War Crimes charge: Urgent need for reappraisal of GoSL's response
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 16March 25, 2014, 12:00 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
US Statement Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley on March 10, 2011 declared that the Defence Department treatment of former intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning was ‘ridiculous, counter-productive and stupid.’
Crowley was speaking in the wake of the international media quoting Manning’s lawyer, Lt. Colonel David Coombs as having said that his client had been forced to sit naked in his cell for seven hours and then forced to stand naked at attention at the front of his cell for about ten minutes.
Manning, accused of releasing classified information to Wiki Leaks was held in detention at Quantico military base outside Washington DC.
The US military, while confirming the claim made by Lt. Colonel Coombs, emphasized that the practice was in line with military policy.
The US State Department swiftly forced Crowley to quit. At the behest of his former superiors, Crowley issued a brief statement taking full responsibility for his controversial statement. "Given the impact of my remarks, for which I take full responsibility, I have submitted my resignation as Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs and the spokesman for the Department of State."
No country dared to issue a statement condemning the US action. Those who preach of the importance of freedom of speech remained silent.
It wasn’t an isolated case.
In June, 2010, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the then Commander of all US and NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan was compelled to end his 34-year-military career following his criticism of the Obama administration. The US regime reacted angrily to comments the war veteran and some of his aides had made to Rolling Stone magazine.
With the vote on the third US resolution moved against Sri Lanka taking place tomorrow (March 27) at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), it would be pertinent to examine the US position vis a vis post-war Sri Lanka. The US resolution was meant to humiliate Sri Lanka over accountability issues and a range of other issues, including the suppression of free speech
The US moved two successful resolutions against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013.
Since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, Sri Lanka is increasingly under pressure with President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government being severely criticized for war crimes as well as suppression of free speech. The US flayed Sri Lanka in the run-up to tomorrow’s vote. The last US statement dealt with the arrest of two persons alleged to have acted in a way inimical to national security interests. In spite of their subsequent release, France too, issued a similar statement condemning Sri Lanka over the arrests. The French statement indicated in no uncertain terms that France would throw its weight behind the US resolution.
Both US and French statements painted a bleak picture of post-war Sri Lanka.
The State Department response to a statement made by its war time defence attaché in Sri Lanka, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith on June 1, 2011 during an international security conference in Colombo revealed the absurdity of the US stand on war crimes allegations. It would be important to mention that Lt. Colonel Smith made his controversial statement many months before the US moved its first resolution targeting Sri Lanka in Geneva in 2012. The following is what the US official said in response to a query by retired Indian Major General, Ashok Metha directed at Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York, Major General Shavendra Silva, who commanded the celebrated 58 Division during eelam war IV.
Lt. Colonel Smith: "Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the defence attaché here at the US Embassy since June 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours and days of the conflict — from what I was privileged to hear and to see, the offers to surrender that I am aware of seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE — Nadesan, KP — people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE."
"So their offers were a bit suspect anyway, and they tended to vary in content hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were in fact real."
"And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders at various levels, that the stories don’t seem to all quite match up."
But I can say that the version presented here so far in this is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble. "
The Island’s exclusive report on contradictory position taken up by Lt. Colonel Smith compelled the State Department to dismiss the statement (Now, US suspects credibility of LTTE surrender offer with strap line Dismisses KP, Nadesan as ‘mouthpieces’ with no real authority-The Island June 3, 2011).
Interestingly, Lt. Colonel Smith made his revelation two days before Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields produced by UK’s Channel 4 News was shown to UNHRC members in Geneva. The documentary was shown to UK audiences on June 14, 2011.
Although the US official statement to a large extent negated United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) report released on March 31, 2011, the Sri Lankan government never exploited the situation. In fact, the government is yet to exploit Lt. Colonel’s Smith statement to its advantage. The US State Department reacted swiftly to Lt. Colonel Smith’s statement as it realized it could cause an irreversible setback to the Western campaign to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal.
In Washington, no sooner Lt. Colonel Smith made these remarks, the US State Department disassociated itself from the controversial statement. The State Department’s Deputy Spokesman, Mark. C. Toner fielded a series of questions at the daily briefing. This is how the Questions and Answers session went.
QUESTION: I have one on Sri Lanka. The senior Defense Attaché at the U.S. Mission in Sri Lanka went public that he questioned the credibility of surrender offers made by senior LTTE leaders who was the head of the (inaudible) last year. Does this reflect any change in the U.S. position on the war crime victims?
TONER: Right. You’re talking about remarks that were made at a conference in Colombo?
QUESTION: Yes. Yeah.
TONER: Well, just to clarify, the U.S. did decline invitations to participate in that conference as either a conference speaker or panelist. My understanding is that the Defense Attaché was there as an observer and a note taker. His comments reflected his personal opinion. There’s no change in the policy of the United States, and his remarks do not reflect any change in our policy.
QUESTION: So that was a personal opinion?
TONER: Personal opinion. The United States - and just to reiterate that policy - remains deeply concerned by the allegations in the panel of experts report, and we’re committed to seeing a credible accounting of and accountability for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. And we believe that the Sri Lankan Government must act quickly and credibly to address these allegations.
QUESTION: Who was the attaché?
TONER: I don’t have his name.
QUESTION: Is he still the attaché? (Laughter.) Was there any discussion —
TONER: I believe he’s still there, but I’ll try to get an update.
Shortly thereafter Lt. Colonel Smith was replaced.
Due to negligence on the part of the government, the country missed an excellent opportunity to expose the duplicity of the US position. In fact, the US Defence Attache’s statement contradicted an assertion made by no less person than the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, the entire world knows what Butenis said about accountability on the part of Sri Lanka’s political and military leaderships.
In leaked US diplomatic cables, Butenis said that former Army Chief, General Sarath Fonseka should share the blame for ‘war crimes’ with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the president’s brothers, Gotabhaya and Basil. The government turned a blind eye to the explosive Wiki leaks’ exposure of secret US diplomatic cables. Contradictory positions taken by various US officials weakened the case against Sri Lanka. But the Sri Lankan government never made an attempt to use available information to its advantage. Had it done that, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have faced an embarrassing situation in Geneva again.
The government failed to question the credibility of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which backed Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s candidature at the Jan. 2010 presidential election, though he had been branded as a ‘war criminal’. For want of a cohesive strategy, the government is still struggling on the diplomatic front. It hadn’t even observed that Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields had conveniently avoided making any direct references to General Fonseka. The Sinha Regiment veteran wouldn’t have been spared if he had remained loyal to President Rajapaksa.
The TNA which fully cooperated with the LTTE until the very end, ended up as the darling of the international community in the post-war era. The government had failed to expose the TNA’s close relationship with the LTTE. Those responsible for countering LTTE/TNA propaganda pathetically failed to use an explosive EU report which directly blamed the TNA for receiving the LTTE’s support to gain supremacy in the then temporarily merged North-Eastern Province at the December 2001 parliamentary polls. The EU polls monitoring mission alleged that the TNA had immensely benefited from violence directed by the LTTE at those opposing the TNA.
The government failed to realize the importance of revelations made Wiki Leaks. Sri Lanka would never have known the rationale behind the position taken by a section of the international community if not for Wiki Leaks disclosure of some sensitive statements attributed to various diplomats, including the then US ambassador, Robert O. Blake and the likes of Mohan Kumar, the joint secretary (for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma) at the Ministry of External Affairs, India.
It would be pertinent to mention that Ambassador Blake moved to Colombo from New Delhi where he was privy to negotiations conducted under Norwegian leadership.
Wiki Leaks revealed India’s assumption that the LTTE engineered the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat the November 17, 2005 presidential poll to pave the way for ‘hawkish’ Mahinda Rajapaksa in a bid to prevent further talks under the auspices of Norway. The assertion was made in diplomatic cables sent by Blake in November, 2005.
In fact, the LTTE’s directive to Tamil speaking people to boycott the presidential poll was made public by the TNA. Whatever the TNA leadership say in the post-Prabhakaran era, it cannot absolve itself from the facilitating the LTTE’s war strategy. The TNA on behalf of the LTTE made the announcement in Kilinochchi on November 10, 2005.
None of those demanding accountability on the part of Sri Lankan government dared to interfere with the LTTE/TNA strategy. India too, turned a blind eye to what was going on. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, we know of India’s position as the LTTE prepared to launch what it believed was final offensive. One US cable quoted Joint Secretary Mohan Kumar as having said that India believed that the LTTE was looking for a leader ‘easier to tackle’ after having used Ranil Wickremesinghe to secure some critically important concessions. Western powers as well as the TNA leadership did absolutely nothing to discourage the LTTE from resuming hostilities. The TNA probably felt confident in the LTTE’s capacity to sustain a major offensive meant to bring the new President to his knees. The LTTE as well as the TNA obviously underestimated political and military leaderships.
Even as late as December 2008, veteran political and defence commentator, D.B.S. Jeyaraj asserted that the LTTE could wipe out army divisions deployed on the Vanni front. Such assertions gave hope to the TNA as well as the Tamil Diaspora which believed in Prabhakaran delivering a knockout blow to General Fonseka’s army on the Vanni east front. Within two weeks after Jeyaraj’s piece, the army overwhelmed the LTTE at Kilinochchi. Until then, no one talked about a final phase of the conflict. Human rights and accountability were probably the last things on the minds of those who backed the eelam project. As long as they felt the LTTE could somehow achieve its military objectives even at the expense of the entire population of the Vanni, they remained silent.
The UN did absolutely nothing to prevent the LTTE from forcing the entire population of Vanni west to cross the Jaffna-Kandy A9 road and gradually retreat towards the eastern coast along with the LTTE fighting cadre. In fact, none of those UN member states scheduled to vote for the US resolution tomorrow opposed the LTTE move. Instead some of them, including the US made desperate attempts to evacuate LTTE leaders and their families to safety.