*War-time conduct of UN in SL:
Report riddled with gaping holes

– Bogollagama


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Sri Lanka’s war-time Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama yesterday said that many lives could have been saved had the UN acted swiftly and decisively when the LTTE exposed its plan to take refugee among civilians.

"The LTTE’s intentions were clear as early as February 2007. The LTTE went to the extent of warning the UN not to interfere with its plans," Bogollagama told The Island. The first indication of the LTTE’s move came to light soon after the army opened a new front on March 5, 2007 west of Vavuniya. The former minister alleged that the LTTE had detained two local Tamil employees for helping some civilians to escape the war zone.

The UN had not cared to inform the government of the illegal detention, he said.

The army opened two more fronts in the Vanni in September 2007 and January 2008 to facilitate civilian attempts to cross over to the government-held area.

The former minister was responding to a UN report, which inquired into the organization’s actions during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s war. The internal review panel recently completed its eight-month study, and its head, Charles Petrie, presented the findings and recommendations to the Secretary-General last Wednesday.

Bogollagama held the foreign ministry portfolio from January 27, 2007 to April 20, 2010.

International news agencies quoted UNSG Ban Ki-moon as having said that the UN system had failed to meet its responsibilities.

Instead of demanding the immediate release of UN workers, the mission in Colombo and its Kilinochchi-based representatives had had clandestine talks with the LTTE in a bid to secure their release, Bogollagama said noting that the International Committee of the Red Cross as well as Norway-led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) couldn’t have been unaware of the LTTE’s high handed action as both organizations maintained presence in the Vanni region. As the army advanced on multiple fronts, the LTTE had forced the civilian population to retreat along with its fighting cadre across the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road towards the Mullaitivu coast, Bogollagama said.

None of those commenting on Petrie’s recently released report bothered to condemn the LTTE for abducting UN workers, the one-time MP said, adding that people had no option but to seek the assistance of local UN Tamil employees to flee the region to avoid being forcibly conscripted by the LTTE.

The secret move to secure the release of men in LTTE captivity was revealed by the April 20, 2007 issue of The Island in a front-page lead story captioned ‘LTTE detains UN workers’. Subsequently, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa lashed out at Colombo based UN big wigs as well as the NGO community when the issue came up at a Defence Ministry meeting chaired by Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe in late April, 2007. Among the top diplomats present on the occasion was US Ambassador Robert O. Blake.

Bogollagama emphasized that throughout the offensive action on the Vanni front he had been in touch with key UN officials as regards the ground situation. Responding to a query, Bogollagama said that in the backdrop of the Petrie report it would be important to examine a statement attributed to Michael Montas, spokesman for UNSG Ban Ki-moon, at the daily media briefing on April 25, 2007. Montas said that the UN mission hadn’t reported the kidnapping of UN workers to the New York headquarters. Referring to The Island reports, Montas said: "We don’t have any confirmation of those newspaper reports. We have heard them. As soon s we have a confirmation, we’ll get something for you on that."

The Petrie panel reviewed about 7,000 documents, including internal UN exchanges with the Sri Lankan government. The panel also met a large number of groups, including representatives of civil society and Member-States, and its recommendations built on previous reviews of UN action in theatres of escalated conflict.

Bogollagama said that he would like to know whether any of those interviewed by Petrie’s panel had mentioned the case of abducted UN workers. Asked whether there had been further incidents involving the UN during the conflict, Bogollagama explained the circumstances under which the LTTE prevented local UN workers and their families from leaving the war zone along with the expatriate staff in Sept./Oct. 2008. The LTTE rejected the UN’s request, Bogollagama said, alleging that repeated attempts to get them out of the war zone had thwarted by the LTTE. The LTTE decision affected 535 local staff.

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