Friday, 6 December 2013

Act now or face the consequences

SPECIAL REPORT : The road from Nanthikadal to Geneva : Part 1


With the next session of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session three months away, The Island intends to discuss what Sri Lanka’s response to unsubstantiated war crimes allegations should be as well as the government’s failure to exploit the ‘ground situation’ for want of a cohesive strategy.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Sri Lankan government reacted angrily to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s ultimatum that the failure on its part to initiate what he called a credible investigation into alleged war crimes committed by the Army during the final phase of the offensive on the Vanni east front would prompt him to move the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), against Sri Lanka in March next year.

The British Conservative leader issued the challenge on Nov. 16 after having met President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo. Cameron was keeping his much publicised promise given to the UK based Tamil Diaspora groups; namely the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), British Tamil Forum (BTF) and Tamils against Genocide, at a meeting on Nov. 7.

Cameron didn’t mince his words when he told a packed media conference at the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall) that Sri Lanka, in spite of being at the helm of the Commonwealth for the next two years would have to face the consequences if the government ignored the British ultimatum.

Cameron deprived local journalists of an opportunity to pose questions to him. Instead, he invited British, Australian and one Indian journalist to direct questions at him. A representative of a local private television station too, was allowed to direct a ‘full toss’ at him.

UK bashing won’t help GoSL

As anticipated, the state-run media lambasted Cameron, recalling atrocities committed by British forces over a period of time in various parts of the world, including Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. The local media also harped on the UK’s failure to release the long awaited Sir John Chilcot report on the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. But such a campaign will not prompt the British to change its strategy. Such a project will be nothing but an excise in futility. The government needs a reappraisal of its strategy.

In the backdrop of the British ultimatum, it would be pertinent to reexamine the entire gamut of issues relating to the war crimes charge with the focus on ACCOUNTABILITY and the RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT (R2P) concept.

The government would have to rethink its strategy within the next few months. Those responsible for formulating the government’s response should keep in mind that repeating the success of the post- war recovery process and the status of national reconciliation in accordance with the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) wouldn’t blunt a high profile Geneva offensive. Although it would be of pivotal importance to repeat Sri Lanka’s unprecedented post-war achievements, the government couldn’t afford not to develop a fresh strategy. The decision makers would have to take a new look at the contentious issues of ACCOUNTABILITY as well R2P. Nothing could be as important as reexamining all information available to the government before formulating Sri Lanka’s response. The failure on the part of the government to counter those wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal could cause a debilitating setback on the diplomatic front.

‘Support change’ in Sri Lanka

Before discussing the options available to the government, it would be important to realise that the British had been far more hostile towards Sri Lanka than the US though the latter moved a resolution targeting Sri Lanka at the last Geneva sessions. Although a reluctant India too, had to throw its weight behind the US-led resolution, the British fired the first salvo targeting Sri Lanka at the Geneva session. The British statement went to the extent of calling for a regime change in Sri Lanka. On behalf of the Conservatives-led UK coalition, the Foreign Office Minister responsible for the human rights portfolio, Jeremy Browne, called for UN intervention in Sri Lanka to ‘SUPPORT CHANGE’ in Sri Lanka. Browne said: "We, as UN member states, must take our human rights obligations seriously, and where states fail, the institutions of the UN should act and support change. Such actions are what makes the council an effective human rights body, able to scrutinise states’ compliance with their obligations and offer technical assistance," ( UK for IN intervention to ‘support change" in SL with strap line UNHRC chief pushes for new mechanism to tackle uncooperative governments-The Island of Feb 28, 2012).

With parliamentary elections scheduled for the early part of next year, India will have no option but to support the joint UK-US-EU initiative in Geneva next March. That is the bottom line. They will go on the offensive whatever the measures taken by the government to appease the five- party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), now in control of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). The government mustn’t forget that for those pushing for war crimes inquiry there are certain ‘push factors’ though they pretended their exercise is meant to address the grievances of the Tamil speaking people living in Sri Lanka.

The accountability issue here is nothing but an excuse for them to pursue their own agendas. The Conservative Premier Cameron’s motive for playing politics with the issue cannot be different from that of former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is on record as having told a London based US embassy official how he spent a two thirds of his time on Sri Lanka to appease the Tamil electorate. Similarly, India too is influenced by the Tamil Nadu factor, hence Sri Lanka can expect major political parties to take an extremely hostile approach in the run-up to Geneva.

US plan goes awry

The US seems bent on teaching Sri Lanka a lesson for ignoring US pressure to stop the Vanni offensive. The US, India as well as the UK and France demanded a ceasefire on the Vanni east front during a crucial stage of the offensive. President Rajapaksa insisted he wouldn’t accept anything but an unconditional surrender. The US probably felt humiliated and thus wanted to bring the Sri Lankan leadership to its knees.

The US strategy suffered a major setback due to the man who led the victorious army General Sarath Fonseka breaking ranks with the Rajapaksas to challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the January , 2010 presidential election. The Sinha Regiment veteran had inadvertently jeopardised the US game plan.

Fonseka’s move should be examined in the backdrop of former US ambassador in Colombo Patricia Butenis categorising President Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Gen. Fonseka as well as Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa as war criminals (US diplomatic cable originating from Colombo on January 15, 2010). Butenis alleged that President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka were largely responsible for war crimes. Subsequently, the US sided with General Fonseka and went to the extent of calling him a political prisoner. The US invited General Fonseka for diplomatic functions, where he was seen with former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who criticised the conduct of the army during the final assault on the LTTE.

Can the US drop General Fonseka from the original list of alleged war criminals? Did the TNA’s shocking decision to back General Fonseka, when they accused of causing irreparable harm to the Tamil community, at the presidential election too, influenced the US decision? (TNA backs Fonseka, The Island January 7, 2010). Ambassador Butenis called General Fonseka a war criminal just a week after the TNA declared its support to the tough talking soldier. The TNA joined the UNP led campaign to propel General Fonseka to the presidency. Interestingly, the TNA made its announcement in parliament. The UNP had absolutely no qualms about backing the war veteran whom it accused of ordering the killing of The Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in January 2008. Senior UNPer Joseph Michael Perera alleged in Parliament that a special unit controlled by General Fonseka was responsible for attacks on journalists.

The US, TNA as well as UNP owed an explanation to Sri Lankans and the UNHRC as regards their mind-boggling change of position. Various Tamil Diaspora groups too, should explain their position as regards the war crimes probe.

Shocking US statement

For want of an effective approach and the lethargic attitude of a section of officialdom, the government pathetically failed to take advantage of some critically important developments. Nothing can be as shocking as Sri Lanka’s failure to exploit an astounding statement made by war-time US Defence Advisor in Colombo Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith a little over two years after the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon (Now, US suspects credibility of LTTE surrender offer-The Island, June 3, 2011).

Those responsible for countering unsubstantiated war crimes allegations totally ignored the controversial statement attributed to the US official.

Addressing a Defence Symposium in Colombo on June 1, 2011, Lt. Col. Smith questioned the very basis of the allegation that the Army had executed a group of surrendering LTTE personnel and their families on the Vanni east front. Much to the surprise of those present at the symposium, the US official stressed the need to examine the credibility of the alleged attempts made by Kumaran Pathmanathan aka ‘KP’ as well as Nadesen (in charge of LTTE ‘Police’) to facilitate a surrender of LTTE leaders. He declared that the surrender offers he was aware of seemed to have come from those who had nothing to do with the command of the LTTE fighting cadre on the ground.

Interestingly, Lt. Col. Smith was responding to a query posed by retired Indian Major General Ashok Kumar Metha to the then General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the celebrated 58 Division, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva. Metha’s query was meant to harass the army top brass and he probably wouldn’t have raised the query if he had known that Lt. Col. Smith was going to make a statement detrimental to a high profile anti-Sri Lanka project.

Lt. Col. Smith, who had been in Colombo since June 2008, declared that the likes of ‘KP’ and Nadesen had no real authority over the LTTE, in spite of being the group’s mouthpieces.

US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner swiftly dismissed the statement attributed to Lt. Col. Smith on the basis that it was his personal opinion. Toner couldn’t have said anything contrary, especially in the wake of his predecessor P.J. Crowley being forced to quit for being critical of the treatment of Wiki Leaks suspect, Badley E. Manning.

Could the UN ignore the statement made by Lt. Col. Smith? It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss his statement on the basis that he was at the symposium as an observer. What matters is the US official questioned the very basis of the allegations directed at Sri Lanka, therefore the government should take up the issue with those pushing for a war crimes probe.

The haste and the circumstances under which the US State Department rejected a US embassy official assessment was nothing but shocking in the backdrop of its readiness to take unsubstantiated allegations made by nameless persons.

Why would the US dismiss such valuable opinion if the Obama administration is keen to establish the truth?

To be continued on Dec 11