A Decade After Failing to Stop Massacres in Sri Lanka, What Has the U.N. Learned?

A Decade After Failing to Stop Massacres in Sri Lanka, What Has the U.N. Learned?
Sri Lankan protesters wave flags and burn an effigy of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outside the U.N. office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 6, 2010 (AP photo by Eranga Jayawardena).

Ten years ago this month, senior United Nations officials were hard at work equivocating over a crisis. A cynic might say that the U.N. exists in a constant state of equivocation. But in March 2009, its leaders were mired in an especially grim political mess—and handling it badly.

The cause of their troubles lay in northern Sri Lanka. After decades of civil war, the Sri Lankan military was carrying out a final offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a rebel group with a long history of atrocities. As the decisive battle wore on, U.N. officials and journalists in the war zone reported that the army was also behaving brutally, killing thousands of civilians.

Their superiors responded nervously and indecisively. The top U.N. official in Colombo, known as the resident coordinator, assiduously avoided alienating the government. His advisers refused to give frank briefings on fatalities to the media or diplomats. At U.N. headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his advisers were equally tremulous. After U.N. human rights officials in Geneva drafted a clear statement on the crisis in mid-March 2009, Ban’s chef de cabinet replied asking for “some dilution of tone and rigor” in its comments on the death rate in Sri Lanka.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review