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.