The war no one watched

In early 2009, as the conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE rebels came to a head, the United Nations did not hold a single formal meeting on Sri Lanka. In a conflict that killed 40,000 civilians in its final phase, according to one estimate in a UN report, the Security Council, unable to fit Sri Lanka on its agenda, held "informal interactive dialogue" meetings instead. The same report states there was a continued reluctance among local UN institutions to "stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist".

The UN has proven increasingly irrelevant in human rights crises from Rwanda to Serbia and more recently, Syria. But the internal review on Sri Lanka reveals a truth more disturbing than the ineffectiveness of the UN at the level of the SC, which is perpetually gridlocked over resolutions because of the infamous veto power of its permanent members. The field staff in Sri Lanka failed to accurately report on and monitor civilian casualties. As a result, member states and senior staff at headquarters and in Colombo remained blissfully uninformed of the situation's gravity.

The UN's inability to train its staff on their responsibility to protect civilians, at the very least by providing accurate information about a war that was off-limits to journalists, reveals a crisis of leadership that extends from the secretary general to the local institutions he oversees. The leadership in Colombo lacked the political experience in dealing with armed conflict to address the challenges of the war. Headquarters failed to recognise this. Somewhere along the chain of command, damning evidence was ignored and covered up.

The concealment of critical information, which could have elicited a more urgent response from the SC, indicates a loss of conviction within the UN of its responsibility to protect civilians when states fail to do so. While providing humanitarian assistance and protecting human rights in the midst of a civil war is an exceedingly challenging task for even the most competent field staff, conveying the severity of the crisis to senior officials was the most basic responsibility that they failed to fulfil.

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