Tuesday, 17 December 2013

War Crimes charge: Urgent need for reappraisal of GoSL’s response

The road from New Delhi to Nanthikadal



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

Sri Lanka’s celebrated war time General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the 58 Division, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva was deprived of a slot at the United States War Army War College (USAWC) in Pennsylvania on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes, allegations/accountability issues during the third week of the ground offensive directed at the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in May 2009 on the Vanni east front.

The Gajaba Regiment veteran was accused of ordering troops under his command to execute surrendering LTTE cadres and their families at the behest of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

The US ignored a statement made in June 2011 by the then Defence Advisor in Colombo, Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith that there had never been an offer to surrender on the part of the LTTE during the final phase. The State Department dismissed the declaration on the basis that it was the personal opinion of the officer. But strangely, the same administration took punitive measures against Maj. Gen. Silva, currently Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, on the basis of unproven allegations. Silva holds ambassadorial rank.

It would be pertinent to mention that Lt. Col. Smith wouldn’t have made that statement lightly as he was responding to retired Indian Maj Gen. Ashok K. Metha at a security confab in Colombo. Maj. Gen. Metha, who had served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka during the 1988-89 period, was a participant at the annual event. In fact, Metha had posed the question as regarding battle front atrocities to Maj. Gen. Silva, though Lt. Col. Smith responded.

The US was acting on the basis of what is widely called the Leahy Law or Leahy Amendment, introduced by Patrick Leahy in 1997. The Leahy Amendment envisaged denial of military assistance to countries or at least specific units responsible for alleged atrocities unless tangible measures were taken against the perpetrators of violations.

Acting on the same allegations, Canada recently deprived ambassador Silva of a visa to attend a function there.

Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias who commanded the 57 Division on the central front tasked with liberating Kilinochchi was recently denied an Australian visa over accountability issues. Having taken over the newly raised 57 Division which had been struggling on the war front in early 2007, Dias gave inspiring leadership to the formation.

SLA targeted

Maj. Gen. Sudantha Ranasinghe too, was twice denied the opportunity to join US sponsored programmes for commanding the 53 Division. The US ignored the fact that Maj. Gen. Ranasinghe was given the command of the fighting formation some time after the end of the conflict. In fact, Maj. Gen. Ranasinghe of the Engineers hadn’t commanded any of the Divisions or Task Forces involved in eelam war IV during the Sept 2006-May 2009 period. Maj. Gen. Ranasinghe came under the category of those affected by the Leahy Law.

Due to Tamil Nadu protests, India doesn’t want to accommodate Sri Lankan military officers at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington.

The US and its allies are bent on punishing the Sri Lankan military for finishing off the LTTE. Interestingly, India, which laid the groundwork for terrorism here is among those countries demanding that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government address accountability issues.

India’s culpability should be studied in the backdrop of the recent conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes against humanity.

Western powers welcomed the decision against Taylor.

Taylor was convicted in April 2012 on 11 counts for crimes committed during the neighboring Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war and subsequently sentenced to 50 years in prison.

The Prosecutor of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). Brenda J. Hollis applauded the court’s decision to uphold the conviction of Taylor. SCSL’s Appeals Chamber upholding the convictions and sentencing of Taylor, the first former head of State to be convicted for war crimes by an international criminal tribunal since Nuremberg in 1946.

Also welcoming the judgment was the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, who declared that the decision clearly affirmed that no one was above the law. "This verdict is a milestone for the accountability of those who use child soldiers, and another warning to warlords and military commanders that child recruitment will not go unpunished.

Ms. Zerrougui’s office noted that the use of child soldiers was extensive in the conflict in Sierra Leone. "Children under the age of 15 had been used to actively engage in armed combat, and were also recruited and used to amputate limbs and to perform auxiliary duties such as manning checkpoints, guarding diamond mines, going on food-finding missions and acting as bodyguards," Zerrougui said in a statement.

With the US, UK as well as India demanding accountability on the part of Sri Lanka, it would in the best interest of the government to revisit the issue.

Gandhi betrayed

Could the government of India absolve itself of responsibility for the massive death and destruction caused in Sri Lanka due to its intervention? One time Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit in his memoirs titled ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha’ called the Indian project India’s involvement in Sri Lanka from 1980-1990.

It would be of pivotal importance to study what various Indian political, military as well as foreign office spokespersons said before the conclusion of the conflict on the banks of Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009. Due to weakness on the part of successive Sri Lankan governments, including the incumbent administration, the country is overwhelmed by negative media coverage. Let me remind you of what one time Commander of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka, Maj. Gen. Harkirat Singh revealed in his sensational book ‘Intervention in Sri Lanka.’ Singh alleged that Dixit, in his capacity as the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, ordered him twice to kill LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran even before the outbreak of large scale hostilities between the Indian Army and the LTTE on Oct 8, 1987. Having consulted his superior, Overall Force Commander (OFC) Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh, Harkirat had declined to carry out the directive. He quoted Dixit as having told him: ‘He (Rajiv Gandhi) has given these instructions to me and the Army should not drag its feet, and you the GOC, IPKF will be responsible for it."

The author said that had this order came from the military chain of command and if implemented, history may have been different. India deployed troops on July 29, 1987. The last troops left Sri Lanka on the morning of March 24, 1990.

Interestingly, the conduct of the Indian army was never subject for an investigation. India never examined circumstances leading to the deployment of its army here, though the Tamil community accused Indian forces of large scale atrocities. India simply ignored allegations while accusing the LTTE and the Diaspora of propagating lies to bring the Indian military to disrepute. India alleged that ‘Satanic Force’ –two large volumes of LTTE material was nothing but propaganda. "There were more than 1,000 affidavits, mostly in Tamil, with names and addresses, narrations of cases of women raped and killed by the Indian army, of men tortured and butchered. It would make anyone shed tears," the Indian media quoted K. Ragothaman, the CBI’s chief investigating officer who interrogated some of the key suspects involved in the Gandhi assassination, including Santhan, Murugan and Perarivaian.

Silence of the int’l community

At the height of the Indian offensive action against the LTTE, the Indian army deployment consisted of four full divisions in the temporarily merged North-Eastern Province backed by Mi-24 helicopter gunships and main battle tanks. India deployed helicopter gunships as well as main battle tanks at a time Sri Lanka was not even thinking of acquiring such armaments. The Indian army routinely carried out reprisals, targeting civilians in the wake of LTTE attacks. The massacre of nearly 70 men, women and children at Valvettiturai in early August 1989 sent shock waves through the Tamil community. It wasn’t an isolated case. Although Western diplomatic missions in Colombo were aware of what was happening under Indian army occupation, no one even bothered to take it up. The British, Canadian and Australian missions remained silent. The US wasn’t bothered. In fact, the UN, EU as well as the Commonwealth turned a blind eye to what was going on in predominately Tamil areas.

Sri Lanka should make an effort at least now to establish the number of Tamil, Muslim as well as Sinhalese civilians killed due to Indian army action. It would be important also to ascertain the number of LTTE cadres killed by the Indian army and the number of persons perished due to operations undertaken jointly by the Indian army/intelligence services with Tamil groups led by the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). And the government should also strive to establish the number of Tamil youth killed as a result of battles between the LTTE and the Tamil National Army (TNA), created by India to prop up the then NE Chief Minister Varatharaja Perumal’s administration. India caused a catastrophe here. For want of comprehensive investigation, New Delhi’s murderous role had never been examined, nor presented to the international community. Sri Lanka should seriously consider preparing a full dossier on the conflict and present it to the international community. Wouldn’t it be necessary to establish the number of youth killed during the training conducted for Sri Lankan youth in India, those who had drowned while crossing the Palk Straits to receive training as well as returning from training? Sri Lanka should seek India’s help to established the identities of those who had been killed in India due to attacks carried out by the LTTE during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Siddarthan on RAW project

Those wanting Sri Lanka to address accountability issues are strangely silent on the need to examine India’s culpability. Unfortunately, successive Sri Lankan governments too, had failed to take up the issue. Unlike the unsubstantiated allegations propagated by the UK media outfit, Channel 4 News and Channel 4 on the basis of claims made by nameless persons, serious accusations were made by those who once closely worked with India as regards New Delhi’s responsibility. PLOTE leader Dharmalingham Siddarthan, in an interview with the writer alleged that the premier Indian Intelligence Agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), ordered the assassination of his father, former MP Visvanather Dharmalingham and his colleague ex-MP Alalasundaram on Sept 2, 1985. Siddarthan, now a member of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) said that the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) killed them at Thavady, in Manipay. However, two other former TULF MPs living in Vadamaratchchy escaped death as the TELO leader in charge of the area, Das refused to carry out the RAW directive (My mother prepared thosai for us with strap line Prabhakaran was a regular visitor to our house-The Island Dec 7, 1997).

Siddarthan asserted that RAW targeted the TULF to deprive the people of Jaffna of the political leadership in accordance with overall Indian strategy. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will help Sri Lanka to establish the extent of New Delhi’s ‘role’ here as well as the failure of the international community to stop the Indian project. The proposed TRC should be mandated to investigate the entire gamut of issues. Let India make representations to TRC. Wouldn’t it be necessary to discuss Siddarthan’s claim that RAW ordered the assassination of four TULF MPs living in Jaffna in September 1985 and Maj. Gen. Harkirat Singh claim that Dixit, on behalf of the then premier Rajiv Gandhi ordered him to finish off Prabhakaran in September 1987. Those pushing for the setting up of TRC before the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva next March should go the whole hog, without seeking to investigate a week of a three decade long conflict.

Let me stress that sponsoring terrorist groups in a friendly country is a violation of the norms of international laws as well as of the values that Indian foreign policy was meant to uphold. Sri Lanka should never permit New Delhi to rationalize the unprecedented deviation through a moral argument.