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.