The United Nations failed to call proper attention to the plight of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians during the bloody final stage of the government's war against Tamil Tiger rebels, according to a UN report.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon responded to the report by a review panel he set up to evaluate the UN response during the phase of the Sri Lanka war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by saying that the world body needed to take lessons from its findings.
"The report concludes that the United Nations system failed to meet its responsibilities - highlighting, in particular, the roles played by the Secretariat, the agencies and programs of the UN Country Team, and the members of the Security Council and Human Rights Council," Ban said in a statement .
"This finding has profound implications for our work across the world, and I am determined that the United Nations draws the appropriate lessons and does its utmost to earn the confidence of the world's people, especially those caught in conflict who look to the organization for help," he said.
More than 70,000 'unaccounted for'
A previous UN report on the war, which ended with the LTTE's defeat in May 2009, said that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the last months of the conflict after they were trapped on a narrow strip of coast in northeastern Sri Lanka, caught up in the crossfire between the LTTE and the army.
The new 128-page report, which focuses on the United Nations' performance during the war, cited the earlier report's casualty estimate as well as government statements that fewer than 10,000 civilians died.
It added that some sources cited credible information that more than 70,000 were "unaccounted for."
"The panel's report concludes that events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warnings and to the evolving situation during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians and in contradiction with the principles and responsibilities of the UN," the report said.
"The tone, content and objectives of UNHQ's (headquarters) engagement with member states regarding Sri Lanka were heavily influenced by what it perceived member states wanted to hear, rather than by what member states needed to know if they were to respond," the report said.
'Learn from our mistakes'
Ban said he would set up a "senior-level team" to consider the panel's recommendations and advise him on future action.
"Our obligation to all humanity is to overcome our setbacks, learn from our mistakes, strengthen our responses, and act meaningfully and effectively for the future," he said, adding that "events today in Syria are the latest reminder" of the importance of ensuring that civilians are protected.
The panel also criticized UN member states for not calling a single formal meeting of the Security Council, the Human Rights Council or the 193-nation General Assembly during the final months of the Sri Lanka conflict.
The panel looked closely at U.N. decisions not to release information on civilian deaths in 2009.
"The UN issued many public statements and reports accusing the LTTE of committing human rights and international humanitarian law violations, and mentioning thousands of civilians killed," the report said.
But it said with the exception of one statement on casualties it "almost completely omitted to explicitly mention government responsibility for violations of international law".
The panel said UN officials justified this policy by saying they did not want to jeopardise humanitarian access.
Government denies intimidating officials
Sri Lanka's government has repeatedly rejected allegations that it committed war crimes at the end of its quarter-century fight against the separatist LTTE rebels.
It also rejected suggestions in the report that it had intimidated UN officials.
"No, that's nonsense," Mahinda Samarasinghe, special representative of President Mahinda Rajapaksa on human rights, said in Sri Lanka.
Charles Petrie, a former UN official, who headed the panel that compiled the report said its findings and recommendations "provide an urgent and compelling platform for action."