New York: The United Nations feared for its staff in Sri Lanka as government troops crushed a Tamil separatist uprising in 2009, UN chief Ban Ki-moon has said defending the actions of UN agencies.
As pressure grew for an international investigation into the killing of "tens of thousands" in the conflict`s brutal finale, Ban was asked why the United Nations had played down casualty figures at the time.
The UN secretary general indicated that the global body could not have known the true number of dead in 2009 because staff had been withdrawn after the Sri Lankan government refused to guarantee their safety.
A UN panel this week said the Sri Lankan Army and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam guerillas may have committed war crimes in the conflict. But the three-member panel also said the UN should investigate the actions of its own officials and agencies.
They said that the UN could have saved lives by putting more pressure on the government by highlighting the true number of dead.
Ban has agreed to the review. But he said: "At the time, the security situation was very precarious at the last stage of the crisis.
"And we were told by the Sri Lankan government, as I understand and remember, that the Sri Lankan government would not be able to ensure the safety and security of United Nations` missions there."
"We were compelled to take the necessary action according to their advice," he added.
The UN panel said the Sri Lanka military killed most of the tens of thousands of civilian victims of the offensive when it shelled Tamil territory between January and May of 2009.
It concluded that "tens of thousands" died and both sides may be guilty of war crimes as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had used civilians as a "human buffer" and shot people who tried to escape.
The United Nations is still waiting to hear an official response from Sri Lanka to the UN report which called on the Colombo government to set up a "genuine" investigation into the conflict.
Before the release of the report on Monday, the government had attacked the panel as "bias" and called its report "preposterous”.
Ban has said he cannot order an international investigation unless Sri Lanka agrees or if an inter-government body such as the UN Security Council or General Assembly requests it.
He called on all nations to carefully read the report and added that if a mandate was secured "then I would be prepared to take the necessary actions" to set an investigation underway.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said earlier than an international inquiry was desperately needed.
"The eyewitness accounts and credible information contained in this report demand a full, impartial, independent and transparent investigation," said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"Unless there is a sea-change in the government`s response, which has so far been one of total denial and blanket impunity, a full-fledged international inquiry will clearly be needed," she added.
The United States, which has taken a tough line on Sri Lanka over the conflict, also welcomed the panel`s recommendations.
The report "makes a valuable contribution to next steps that should be taken in support of justice, accountability, human rights, and reconciliation in Sri Lanka”, said US Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.
Rice said there has to be "an independent and full accounting of the facts in order to ensure that allegations of abuse are addressed and impunity for human rights violations is avoided."