A report published by the Internal Review Panel concluded that ‘events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN’, as the organization withdrew its forces in the final months of the conflict, resulting in an estimated 40,000 deaths. The report further underlined the UN’s inability to adequately respond to early warnings, prevent the escalation of violence, and protect the local population ‘to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians’. According to the Panel such conduct contradicts the principles and responsibilities upon which the organisation was built.

Image courtesy of Ka Frank, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Ka Frank, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Yet, violence was not a novelty in 2009. The Sri Lankan civil war broke out in 1983, as a result of the ethnocentric, discriminating, and marginalising policies implemented by the Sinhalese government upon the Tamil minority, following independence from British rule in 1948. It led to Tamil radicalisation with various guerrilla movements initiating violent actions against the national government. In 1976 the Liberation Tigers for the Tamil Elam (LTTE) became the predominant rebel group in the country, fighting for an independent state in the north and east of the island. As Human Rights Watch pointed out, until the government’s victory over the LTTE in 2009, the country experienced increasing human rights violations. These included hundreds of enforced disappearances, uncountable killings of aid workers, torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and the use of child soldiers. Therefore, why the current international focus on the UN’s action, or rather inaction, during the last few months of the conflict?

In many respects, what happened in Sri Lanka in 2009 is no different from what took place in Rwanda in 1994, or even Srebrenica (Serbia) in 1995, respectively resulting in 800,000 and 8,000 deaths. In all three cases civilians were slaughtered under the eyes of the UN. In all three cases the organization suffered international condemnation for inaction, absence of preparation, lack of transparency with regards to its knowledge of human rights violations, and absence of condemnation of such abuse. In all three cases its legitimacy and credibility ended up tainted.

The report also asserts that UN members in Sri Lanka were unprepared and inexperienced.  It condemns the organization not only for its failure to protect the population but also, and more importantly, for having been in possession of information and evidence of the ongoing slaughter without disclosing it.   Furthermore, it accused the organization of having left the parts of the territory where it knew killings would later on take place. The reason behind the UN’s departure is simple: the national government asked them to leave, on the basis that these areas were no longer safe. Should the UN have stayed? Should it have acted against the Sri Lankan government authority?

Central to these condemnations is an inherent contradiction between the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’ and its belief in state sovereignty. What the report intrinsically highlights is the dichotomy upon which the UN is built: it aims to protect civilians while at the same time acting according to the consent of the nation-state. No document stresses what should be done when these principles contradict each other, as was clearly the case in the last months of the civil war.

Therefore, it seems that the international community is demanding too much from the UN. The UN should respect the sanctity of the nation-state. It should not use force. It should not conduct enforcement operations. All the while it should also prevent human rights violations, avoid violent actions from taking place, protect civilians, deliver aid, help structurally reform failing states and build collective security.

Former senior UN official Edward Mortimer expressed his fear that the report ‘will show the UN has not lived up to the standards we expect of it and has not behaved as the moral conscience of the world’. Seeing what is expected from the UN, one can wonder if it could ever live up to such high standards.

So has the UN failed in Sri Lanka? There appears to be no right answer to such a question. Either way, it seems like the organization would not, and could not, have won the agreement of the international community. Had the UN stayed, it would have been condemned for imperialism, neo-colonialism or interventionism. Had it used force, is would have been accused for failing to abide by the principle of peaceful conflict resolution.  Furthermore, nothing could ensure that the presence of UN members would have prevented the killings. Therefore, it looks like some of these criticisms are, to some extent, unwarranted.

Therefore, the ‘failure’ of the UN in Sri Lanka is extremely similar to that of Rwanda. It should have become clear by now that the institution’s fear to infringe upon national sovereignty often makes it incapable of protecting human lives. Consequently, the UN needs structural changes; it needs to be reformed. As stated by the Panel, the UN should, in the future, ‘be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities’. All we can hope for is that the UN will one day evolve and learn from its mistakes. It is the only way for it to gain in legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the international community. In order to do so the UN and the international community will have to solve a seemingly inextricable problem: what should prevail, national sovereignty or responsibility to protect?