SPECIAL REPORT : Part 44October 7, 2014, 4:11 pm
by Shamindra Ferdinando
After having helped the Sri Lankan government to finish off the LTTE once and for all, the US has been relentlessly pursuing Sri Lanka on the diplomatic front.
The LTTE fighting cadre collapsed in May 2009, following nearly a three-year battle dubbed Eelam War IV.
If not for the US intervention, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) wouldn’t have adopted resolution 25/1 at its March, 2014, session, to pave the way for an inquiry under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Navaneetham Pillay’s successor, Jordan’s Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad is in overall charge of the investigation.
The US stepped in after its close allies, the UK and Canada failed to convince the international community to initiate an international probe into accountability issues in Sri Lanka.
A conclusive battlefield victory over the LTTE wouldn’t have been possible without US support.
The US provided both military muscle as well as diplomatic wherewithal to bring the LTTE down to its knees. Sustained supply of Israeli armaments was nothing but evidence of the tacit US support throughout the military campaign.
Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Jagath Jayasuriya last August raised a query as regards the post-war US policy towards Sri Lanka at an academic programme at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. There couldn’t have been a better venue to raise the issue.
Gen. Jayasuriya sought an explanation from Dr. Amin Tarzi, the Director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Dr. Tarzi was addressing a group of foreign government representatives on a special programme titled Senior Executives in National and International Security.
The CDS expressed surprise at the US policy vis a vis Sri Lanka in spite of the country’s strategic positioning. The war-time Vanni Commander also referred to post-war developments consequent to shift in US policy and Sri Lanka increasingly looking to the east.
Gen. Jayasuriya was definitely not the only senior officer baffled by the US policy. Having listened attentively to Gen. Jayasuriya’s query, Dr. Tarzi politely declined to respond. But much to the amazement of Gen. Jayasuriya, the Marine Corps academician said that two senior Sri Lankan Navy officials had posed the same question to him during a programme in Pakistan.
Questions raised by the Sri Lankan Navy in Pakistan and CDS Jayasuriya in the US would have definitely placed Dr. Tarzi in an embarrassing position.
Dr. Tarzi couldn’t have been unaware of the US hand in Sri Lanka’s victory. In fact, Dr. Tarzi’s polite refusal to answer queries as regards post-war US policy vis a vis Sri Lanka meant that he realized the absurdity of the position adopted by the US. Obviously, even the experts found themselves in an uncomfortable position when the Sri Lankan military raised such pertinent questions.
In fact, war-time US Defence Advisor in Colombo, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith strongly disputed war crimes allegations, including the much publicized ‘white flag’ allegation. The statement made by Lt. Colonel Lawrence in June 2011, two years after the conclusion of the conflict, drew an angry response from the US State Department. The State Department disallowed the statement on the basis the Defence Advisor was not speaking on behalf of the US. The US official was responding to a query posed by a retired Indian army officer, who had served in Sri Lanka with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), to Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, Major General Shavendra Silva, who holds ambassadorial rank. The Indian wouldn’t have probably raised that query if he knew the US official was going to respond.
Obviously, Dr. Tarzi, felt he couldn’t express an opinion contrary to the official line propagated by the State Department.
Even five years after the conclusion of the conflict, Sri Lanka is yet to effectively address accountability issues raised at international forums. The primary allegation that the Sri Lankan military killed at least 40,000 civilians during the final phase of the conflict had never been proved. In fact, there had never been a consensus among those who had accused Sri Lanka of genocide as regards the number of civilians who perished during the final phase.
The forthcoming South and South East Asian Nations (SASEAN) Defence Chiefs’ dialogue in Colombo will provide Sri Lanka with an opportunity to discuss Sri Lanka’s predicament, though SASEAN is meant to take up regional issues.
Perhaps, the situation here is bigger than a regional issue with many dimensions. SASEAN can be a useful forum to underscore Sri Lanka’s position during three-day event beginning Nov 27, 2014.
SASEAN comprises SAARC (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka) and ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam) countries.
Russia and China will participate as observers. Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister, Anatoly Antonov as well as the Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), General Fang Fenghui will address the conclave. The Chinese General will speak on ‘ensuring stability in the region in facing up to air, land and maritime territorial disputes, military modernization and arms race.’ The Russian deputy Defence Minister will speak on ‘security issues in the region’ on the last day of the event. The Russian official will also address the gathering on the first day.
Gen. Jayasuriya recently explained that SASEAN’s agenda would be broad and flexible and cover range of related issues. The CDS discussed the circumstances under which he had received Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s endorsement for SASEAN project. "We’ll work closely with the External Affairs Ministry to promote SASEAN as a catalyst in promoting security and stability in the region."
Since the LTTE’s defeat, Sri Lanka has been having two security conferences, namely the annual defence seminar held in Colombo and the Galle Dialogue organized by the army and the navy, respectively. The forthcoming South and South East Asian Nations (SASEAN) Defence Chiefs’ dialogue will be the third, though the inaugural meet in Colombo is to be followed by annual meetings hosted by members. Although the Sri Lankan military has earned plaudits for defeating the LTTE, it cannot ignore that the country is the subject of an external investigation The military must be also be mindful of the fact that the investigation conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is rapidly proceeding. The outcome of the inquiry will be made public at the next session of the UNHRC in Geneva next March.
The government has about six months to prepare to face any eventuality. In the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s decision not to assist the UN investigation as well as a harsh OHCHR statement that dealt with Sri Lanka, let me briefly examine the issues and possible lapses on the part of Sri Lanka.
IT WOULD BE PERTINENT TO MENTION THAT THE LTTE LEADERSHIP WOULDN’’T BE UNDER INVESTIGATION AS NONE OF THEM SURVIVED THE WAR.INTERESTINGLY, THE TAMIL NATIONAL ALLIANCE (TNA) WHICH ENDORSED THE LTTE AS THE SOLE REPRESENTATIVE OF TAMIL SPEAKING PEOPLE IN THE RUN-UP TO EELAM WAR IV, HENCE GAVE THE POLITICAL LEADERSHIP TO THE TERRORIST CAMPAIGN IS PURSUING THE GOVERNMENT ON THE DIPLOMATIC FRONT.
* The Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka released in March 2011 accused the government of (A) killing of civilians through widespread shelling (B) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects (C) denial of humanitarian assistance (D) human rights violations suffered by victims and survivours of the conflict, including both internally displaced persons and suspected LTTE cadre, and (E) human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including the targeting of the media and other critics of the government.
* The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts also accused the LTTE of (A) using human shields (B) massacre of those trying to escape (C) deployment of long range weapons in close proximity to civilians (D) forced recruitment of children (E) forced labour, and (F) killing of civilians through suicide attacks.
* The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts held the government/political leadership accountable for actions of the military, though it conveniently ignored the TNA’s role in the conflict. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t examined the TNA hand in terrorism, thereby weakening Sri Lanka’s defence in Geneva. Interestingly, TULF veteran V. Anandasangaree, in a detailed letter recently sent to Indian Premier Narendra Modi drew his attention to the close relationship the TNA/Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) had with the LTTE.
*The failure of the UN mission in Colombo to raise the LTTE holding those living in the Vanni against their will in early 2007 was investigated by the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts. Although the issue was raised in New York following revelation made by The Island, the UN failed to take remedial measures. In fact, the LTTE went to the extent of detaining Tamil employees of the UN for helping people to escape into government-held territory (LTTE detains UN workers-The Island, April 20, 2007; ‘UN had talks with Tigers on the sly with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody, The Island, April 23, 2007, Lanka urges UN not to shield Tigers, The Island, April 25, 2007 and UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark, The Island, April 28, 2007). For want of a clear understanding of ground realities, the government never took up this issue.
* The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts never made an attempt to clarify statements attributed to various interested parties as regards the number of civilians killed during the last phase of the conflict. The government, too, failed to vigorously take up the issue. The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts estimated civilian deaths at 40,000 on the basis of information provided by ‘a number of credible’ sources. Then they quoted ‘multiple sources of information as having said that deaths of 40,000 civilians couldn’t be ruled out (Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka: point no 137). The report was released on March 31, 2011.
* Up to now those credible sources as well as multiple sources of information remained classified through a decree issued by the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts. They ordered that the identities of over 2,300 persons who had accused Sri Lanka of war crimes wouldn’t be revealed until March 31, 2031. Even then the release should be subjected to a declassification review (Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka: point no 17 and 23).
* Six months later MP Siobhain McDonagh (Labour Party-Mitcham and Morden) told the House of Commons that Sri Lanka’s war, in its last five months alone, had claimed the lives of 100,000 people, 40,000 of them civilians. The same politician recently alleged that the Sri Lankan military dropped cluster bombs on areas designated as no fire zones. The MP declared that even now nearly 150,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for. She was addressing the Westminster Hall debate on March 25, 2014.
* However, the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts ignored a UN report based on information provided by the ICRC, national staff of the UN and NGOs based in the Vanni battle zone and clergy as the UN estimate was considered low. According to the report that dealt with the situation in the Vanni region from August 2008 to May 13, 2009, claimed the lives of 7,721 and wounded 18,479. The UN report acknowledged that it had a mechanism on ground to count dead and wounded until May 13, 2009. The was ended six days later (Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka: point no 134 and 135).
* Amnesty International, in a special report titled ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission released in September, 2011 estimated the number of civilian deaths at 10,000. "Amnesty International’s conclusions, derived independently from eyewitness testimony and information from aid workers, are that at least 10,000 civilians were killed; that the LTTE used civilians as human shields and conscripted child soldiers; that the Sri Lankan army shelled areas it knew were densely populated by civilians; and that civilians trapped by fighting suffered severe and avoidable deprivation of food, water and medical care.
* The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts, Amnesty International and the likes of MP Siobhain McDonagh would never have envisaged the possibility of Wiki Leaks revealing scores of secret diplomatic cables which dealt with Sri Lanka. Of them, cables written by the US Ambassador to Geneva Clint Williamson after having met Jacque de Maio, the then ICRC Head of Operations for South Asia on July 9, 2009, revealed in no uncertain terms that the Sri Lankan army never sought to wipe out civilians as alleged by interested parties.
If not for U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, who was sentenced in August 2013 to 35 years in a military prison for turning over more than 700,000 classified files to Wiki Leaks in the biggest breach of secret data in the US history, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have known what was happening behind the scenes.
Ambassador Williamson wrote: "The army was determined not to let the LTTE escape from its shrinking territory, even though this meant that the civilians being kept hostage by the LTTE were at an increasing risk. So, de Maio said, while one could safely say that there were ‘serious, widespread violations of international humanitarian law,’ by the Sri Lankan forces, it didn’t amount to genocide. He could cite examples of where the army had stopped shelling when the ICRC informed them it was killing civilians. In fact, the army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet they chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths. He concluded however, by asserting that the GoSL failed to recognize its obligation to protect civilians, despite the approach leading to higher military casualties".
Let me reiterate how the international community and the international media manipulate figures to achieve political/military objectives.
*The five-nation Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) in March 2007 declared that the conflict claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 civilians during the past 15 months. The SLMM issued the statement to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Norwegian-arranged Ceasefire Agreement. When the writer pointed out that 4,000 people couldn’t have died due to the conflict/war during the said period and sought a clarification from the SLMM,the mission brought down the number of dead from 4,000 to 1,500. The SLMM refused to provide a breakdown of 1,500 people killed claiming that such a revelation wasn’t favourable to its role in Sri Lanka. The SLMM couldn’t give a breakdown because it was lying. It was part of the Norwegian project to undermine Sri Lanka’s war effort (SLMM backs down on breakdown with strap line Deaths due to conflict: Changes figure to 1,500 from 4,000-The Island, March 12, 2007). The military placed the number of civilian deaths during this period at 694. Although the Defence Ministry rejected the SLMM report, the Secretariat for Coordinating Peace Process (SCOPP) accepted the report (Military contradicts SLMM report on civilian killings-The Island, March 23, 2007).