UNITED NATIONS — A draft U.N. report obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press said inadequate efforts by the world body to protect civilians during the bloody final months of Sri Lanka's civil war marked a "grave failure" that led to suffering for hundreds of thousands of people.
The report accuses U.N. staff members in Colombo of not perceiving that preventing civilian deaths was their responsibility and accuses their bosses at U.N. headquarters of not telling them otherwise.
A separate U.N. report released last year said up to 40,000 ethnic minority Tamil civilians may have been killed in the war's final months.
"This report is a benchmark moment for the U.N. in the same way that Rwanda was," said Gordon Weiss, a former U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, referring to the 1994 genocide in which more than 500,000 Rwandans were killed.
The draft report accuses U.N. officials and member states of being reluctant to interfere and leaving the conflict in a "vacuum of inaction."
It also says the political conditions after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States made countries less likely to stop a government fighting against a group -- the Tamil Tiger rebels -- that many had branded a terrorist organization.
The official report was being released Wednesday at the United Nations in New York.
"The report concludes that the U.N. system failed to meet its responsibilities, highlighting in particular the roles played by the Secretariat, the agencies and programs of the U.N. country team and the members of the Security Council and the Human Rights Council," said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, on Wednesday.
The draft report was compiled by a committee headed by former U.N. official Charles Petrie. The study investigated U.N. actions as the quarter-century war between the government, dominated by the ethnic Sinhalese majority, and minority Tamil rebels ended in 2009 in a wave of violence.
The BBC first reported on the draft report Tuesday.
The draft report paints a picture of a U.N. operation reluctant to criticize the government or accuse it of killing civilians with artillery bombardments, out of concern the government would respond by limiting U.N. humanitarian access -- even through U.N. aid workers were barred from the northern war zone in late 2008.
Top U.N. officials in the country worked repeatedly to soften statements to remove casualty figures and accusations of possible war crimes against the government, the report says.
When death tolls its staff was compiling were released, top officials dismissed them as unverified despite the rigorous methodology being used, the report says.
When U.N. satellite images confirmed heavy artillery shelling in the war zone and showed far more civilians there than the government claimed, the top U.N. official in Sri Lanka downplayed the evidence in a letter to the government, the report says.
At the same time, member states did not hold a single formal meeting on the conflict in its final months in the Security Council, Human Rights Council or General Assembly.
"The U.N set itself up for failure, in Sri Lanka," the report says.