NEW YORK // Even before Ban Ki-moon touched down in Colombo on May 23, concerns were mounting that the UN leader's visit would be used to validate the Sri Lankan government's conduct during a bloody civil war.
Upon returning to United Nations headquarters, the secretary general has been criticised for failing to take a tough stance against the government for its treatment of displaced Tamils and its brutal endgame to the island's 26-year conflict. Mr Ban defends himself, saying he negotiated hard behind closed doors to secure concessions from the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, although his assurances have not silenced the critics.
They describe Mr Ban's visit as a public relations coup for a brutal regime, pointing to a dancing troop of Tamil refugee children in a barbed-wire camp and meetings with Mr Rajapaksa after the president received an honour from Buddhist monks. Steve Crawshaw, a UN expert for Human Rights Watch, described the visit as disappointing because Mr Ban did not demand investigations into war crimes alleged to have been committed by government troops. Mr Ban also did not stand up for the rights of more than 300,000 displaced Tamils, he said.
"The secretary general failed to take the opportunity to really press hard in the way that was needed," Mr Crawshaw said. "He seemed dismayingly ready to give the Sri Lankan government a free pass." Government forces are accused of indiscriminately shelling on innocent Tamils as they launched their final operation on the last stronghold of their rebel enemy, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Tamils fleeing the battlefield were herded into camps, surrounded by barbed wire and protected by armed guards, as officials weeded out rebel fighters from civilians. Ahilan Kadirgamar, a Tamil activist and New York-based spokesman for the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, questioned the morality of detaining hundreds of thousands of people in mass internment camps. "It's not the right thing to do. People should be allowed to leave these camps," Mr Kadirgamar said. "The government will obviously hold the LTTE responsible, but the process of investigating people should be transparent and monitored by aid agencies."
During his visit to Manik Farm camp, in northern Sri Lanka's Vavuniya district, Mr Ban watched Tamil children wearing neat uniforms perform in front of colourful posters that "welcome the secretary general". In other parts of the sprawling camp - the world's largest centre for internally displaced people, with at least 220,000 occupants - Tamils complained of food shortages and the pungent stench from overflowing latrines.
After flying over the scorched and crater-marked north-east coast, where Tamil Tiger rebels made their last stand, Mr Ban lamented the "most inhumane suffering" endured by the trapped civilians. At the camp, the UN chief demanded that aid workers gain unfettered access to fulfil growing humanitarian needs and called on officials to allow innocent Tamils to return home quickly. Before leaving the country, Mr Ban issued a joint communiqué with Mr Rajapaksa in which the president promised to dismantle camps and allow innocent Tamils to "resume their normal lives at the earliest". But, as the secretary general was departing from Colombo's main airport, the president issued a second statement that spoke of the need to maintain security "in view of the likely presence of LTTE infiltrators" among the displaced Tamils.
Critics say the UN chief should have been more wary of the Sri Lankan government, which has an "appalling track record for distorting the truth" and stands accused of crushing dissent and murdering journalists, Mr Crawshaw said. "The bad faith of the Sri Lankan government has been clear on more levels than one can count," the analyst said. "At a certain point, it becomes important to call a spade a spade. The failure to do so does not help anyone and does not help the future security of Sri Lanka."
Many Tamils are concerned that Mr Rajapaksa, a member of the island's majority Sinhalese population, will fail to deliver on his promise to provide economic opportunity to minority ethnic groups now that the war is over. Tamils have suffered discrimination under successive Sinhalese governments, sparking political violence in the 1970s and a full-scale civil war from 1983 that cost the lives of as many as 100,000 people.
In an interview, Mr Ban defended himself by saying the joint communiqué was borne from "strenuous negotiations" in which he forced concessions from Sri Lanka's president. "My message was very strong and clearly conveyed and understood," the UN chief said. "And he [Mr Rajapaksa] committed to whatever he did in terms of protection of human rights, in terms of resettling them [displaced Tamils] as soon as possible.
Mr Crawshaw said the secretary general's timid criticism of Sri Lanka's government is part of a broader "miserable and historic failure by the international community" in which world powers have not fulfilled their obligations to protect human rights. Human Rights Watch said Mr Ban's visit had "undercut efforts to produce a strong resolution" in the UN's Geneva-based Human Rights Council, which met last week and passed what critics have called a "deeply flawed" resolution.
"Secretary general Ban shares the blame for the Human Rights Council's poor showing on Sri Lanka," Juliette de Rivero, the group's Geneva-based advocacy director, said. A UN spokeswoman, Marie Okabe, defended Mr Ban against the advocacy body's allegations, saying: "They don't seem to have any idea what the secretary general is doing behind the scenes on this issue." email@example.com