NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations failed in its mandate to protect Sri Lankan civilians caught up in the final phases of the Indian Ocean island's bloody war, a new report has said.
Sri Lanka's civil conflict ended in May 2009 in cataclysmic final battle in which government forces surrounded Tamil rebels on a tiny strip of coastal land, where the separatists kept hundreds of thousands of civilians as human shields.
A 2011 U.N. probe estimates about 40,000 people were killed in the final phases of the war, mostly by army shelling and bombardments. Sri Lanka has rejected the allegation and claims in its own investigation that around 7,000 people died.
Written by two Sri Lankan charities, the report said despite signs of escalating violence, U.N. staff "consistently preferred to err on the side of caution in responding to the crisis."
"The UN system as a whole made little effort to prevent the humanitarian tragedy that ensued," said the Narratives III report.
"They failed to diagnose the nature of the problem at the early stages and were incapable of designing a coordinated strategy to separate the civilians from the LTTE (rebels) and enable them to move into the government controlled areas."
The report - by the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies - contradicts earlier reports by the U.N. and human rights groups which puts the blame for civilian deaths largely on government forces.
Instead, it holds the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) primarily responsible due to its strategy of holding civilians captive and using them as shields.
It said it was necessary to question whether the U.N.'s surveillance of the actions of the LTTE was adequate and whether more decisive action could have been taken to prevent civilians being used in this manner.
The U.N. office in Colombo declined to comment on the report's findings.
The report questions various actions taken by the U.N. such the almost immediate relocation of all its staff out of the war zone, saying that even though the government advised the U.N. to leave due to safety risks, the organisation should have negotiated to stay.
"In the context of both the lack of contestation of the government's request and the absence of any negotiation for further time to be provided, the report concludes that the U.N. failed in its protection mandate by relocating," it states.
The report said the U.N. lacked a strategic approach to minimising the death toll. It said the U.N. should have encouraged civilians who were fleeing with the rebels to cross over to government controlled area, adding that this would have avoided people being used as human shields.
It attributed some of the failures to staff on the ground which it said had little or no expertise in analysing military operations in terms of their humanitarian risks or in protecting civilians.
The report also said the U.N.'s complex bureaucracy and decision-making processes prevented vital information from being channelled to senior officials with expertise.
For example, during a 10-month window of opportunity for the U.N. to roll out a comprehensive plan for civilian evacuation, no information on the potential risks that civilians would eventually face was transmitted to U.N. headquarters, it said.
"The U.N. bureaucracy and parochial decision-making processes at the time prevented such a plan - a plan that could have significantly reduced the number of civilian casualties during the latter states of the war," it said.
The U.N. human rights office in July embarked on a controversial probe into alleged war crimes. The move has angered President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government which says it will not cooperate with U.N. investigators.
Editing by Ros Russell