UN as the war ended | Daily News

UN as the war ended

The UN SG during his recent visit reechoed his sentiments when the review commissioned by him led by UN Assistant Secretary General Charles Petrie, criticized the UN Secretariat, UN Security Council and staff in Sri Lanka when it stated UN’s conduct at the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka marked a “grave failure” that “should not happen again”.

It is worth looking at the international context. The distinction between combatants and civilians lies at the heart of regulating the conduct of hostilities and balancing principles of humanity and military imperative.


In early January 2009, State Secretary of Norway, Tore Hattrem, and then Norwegian Ambassador conveyed a Government offer of Amnesty to all cadres bar the leader and head of intelligence which was rejected.

In early February 2009, the UN had was aware fighting would last weeks, they sought a new No Fire Zone whilst contemplating air dropping food off the thin remaining coastal strip where fighting ended, Japan, USA, EU, Norway (Co-Chairs of the Peace Process) and UN had understood ‘distinction’ had ceased which meant civilians were hostage and surrender by LTTE was essential. On February 19 another Government also sought the LTTE to lay down arms and release the civilians.

Security Council and wider dynamics

DBS Jeyaraj in Trans currents reported that on “February 27, the Council is expecting a briefing by John Holmes, Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, on the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka . This briefing follows his February 19 – 21 visit to Sri Lanka. It will take place in closed consultations under “Other Matters”, following a briefing on the Peace building Support Office.

On February 6 the Secretary-General spoke to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa about the worsening humanitarian situation in the conflict zone and conveyed his strong concern about the heavy casualties, including children. On February 24 the Secretary-General called for a suspension of fighting to allow safe passage to civilians trying to flee the conflict.

In recent months Council members have been divided over whether this issue is one that should be brought before the Council. Members like Mexico and Japan were pushing for a Council discussion several weeks ago. They faced opposition from Russia which was of the opinion that the issue should not be on the Council’s agenda. Most other members seemed willing to distinguish between having a formal agenda item and an informal discussion in the context of a briefing. It seems that agreement has been resolved on a compromise under which members would hear a briefing but not agree to a formal agenda item which would open the way to substantive action.”

By mid-March 2009, one recommendation was for the US Government to ask the UN Secretary General to issue a public statement calling on both sides to allow a humanitarian pause in fighting for civilians who want to leave with provision for ICRC to determine who actually wants to leave. The UN, ICRC and the SL Foreign Minister were not averse to this idea.

Limitations of the UN

The then UN Humanitarian Coordinator Sir John Homes was heard on the last Channel 4 production stating he did not think the war could be stopped early. His mandate I believe was to extract the civilians from harm, but his mandate failed him. In an interview with Internews on May 6, 2009, he says, — unfortunately it has been a somewhat frustrating time because we seem to be stuck without a way to move forward. The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Thursday April 23 that he was sending a humanitarian team to Sri Lanka’s war zone but so far the team has not arrived. Of course, the security condition has to permit that to happen, which is why we have been asking the government to agree to another humanitarian pause. Unfortunately at the moment, no mission has been possible yet, and the LTTE continue to prevent the civilians from leaving. That’s why we, along with the international community, are so frustrated because they are unable to find a way forward and relieve the suffering of the people.”

The UN places their shoes on the ground in situations where political processes have failed and conflicts have erupted to such a scale warranting UN sister agency involvement. It calls for significant strength in coordinated approaches between the UN’s political wing in New York and the Human Rights arm in Geneva.

This is not the way it plays out. Sometimes leading to extremely sad consequences. Former Yugoslavia being one. In Sri Lanka the UN staff in Colombo and at times field level were left facing the collateral damage. One of my personal, jaundiced views is that the UN was not able to stop child conscription even though it became an international crime. The LTTEs entire human resource capacity was founded on children, contribution to the war effort’s graphic denial of their right to childhood equally horrifying.

The narrative shows a UNSC unable to act, key Member States and UNSG fully aware of ground reality by February and March 2009. Unless someone was willing to intervene militarily or sanctions were forthcoming neither of which was the reality, the gruesome end ultimately witnessed was inevitable.

Consignment sent by CHA bought ashore. A second consignment was prevented from landing and sent to Jaffna due to chaos on the beach before the war ended. 

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