Tuesday, 20 October 2015

A wartime UN ‘network’ and ICRC role




By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Report of the Secretary General Ban ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE), on Accountability in Sri Lanka, alleged the deliberate use of artillery fire to cause loss of civilian life, during the Vanni offensive. The PoE alleged that the majority of civilian casualties, during the final phase of the war, had been caused by indiscriminate military action, particularly the use of artillery, hence the decision to exclude international organizations from the war zone. The use of heavy artillery, purposely, against civilians, as well as hospitals, in the Vanni region, had been the two main allegations, with the third being the denial of humanitarian assistance to the Vanni population. The Island comprehensively dealt with the third accusation, last week. The first and the second allegations should be examined, keeping in mind the PoE claim that external organizations were excluded from the war zone.

The LTTE had formidable fire power with over several dozens of artillery pieces and mortars. The PoE, too, acknowledged that the LTTE deployed artillery, mortars, as well as a few multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs). In spite of losing its floating warehouses, the LTTE retained considerable firepower, until the very end of the Vanni offensive (PoE report/page 18).

The LTTE artillery ‘regiment’ had been its most powerful component, comprising at least 30 artillery pierces, including 152 mm (15 units), 130 mm (11), 122 mm (3), 85 mm (1) and one 120 mm mortar.

Since the recovery of one 152, mm on Jan 29, 2009, at Vishvamadu, on the Vanni east front, the SLA had recovered altogether 30 artillery 152 mm, 130 mm, 122 mm and 85 mm pieces and one 120 mm mortar. Of them, five were recovered on Oct 31, 2012, buried in the Vellamullivaikkal beach. But the actual number of artillery pieces, in the LTTE hands, is much more.

The British media outfit, Channel 4 News, as well as many other interested parties, including the PoE, had alleged that the Army waged a war without witnesses. The accusation was based on the premiss that evacuation of UN and other foreign NGO staff, in mid Sept. 2008, consequent to a Defence Ministry directive, was meant to annihilate the civilian population. The PoE said: "The withdrawal of international staff, of the United Nations, and INGOs from Kilinochchi, represented a pivotal point in the final stages of the war. From that moment on, there were virtually no international observers able to report to the wider world what was happening in the Vanni."

On the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, made by the PoE, Western powers moved three Geneva resolutions on Sri Lanka, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, paving the way for a joint resolution, on Sept 30, 2015. In accordance with the joint resolution, setting up of a special court, with the participation of foreign judges, and other experts, is now inevitable. It would be the duty of the incumbent administration, as well as the international community, to bring forth all available information before the proposed court. A comprehensive inquiry is required to ascertain whether the previous government sought to annihilate the Vanni population, as alleged by a UN investigation, headed by Ms Sandra Beidas, formerly of Amnesty International.

Having alleged that the previous government had forced all foreigners out of the Vanni, in mid - Sept. 2008, the PoE admitted the presence of a foreign military official, in the first No Fire Zone (NFZ), in late January, 2009. Although the PoE refrained from naming the officer, he was described as a highly experienced military officer, serving the United Nations as a security officer. The PoE claimed that the foreigner had called head of UN Security in Colombo, Vanni commander, as well as Joint Operations Headquarters, to demand the immediate halt to artillery strike on UN hub, within the NFZ. Although, the PoE alleged that all foreign humanitarian workers had been forced out of the Vanni, in mid - Sept. 2008, the UN remained in the Vanni. In fact, the UN stayed in the Vanni, even after the army liberated Kilinochchi on January 1, 2009, to pave the way for large scale operations, on multiple fronts. The PoE admitted that foreign UN staff quit the Vanni east, leaving two, who moved with civilians to the first NFZ. The person described as an experienced military officer was one of the two foreigners on the ground when the Army directed heavy artillery fire on the NFZ, on January 24, 2009.

Alleging that the government never gave an explanation for the January 24, 2009, artillery assault, the PoE admitted that there had been international presence in the NFZ.

The proposed war crimes court can summon UN staff, who had been present in the Vanni east, to establish the circumstances under which the Army conducted the offensive. The PoE alleged that hundreds of civilians perished during two days of artillery, fire directed at the first NFZ, on January 24 and 24, 2009. Interestingly, the PoE, then admitted that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), too, had been present in the first NFZ at the time of the two-day artillery onslaught that is said to have caused hundreds of civilian deaths.

The proposed court has an opportunity to summon both UN and ICRC staff to verify accusations that the Army engaged in a deliberate campaign to wipe out civilians. They can assist the court to establish the situation, in the Vanni, since mid - Sept. 2008, until the UN completely pulled out of the war zone on January 29, 2009. But the ICRC remained.

In spite of vacating the Vanni, by January 29, 2009, the UN maintained a large network of civilians, including local staff, clergy and government officials, to monitor loss of life. The UN project received the ICRC support, hence an opportunity to verify still classified UN report which dealt with the situation, between Aug. 2008 and May 13, 2009. The bottom line is that the report can shed light on large scale offensive action undertaken by the Army, both west and east, of the A9. The members of the network, on the ground, can facilitate the war crimes probe. That network placed the number of dead and wounded at 7,721 and 18,479, respectively. The UN network hadn’t been able to gather information for less than a week, due to heavy fighting, from May 14 to May 19, 2009, when the Army brought the war to a successful conclusion.

The UN report, which dealt with the Vanni situation, on a daily basis, is the most comprehensive dossier on the ground situation in the Vanni. Yet it remains beyond public scrutiny, due to a UN policy decision.

Thanks to the existence of ICRC - backed UN network, in the Vanni, the proposed court can verify a spate of allegations. In fact, the UN network can verify the PoE claim that hundreds perished during artillery onslaught direct at the first NFZ on January 24 and 25, 2009. Each and every allegation, pertaining to attacks on hospitals, as well as civilians, can be verified to enable the court to establish the number of dead. The PoE claimed that the Army fired artillery at the Puthukudirippu hospital everyday from January 29-Feb 4, 2009. According to the PoE, two foreign ICRC personnel had been present when the hospital came under fire on Sri Lanka’s independence day.

The PoE alleged that the Army directed artillery fire at the Puthumathalan hospital on Feb 9, 2009, killing 16 patients.

The Army directed MBRL fire at Ambalavanpokkanai killing 140 civilians, including many children, on March 25, 2009, the PoE alleged. The PoE also referred to a second artillery strike on the same village on April 8, 2009, causing loss of civilian life.

Although the international staff of the ICRC, too, vacated the war zone (Puthumathalan) on February 10, 2009, they returned with ICRC chartered vessels deployed to bring in essential supplies and evacuate the seriously wounded and some of their relatives. The final evacuation was made on May 9, 2009. Altogether, the ICRC evacuated 14,000 persons, including helpers, and delivered 2,300 metric tons of food, to besieged civilians, between Feb 10, 2009 and May 9, 2009. It would be pertinent to mention that the UN network functioned even four days after the ICRC brought its mercy mission to an end.

The proposed war crimes court should examine the evacuation of the wounded and delivery of food in the backdrop of persistent allegations that the Army pushed for the extermination of Vanni Tamils. No less a person than former Supreme Court judge and Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, called for UN intervention here on the basis of the Sinhala majority trying to annihilate the Tamil speaking minority.

The proposed court should make every endeavor to establish the number of civilians and LTTE cadres killed during the Vanni offensive. In fact, all dead should be identified.

The then High Commissioner for Human Rights, on March 13, 2009, placed the number of dead at 2,800 and 7,000 wounded on the basis of the information provided by the UN network operating inside the Vanni.

Following an exhaustive investigation, the Amnesty International in September 2011 placed the number of civilians killed during the Vanni offensive at 10,000.

In the same month and year, the British parliament was told of the Sri Lankan military killing 100,000 civilians and LTTE cadres during January-May 19, 2009 period. The Labour Party MP, Siobhan McDonagh, conveniently ignored several emails sent to her by the writer seeking a clarification regarding her claim. Subsequently, an unsuccessful attempt was made through the UK-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to secure an interview with the lady. The previous government didn’t even bother to raise the issue with the UK government. The British High Commission, in Colombo, declined to comment on whether the MP checked with the Colombo mission before she accused Sri Lanka of killing 100,000 Tamils in four and half months. McDonagh said: "The civil war in Sri Lanka was one of the region’s most dreadful conflicts of recent times. In its last five months alone, 100,000 people were killed, 40,000 of them civilians. War crimes took place."

Ms McDonagh called for justice for all people in Sri Lanka and the establishment of an independent, credible and thorough investigation into the allegations of war crimes committed by the Government and the LTTE during the final months of the armed conflict, in 2009.

The previous government never realized the urgent need to counter lies. Instead, it hired expensive PR firms, in the US and UK, in a ridiculous bid to stall the Geneva project.

Now that all political parties, in the UK, support the proposed war crimes court, which is certain to include at least one or two judges, representing the Commonwealth, Ms McDonagh can make submissions before the hybrid court and help prove charges against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as well as the military top brass.

Let me reproduce verbatim what the PoE said about civilian casualties: "In the limited surveys that had been carried out, in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths."

The proposed war crimes court can address the issue raised by the PoE. Tangible measures can be taken to identify the dead, both civilians and LTE cadres. The PoE comprising Marzuki Darusman (Chairman), Steven R.Ratner and Yasmin Sooka in no uncertain terms emphasized the pivotal importance of establishing an accurate number of dead. However, the PoE should ensure that those described as credible sources, responsible for estimating the original estimate of over 40,000 civilian deaths, should substantiate their claims. The Sri Lankan government should strongly push for an effective mechanism to list the number of dead and the missing. To ensure transparency and clarity, Sri Lanka should seek a hybrid mechanism to carry out a survey in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The INGO/NGO community, too, can join the process. But a comprehensive survey cannot be carried out without international cooperation. Many of those who had been categorized as missing are believed to be living overseas, in India, Europe, and various other countries. Sri Lanka should seek the intervention of the proposed court to help establish the number of Sri Lankan Tamils given foreign citizenship, while they remained categorized as missing persons. Western countries repeatedly declined to assist the Paranagama Commission to locate missing persons living overseas. However, the proposed war crimes court should be able to address the issue. Those countries wanting to know the truth can assist the proposed hybrid mechanism to inquire into the cases of Sri Lankans obtaining foreign citizenship, at least since 2006, the commencement of eelam war IV.

The propose war crimes court can help Sri Lanka dispel many lies. Nothing can be as important as verifying the number of dead LTTE cadres and civilians. Only a court, set up in partnership with the international community, can pave the way for international agencies to make submissions. Perhaps, leaked confidential Wiki Leaks cables, pertaining to Sri Lanka, may help the proposed court to ascertain the situation on the ground.

Wiki Leaks revealed top ICRC official, Jacque de Maio, as having told the then US Ambassador to Geneva Clint Williamson on July 15, 2009, the LTTE effort to keep civilians in a permanent state of violence. The ICRC official alleged that the LTTE used the civilian population as a ‘protective asset’ and kept its cadres embedded amongst them. De Maio said that the LTTE commanders’, objective was to keep the distinction between civilian and military assets blurred. They would often respond positively when ICRC complained to the LTTE about stationing weapons at a hospital, for example. The LTTE would move the assets away, but as they were constantly shifting these assets, they might just show up in another unacceptable place shortly thereafter.