Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Amnesty admits very basis of Geneva Resolution questionable




By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Amnesty International last Wednesday (April 5) admitted that the very basis of the Geneva Resolution 30/1 adopted in Oct 1, 2015 is questionable.

The London headquartered AI acknowledged that it couldn’t even vouch for its own report titled ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ released in Sept. 2011. The report submitted to the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) dealt with the eelam war IV (Aug 2006 to May 2009).

The AI asserted that a credible investigation is required to examine unsubstantiated allegations directed at Sri Lanka. Can there be a situation as ridiculous as calling for a credible investigation to verify accusations two years after adopting Geneva Resolution 30/1 on the basis of the same unproven claims.

The Sri Lankan military brought the war to a successful conclusion on the morning of May 19, 2009 on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Secretary General of AI Salil Shetty admitted that a credible investigation was required to ascertain the number of people killed as well as enforced disappearances during the conflict in Sri Lanka. Bengaluru born Indian was responding to the writer at a media conference called by the AI at the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI) on Kirula road, Colombo 6. Shetty was flanked by Biraj Patnaik (Regional Director, South Asia) and campaigner Yolanda Foster. The AI delegation included David Griffiths, Chief of Staff, Office of the Secretary General, Jeannine Guthrie, researcher, Grant Bayldon, Section Director, AI, New Zealand and Omar Waraich, media manager, South Asia and South East Asia.

In addition to the local media, The Hindu, AFP and the AP covered the event. Both the AFP and AP didn’t even bother to report the briefing. The AFP correspondent was there for the opening statement.

In spite of him being responsible for the release of ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission,’ Shetty refrained from at least reconfirming the number of civilians killed as mentioned therein. Obviously, he is not sure of his own report though AI repeatedly made representations at UNHRC as well as at various other international forums over the years demanding accountability on the part of Sri Lanka.

Shetty sought the support of Jeannine Guthrie, Researcher for Sri Lanka when the writer, having displayed a copy of ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ sought an explanation in respect of the AI claim 10,000 civilians perished in the final phase of the conflict vis a vis varying claims made by other accusers.

Shocking secret pay-offs

Before discussing AI project in Sri Lanka, let me briefly focus on the circumstances under which Shetty succeeded Irene Khan in late Dec 2009 in the wake of the latter quitting the organization in a huff. Khan’s deputy, Kate Gilmore, too, left. Subsequently, an embarrassed AI admitted that Khan and Gilmore had been paid over £500,000 and £300,000, respectively. Massive secret AI payoffs shocked the entire NGO community against the backdrop of the organization primarily depending on funding from its membership and public donations.

Shetty had served the UN and Action Aid before succeeding Bangladeshi Khan, the first Muslim to head the organization.

Shetty and his associates at the briefing hadn’t been at least aware that ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ was released several months after the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ (PoE) on Accountability in Sri Lanka issued in March 2011.

Reminding Shetty that his own ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ estimated the number of civilians killed at 10,000, the writer sought an explanation as regards various figures that had been quoted by others, the UN, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan and British Labour Party MP

Siobhan McDonagh.

*In March, 2011, PoE claimed 40,000 civilians perished on the basis of information provided by ‘credible sources.’ However, PoE insisted that its ‘credible sources’ wouldn’t be revealed until 2031.

*In Sept., 2011, AI estimated the number of civilians deaths due to military action at over 10,000. The AI based its assertion on eyewitness testimony and information from aid workers. The AI, too, guaranteed confidentially of its ‘sources.’

*In Sept., 2011British Labor Party MP Siobhan McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden-Labour) told House of Commons that 60,000 LTTE cadres and 40,000 Tamils perished during January-May 2009. The MP made the only specific reference to the number of LTTE cadres killed during a certain period. The politician ignored the writer’s emails seeking a clarification regarding her sources. The British HC in Colombo declined to comment on the MP’s claim.

*In March, 2017, MP Sampanthan declared in New Delhi that three decades long conflict claimed the lives of over 150,000 Tamil speaking people and over 50 per cent of the total Tamil population had fled the country. MP Sampanthan’s Office hasn’t so far not responded to the writer’s request for an explanation regarding the claim made at an anti-terrorism conference organized by the government of India.

Shetty and Guthrie couldn’t explain vast discrepancy in the numbers quoted by those wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before a hybrid war crimes court. Obviously, verification of accusations should have been done before they moved Geneva against Sri Lanka. They repeatedly assured the need for credible investigation to examine accusations when the writer suggested they should have reached consensus on allegations before passing resolution on Sri Lanka.

Shetty and Guthrie struggled to justify their call for war crimes court inclusive of foreign judges after having admitted that the basis of the Geneva Resolution had to be examined.

India let off the hook

While repeating a plethora of accusations against successive Sri Lankan governments in respect of a range of crimes and atrocities committed since early 80s, the AI conveniently let India off the hook. There hadn’t been absolutely no reference to India whose intervention here in the 80s transformed a violent campaign undertaken by several hundred Tamil youth to a war which couldn’t be even fully suppressed by the mighty Indian Army.

Shetty looked almost embarrassed when the writer asked whether the AI would take up the contentious issue of accountability with the government of India in respect of allegations made by the Tamil community here against the Indian Army. Shetty expressed the opinion that depending on the availability of evidence, issues could be taken up with India. Shetty didn’t expect the Sri Lankan media to question the basis of the Geneva Resolution or raise the issue of India’s culpability.

AI Chief refrained from commenting on the deaths and disappearances in the wake of Indian Army intervention in the Maldives in early Nov, 1988. Shetty gave the impression that he hadn’t been fully aware of Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorists making an attempt on the life of then Maldivian President Maumoom Abdul Gayoom. India thwarted the attempt to grab power in the Maldives but never accepted the responsibility for destabilizing the entire region.

Now that Shetty had announced plans to set up regional office in Colombo and demanded that Sri Lanka address accountability issues within the stipulated period of two years granted by Geneva, he should make a genuine effort to verify accusations directed at Sri Lanka and India. Perhaps, Shetty should speak with TNA MP Dharmalingham Suddarthan, who is on record as having blamed the premier Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) for killing his father, a lawmaker in Sept 1985. Vanni District TNA MP has alleged that his father V. Dharmalingam and his colleague M. Alalasundaram had been abducted and killed by the TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization) at the behest of the RAW. In fact, Dharmalingham had explained the RAW role in his father’s assassination in the 90s when he was interviewed in Colombo.

Having taken over the AI seven years ago, Shetty cannot pretend he lacked knowledge of the Indian intervention in Sri Lanka. Subsequently, the AI made available to the writer a report titled ‘SRI LANKA: THE INDIAN PEACE KEEPING FORCE AND "DISAPPEARANCES’ that dealt with 43 cases of disappearances blamed on the Indian Army during its deployment here. The report revealed that the AI had urged both India and Sri Lanka to inquire into the disappearances. Alleging that the Indian Army had been accused of human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial execution and "disappearances", the report released in Sept. 1990 underscored the Indian Army held thousands of prisoners without reference to the provisions of either Sri Lankan or Indian law. However, the report dealt with reports of "disappearances" only.

The Hindu report

The following is Colombo based Meera Srinivasan’s The Hindu report titled ‘It’s time to act in Sri Lanka’ with strap line Amnesty urges govt. to repeal Prevention of Terrorism Act:

"Acknowledging "important improvements" in the overall situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, Secretary General of Amnesty International Salil Shetty on Wednesday said it was now time for the government to act, after it recently got a two-year extension at the UN Human Rights Council to fulfill its commitments.

Drawing from a report that Amnesty released earlier this week on enforced disappearances, Mr. Shetty said: "Families of the disappeared have spent years, sometimes decades, waiting for answers. The government can delay no longer." Urging the government to swiftly operationalise the Office On Missing Persons and to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Mr. Shetty emphasized that Sri Lanka would not be able to break away from its violent past until families of the disappeared "get the truth they demand and the justice they deserve".

In addition to questions on accountability and militarization, people in the north constantly underscored poverty and the loss of livelihoods, particularly among women-headed households, Mr. Shetty observed.

"Often, this was closely linked to land... these are people whose land is their livelihood," he said, even as hundreds in the island’s north and east are protesting for their land, currently held by the military, to be returned.

On the sidelines of the press conference, Mr. Shetty told The Hindu geopolitical dynamics had a direct bearing on the nature of engagement of international actors. The fact that there was now a UNHRC resolution co-sponsored by the U.S. and Sri Lanka was positive. "But once it comes into the domestic sphere, I am not sure how much influence the U.S. or anybody else has."

Geneva Resolution forced

on Lanka

Obviously, Shetty has either no idea of what was going on in Sri Lanka and growing US influence here or he pretends lack of knowledge. Shetty couldn’t be unaware how US directed Sri Lanka to accept Geneva Resolution moved on the basis of unsubstantiated accusations in spite of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government expressing serious concern over the draft resolution. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha at the first informal session called by the US on the draft resolution on Sept 21, 2015 rejected it. Ambassador Aryasinha called for drastic changes. At the behest of the US, the government instructed Sri Lanka’s Geneva mission to accept the draft resolution based on unproven allegations.

It would be interesting to see whether the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government sought an explanation as regards the validity of allegations in the wake of Shetty’s admission. The PoE alleged that killing of civilians through widespread and indiscriminate deployment of heavy artillery and shelling of hospitals. Even if the present government lacked courage to take up Shetty’s statement with those who had been demanding hybrid court to address accountability issues, the latter certainly owed an explanation to the world.

The fact that Amnesty International is not certain of its allegation at least 10,000 had been killed due to military action is evidence of the previous government’s failure. The previous government turned a blind eye to repeated requests to take up significant discrepancies in the number of dead and disappearances claimed by the self-proclaimed international community with Western powers and NGOs propagating those lies. The Rajapaksa administration played politics with the Geneva issue. It lacked a cohesive strategy to address issues raised by Western powers. Instead of constantly engaging those who had been propagating lies with the intention of humiliating war winning Sri Lanka, the previous government hired costly US public relations firms to improve Sri Lanka’s image overseas.

Against the backdrop of Shetty’s shocking admission that credible investigation is required to ascertain the validity of numbers killed as well as enforced disappearances, would Sri Lanka request the UNHRC to examine still confidential UN report that dealt with the situation in the Vanni from Aug 2008 to May 13, 2009. The report placed the number of dead at 7,721 and the wounded at 18,479 on the basis of information provided by Tamils working for the UN and NGOs in the Vanni, the ICRC and the clergy.

The writer intended to ask the AI whether it had received a copy of the UN report or would request the UN to share it in the wake of Shetty’s scandalous admission in Colombo.

In fact, Shetty had now admitted that the entire process leading to Geneva Resolution is questionable as the very accusations which were basis for the co-sponsored resolution required reexamination.

The four party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) cannot act as if it is not concerned. As the main party representing Tamil speaking people, the TNA shouldn’t hesitate to seek an explanation from AI with regard to war dead and enforced disappearances. Although, Shetty at the onset of his briefing estimated the number of enforced disappearances at 100,000, it would be pertinent to ask the AI whether his organization had taken into consideration Sri Lankans leaving and entering foreign land through illegal means.

Western governments have repeatedly refused to assist Sri Lanka to establish the whereabouts of Sri Lankans living overseas under different names. In addition to those still languishing in refugee camps or similar facilities, the number of Sri Lankans given foreign citizenship over the past 30 years has never been revealed. Both Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse had declared that those reported missing were either dead in battle or living overseas.

Did Shetty take into account those who could have died in treacherous Australian seas or seas adjoining while trying to reach Down Under in boats?

Although issuance of passports to Sri Lankans under new names is well known over the years, Sri Lanka never realized that some governments went to extent of changing ethnicity of those receiving new identities. One time top JVPer Kumar Gunaratnam received a new identity with changed nationality courtesy Australia. Canberra had renamed him Noel Mudalige Today, Gunaratnam is trying to become Gunaratnam again though Australia seems in no hurry to do away with his Australian citizenship.

Can Sooka help AI?

Perhaps, Shetty should get in touch with Yasmin Sooka, a member of the PoE to verify entire range of unproven allegations directed at Sri Lanka. Sooka, in her Forgotten: Sri Lanka’s exiled victims launched in June 2016 claimed to have had information pertaining to former LTTE cadres living overseas and the proprietor of the most comprehensive data on Sri Lanka.

The writer strongly believes proposed war crimes probe shouldn’t be a political issue. For those who really wanted to clear Sri Lanka’s name the issue is not the inclusion of foreign judges and other foreign experts, including defence lawyers but whether the accusations were valid. It would be the government’s responsibility to seek clarification in respect of unproven allegations before proceeding with the setting up of (1) A Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-recurrence (2) An Office on Missing Persons (3) hybrid court and (4) An Office for Reparations.