECHA), and an Inter-Agency Working Group on Sri Lanka (IAWG-SL), said Petrie Report.

But Sri Lanka was never formally considered by Member States at the UN, whether at the Security Council, the Human Rights Council, or the General Assembly, the report said. From late 2008, a small group of non-permanent members of the Security Council had become deeply concerned by events and by early February 2009 wished the Security Council to formally consider the situation in Sri Lanka. However, they did not have sufficient support within the Security Council for this.

Sri Lanka was discussed in ‘informal interactive dialogue’ at the Security Council, but this had no formal status, led to no outcomes and left no formal minutes of its deliberations. The Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN participated in the meetings, providing the Government’s version of events and potentially influencing discussions.

Foreign Ministers from two member countries of the Security Council went to Sri Lanka in late April 2009.  On 12th May, 2009 they called for Sri Lanka to be placed on the Security Council’s agenda. But this came too late to change the course of events, said Petrie Report.

Above all, UN action in Sri Lanka was not supported by Member states, said Petrie Report. In the absence of clear Security Council backing, the UN’s actions lacked adequate purpose and direction. Member States failed to provide the Secretariat and UN Country Team in Colombo with the necessary support.

Petrie report said that the UN office in Colombo had insufficient political expertise and experience in armed conflicts, human rights and humanitarian law issues to deal with the extraordinary challenge” that Sri Lanka presented.

A UN staffer had told Rajiva Wijesinha that the UN had ‘got this wrong.’ Most of the UN staff had worked in countries with no established government and no regular provision of basic social services.  They did not know how to negotiate with a strong government.

The UN representation in Sri Lanka was too weak to be effective, said Petrie Report. The UN office in Sri Lanka was headed by Resident Coordinator who reported to the Secretary-General through the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

The Resident Coordinator   was supported by a Human Rights Adviser who provided a link to OHCHR, a Reconciliation and Development Adviser who provided a link to DPA, a communications adviser who was also a spokesperson, and a gender adviser.

 As the Eelam issue escalated a Crisis Management Group was established with Resident Coordinator,   the country heads of UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs, (OCHA). The group’s initial focus was on the logistical and operational aspects of UN action in the war area.

The events in Sri Lanka highlight the urgent need for the UN to update its strategy for engagement with Member States in situations where civilian populations caught up in the midst of armed conflicts are not protected in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law, said Petrie Report. The International Resource Panel of the UN found a systemic failure” in the UN response during the final months of Sri Lanka’s conflict, evoking comparisons to UN failures in Rwanda in 1996 and Srebrenica in 1995, said Petrie Report.

The report was presented to the Secretary General in November 2012, and led to a new policy within the UN called Rights-up-Front. In 2013, in direct response to the Petrie Report, the Secretary-General launched the Human Rights Up Front initiative. He issued a Human Rights Up Front Detailed Action Plan (updated March 2014). This called on the UN system to play a strong role to prevent human rights crises.

There has been a new development in the role of the UN Resident Coordinator, observed Leelananda de Silva writing in October 2019. For the past 50 years or so, the UNDP Resident Representative has also been the UN Resident Coordinator. It was an office involved with development”. The UNDP funded the post of UN Resident Coordinator in all developing countries where they were present. 

A few months ago, the UN Secretary General delinked the role of the UN Resident Coordinators from the UNDP and brought it under Secretary General. The office of Secretary General of the UN is a political one. By changing the role of the RC, the Secretary General has now a largely political representative in Colombo.

Sri Lanka needs to be more aware of this changed role of the UN Resident Coordinator. What does this official do? And what kinds of reports does this official send to the Secretary General?

I understand that recently there was a request from the UN Human Rights office in Geneva, to appoint a representative in Colombo, and that was turned down by the Government. Now with this appointment, the UN has got a political office on the ground here. The government should be aware of his precise role in this country.

Leelananda also looked at protocol. UN personnel in Colombo are expected to meet government officials at an appropriate level. In the 1970s, when I was Director of Economic Affairs in the Planning Ministry, I met the UN Resident Coordinator and the UN Resident Representative in my office from time to time. The RC hardly met the Permanent Secretary or a Minister.  The Prime Minister they never met unless on some ceremonial occasion. In New York or Geneva, High level UN officers   meet our Ambassador. They do not meet first or second secretaries of our Embassy.

Now, the practice has changed. Recently I saw some photographs of the UNDP Resident Representative (not the UN Resident Coordinator) meeting the President and the Prime Minister. This UNDP representative is a mid-level official of the UN. He does not have official access to President and the Prime Minister. This means that   High level UN officers do not need to seek an appointment with Head of state, the junior officials can attend to the matter for them.

There is another problem when protocol is discarded, said Leelananda. When UN officials in Colombo can conduct their business at the ministerial level, why should they bother with officials? They can go above their heads.

Leelananda   also looked at UN aid.  Initially, there was a certain amount of development aid, especially in the form of technical assistance from UN bodies. Now that has ceased, as Sri Lanka is no longer eligible for concessional assistance.

UNDP offices are now channeling aid from various bilateral donors. The aid funds come from bilateral donors to UN bodies and these UN bodies fund projects in Sri Lanka. These UN bodies have to report to these bilateral donors. In fact, their very existence in a country now depends on bilateral funding of projects. These UN bodies are no longer independent aid donors, as they used to be, warned Leelananda. (Continued)

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