The United Nations deliberately hid the number of Tamil civilians being killed during the Sri Lankan government offensive against the LTTE, according to a report in the French daily Le Monde. The report, translated by FRANCE 24, quotes several UN sources alleging that high-ranking UN officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, chose to keep silent about the high civilian death toll so as to avoid offending the Sri Lankan government and maintain UN operations in the country. A low figure was even leaked by the UN in mid-May, when it was known that the real toll was approaching 20,000 dead.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 from Sri Lanka, Philippe Bolopion, who wrote the piece in Le Monde, said he did not believe the downplayed figures were due to institutional incompetence.
I would say their moral compass might have gone wrong, said Bolopion, referring to senior UN officials.
The most important thing for them was to stay in the country.
According to Le Monde, a group of experts was put together by the UN to compile casualty figures for Sri Lanka, but only a partial total was leaked to the press.
This leak put the estimated death toll at 7,700 by mid-May, days before the Sri Lankan government declared victory in their offensive against the lTTE.
The 7,700 figure was then widely accepted and used by the international press right up until the end of the conflict despite the daily rises in civilian death tolls, according to the report.
But UN staff working on the ground informed Vijay Nambiar, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moons chief of staff, that the final figures would without doubt exceed 20,000 dead, the report said.
We knew carnage was brewing, the paper quoted an unnamed UN official as saying.
We rang the alarm bells for some months but no-one ever took the Sri Lankan government to task publicly.
Everyone is scared of having their agency removed from the country, another anonymous source told the paper.
According to Le Monde, Nambiar even told UN representatives in Sri Lanka that the UN should keep a low profile and play a sustaining role" that was "compatible with the government.
In recent weeks, Nambiars role as the UNs special envoy in Colombo has come into question, FRANCE 24 said. His brother, Satish, a former Indian general, has been a paid consultant to the Sri Lankan army since 2002.
Shortly after the Sri Lankan armys official victory declaration, the local head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Amin Awad, told the Arabic TV station Al Jazeera there were virtually no civilians left in the conflict zone, the article notes.
But the very next day, some 20,000 refugees came out of the conflict zone, having suffered a sustained bombardment.
It gave the government a blank cheque to carpet bomb the whole area, a UN worker told the Le Monde.
The UN has defended its reticence to give specific casualty figures as the conflict was raging.
We absolutely reject the allegation that the UN deliberately downplayed civilian casualties, UN spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told FRANCE 24.
The UN has publicly and repeatedly said that the number of people killed in recent months has been unacceptably high. What we have are well-informed estimates and not precise verifiable numbers. But the UN has not been shy about the scale of human suffering and civilian casualties.
But speaking to FRANCE 24, Bolopion said his sources informed him that the UN was not releasing the findings of its staffers on the ground even though they were much more solid than those the UN has used in other conflict zones.