Tuesday, 28 January 2014


War Crimes charge: Urgent need for reappraisal of GOSL's response



President Rajapaksa receives a copy of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) from its Chairman C.R. de Silva
*Take up UN’s refusal to share evidence until 2031
*Verify British Labour MP’s claim in House of Commons

By Shamindra Ferdinando

 Having brought the LTTE to its knees on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon on the morning of May 2009, the government is still struggling on the diplomatic front. For want of a cohesive post-war strategy, the government is now on the defensive in the run-up to the forthcoming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva.

Those responsible for meeting the Geneva challenge in March, 2014 are yet to adopt remedial measures, in spite of the rapidly deteriorating situation. The country faces a third consecutive defeat at the next session when the US moves its third resolution targeting Sri Lanka.

The first resolution in March 2012 backed by the US against Sri Lanka was adopted at the 19th session of the UNHRC in Geneva with 24 nations including India voting against Sri Lanka. Fifteen countries, including China, Russia and Bangladesh were among the nations that voted against the resolution, while eight countries abstained from voting. China vehemently opposed the resolution calling it an instance of meddling in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka’s affairs. Other countries that supported Sri Lanka were Thailand, Cuba, Indonesia, the Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Angola, Uganda, the Philippines, Kirgizstan and Ecuador.

The second US resolution received the backing of 25 countries, including India. Thirteen countries opposed the resolution, eight abstained, and was 1 absent. Under heavy Tamil Nadu pressure, India directed its permanent representative in Geneva, Dilip Sinha to issue a strong statement condemning Sri Lanka. Sinha declared: "We reiterate our call for an independent and credible investigation into allegations of human rights violations and loss of civilian lives."

Those representing Sri Lanka didn’t have the guts to remind India that Sri Lanka wouldn’t have been in this predicament if not for Indian intervention here. No less a person than one-time Indian Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit in his memoirs titled Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha revealed that the Indian move was influenced by what he called the Sri Lankan government’s evolving security connection with the US, Pakistan and Israel. Dixit went onto explain that the strategy should be examined Vis a Vis Sri Lanka, the regional as well as global environment between 19080 and 1984.
LTTE supporters pictured in Geneva in March 2012 when the US moved its first resolution targeting Sri Lanka

Strangely, the government continues to ignore some crucial issues as regards Sri Lanka’s accountability as well as of those member states of the UN pushing for an international war crimes probe. If India votes again against Sri Lanka in March, Sri Lanka should go on record in Geneva as to how India used terrorism to undermine neighbouring Sri Lanka leading to Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorists making an attempt to assassinate the then Maldivian President Gayoom on November 3, 1988. The Indian example would be pertinent particularly in the backdrop of former Liberian President Charles Taylor receiving a 50-year jail term for using terrorism to destabilize neighbouring Sierra Leone.

The government is acting as if the much touted Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is the panacea for issues raised by Western powers and India. Although the LLRC should form a critical part of Sri Lanka’s defence at the UNHRC, the government cannot solely depend on it. The government must realize that the UN, the US, UK and India as well as the European Union (EU), one of the co-chairs to the Norway-led peace process will continue to push Sri Lanka even if the LLRC recommendations are implemented fully. That is the reality. It will be a grave mistake on Sri Lanka’s part to believe that the implementation of the LLRC alone can silence the critics. War crimes allegations will linger as long as the government does not take tangible measures to dispute the Channel 4 News allegation of 40,000 people being killed during the final phase of the conflict. That is the crux of the whole war crimes saga. Surprisingly, the LLRC didn’t make specific reference to former UN bigwig Jayantha Dhanapala’s testimony regarding the accountability of states which used terrorism to destabilize other countries.

UK Premier David Cameron has cited the Channel 4 News as his primary source of information as regards accountability issues here. The writer was present at a media conference on the sidelines of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) last November, when Premier Cameron praised the UK media outfit for revealing war crimes in Sri Lanka. The UK Conservative party leader threatened to move the UNHRC against Sri Lanka unless President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed accountability issues by March 2014. Surprisingly, the government has never pointed out the sharp discrepancy in the number of victims as propagated by different persons wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal. Nothing can be as important as verifying the Channel 4 News allegation with regard to the number of people killed during the final phase of the conflict on the Vanni east front in the backdrop of an obvious bid to overwhelm Sri Lanka with unsubstantiated casualty figures. Unfortunately, the government has pathetically failed to expose those propagating lies. Those responsible for countering costly high profile propaganda campaign directed against Sri Lanka remained asleep. In September 2011, ardent LTTE supporter 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 statement was made during a debate on the human rights situation in the Indian sub continent. The Sri Lankan government didn’t even bother to take it up with the British authorities. Interestingly, Amnesty International, in a special bulletin captioned ‘WHEN WILL THEY GET JUSTICE? Estimated the number of civilians killed at 10,000 on the basis of information provided by eyewitnesses and aid workers. The AI report dated September 2011 didn’t make any reference to the number of combatants killed during eelam war IV or its final five months. (Commons told 40,000 civilians, 60,000 fighters killed in 5 months of SL war Sept 21, 2011). The US based Tamils for Obama estimated the number of civilians killed at 70,000.

Who provided information to British MP McDonagh? Did she verify figures with the British High Commission in Sri Lanka before making a statement in House of Commons? Did the UK based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) deceive the MP? Did the Labor party approve of the position taken by the MP?

Sri Lanka never really tried to exploit the failure on the part of the war crimes lobby at least to agree on the number of civilians killed. The government could have pointed out the ambiguity as regards the dead at the UNGA in New York, UNHRC sessions in Geneva and at the recently concluded CHOGM. Those spearheading the government counter attack turned a blind eye to an issue which could have undermined the very basis of war crimes allegations against Sri Lanka. The government obviously remained confident of those who had been hired to influence foreign governments pushing for a war crimes probe targeting Sri Lanka. They too, hired at the taxpayers’ expense, miserably failed to produce desired results. After the US moved its second successful resolution against Sri Lanka at last year’s UNHRC session, the government sought further assistance from expensive foreign public relations experts.

Although the UNP foolishly refused to throw its weight behind the military campaign against the LTTE much to its detriment at subsequent elections, the main Opposition party quite rightly pointed out the danger in outsourcing critical responsibilities of the state to foreign public relations firms.

UNP National organizer Ravi Karunanayake lambasted the government for outsourcing responsibilities of the External Affairs Ministry to overseas PR firms. According to the Colombo District MP, the government hired PR firms to counter adverse reports originating from the US, UK, India and the EU. The bottom line was that they hadn’t succeeded in changing the Western approach Vis-a-Vis Sri Lanka, the UNPer said. (UNP: Costly foreign PR firms make no impact in UK, US and India, The Island August 22, 2011).

In spite of having hired several foreign PR firms to lobby on behalf of the government of Sri Lanka, in the US, UK and India, the country is facing growing criticism on the diplomatic front. First of all, the government must realize that the foreign policies of Western powers as well as India cannot be influenced by public relations firms. Similarly, Western media as well as organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group cannot be manipulated. The government has ignored the reality that member states of the EU tend to adopt a common position, though they may have different opinions on a particular issue.

This may sound strange but those who had been pushing for a negotiated settlement with the LTTE too, tried to influence the government through a network of NGOs. Norway and several other countries squandered substantial amounts of funds on the NGO project. The multi-pronged project was meant to strengthen the Norwegian initiative. The previous article dealt with the dubious project. President Mahinda Rajapaksa kept the combined military offensive on track until the LTTE collapsed on the Vanni east front. The NGO project continues today with a different objective. The operation is now geared to justify the ongoing efforts to drag Sri Lanka before an international war crimes tribunal. The government should review its strategy. Nothing can be as foolish as depending on foreign experts to speak on behalf of Sri Lanka. The failure to counter specific allegations can cause irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s defence. The government cannot be pardoned for so far failing to take up the issue of the UN depriving Sri Lanka access to specific war crimes allegations until 2031, while demanding the country addressed accountability issues. The US too, declined to share information though it recently claimed to have access to eyewitness accounts of battlefield atrocities. In fact, the efforts to shield so called eyewitness should be examined in the backdrop of the Channel 4 News, UK, Tamils for Obama propagating vastly different estimates of civilian deaths.

As the UN is on record as having said that it had received over 4,000 written and oral submissions from more than 2,300 persons pertaining to atrocities committed in Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka should challenge the organization to furnish specific allegations. According to the UN, the submissions were received between October 27, 2010 and December 31, 2010. But the submissions will remain classified for 20 years from March 31, 2011, the day the UN unveiled its report. Even after 20 years, the release of information is subjected to another review. Strangely, Sri Lanka has not forcefully pointed out the absurdity the UN position. On one hand, the UN wants Sri Lanka to investigate all allegations and on the other hand specific accusations will remain classified for 20 years as per the recommendations made by three-member Panel of Experts (PoE), which investigated alleged atrocities at the behest of UNSG Ban Ki moon.

Those expensive public relations firms wouldn’t have thought of taking up these issues on behalf of the government of Sri Lanka. They will not do anything to harm their bigger business interests to safeguard Sri Lanka’s interests. The government should realize that the US would go ahead with another resolution targeting Sri Lanka in March, even if all public relations firms based in the US are hired to influence the Obama administration. The US operation will remain on track until Sri Lanka can prove Channel 4 News and UN allegations baseless. But UK and Canada will remain largely hostile towards Sri Lanka due to major political parties’ dependence on the Tamil block vote. The Indian position in Geneva will primarily depend on the Tamil Nadu factor, particularly due to Indian parliamentary election scheduled for the early part of this year. The EU as a grouping as well as EU member states will follow the US. The bottom line is that those who would throw their weight behind the US resolution in Geneva may not agree with the move, though they side with the big bully.

The government must make every endeavour to prove allegations pertaining to civilian battlefield deaths false. Now that the UN, the US embassy in Colombo as well as Amnesty International has declared that they had eyewitness accounts of battlefield excesses, Sri Lanka should press them to produce whatever available information before judicial authorities abroad as nonexistent specific allegations cannot be investigated.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014




By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the wake of the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran agreeing for direct negotiations under Norwegian facilitation in February, 2002, Norway launched a major NGO initiative to support the peace process.

The expensive NGO project was meant to ensure the success of the peace process. Norway obviously felt that a strong well-funded NGO grouping would be nothing but a necessity to support the peace initiative.

The multifaceted NGO project was geared to prop up the government and LTTE dialogue, overwhelm those critical of the peace process as well as to discourage nationalist sentiments among the majority community. The project also depicted the armed forces in a bad light. Norway brought together a powerful grouping to back the operation. The local media was inundated with articles supportive of the peace project. The Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) too, accommodated NGO agenda. The SLBC went to the extent of closing down the Vavuniya-based Vanni Sevaya radio operated for the benefit of the armed forces deployed in the Northern Province. In fact, the Wickremesinghe government put out Vanni Sevaya out of action within weeks after a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) came into operation during the third week of February 2002 (Vanni Sevaya closed down ‘The Island’ April 7, 2002 edition). The government ignored a request made by the military to restore the services (Military wants Vanni Sevaya restored ‘The Island’ April 19, 2002). Instead the Defence Ministry directed the army not to issue daily situation reports, hence effectively depriving the people of knowing what was going on the ground behind the pretence of making peace.

The NGO grouping cleverly manipulated the media at the expense of national interests. A section of the state-owned media went to the extent of targeting the military. The then Eastern Naval Commander Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda was ridiculed by the Independent Television Network (ITN) at the behest of the political leadership. Karannagoda earned the wrath of the government for what the political leadership felt was the Eastern Commander’s hostility towards the peace initiative.

Norway lavishly poured funds in support of the NGOs pursuing its agenda. Norway was clearly of the opinion that positive coverage for the peace process would be helpful. Those driving the peace initiative bombarded the media with propaganda aimed at obscuring what was really happening on the ground. The Norwegian approach caused irreparable damage to the peace process. Co-chairs to the peace process, namely the US, Japan and the EU too, blundered by failing to rectify the doubtful Norwegian approach. The NGO grouping too did absolutely nothing to change the rapidly deteriorating situation. Those spearheading the NGO project turned a blind eye to the crisis. They felt no need to voice concerns as long as Norway periodically released funds. They continued to praise the peacemakers in spite of the rapid deterioration of the ground situation. Had they been frank in their assessments, perhaps the LTTE wouldn’t have behaved so aggressively. Norway too, continued to mollycoddle the LTTE, which flaunted its military capability to those visiting the Vanni.

Culpability of NGOs

With a section of the international community pushing for an international war crimes probe over accountability issues unless the government addressed them ahead of the March UNHRC confab in Geneva, it would be relevant to discuss the culpability of the NGO sector in the eelam episode. The NGO project went awry due to those responsible for its implementation being only interested in safeguarding the interests of their sponsors and the LTTE. The Colombo based foreign news agencies and an influential section of the local media contributed to this faulty strategy. The ‘side events’ at Geneva would give Sri Lanka an opportunity to highlight the blundering NGO role, which also contributed to the collapse of the Norwegian initiative.

In Sept. 2011, Norway released a comprehensive report titled Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 2009. The report shed light on the NGO project.

Christian Michelsen Institute (CMI) based in Bergen, a major recipient of Norwegian funds, led the evaluation of four separate peace efforts by Norway from 1997 to 2009. A nine-member evaluation team comprised CMI’s Gunnar Sorbo, Jonathan Goodhand of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and seven others, including four Sri Lankans. SOAS is part of London University (UK).The joint bid by the CMI and SOAS was chosen out of six international organisations which sought to secure the lucrative project. The CMI receives funding through the Research Council of Norway (NFR), which in turn is funded by the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. Gunnar M. Sorbo, who had held several positions in several Norwegian institutions, including NFR and the Agency for International Development, now heads the CMI.

Had General Sarath Fonseka’s army failed on the Vanni front there wouldn’t have been a Norwegian investigation. The report in a special section titled Aid and Peace discussed the NGO costly project. Although NGO representatives had been involved in Norwegian initiatives in Sri Lanka with some receiving the blessings of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry for strategic reasons, none were directly involved in the Feb 2002 peace process at the time it got underway. Let me produce verbatim what the Norwegian investigation said regarding the expanding role of the NGOs: "However, they were invited for occasional meetings in the embassy and the foreign ministry in Oslo and when it became difficult for Norwegian diplomats to access the north, some of them played important roles in providing information about local developments. A Sri Lankan NGO network was established in Norway and the dialogue with the ministry was generally positive and fruitful."

The Norwegian report revealed that those who had been engaged in the peace process and related projects in support of the primary objective were funded to the tune of NOK 210 mn (approximately 28 mn US), between 2001 and 2004. Of the total funding, NOK 200 mn were received by ten organisations, including the Foundation for Co-Existence led by NGO guru the then darling of the Norwegians, Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe. According to the report, Rupesinghe’s outfit received about NOK 35 mn (about 6 mn US between 2004 and 2008). The National Anti-War Front also led by Dr. Rupesinghe received substantial funding. Among the other recipients were the Centre for Policy Alternatives, One Text Initiative and the National Peace Council. Those receiving Norwegian grants were careful not to say anything critical of Norway’s handling of the peace process here. They refrained from being critical of the LTTE for obvious reasons.

The Norwegians even funded the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), in spite it being a front for LTTE operations overseas.

Funding continues

Several other countries as well as organisations poured funds for NGOs during eelam war IV. Funding continued even after the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009. However, Norway cut off funds for Dr. Rupesinghe during the war after he switched his allegiance to President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the expense of the Norwegian project. Although Dr. Rupesinghe moved the judiciary demanding compensation from Norway amounting to Rs. 100 mn he couldn’t expect to succeed as Norway enjoyed full diplomatic privileges and the government is unlikely to intervene on his behalf.

August 2006: Norwegian sponsored National Anti-War Movement conducts protest campaign in Colombo a few weeks before the government launched counter offensive in the Eastern Province.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives and National Peace Council which had been at the forefront of the Norwegian peace operation continued to receive substantial funding. Transparency International Sri Lanka is another major recipient of foreign grants during the 2008 to 2010 period. The CPA received Rs. 272.31 mn during the three-year period. The NPC and TI received Rs. 171.23 million and 174.79 million, respectively.

The funding sources included Meyers Norris Penny Ltd RM (Canada), Canadian International Development Agency, Berghof Foundation (Germany), Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation (Germany), Stichting Cortaid (The Netherlands), Norwegian Embassy, Commission Des Communautes (Norway), ICT for Peace Foundation (Switzerland), Dep. F. Auswaert, Angelegenheiten (Switzerland), Swedish Embassy, Swedish International Development Agency, Goldman Sachs Grant (UK), Minority Rights GRP Ltd BCA (UK), European Commission, Transparency International Division (UK), Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (UK), European Union, Diakonia (US), Forum of Federations/Forum Des (US), International Media Support (US), the Ford Foundation (US), Fredskorpset Bergen (US), National Endowment for Democracy (US), Partnership for Transparency Fund (US) and Academy for Educational Development (US).

Of Rs. 618.33 million received by the CPA, NPC and TI during the three-year period, Rs. 111.48 million had been donated by various other sources not named above.

Although the Norwegian Embassy, in response to a query by ‘The Island’ declared that it had launched an initiative to ensure accountability in Norwegian funded projects, a comprehensive report of funding is not yet available. Norway as well as other sponsors nor the recipients had failed to explain how such huge sums of funds were spent to promote the peace process. They had never explained why their projects failed in spite of having unlimited funds.

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) has revealed that of NOK 2.5 billion spent on development cooperation during the period 1997 to 2009 in Sri Lanka, NOK 100 million was allocated for the peace process.

The European Commission (Rs. 55.61 million) and the Swedish International Development Agency (Rs. 43.11 million) are the second and the third major contributors.

The country’s banking system has no records of the exact amount of funds received by NGOs over the past two to three decades. An enormous amount of funds had been received by NGOs since Feb. 2002, with some countries and the UNDP providing funds to the LTTE Peace Secretariat. The Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) as well as Muslim Peace Secretariat too, received substantial funds. Those dispensing funds here actually didn’t know what they were doing. Some provided funds to the LTTE to carry out de-mining operations, while the UNICEF funded a project to stop the forcible recruitment of child soldiers.

Those receiving Norwegian funding were lavish in their praise for the Norwegians. In May 2002, Dr. Jehan Perera, on behalf of the National Peace Council declared that the peace process would succeed because of Norwegian expertise. Perera stressed that the only difference between the abortive peace bid made by the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe’s effort was the commitment of Norway. Perera was appearing on CNN on May 9, 2002 in the wake of his outfit receiving Rs. 2.8 mn from Japan to promote the Norwegian initiative. The NPC conveniently ignored the Norwegian role in 1994-1995. In fact, two Norwegians, Audun Holm and Johan Gabrielson met LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in Jaffna town during the first week of April 1995. They headed two peace monitoring committees out of four, but remained silent when the LTTE resumed hostilities with the sinking of two gunboats anchored at Trincomalee harbour on April 19.

October 2010: UNP chief Ranil Wickremesinghe with former Norwegian peacemaker Erik Solheim in Oslo after having met Dr. Gunnar Sorbo of the Chr. Michelsen Institute. Dr. Sorbo led the investigation into Norwegian peace initiatives in Sri Lanka.

Those promoting peace and negotiations have financially benefited in the other parts of the world. Those engaged in peace project in Sri Lanka being rewarded for their ‘work’ was definitely not an isolated situation. The May 2002 revelation that Norwegian ambassador in Tel Aviv, Mona Juul and her husband, Terje Roed Larsen (Norwegian Middle East envoy) accepted $ 110,000 from an Israeli peace centre for promoting negotiations between Israel and Palestine under the auspices of Norway highlighted the controversial transactions. Did any of Norwegians involved in the Sri Lankan project benefit personally? Did any Sri Lankan politicians and officials receive various perks and privileges for cooperating with NGOs?

Strategic miscalculation

Strangely, the NGO project didn’t change its course even after the LTTE quit the negotiating table in April 2003, much to the discontent of Premier Wickremesinghe. The Norwegians and the NGO community acted as if the peace process was on track, though the LTTE made preparations for war. They did everything to appease the LTTE in accordance with the overall Norwegian plan to continue with the peace process at any cost. Even after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on the night of August 8, 2005, the NGO project asserted that the Norwegian led process should continue, regardless of the killing. The NPC declared that the assassination of Kadirgamar was tragic, but inevitable. The statement highlighted the cavalier attitude of those who had been promoting a negotiated settlement here. For them, Kadirgamar’s assassination meant nothing. The Norwegians remained silent on the issue as they pursued the peace bid. But today, thanks to Wiki Leaks, we know the Norwegians had no doubt about the responsibility of the LTTE for Kadirgamar’s assassination. Wiki Leaks exposed a confidential diplomatic cable that dealt with talks between the Norwegians and LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham in London, in the wake of Kadirgamar assassination.

In hindsight, it was obvious Western powers, the NGO communities both here and abroad as well as an influential section of the media propagated the myth that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated on the battlefield, hence the GoSL had no option but to seek a negotiated settlement. They propagated the myth that peace at any cost was better than continuing with a costly military campaign. Their strategy remained on track even after the LTTE deprived UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe of victory at the November, 2005 presidential election by ordering Tamil speaking people in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Province to shun the vote. The TNA made the announcement on November 10, 2005 on behalf of the LTTE. The LTTE’s strategy was simple. Prabhakaran believed that he had the wherewithal to overwhelm newly elected President Rajapaksa in a conventional military confrontation. Prabhakaran shunned President Rajapaksa’s decision even to meet the LTTE in Geneva, as he was supremely confident of a battlefield victory. The rest is history.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

UK war crimes under spotlight ahead of Geneva session 2014




Having visited Jaffna on the opening day of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November, British Premier David Cameron warned Sri Lanka to address accountability issues or face the consequences. Cameron set March, 2014 as the deadline much to the delight of Tamil Diaspora. Cameron (second from left) is pictured in Jaffna with Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan, Northern Province Chief Minister Wigneswaran and TNA National List MP M.A. Sumanthiran.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A prominent British law firm, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) on Friday (January 10) lodged an unprecedented formal complaint with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. It dealt extensively with atrocities committed by British forces between 2003 and 2008 in Iraq. Alleging that the UK had failed to investigate and prosecute high ranking civilian and military leaders responsible for the situation in Iraq, the two NGOs pushed for an ICC investigation.

Although the ICC declined to open a formal investigation into UK military action in 2006 new evidence is likely to compel the ICC to review its position.

The UK ratified the Rome Statute for the ICC on Oct 4, 2001, though the US refused to accept the ICC.

Among those who had been named in a 250-page report handed over to the ICC were head of the British Army, General Sir Peter Wall, former defence secretary Geoff Hoon and former defence minister, Adam Ingram.

The report couldn’t have come at worse time for the newly elected member of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

UK ultimatum to GoSL

With British Premier David Cameron threatening to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal unless President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed accountability issues before next Geneva session in March 2014, it would be pertinent to examine the failure on the part of successive British governments to investigate crimes committed by British forces deployed in Iraq. The British ultimatum was given in Colombo on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November, 2013. Premier Cameron insisted that Sri Lanka would have to face the consequences, in spite it being at the helm of the Commonwealth, unless it addressed accountability issues.

The dossier submitted by PIL and ECCHR would have definitely embarrassed the British coalition government comprising the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as it spearheads a major diplomatic initiative targeting Sri Lanka in the run-up to the next Geneva session. The Opposition Labour party cannot remain silent on the report as it was the then Labour Premier Tony Blair who joined the invasion in spite of the European Union strongly opposing military action. As the Labour party too, advocates an international war crimes probe targeting Sri Lanka, its response will be of interest to Sri Lanka. But the reaction of the coalition partner Liberal Democrat Party will be of pivotal importance, especially in the wake of speculation that a second coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is unlikely. The UK will go for parliamentary polls next year. The war crimes report is likely to widen differences between the two halves of the British coalition.

UK rift widens

The Liberal Democrats reaction will have to be examined in the backdrop of a devastating statement made by LibDem leader Nick Clegg on July 2010 that the March 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal. The Deputy PM questioned the government’s position concerning the legality of the Iraq war when at the end of heated exchange with Jack Straw, foreign secretary at the time of the invasion, Clegg said: "We may have to wait for his memoirs, but perhaps one day he will account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all: the illegal invasion of Iraq."

The Deputy PM made the controversial statement while standing at the government dispatch box in the Commons. He was responding to questions on behalf of Premier Cameron. Within 24 hours Clegg was compelled to claim that he was speaking in a personal capacity,

The British media quoted Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London, as having said: "A public statement by a government minister in parliament as to the legal situation would be a statement that an international court would be interested in, in forming a view as to whether or not the war was lawful."

Can those pushing for a war crimes probe targeting Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations propagated by UK media outfits, Channel 4 News and Channel 4 ignore the report now with the ICC?

British Foreign Secretary William Hague declared that the British armed forces uphold high standards and they were the finest armed forces in the world.

Hague insisted that there was no necessity for the ICC to probe British troops abusing and killing detainees in Iraqis in their custody. The Conservative MP was responding to allegations made by PIL and ECCHR.

Iraqi prisoners expose UK

Having closely examined the cases of over 400 Iraqis, the two NGOs pointed out that they represent "thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." They described incidents ranging from "hooding" prisoners to burning, electric shocks, threats to kill and "cultural and religious humiliation."

Other forms of alleged abuses included sexual assault, mock executions, and threats of rape, death and torture.

Hague, during his visit to Colombo last November for the CHOGM demanded that Sri Lanka should investigate  all human rights abuses, including the allegations of acts of sexual violence committed during and after the conflict.

The two NGOs called for an investigation into the alleged war crimes under Article 15 of the Rome statute.

The report said: "those who bear the greatest responsibility" for alleged war crimes "include individuals at the highest levels" of the British Army and political system.

UK military commanders "knew or should have known" that forces under their control "were committing or about to commit war crimes."

It pointed out: "civilian superiors knew or consciously disregarded information at their disposal, which clearly indicated that UK services personnel were committing war crimes in Iraq."

For those who expect the UK to take punitive action against Sri Lanka over accountability issues, the report on UK military abuses in UK must have come as quite a shock. Much to their dismay, PIL and ECCHR made their move before the release of the much delayed Chilcot report on the Iraq war. The UK’s ultimatum to Sri Lanka should be examined in the background of that country launching the Iraq probe in July 2009, six years after the invasion. Sir John Chilcot is yet to reach an understanding with Cameron’s government’s regarding material it could reveal, particularly pertaining to discussions between the UK and the US leading to the invasion. Therefore, the release of the Chilcot report is likely to be further delayed, at least until the conclusion of the forthcoming Geneva session.

Geneva counter attack

Sri Lanka shouldn’t hesitate to raise British human rights violations at the next Geneva session. In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay cannot turn a blind eye to allegations made against a member of the UNHRC comprising 47 countries divided into five zones. It would be interesting to know the reactions of UNHRC members such as India and the United States as both countries backed the last US resolution against Sri Lanka. India voted for the resolution as a member of the UNHRC, whereas the UK co-sponsored the resolution.

The reactions of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch as well as the International Crisis Group to UK war crimes will be relevant as they had been pushing for an external investigation into accountability issues in Sri Lanka. All three groups declined to appear before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) claiming it lacked credibility. The Sri Lankan government should closely study the Iraq case. It should be a priority. The Iraq case presents an excellent opportunity to highlight the double standards adopted by those threatening to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal on the basis that the local process lacked credibility. Addressing the media in Colombo on the sidelines of CHOGM 2013, British Premier Cameron praised the Channel 4 News and Channel 4 for exposing war crimes in Sri Lanka. UK based Suren Surendiran on behalf of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) heaped praise on the British media outfits for taking on the Sri Lankan government. The UK documentaries had been shown to a variety of audiences in accordance with the GTF plan to justify its call for an international war crimes tribunal.

At Lanka’s expense

Like the previous administration, Premier Cemeron continued to play politics with the Sri Lankan issue for political advantage. Cameron invited a delegation comprising GTF, British Tamil Forum (BTF) and Tamils against Genocide (TAG) for a meeting at No 10 Downing Street before he left for CHOGM 2013 via New Delhi. PM Cameron, Foreign Secretary Hague and the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Hugo Swire used the Colombo gathering to lambast Sri Lanka over accountability issues. Interestingly, Swire met senior representatives of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch last Thursday in London where he reiterated the UK’s commitment to ensure Sri Lanka addressed accountability issues. The meeting took place 24 hours before PIL and ECCHR handed over their findings on British atrocities in Iraq. It was minister Swire who lambasted Sri Lanka at the final session of the Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) held at Chaaya Tranz, Hikkaduwa last November. Addressing the gathering on the invitation of the Commonwealth after Sri Lanka opposed a move to bring in Canadian MP Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Human Rights, Swire reiterated allegations of human rights violations and abuses during the war as well as during the post-war period, while blaming the government for its failure to implement the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

The UK based Diaspora had cleverly manipulated the Conservatives, Labour as well as Liberal Democrats to their advantage. Fearing Tamil voters could deprive them of several crucial electorates, some UK politicians had gone out of their way to appease the Tamil community. In fact, former Labour minister Joan Ryan had ended up as a GTF policy advisor. With the British general election next year, the Geneva sessions in 2014 are expected to become platforms for British attacks on Sri Lanka. Although Canada is not a member of the UNHRC, all major Canadian political parties are expected to send senior representatives for ‘side events’ in Geneva coming March. 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).

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A Changing US Role and "Numbers Game"

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



Ambassador Stephen J. Rapp with Maj. Gen. Mahinda Hathurusinghe during his Feb 2012 visit to Palaly

 By Shamindra Ferdinando

There couldn’t be a better choice than the US to examine the circumstances leading to eelam war IV and the bloody conclusion of the conflict on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009.

Having studied the capabilities and weaknesses of the Sri Lankan military vis a vis the LTTE in late 2002, on the invitation of the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, the US made a series of recommendations aimed at enhancing the fighting capabilities of GoSL forces to meet any eventuality. The US conducted the assessment as the was country rapidly heading for eelam war IV, though Norway remained confident of a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

There hadn’t been a similar assessment conducted during the entire war. The credit for having the US to scrutinize Sri Lanka’s military capability should go to Premier Wickremesinghe, whose meetings with US President George W. Bush in July 2002 paved the way for the Department of Defence to deploy a five-man team led by Ambassador Robin Raphel, Senior Vice President of the National Defence University.

In accordance with the US study, USPACOM, having closely examined the military at operational as well as tactical levels, attributed the armed forces failure to defeat the LTTE largely to economic shortfalls and operational inefficiencies. The US asserted: "This situation threatens to place the government of Sri Lanka in a precarious position at the negotiating table or on the battlefield, if hostilities resumed."

Sri Lanka reciprocated by arresting a wanted Al Qaeda operative taking refuge here and handing him over to the CIA. The arrest was made on information provided by the US. The removal of the suspect was in line with what the US called extraordinary rendition, a special project targeting those who posed a security threat to US interests.

The military proved experts wrong by executing a multi-pronged offensive on the Vanni front (March 2007-May 2009) after having liberated the Eastern Province in June 2007. During eelam war IV, the US provided decisively intelligence leading to the destruction of four LTTE floating arsenals on the high seas in two separate missions. The US also enhanced Sri Lanka’s offshore operational capacity by delivering a former US Coast Guard vessel to the Sri Lanka Navy. But today, the US is pushing Sri Lanka on the diplomatic front demanding, that the country explain the conduct of its armed forces during the final phase of the offensive.

US steps up pressure

The United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, in the Office of Global Criminal Justice at the Department of States Stephen J. Rapp arrived in Colombo on Monday (Jan 6).

Ambassador Rapp is scheduled to meet politicians, officials as well as civil society representatives during his six-day visit. The visiting official will focus on Sri Lanka’s justice, accountability, and reconciliation processes.

Rapp visited Sri Lanka in February 2012 before the U.S. presented a resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2012. The visit takes place ahead of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions due to commence on March 3, 2014.

Ambassador Rapp’s visit should be examined in the backdrop of Suren Surendiran on behalf of the UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF) demanding that Sri Lanka should be hauled up before an international war crimes tribunal without further delay over accountability issues during the final months of the war on the Vanni east front. Surendiran alleged that Sri Lanka would make an attempt to deceive the international community at the next UNHRC sessions by accepting a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as recommended by South Africa to examine the conflict. Surendiran cited documentaries produced by UK media outfits, Channel 4 News and Channel 4 as evidence of atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) during the final months of the war.

It would be the responsibility of the government to fully brief the visiting official as regards the accountability issues. It would be a grave mistake on the part of the government not to remind Ambassador Rapp of the origins of terrorism here. The government shouldn’t hesitate to point out the culpability of other member states of the UN in sponsoring terrorism here. Perhaps, the seasoned diplomat would be able to examine the Sri Lankan issue with a different perspective, due to his involvement in the prosecution of one-time Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

A lawyer by profession, Rapp was appointed Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes by President Barack Obama, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on September 8, 2009. Rapp took up his new assignment several months after the SLA crushed the LTTE on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. Before taking on the US State Department assignment, Rapp had served the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The former Liberian leader was convicted on 11 counts of war crimes, including terrorism, murder, rape and using child soldiers. Taylor was found guilty for aiding terrorists in Sierra Leone’s 11-year war which ended in 2002.

Taylor had aided and abetted crimes committed by Revolutionary United Front and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council rebels, while knowing well the kinds of crimes they were committing, the court was told. His conviction and sentence was upheld on appeal, subsequently. Taylor is now held in the UK.

With India twice backing US led resolutions in Geneva targeting Sri Lanka since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 and most likely to support the third resolution next March, Sri Lanka should prepare for the worst. In the backdrop former Liberian President Taylor ending up behind bars in the UK for sponsoring terrorism in a neighbouring country, could the international community ignore India’s culpability? Sri Lanka should take up this issue with Ambassador Rapp. Would anyone dare New Delhi preaching Sri Lanka on accountability issues, after having caused massive death and destruction here? Would New Delhi explain its responsibility in arming the People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) in Sri Lanka leading to an unprecedented amphibious assault on Male on the morning of Nov 3, 1988? Had the PLOTE succeeded, it would have had far reaching consequences. Beautiful Male would have been ripped apart by violence. For want of a cohesive strategy to deal with challenges faced by Sri Lanka, the country is under pressure in spite of having defeated LTTE terrorism.

New Delhi couldn’t offset what it did here by building houses in the Northern Province. Those pushing Sri Lanka on the diplomatic front over accountability issues had conveniently forgotten India’s role in subverting a friendly country. None other than former Indian Foreign Secretary J. N. Dixit had acknowledged that the destabilization of Sri Lanka was part of its strategy to counter the US threat during the cold war. Unfortunately, successive governments did not bother about these issues. Perhaps the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies should re-examine the conflict. Over four years after the end of war, the government is yet to commission a comprehensive study on the conflict.

Sri Lanka’s failure

One of the most important issues the government would have to take up with Ambassador Rapp is the UNSG Ban Ki moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) declaration that almost all its records written and oral material couldn’t be accessed for 20 years since the day of the release of the report in March 2011. Even after the lapse of 20 years, declassification review would have to be undertaken prior to the release of material. Interestingly, some of the material would never be released. The PoE is on record as having said that it had received over 4,000 submissions from 2,300 persons.

For some strange reason, Sri Lanka had never taken up this issue, vigorously, in spite of the absurdity of the situation. Would the US facing accusations as regards atrocities committed by its troops overseas accept allegations made by unidentified persons? How could a government respond when those making allegations as regards battlefield excesses by its troops take cover behind the UN? Had there been a similar situation faced by another member state of the UN? How could Sri Lanka respond to war crimes allegations without even knowing the specific charges?

Those wanting to hurt Sri Lanka tend to say whatever they felt would be advantageous to their cause. But the government remained reluctant to exploit the situation. There couldn’t have been a better example than Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP) MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan declaring that she was placed under house arrest in Jaffna during her recent visit to the Jaffna peninsula. Sitsabaiesan’s lie prompted the Canadian government to take up her alleged ordeal with Sri Lanka on New Year’s Eve. The Jaffna-born Sitsabaiesan was playing politics at Sri Lanka’s expense. For about 24 hours, the Canadian Opposition MP captured the attention of the Tamil Diaspora. She was portrayed as a victim of the repressive Sri Lankan regime, while on a fact finding mission, to Jaffna ahead of the UNHRC session.

The disappearance and the subsequent return of leader of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Kumar Gunaratnam under controversial circumstances revealed the existence of many of those missing under new identities. Although several countries, including some Commonwealth governments had issued passports with new identities to those seeking political asylum in their countries, Sri Lanka never realized the seriousness of the situation until incumbent Australian High Commissioner Robyn Mudie unwittingly admitted that a missing Tamil of Sri Lankan origin, Kumar Gunaratnam had been issued with a passport bearing the name Noel Mudalige. Strangely, HC Mudie had the passport bearing the N 1016123 in her hand bag. Although the External Affairs Ministry raised its concerns with the Australian HC, it never really pursued the matter. How many Sri Lankans allegedly killed during the war or abducted by government agents lived overseas? How many had new identities? Would it be possible to establish the identities of those held under Australian detention after arriving in the country illegally by boat? How many perished on their way to Australia? Perhaps Sri Lanka should seek the advice of Ambassador Rapp to ascertain the number of Sri Lankans living overseas. It would be a necessity in the wake of persistent allegations that over 40,000 died during the final battle according to some estimates.

The allegations made against Sri Lanka in the House of Commons should be examined in the backdrop of a defeated Labour Party MP Joan Ryan joining the GTF as its policy advisor at the end of the eelam conflict. The fact that the House of Commons allowed the GTF to have its inaugural meeting in parliament in February 2010 would reveal the dear the relationship between Tamil electorate in the UK and political parties.

A debate in the House of Commons on ‘human rights in the Indian sub-continent’ in September 2011 exposed some of those propagating lies in support of a move to set up an international war crimes inquiry targeting Sri Lanka. British lawmaker Siobhan McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Labour) told the House of Commons on Sept. 15 that Sri Lanka’s war, in its last five months alone, had claimed the lives of 100,000 people, 40,000 of them civilians. Interestingly she was the only one to estimate the number of LTTE cadres killed during January-May 2009 period. She was utterly wrong. In fact, McDonagh’s claim revealed that she was fed wrong information by a party not even remotely connected with the LTTE. Parliament was never told how the MP reached that conclusion.

What the British lawmaker didn’t know was that the total number of deaths due to the eelam war (all four phases and those caused during the deployment of the Indian army in Sri Lanka) is far below 100,000.

Amnesty International, in a bulletin headlined ‘When Will They Get Justice?’ estimated the number of civilians killed at 10,000 on the basis of information provided by eye witnesses and aid workers. The September 2011 report however didn’t make any reference to the number of combatants killed during eelam war IV or the final five months.

Those demanding war crimes investigation here should at least among themselves agree on a figure. Perhaps Sri Lanka should point out to Ambassador Rapp that Tamils for Obama, which had proudly declared it backed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2008, claimed that the Sri Lankan military killed 70,000 Tamil civilians during the last weeks of the conflict. The statement was made after meeting the then US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert O’ Blake in the run-up to the US moving an anti-Sri Lanka resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions, in Geneva.

With various overseas Tamil groups and a section of the international media giving varying figures relating to the number of civilians killed, the claim by the UK`s Channel 4 that over 40,000 perished in `a matter of days` remains the worst estimation so far.