Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Paying the price for failure to counter C4 propaganda



An image from Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. A scene outside UN compound in Kilinochchi captured by British UN worker, Benjamin Dix.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

British Premier, David Cameron, last November (2013), reiterated his call for an international war crimes probe on the basis of Channel 4 News revelations of atrocities committed by Sri Lankan forces during the final phase of the conflict, in early 2009. Citing Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, first aired in the UK on June 14, 2011, the Conservative Party leader demanded an immediate war crimes probe. Addressing the media in Colombo, after having visited Jaffna in the company of Channel 4 News crew, including its main anchor, Jon Snow, Cameron warned President Mahinda Rajapaksa of dire consequences unless he addressed accountability issues by March, 2014. Cameron insisted that the UK would use its position as a member of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to censure Sri Lanka. In fact, member states of the UNHRC and some other interested parties were shown the documentary on June 3, 2011, ahead of its release in the UK.

A smiling Snow sat next to the writer, at a makeshift briefing room at the BMICH premises, as some foreign correspondents bowled full tosses at the cricket loving British leader. In fact, one of them queried about simmering dispute between the UK and Spain over fishing rights around the British territory of Gibraltar. Of the local correspondents, only Shameer Rasooldeen was allowed to pose a query.

With External Affairs Minister, Prof. G.L. Peiris, scheduled to address the 25th session of the UNHRC today (March 5) it would be pertinent to review Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, as well as Lies Agreed Upon, a documentary produced by Sri Lanka in response to the Channel 4 News production.

Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields was nominated for BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for best current affairs documentary. It won the current affairs (international category) of the Television Journalism Awards conducted by the Royal Television Society. The UK project also secured two One World Media awards. British Labour Party MP, Siobhain McDonagh, and Australian Senator, Lee Rhiannon, went to the extent of nominating the ITN production team, responsible for Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, for a Nobel Peace prize. The documentary was also shown in many countries, including India. (Addressing the House of Commons, MP McDonagh, on September 15, 2011, alleged, during the last five months of the conflict (January to May, 2009) that 100,000 people died - 40,000 of them civilians). Sri Lanka failed to point out discrepancy in the various figures given by those working closely with the LTTE rump/Diaspora groups.

Channel 4 News followed up with a second documentary, titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished. It was shown in March, 2012, at the onset of the UNHRC sessions. Let me focus on the first documentary which painted a bleak picture of Sri Lanka, under the leadership of war, winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

C4 zero-in-on President

Having claimed that the Channel 4 News had gathered devastating evidence to prove war crimes and crimes against humanity on the Vanni front, Snow alleged President Mahinda Rajapaksa of launching a bloody war in 2008. Snow asserted that the LTTE had, what he called, a functioning military state with banks, schools and its own television station when President Rajapaksa unleashed armed forces on the LTTE territory. Snow declared: SRI LANKA’S INCREASINGLY REPRESSIVE PRESIDENT MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA MADE CLEAR THAT THIS WAS TO BE A WAR TO THE BLOODY END."

Foreign audiences would have been definitely deceived by Snow’s assessment. Snow’s commentary was meant to suggest that President Rajapaksa Caused Eelam War IV. The President was depicted as a hardliner.

Unfortunately, Lies Agreed Upon, failed to counter Snow’s baseless assertion.

What Snow conveniently failed to mention was that the so called functioning military state, in the then temporarily merged North-Eastern Province, came to being following the Norwegian - arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the government and the LTTE, finalized on Feb 21, 2002. Snow didn’t mention the five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) recognizing the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil speaking people, before Prabhakaran quit the negotiating table, in April, 2003. Snow was careful not to mention President Rajapaksa twice sending high level delegations to Geneva for direct talks with the LTTE, in early 2006, even after the LTTE launched attacks a few weeks after the November 17, 2005, presidential election which brought Rajapaksa to power. Much to the discomfort of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), two of his close allies, the new President agreed for the Geneva talks under Norwegian facilitation. In spite of landmine attacks, President Rajapaksa refrained from launching a sustained campaign. His position didn’t change, even after the LTTE targeted the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka on April 25, 2006. Although Snow alleged that President Rajapaksa, ordered an all out war in 2008, large scale hostilities, in fact, started during the second week of August, 2006.

The Norway - led Scandinavian truce monitoring mission blamed the LTTE for launching a large scale offensive on August 11, 2006. Major General Ulf Henricsson (formerly of the Swedish Army) on behalf of the monitoring mission said: "…considering the preparation level of the operation it seems to have been a well prepared LTTE initiative." The official said that LTTE units had advanced across the forward defence lines near Muhamalai entry/exit point while cadres landed on several beaches, as well as Kayts and Mandathivu islands. Henricsson dismissed an LTTE claim that it was only responding to artillery strikes launched by the government. The attempt to overrun Jaffna peninsula was made close on the heels of an abortive bid to blast the SLNS Jetliner carrying off duty officers and men approaching Trincomalee harbour (SLMM blames LTTE for Jaffna battle-The Island September 8, 2006).

The truce monitors’ statement coincided with a hard hitting statement issued by the then Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, MP. Addressing the Colombo-based diplomatic community, MP Samaraweera warned that military aggression, on the part of the LTTE, would entail military costs to them.

President Rajapaksa assured his commitment for a negotiated settlement in September, 2006, when he met the then Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, on the sidelines of the UNGA sessions (MR wants better ties with Norway-The Island September 21, 2006).

Channel 4 News refrained from reaching either Norway or the CFA monitoring mission for comment. Unfortunately, the producers of Lies Agreed Upon, too, failed to realize the Norwegian factor.

Misrepresenting facts

Having identified the LTTE as a brutal army, responsible for using child soldiers, as well as pioneering suicide bombing, Snow asserted that the group retained the reluctant support of much of the Tamil speaking people as they feared the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) even more. Snow declared the LTTE fought for a separate state, for 25 years primarily due to discrimination.

The experienced presenter cleverly refrained from making any reference to the origins of terrorism. Regrettably, Sri Lanka didn’t challenge Snow on that point either.

Let me reproduce what J. N. Dixit, one-time Indian High Commissioner, in Colombo, stated in his memoirs, Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha. Dixit made explosive comments following a stint as India’s Foreign Secretary. Dixit: "India’s involvement in Sri Lanka, in my assessment was unavoidable, not only due to the possible ramifications of the Sri Lankan government’s oppressive and discriminatory policies against its Tamil citizens, but also in terms of India’s national concerns due to the Sri Lankan government’s evolving security connections with the US, Pakistan and Israel." Dixit went on to say: "It would be relevant to analyze India’s motivations and actions vis a vis Sri Lanka in the larger perspective of the international and regional strategic environment between 1980 and 1984."

Commenting further on ground realities as India perceived at that time: "China and Pakistan were encouraging suspicions about India in Nepal and Bangladesh as part of this exercise. The rise of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka and the Jayewardene government’s serious apprehensions about this development were utilized by the US and Pakistan to create a politico-strategic pressure point against India in the island nation. Jayewardene was apprehensive of support from Tamil Nadu to Sri Lankan Tamils. He was personally averse to Indira Gandhi and was of the view that she should not control the Indian support to the Sri Lankan Tamils. He, therefore, established substantive defence and intelligence contacts with the US, Pakistan and Israel."

Having explained the circumstances under which India had ordered the destabilization of neighbouring Sri Lanka, Dixit asserted that the two foreign policy decisions on which Indira Gandhi could be faulted were her failure to take a stand on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and ordering support to Sri Lankan terrorists. Indira Gandhi had felt that India’s failure to support Sri Lankan terrorists could cause Tamil separatism in India.

For some strange reason, the Sri Lankan government hadn’t used ammunition, provided by no less a person than one-time Indian Foreign Secretary Dixit, to counter those demanding the government to address accountability issues. Surprisingly, the government never raised India’s accountability even after New Delhi voted for US resolutions against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013. India is now poised to vote for a third US resolution against Sri Lanka later this month.

Sri Lanka’s decision makers should peruse Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun to Yashwant Sinha, first published in 2004 jointly by HarperCollins Publishers, India and The India Today Group.

India’s accountability should be examined in the backdrop of a UN backed court sentencing former Liberian President Charles Taylor for 50 years in jail on 11 counts, including use of child soldiers and using terrorism to destabilize neighbouring Sierra Leone.

C 4, PoE allege 40,000 deaths

Snow’s third allegation was meant to shock the global community. Having claimed that the documentary contained very disturbing images of death, injuries and evidence of sexual abuse and murder, much of it filmed on mobile phones and small cameras, Snow estimated the number of civilians perished in the final assault at 40,000. Snow didn’t explain how he arrived at that conclusion, though he produced several unidentified eyewitnesses who accused the Sri Lankan military of indiscriminate as well as deliberate action directed at civilians.

Interestingly, the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) comprising Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Steven Ratner (United States) and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa), too, in their report, released on March 31, 2011, quoted several credible but unidentified sources as having estimated the number of civilian deaths at 40,000. The PoE said that a multiple sources of information indicated that 40,000 civilians had been killed due to military action. The PoE suggested that a proper investigation was required to establish the number of civilian dead.

Snow conveniently ignored PoE’s shocking recommendation that the identities of those who had made written and oral submissions wouldn’t be revealed until 2031. Even after the prescribed period, further declassification review would be necessary to pave the way for the release of information. The PoE claimed that they received over 4,000 submissions from more than 2,300 persons.

Unfortunately, The Lies Agreed Upon didn’t raise the controversial move to deprive Sri Lanka of an opportunity to verify allegations. This should be discussed at the UNHRC.

War without witnesses

Snow alleged that the Sri Lankan government had ordered the UN to vacate Kilinochchi in September, 2008, on the basis of interviews given by British national, Benjamin Dix, and the wartime UN spokesperson, Gordon Weiss, though he admitted there were eight or nine UN staffers there at that time. The UN was told that the government could no longer guarantee the safety and security of the UN. Dix said: "There were a number of air raids, pretty much every day, and quite often in the night time."

Weiss alleged that the government’s real motive was not the safety of UN personnel. Weiss said: "The government regarded UN organizations as impediments to their conquest of Tamil Tigers. By moving those organizations there were no longer international witnesses to what was happening."

Snow: "That is a very serious charge." Weiss: "The government wanted to do things which it didn’t want the foreigners to see. They intended to remove independent witnesses."

Dix recalled how Tamils besieged UN office in Kilinochchi urging them not to leave.

Dix quoted a Hindu religious leader as having told him: "We want international eyes on the ground.

Weiss: Our official position was that we accepted the government’s suggestion that it could no longer guarantee our safety.

Snow: What do you personally think?

Weiss: I personally thought that it was a mistake

Dix: "For me that was personally the worst moment in my life. In their greatest hour in need with an army sitting on the door step waiting to take the town, we drove out. That was a very difficult experience and a real sense of abandonment."

The government announced the decision to request all UN agencies and INGOs, except the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to vacate Kilinochchi by September 29, 2008. The announcement was made following consultations between Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the then UN Resident Representative, Neil Bhune. The Defence Secretary agreed for UN top man’s request for three weeks to complete the withdrawal (Government wants UN, INGO pullout completed by Se. 29-The Island September 17, 2008). The directive was meant to remove all expatriate staff from the war zone. However, the ICRC was allowed to continue.

Snow, as well those interviewed by him, conveniently failed to mention the presence of ICRC’s international staff until February 10, 2009. The bottom line is that the international staff of the ICRC remained east of Kandy-Jaffna A-9 road about five more months after other foreign staff quit Vanni. Had Snow bothered to ask the ICRC, he would have been told that international staff came ashore each time ICRC chartered ships reached Puthumathalan to evacuate the sick and those wounded. The ICRC would confirm that people were evacuated on 16 occasions amidst fighting. As the LTTE remained in control of the sea exit point, it could have helped at least families of senior cadres, including the parents of Prabhakaran to board ICRC ships. But the LTTE choose to fight. Not even Prabhakaran’s parents were allowed to leave safely.