Sri Lanka: Slaughter of Tarmils in 2009 & UN Response

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    • 00:00


    • 00:10

      ROSA FREEDMAN: I'm Rosa Freedman.I'm a senior lecturer at Birmingham Law School,University of Birmingham.I'm a scholar who focuses on the law and politics of the UnitedNations.I write extensively for academic journals and for the media,and I focus on the United Nations and human rights.My book on the UN Human Rights Councilwas the first one to examine, explain, and assess that body.

    • 00:35

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: My second book, Failing to Protect,gives an accessible overview of how and why the United NationsHuman Rights machinery is unable fully to protect human rights.My current research focuses on UN peacekeeping operationsand human rights abuses, particularlyaccountability issues.

    • 00:56

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: This case study will examine the interplay between different UNbodies and what happens when they do not work in conjunctionwith one another.The case study focuses on Sri Lanka in 2009and the grave atrocities that took placeduring that internal war.We will explore why the UN Security Council failed

    • 01:17

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: to take note of early warning systemsfrom the Human Rights bodies, why the UN failedto protect Tamils during the conflict,and the subsequent Sri Lankan actionsto protect itself from being held accountable by UN bodies.Since then, the UN has taken stridestowards ensuring that this will never happen again,

    • 01:40

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: and we will question whether those aims can be achieved.The United Nations has three pillars, international peaceand security, development, and human rights.In 2009, during the final weeks of an internal armed conflict

    • 02:03

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: in Sri Lanka, the UN failed to fulfill its dutiesregarding international peace and security,and regarding human rights.In the final days of the 2009 civil war in Sri Lanka,some 20,000 people were killed.Near the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka,hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians

    • 02:24

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: were penned into a tiny spit of sandy landalong the eastern coast, living in squalid, makeshiftencampments, starving, exhausted,and under fire from the Sri Lanka military.The corpses were reported to have started mounting upas the army shelled a safe zone that it had demarcated

    • 02:45

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: for civilians and to which hundreds of thousands of peoplehad fled.In one small village, 700 people were killed by the armyas they tried to flee to safety.It was reported that it took five or sixdays to dispose of all of the corpses.This case study explores how and whythe UN failed to protect these civilians

    • 03:08

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: and asks whether such a situation canbe averted in the future.Over recent decades, Sri Lanka's historyhas been marked by political, social, and ethnic violence.Sri Lanka's 21 million strong population

    • 03:30

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: includes a large majority of Sinhalese,as well as Tamils, Muslims, Veddas, and other minorityethnic communities.From the late 1970s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamilbegan fighting the government with the aimof establishing their own state in the north and east.The LTTE used violence to silence other Tamil groups

    • 03:54

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: and carried out suicide bombings against military, political,and civilian targets.During those decades, Sri Lanka had one of the world's highestrates of state disappearances, as well as widespread casesof unlawful killings and torture by both stateand non-state actors.

    • 04:20

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: Between September 2008 and the 19th of May 2009,the Sri Lankan army advanced its military campaigninto north Sri Lanka, using large-scale and widespreadshelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths.This campaign constituted persecution of the population

    • 04:41

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: of the valley.Around 330,000 civilians were trappedinto an ever-decreasing area.The government sought to intimidate and silencethe media and other critics of the war,using a variety of threats and actions,including white vans that abducted and disappearedpeople.

    • 05:02

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: The government shelled on a large scalein three consecutive no-fire zones,where it had encouraged the civilian populationto concentrate, even after indicating that it wouldcease the use of heavy weapons.It shelled the United Nations hub, food distribution lines,and near the International Committee of the Red Cross

    • 05:23

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: ships that were coming to pick upthe wounded and their relatives from the beaches.It shelled in spite of its knowledgeof the impact provided by its own intelligence systems,and through notification by the UnitedNations, the ICRC, and others.Most civilian casualties in the final phases of the warwere caused by government shelling.

    • 05:45

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: The government systematically shelled hospitalson the front lines.All hospitals in the valley were hit by mortars and artillery.Some of them were hit repeatedly,despite the fact that their locations werewell-known to the government.The government also systematicallydeprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid

    • 06:06

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: in the form of food and medical supplies,particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering.Tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009.Many of them died anonymously in the carnageof the final few days.The government subjected victims and survivors of the conflictto further deprivation and suffering after they

    • 06:28

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: left the conflict zone.Screening for suspected LTTE took placewithout any transparency or external scrutiny.Some of those who were separated were summarily executed,and some of the women may have been raped.Others disappeared, as recounted by their wives and relatives.

    • 06:49

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: All internally displaced persons were detained in closed camps.Massive overcrowding led to terrible conditions,breaching the basic social and economic rightsof the detainees, and many lives were lost unnecessarily.Some persons in the camps were interrogated and subjectedto torture.Suspected LTTE members were removed to other facilities,

    • 07:12

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: with no contact with the outside world,under conditions that made them vulnerable to further abuses.The UN's own panel of experts that looked into the conflictfound credible allegations of five core categoriesof serious violations committed by the government of Sri Lanka.Firstly, killing civilians through widespread shelling.

    • 07:34

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: Secondly, shelling hospitals and humanitarian objects.Thirdly, denial of humanitarian assistance.Fourthly, human rights violationssuffered by victims and survivors of the conflict.And finally, human rights violationsoutside of the conflict zone, includingagainst the media and other critics of the government.

    • 08:01

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: From 2002 until 2008, there were repeated warningsby UN human rights actors about violations,including disappearances by state actorsand the killing of civilians by the government.There was also a warning that a major government militaryoffensive would be launched in north Sri Lanka.

    • 08:22

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: Several reports were prescient in predicting events to come.UN reaction to these early warnings was mixed.From 2003 until 2007, UN special rapporteursadvocated for the UN to establish a human rightsoperation in Sri Lanka.This did not occur.

    • 08:43

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: In 2007 and 2008, the UN Department of Political Affairsproduced policy and strategy documentsaimed at responding to the situation in Sri Lanka,and they recommended nominating a UN Special Envoy.They also recommended establishing a human rightsfield presence and ensuring accountability

    • 09:03

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: for past human rights abuses.In 2007, Sri Lanka was visited by the UN's UndersecretaryGeneral for Humanitarian Affairs and by the head of the Officefor the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.It was visited by the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rightsand by the representative of the Secretary General

    • 09:24

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons.But the government rejected most of the proposed initiativesand recommendations, including for a field operation,and the UN had little success in identifyingalternative approaches.But the UN failed to take the necessary actionsto prevent the conflict or to protect civilians

    • 09:46

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: in north Sri Lanka.That was partly because of the government blocking UN efforts,but also because the UN member states failed to listen toand to heed those early warnings from the UN human rightsbodies.The UN's political engagement in Sri Lankaduring the period from 2007 to the end of the conflict in May,

    • 10:07

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: 2009, remains secondary to the effortsof other external actors.Those included other countries in the region,such as India and China, along with Norway, the EU, Japanand the United States.The UN's relationships with the Sri Lankan governmentwere difficult. For several years,authorities had used the control of visas to sanction UN staff

    • 10:31

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: that criticized the state.The government resisted efforts by the UNto establish staffing capacity to respond to the conflictor to protect civilians and humanitarian aspects.Government-friendly media and senior authoritiespublished false and intimidating allegations against UN agencies

    • 10:52

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: and staff, and the UN's computer system, emails,and telephones were understood to be entirely compromisedby external surveillance.During the final stages of the war,the United Nations' political organs and bodiesfailed to take actions that might have protected civilians.Throughout the final stages of the conflict,

    • 11:13

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: member states did not hold a single formal meetingon Sri Lanka, whether it the Security Council, the HumanRights Council, or the General Assembly.Unable to agree on placing Sri Lanka on its agenda,the Security Council held several informal interactivedialogue meetings, for which there were no writtenrecords and no formal outcomes.

    • 11:35

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: At the meetings, senior UN officialspresented prepared statements that focused largelyon the humanitarian situation.They did not emphasize the responsibilitiesof the government, nor did they clearlyexplain the link between the government and LTTEaction and the obstacles to humanitarian assistance.Nor did they get further information

    • 11:57

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: on the deaths of civilians.The UN is a state-led and state-run organization.It has six main organs and many subsidiary bodiesand specialized agencies.The Secretariat, which is one of the six main organs,

    • 12:19

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: has approximately 45,000 staff memberswho are located across the world and whowork for offices, programs, and departmentsthat frequently have little or nothing to do with one another.Although many different parts of the Secretariathad some information about Sri Lanka,that information was not collated,

    • 12:40

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: and there was insufficient coordinationbetween the offices and departments dealingwith different aspects of the crisis.Moreover, because the government blocked some UN staff membersfrom entering the country or from conducting their work,much of the information was incomplete.Finally, even the fragmented information that existed

    • 13:01

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: was not presented to member statesin a manner that would have enabled them to graspthe severity of the crisis.That being said, member states were notunaware of events unfolding in Sri Lanka.Indeed, many key countries were involved in diplomatic effortsoutside of the UN.But two of the main organs, the Security Council

    • 13:22

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: and the General Assembly, failed to discuss the conflictat formal sessions.This was partly because they failedto heed the human rights early warnings about the crisis,partly because they did not have sufficient information to hand,and partly because Sri Lanka has many allies within the UNthat sought to block scrutiny of the government.

    • 13:44

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: Indeed, at the UN Human Rights Council,those allies of Sri Lanka ensured that the body did notconvene a special session until after the conflict hadfinished.The combination of lack of coordination,lack of information, and politicizationled to the UN failing to protect civilians in Sri Lanka.

    • 14:10

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: The United Nations' response to its failures in Sri Lankahas been to take a long, hard look at its internal processesand to investigate how and why those failures occurred.There have been panel of experts reports, recommendations,and the adoption of the Human Rights

    • 14:31

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: up Front action plan that aims to ensure that such failures donot occur in the future.The United Nations has focused on the responsibilitiesof its senior staff to foreground human rights,to ensure that early warnings from the human rights bodiesare listened to, and that they reach the Security Counciland the General Assembly.

    • 14:54

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: It wants to strengthen how crisis management takes place.These are also important tools.It is clear that the UN human rightsbodies must be listened to, that the Security Council mustbe given all of the relevant information,and that the Secretariat must workin a more coordinated manner.

    • 15:14

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: But is that enough?Sri Lanka, like many countries, has significant allieswithin United Nations bodies, and those alliesprotected it from being scrutinized too closely.Is there a way of overcoming that type of politicizationof United Nations bodies?

    • 15:35

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: Sri Lanka's government was able to block UN staff from enteringthe country or intimidated them into silenceabout the atrocities taking place.Given the respect for state sovereignty,is there a way to avoid similar actions occurring elsewhere?What legitimacy and credibility does the UN

    • 15:56

      ROSA FREEDMAN [continued]: have, given its failures to prevent ethnic slaughterand genocide in the former Yugoslavia,in Rwanda, in Darfur, and in Sri Lanka?

Sri Lanka: Slaughter of Tarmils in 2009 & UN Response

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Dr. Rosa Freedman presents a case study on the U.N.'s failure to prevent large-scale human rights abuses in the last weeks of the Sri Lankan Civil War. She describes the unheeded early warnings, government obstruction, and U.N. politicization that contributed to the deaths of 20,000 people.

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Sri Lanka: Slaughter of Tarmils in 2009 & UN Response

Dr. Rosa Freedman presents a case study on the U.N.'s failure to prevent large-scale human rights abuses in the last weeks of the Sri Lankan Civil War. She describes the unheeded early warnings, government obstruction, and U.N. politicization that contributed to the deaths of 20,000 people.

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