Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Sri Lanka’s ‘missing persons’ and relevance of a Norwegian suicide bomber of Somali origin

British Labour Party MP Siobhain McDonagh places the number of Tamils unaccounted for at 150,000



Premakumar Gunaratnam/Noel Mudalige with his wife, Champa, at their home in Australia picture courtesy Anthony Johnson of The Sydney Morning Herald.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

With the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) now set to initiate an investigation, targeting Sri Lanka, it would be pertinent to inquire into the basis of the major accountability issues confronted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.

Undoubtedly, the alleged killing of over 40,000 Tamils, during the final phase of the conflict, would be the serious most issue, though the government faced a spate of accusations, ranging from use of cluster ammunition, against civilians, to systematic rape of Tamil women - both civilian as well as LTTE combatants.

The government would have to take tangible measures to identify those who had been included in the missing persons - lists hence presumed dead - while comfortably living abroad. In the absence of a cohesive strategy to counter LTTE and Western propagandists, the alleged killing of over 40,000 civilians remained an extremely serious issue. But a British Labour Party MP for Mitcham and Morden, Siobhain McDonagh, told British Parliament that fighting claimed the lives of 100,000 Tamil civilians and LTTE combatants. McDonagh recently alleged that the Sri Lankan military dropped cluster bombs on areas designated as no fire zone. The MP declared that even now nearly 150,000 Tamils remain unaccounted for. She was addressing the Westminster Hall debate on March 25, 2014.

How many of those unaccounted could be living in the UK, Canada, Norway or some other developed country. The growing influence the Sri Lankan Tamil community is having in Canada and the UK is due to more people receiving voting rights. No less person than former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, acknowledged the increasing importance of the Tamil electorate. Miliband’s reasoning wouldn’t have come out if not for Wiki Leaks.

In spite of the government’s decision to shun the UN investigation, it would be necessary to launch a special project to identify those who had received foreign passports during Eelam War IV (August 2006 to May 2009) and the post-war period. A substantial number of persons, categorized as missing, could be living overseas, under different names. The possibility of some of them also having new identities, courtesy some ‘friendly’ countries, cannot be ruled out. Sri Lanka is in a quandary over Western powers refusal to help identify those who had been given new identities. Western powers had turned down Sri Lanka’s plea citing security reasons. Sri Lanka is not the only country facing a similar situation.

In March, 2014, Somali terrorist group Shebab identified suicide car bomber, Abdullahi Ahmed Abdulle, who had targeted a hotel at Buulo Burde, in southern Somalia, as a Norwegian of Somali origin. The AFP, in a Mogadishu datelined story, quoted Shebab military spokesman, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abu Musab, as having said: "The attacker of Buulo Burde was a 60-year-old man who came from Norway to fight the enemies of Allah. He paid the sacrifice in order to be close to Allah by killing his enemies. The event is showing us that there is no age limit for Jihad."

Shebab mounted a car bomb attack in response to a large scale military operation launched by African Union forces. The Norwegian of Somali origin was perhaps the oldest person to carry out a suicide mission. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know the circumstances under which the Shebab terrorist had entered Norway, secured citizenship and subsequently returned to Somalia to launch a suicide mission on March 18, 2014 (Shebab says latest suicide bomber was 60-year-old from Norway-AFP, March 19, 2014). Did the Norwegian Foreign Service have any hand in helping the Shebab terrorist leave Somalia clandestinely? Sri Lanka should study such cases. In fact, the police should seek information from Somalia through relevant agencies as a country affected by terrorism. The government shouldn’t turn a blind eye to what was happening in other parts of the world. Had the Shebab killer received political asylum in Norway. Had he been involved in terrorism or engaged in activities against the state at the time he entered Norway. Commonwealth member state Kenya was another country badly threatened by foreign terrorists of Kenyan origin. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan government had never realized the need to examine similar threats faced by other countries.

A clandestine Norwegian project

Sri Lanka should take up with Norway the contentious issue of Norwegians of Sri Lankan origin. Norway cannot remain mum especially in the wake of one of its citizens of Somali origin carrying out a suicide mission targeting the army. A substantial number of Sri Lankans, including members of the LTTE had received Norwegian citizenship - hence the freedom to travel in Europe, as well as the Scandinavian region, without any hassle. Had some of them given new identities or in special cases changed ethnicity. Although Sri Lanka summoned the then Norwegian ambassador, Hilde Haraldstad, over a secret project to help Sri Lankans leave the country, the government never really pursued the case. The then Foreign Secretary, Karunathilake Amunugama, raised the issue on behalf of External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris (Helping 12 persons out of Sri Lanka: Government summons Norwegian envoy-The Island March 20, 2011). Denying any wrongdoing on Norway’s part, Haraldstad insisted she was not at liberty to discuss individual cases. The External Affairs Ministry never pursued the clandestine Norwegian project.

The Norwegian envoy was summoned in the wake of Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten, in its May 12, 2011, edition revealing Norwegian diplomatic mission in Colombo buying air tickets for twelve would be Sri Lankan asylum seekers deemed to be at risk in Sri Lanka. Aftenposten quoted one-time Norwegian peace envoy in Sri Lanka, Erik Solheim, as having endorsed the project undertaken by the Norwegian diplomatic staff in Colombo. Solheim also accused Sri Lanka of ex-judicial measures, including killings during the last phase of the conflict. Haraldsrad said that she couldn’t confirm the figure given by Aftenposten with regard to the number of Sri Lankans given political asylum in Norway. Although the number of Norwegians of Sri Lankan origin is relatively smaller when compared with communities in Canada or the UK, the Norwegian grouping is one of the most influential among pro-separatist Diaspora.

Gunaratnam/Mudalige affair

Now that Sri Lanka designated 16 groups and 424 individuals under United Nations Security Council Regulation 1373, the government should make every effort to identify Sri Lankans living abroad with new identities. There could be many such cases of Sri Lankans assuming new identities for political as well as economic reasons. There cannot be a better example than the permanent disappearance of one-time JVP heavyweight, Kumar Gunaratnam aka Premakumara Gunaratnam, in Sri Lanka to draw attention to Sri Lanka’s dilemma. The case of Gunaratnam, one-time Central Committee member of the JVP and the only CC member to survive the government crackdown except Somawansa Amarasinghe, is definitely not an isolated one. Having arrived secretly in Sri Lanka, Gunaratnam formed a breakaway JVP faction, called the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP). When Gunaratnam disappeared along with another activist, Ms. Dimuthu Attygalle, the FSP accused intelligence services of holding him at a secret detention facility (Government rejects allegation that rebel leaders are in custody-The Island April 8, 2012). But when he suddenly emerged without a scratch and wanted to leave the country, no less person than Australian High Commissioner in Colombo, Robyn Mudie, produced Gunaratnam’s passport issued courtesy the government of Australia bearing the name Noel Mudalige. Sri Lanka requested HC Mudie to prove Gunaratnam’s arrival in Sri Lanka after she sought Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s intervention to locate the missing man whom she identified as an Australian citizen. Sri Lanka requested the top Australian diplomat to prove Gunaratnam’s arrival in Sri Lanka as records at Bandaranaike International Airport didn’t show any Australian passport holder by that name entering the country (Australia asked to prove Gunaratnam’s return to Colombo-The Island April 9, 2012).

Australia alleged that the Gunaratnam/Mudalige was seized from a house at No 29, Gemunu Mawatha in the Kiribathgoda police area.

Among those who issued statements condemning the government over the disappearance of political activists was UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe alleged that continuing disappearances, in spite of the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 proved the deterioration of law and order and the government’s failure to tackle the situation (Ranil alleges 56 abductions so far this year-The Island April 9, 2012).

Gunaratnam’s brother, Ranjitham, a senior JVPer, was killed during the 1987-1990 insurgency.

The Australian of Sri Lankan origin was sent back to Australia on April 10, 2012. His Australian passport, bearing number of N 1016123, revealed that the Sri Lankan Tamil entered the country as Noel Mudalige on September 4, 2011 (Abductors grilled me on party’s future-FSP leader with two strap lines, Gunaratnam deported to Australia yesterday and Australian HC produces missing passport-The Island April 11, 2012).

The Australian High Commission never responded to The Island reports.

None of those who had expressed concern over the disappearance of the FSP leader bothered to examine the Australian hand in the sordid project. The FSP never explained why its leader had obtained Australian citizenship in spite of heading a political party. A few hours after Gunaratnam/Mudalige’s deportation, External Affairs Minister Prof. Peiris told the writer: "It was unfortunate that whenever someone had withdrawn from society for personal reasons, or gone underground deliberately to cause embarrassment to the government of Sri Lanka, an accusing finger was always pointed at the administration."

After returning to Australia, Gunaratnam/Mudalige alleged that he was handcuffed, blindfolded and physically and sexually tortured during the three-day detention. The Australian never made such allegation when the police recorded his statement in the presence of Australian diplomatic staff at the CCD headquarters at Dematagoda.

Many of those listed missing during the war could have obtained new identities courtesy foreign governments. Some could have obtained new passports by producing forged documents or received passports with the intervention of Foreign Service as in the case of Norwegian diplomatic staff in Colombo facilitating some persons to leave the country secretly. If not for the revelation made by the Norwegian media, Sri Lanka would never have heard of the clandestine operation. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka squandered an opportunity to conduct a thorough investigation into the Norwegian affair.

The shocking intervention made by the British High Commission following the arrest of a Canadian of Sri Lankan origin involved in the smuggling of heroin into Sri Lanka from Pakistan highlighted the need to be on alert. The British sought freedom for the Canadian on the basis of him being an informant of theirs ‘run’ by the British High Commission in New Delhi (UK intervenes on behalf of Canadian held for heroin smuggling with strap line Man from Delhi in Colombo for ‘rescue’ bid-The Island April 10, 2014) The Canadian government acknowledged the arrest though it declined to discuss the issue. Canada is reluctant to share information as regards the suspect. Although the suspect carried a passport bearing the name of a Muslim his real identity can be different (Canada confirms arrest, won’t release details with strap line UK’s Canadian informant in custody over heroin charge-The Island April 18, 2014) Sri Lanka needs the support of the international community to identify those living abroad while being listed as missing.

A paradigm shift in Australian position

Australian Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, last week revealed plans to expel a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers who had reached Australia before the last parliamentary polls. The revelation was made at a meeting of the Australia-Sri Lanka Joint Working Group tasked with tackling illicit migration. Minister Morrison said that the Sri Lankans had reached Australia through other countries. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa spearheading Sri Lanka’s efforts against the LTTE rump led the Sri Lankan delegation at the Canberra talks. Australia has expelled well over thousand illegal immigrants of all communities over the past few years, while the UK too, repatriated over 1,000 asylum seekers since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009.

Some of those who had been categorized as missing due to the conflict here could have perished while trying to reach Australia during the past five years. Australia believes that hundreds of people of different nationalities died on their way to Australia. Australia as well as ‘source’ countries like Sri Lanka never made a genuine attempt to identify victims. Families of those who had disappeared on their way to Australia in boats remained silent. Those who have been strongly critical of tough Australian laws meant to discourage would be asylum seekers turn a blind eye to people drowning in rough seas. Had there been closer operation among countries in the region, those fleeing Sri Lanka couldn’t have reached Australia to secure political asylum on false grounds. Fortunately, since the change of Australian government last year there has been a sharp change in Australian attitude. Australia no longer tolerates bogus asylum seekers trying to exploit Australian laws to their advantage. Australian leader Tony Abbott during his visit to Colombo last November declared that Australia would do everything possible to stop boat loads of bogus asylum seekers reaching Australia. Unfortunately, none of the other countries, which attracted bogus asylum seekers, seemed to be interested in taking a tougher position. Obviously, their position is influenced by the electorate. The forthcoming parliamentary polls in Canada and the UK will further strengthen the hands of those trying to use the growing Tamil electorate as a political tool.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Gathering war crimes evidence the UN way



Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva shakes hands with UNSG Ban Ki-moon in New York.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Having failed to obtain the anticipated response to its public call for submissions, UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s three-member Panel of Experts (PoE) had no option but to extend the deadline to Dec 31, 2010. The PoE posted a notice in English on the UN website on Oct 27, 2010 calling for submissions on or before Dec 15, 2010. Sinhala and Tamil versions of the notice too, were subsequently posted. The PoE report released on March 31, 2011, acknowledged that the decision to extend the deadline to Dec. 31, though it didn’t give a specific reason.

The PoE comprised former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman (Chairman), US attorney-at-law Steven R. Ratner and South African NGO guru Yasmin Sooka. From Oct 27, 2010 to Dec 31, 2010, the PoE received 4,000 submissions from 2,300 persons.

In the backdrop of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) receiving a mandate to go ahead and investigate alleged atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan military as well as the culpability of the political leadership in war crimes, it would be pertinent to examine the circumstances under which the PoE collected information. Such an examination is necessary, particularly because of the controversial confidentiality clause meant to conceal the identity of those 2,300 complainants for 20 years, from the date of the publication of the PoE report.

When the writer raised the issue with UN as well as UNDP Resident Representative in Colombo, Subinay Nandy whether the UN would do away with the confidentiality clause to facilitate the UNHRC probe, the Colombo mission issued the following statement after having consulted UN headquarters. The UN said: "The High Commissioner for Human Rights will now be making arrangements for a comprehensive investigation requested by the UNHRC and the issue of the confidentiality clause will need to be considered at a later stage," (UN to revive 20-year confidentiality clause ‘at a later stage’-The Island April 7, 2014).

The US, the British as well as the EU too, in spite of their push for in international war crimes probe recently ruled out the possibility of them calling for a review of the confidentiality clause (EU too, won’t call for review of 20-year UN confidentiality clause-The Island April 9, 2014).

Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate with the investigation undertaken by the UNHRC can be advantageous to those seeking a regime change here. Instead of blanket denial, the government should take tangible action to challenge the very basis of the PoE report as well as the lies propagated by the UK media outfit, Channel 4 News. In case Sri Lanka shunned the investigation, the UNHRC will accept the available information as evidence and proceed swiftly to fault the Sri Lankan government. Sri Lanka will have to successfully challenge the PoE as well as Channel 4 News or face the consequences. There cannot be a better way than pushing the UN/PoE to prove their allegations. Now that the UN is on record as having said that the confidentiality clause will be considered at a ‘later stage’, the government should take it up without further delay. The government will have to discuss this issue at the highest level at the UN without further delay. The writer is of the opinion that the government should ask those international actors active in Sri Lanka during the conflict, including the UN, UN agencies as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to come clean about the situation in the Vanni east front (January 2009-May 2009). Sri Lanka should push for an international forum with the participation of member states of the UNHRC as well as the EU to appraise the available information.

Nothing can be as important as releasing a confidential war time dossier prepared by the UN mission in Colombo ahead of the investigation. There cannot be a better ‘source’ than the UN report that dealt with fighting on multiple fronts in the Vanni region, both west and east of the Kandy-Jaffna road from August 2008 to May 13, 2009.The then head of the UN mission in Sri Lanka, Neil Bhune (July 2007-February 2011), supervised the project. Bhune was succeeded by Subinay Nandy. The dossier approved by the UN mission in Colombo estimated the number of deaths at 7,721 and 18,479 wounding during the period from August 2008 to May 13, 2009. However, it didn’t specify losses suffered by the LTTE fighting cadre, a failure even discussed in classified diplomatic cables originating from the US embassy in Colombo, at the height of the war. The UN report was based on information provided by local staff of the UN and other NGOs in the LTTE-held area, the ICRC, religious authorities and other sources. As the UN mission in Colombo can still get in touch with those who had contributed to the report, UN investigators have an opportunity to verify facts.

The UN remains silent on the confidential dossier though it can be of paramount importance. The Sri Lankan government too, is yet to take it up with the UN. Sri Lanka’s failure to push the UN on this issue is surprising, as there cannot be a better way to counter unsubstantiated claims that 40,000 civilians perished during the final phase. Unlike the UN, both PoE and Channel 4 News hadn’t specified the period they meant by the final phase. The bottom line is that as the UN had accurately covered the ground situation for almost ten months (Aug 2008 to May 2009), it can be considered the best possible source. The UN’s failure to record the deaths and injuries from May 14, 2009 to May 19, 2014 cannot justify attempts to disregard the valuable dossier. As the PoE too had an opportunity to examine the UN dossier, there is no reason for any party to object to its release ahead of the investigation targeting Sri Lanka (Government won’t cooperate, but wants secret UN report released-The Island April 9, 2014).

Online petitions

Let me examine the way the PoE may have gathered some of its unsubstantiated information. Those wanting an international war crimes probe had an opportunity to choose from over two dozen sample letters by the Tamil Diaspora to be sent online to the PoE. The Diaspora, while making available 25 samples online, urged those interested in joining the campaign to fill an online petition in case of their inability to write on their own (How Moon panel gathered ‘war crimes ’info revealed-The Island April 21, 2012).

Wouldn’t it be interesting to know whether such online petitioners were among those 2,300 persons covered by the UN’s confidentiality clause?

Sri Lanka should push for a comprehensive examination of all available evidence/information gathered by those wanting to have Sri Lanka investigated for wartime atrocities before they are accepted by the UNHRC. It would be nothing but a catastrophic mistake if Sri Lanka resorted to blanket denial instead of challenging unsubstantiated allegations. If Sri Lanka shunned the investigation, it would be to the advantage of those eyeing a regime change here. They would simply use unverified evidence/information against Sri Lanka. Unless Sri Lanka countered these allegations, they’ll constitute evidence against Sri Lanka, whatever the government’s position on the proposed UNHRC investigation/findings.

Unfortunately, the government seems just satisfied with the decision not to cooperate with the investigation. Sri Lanka’s position that it wouldn’t accept the jurisdiction of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake an investigation is likely to facilitate a US-UK-Canada project targeting Sri Lanka (Prof. Peiris explains why Sri Lanka won’t cooperate with UN probe-The Island April 8, 2014). Regardless of Sri Lanka’s non-participation in the process, the UNHRC will go ahead with planned action. Perhaps, Sri Lanka should privately consult those countries which voted against the resolution moved by the US on March 27, 2014 at the 25th session of the Geneva based UNHRC.

The online petition campaign launched by the Center for War Victims and Human Rights was meant to attract as many Tamils possible. It was launched about a week before the expiry of the first deadline (Dec 15, 2010). The organizers posted a detailed communication from the Secretariat to PoE/PoE on a website named Stop Sri Lanka State Terrorism. The following is the communication:

From: panelofexpertsregistry 


Dear Sir, Madam,

Thank you for writing to the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts. The Panel appreciates the time you have taken to your share your contribution with it.

The Panel is unable to reply to each individual given the volume of messages received. The responses to a number of frequently asked questions are thus set out below.

Q.: Can I write in Sinhala or Tamil?

A.: Yes, though English, being the Panel’s working language, is preferred.

Q.: Is my submission confidential?

A.: Yes, your submission will be treated as confidential. Neither your name nor identifying particulars will be specified in the Panel’s report.

Q.: When will the Panel make its report?

A.: The Panel anticipates submitting its report in January 2011 (But it was actually released on March 31, 2011)

Q.: Will the Panel’s report be made public?

A.: The report is to the United Nations Secretary-General. He will decide whether to make the report public.

Q.: Can I speak to the Panel in person?

A.: The Panel has a limited time for its work and has therefore chosen to request contributions in the written form detailed in the notice.

Q.: Can I make multiple submissions?

A.: You are requested to raise all issues you wish to raise within the one, single submission.

Q: Can I send my submission in hard copy to a physical address?

A.: Yes. You may send materials to the following address within the timeframe set out in the notice:

Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka

UN Secretariat (Library Building, L-0330 L)

New York, NY 10017

United States of America

Q: Can I submit non-written materials, such as photographs and film clips?

A.: Yes. Please enclose such materials as attachments to your email or mail them to the above address.

Thank you again for taking this opportunity to be in contact with the Panel.

Yours sincerely,

Secretariat of the Panel of Experts

Let me produce a few sample petitions posted on the same website along with the organizers’ statement inviting Tamils to join the campaign:

25 sample letters that you could use to submit your letters to the U.N. (If not already done so) Panel of expert to pressure UN for war crimes investigation on Sri Lanka please use these letters if you do not find time to write your own letters.

Please submit your letter to the U.N Panel, as we have only 08 more days even if you are not directly affected by the conflict and crimes against humanity committed by Sri Lankan forces and its leaders.

Make sure, you attach your postal address and the country of residence in your letter.

The letters does not need to be long, even few lines should do. Please appeal to the panel to ask U.N. to investigate Sri Lanka for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide of Tamils.

The following is the first sample:

To: Mr. Marzuki Darusman, Chairman

To: Mr. Steven Ratner, Panel Member

To: Ms.Yasmin Sooka, Panel Member

Re: Through U.N. investigation Sri Lanka’s war criminals must be brought to books

Tamils in Sri Lanka have gone through several rounds of communal violence tacitly supported by successive Sinhalese lead governments and its armed forces since Independence. Since 1956, Tamil minority rights and Tamils were used as political pawn in Sri Lankan polity to hold on to the power. The minority Tamils were systematically and routinely subjected to all kind of atrocities, including ‘war crimes’, ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ in order for the Sinhala political parties to woo the Singhala masses in the name of majority hegemony.

Meanwhile, in another development, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, The Defence Secretary of the Sri Lankan government has threatened to execute Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who delivered victory over the Tamil Tigers, if he continues to suggest that top officials may have ordered war crimes during the final hours of the Tamil war. During an interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa said General Fonseka was a liar and a traitor.

A US-based activist group, claimed, that it has obtained a 100-page long sworn affidavit from a senior commander of the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) who has fled Sri Lanka seeking asylum for himself and his family. SLA Commander’s affidavit contains incriminating information in several areas.

But more than that, there is substantial body of credible evidence pointing to the commission of war crimes by government forces including attacks on humanitarian operations, attacks on hospitals and deliberate shelling of civilians enticed by the government to seek protection in the safety of "No Fire Zones."

I appeal to the panel of expert to ask the U.N. in no uncertain term that Sri Lanka should be investigated for ‘war crimes’, ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’.

Yours truly,

Your Name, Contact Postal Address with the Residing country.

The following is the third sample:

To: Mr. Marzuki Darusman, Chairman

To: Mr. Steven Ratner, Panel Member

To: Ms.Yasmin Sooka, Panel Member

Re: Justice delayed itself considered justice denied and it is necessary to reaffirm the international community’s commitment to the principle of accountability on serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka.

Arundhati Roy, the acclaimed Indian writer and activist who focuses on issues related to social justice and economic inequality, who also won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her novel, The God of Small Things. For her work as an activist she received the Cultural Freedom Prize awarded by the Lannan Foundation in 2002. She mentioned the last year’s war was not just a war of the Sri Lankans against the Tamil people.

That was a corporate war. All the large Indian companies are now heading to Sri Lanka to make more money," said Arundhati Roy, while speaking at a Chennai convention. She has also voiced her opposition openly on many occasions, condemning India’s silence on the humanitarian tragedy in Sri Lanka, and calling the war "a racist war on Tamils." This should be considered as ‘war crimes’, ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘genocide’ against Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka and impartially investigated by the independent international body and bring justice to the victims as justice delayed itself considered justice denied.

Yours truly,

Your Name, Contact Postal Address with the Residing country.

Due to space constrains, The Island is unable to publish all samples. But the two published samples are loaded with unsubstantiated allegations directed at the government, as well as the mindset of those wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes probe.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Combat rations for UN agencies as Vanni battle gets underway



Amidst low intensity confrontations in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, many foreign dignitaries visited Kilinochchi to meet senior LTTE representatives, particularly S.P. Thamilchelvan, head of the so-called Political Wing. António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is pictured shaking hands with a smiling Thamilchelvan in late July 2006. The eelam war IV erupted the following month, when the LTTE launched an all out assault on the army’s Jaffna frontlines.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Foreign Affairs Ministry summoned the then UN Resident Coordinator, Neil Bhune on Nov 28 and 29, 2007 to discuss the conduct of some UN personnel in the wake of the then JVP parliamentary group leader, Wimal Weerawansa, MP accusing the global organization of clandestine activities, inimical to Sri Lanka’s national security interests. Bhune was accompanied by the then Country Representative of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Weerawansa didn’t mince words when he alleged that the UN was having a covert relationship with the LTTE, as well as those pursuing an anti-Sri Lanka agenda.

The Foreign Ministry’s four specific issues with the UN, namely (A) the import of Ready to Eat Meals (REM) by the UNICEF. Each pack consisted of two tins of canned meat, biscuits, cheese, marmalade, sugar and a substance used to warm food (B) participation of UNICEF personnel in local demonstrations against the government, (C) use of bullet proof vehicles and (D) UNICEF’s involvement in the activities of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), a known appendage of the LTTE.

The importation of ready REMs generally issued to combat troops surprised many as in case heavy fighting erupted in the Vanni, the UN would have to sharply scale down its presence, therefore there was no requirement for such emergency measures (Now, INGO orders ‘ready-to-eat’ meals-The Island Nov 22, 2007. Foreign Ministry called for an explanation from the UN six days later.

It would be pertinent to examine the ground situation in the Northern and Eastern Province at the time the then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama summoned the UN chief in Sri Lanka.

Having liberated the Eastern Province in July 2007, the army was on offensive on two fronts-Central front (57 Division under the command of Major General Jagath Dias) and Mannar front (Task Force I under the command of the then Brigadier Shavendra Silva). Many questioned the capacity of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) to sustain large scale offensive action on two fronts west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road due to mounting casualties. As both formations struggled, many including a section of the government as well as the international community, believed that it was a matter of time before the LTTE delivered a knockout blow to the SLA. But the government kept the multi pronged offensive on track on the Vanni west front, though it was yet to launch operations on the Vanni east front. The then Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka launched 59 Division in late January 2008 on the Vanni east front. The 59 was under the command of the then Brigadier Nandana Udawatte. In spite of losing the Eastern Province, the LTTE remained extremely strong in the Vanni region at the time Bogollagama summoned Bhune. Many believed the LTTE could turn tables on the SLA anytime Prabhakaran wished to. In fact, Veteran commentator, D.B.S. Jeyaraj as late as December 2008 predicted that the LTTE retained the wherewithal to defeat the SLA on the Vanni east front. Jeyaraj’s faith in Velupillai Prabhakaran’s military prowess was so much, he envisaged the collapse of SLA’s multi pronged offensive in December 2008.

The UN obviously anticipated massive LTTE retaliation on the Vanni front. The UN felt the LTTE could strike across the Muhamalai frontline, thereby threatening the SLA in the Jaffna peninsula as well. The UN also considered the possibility of a major LTTE assault in Colombo. As the UN headquarters in New York too, shared that opinion, Bhune worked closely with the LTTE. Last Wednesday’s piece dealt with Bhune’s mission having secret negotiations with the LTTE to secure the release of some Tamil UN workers accused of helping civilians to take refuge behind SLA frontlines.

Even nearly five years after the conclusion of the war, the government is yet to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the conflict. Had there been a cohesive effort, the country could have exposed those who have been trying to discredit Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the government has not realized the need to fully examine the conflict. There should be a commission to inquire into all aspects of the conflict from Indian intervention in early 80s to Malaysia handing over Prabhakaran’s successor, Kumaran Pathmanathan alias ‘KP’ to the government of Sri Lanka in August 2009. Sri Lanka cannot afford not to investigate the UN’s role in Sri Lanka.

Anticipating rapid deterioration of the ground situation in late 2007, the UNICEF on Sept 17, 2007 imported 6,540 ready to eat meal packs from a French military supplier. Bhune claimed that the UNICEF ordered the consignment for the exclusive use of 12 UN agencies operating in Sri Lanka. Bhune declared that the consignment was sufficient for only three days. According to him, it was part of the UN’s response to an emerging situation. As the consignment was to be used in the event of an emergency, ready to east meal packs were kept at seven zonal missions and Colombo. The UN failed to explain the circumstances under which it placed the order. Initial investigations revealed a serious discrepancy between shipping documents and the clearance certificate issued by the Foreign Ministry. Many an eyebrow was raised as French ready to eat meals in camouflage packing did not carry labels to indicate they belong to UN agencies active in Sri Lanka. The absence of a label on ready to eat meal packs prompted speculation that the consignment could have ended up in the hands of the LTTE.

Bogollagama briefed parliament during the first week of Dec, 2007 regarding the investigations into UN activities in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the government never pursued a comprehensive investigation as it considered the import of ready to eat meal packs as an isolated case. Similarly, the government ignored the close relationship between some UN staffers and those acting against Sri Lanka’s interest, though the Foreign Ministry demanded the expulsion of several UNICEF staffers who participated in a public demonstration in Colombo in June, 2007.

SCOPP chief lambastes UN

In spite of being a terrorist organization, the LTTE as well as some of its front groups freely received large sums of foreign funding. The donors included the UN. Now that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has received authorization to investigate the conflict from February 2002 to May 2009, it should examine how it contributed to the LTTE build-up.

Two days before the Foreign Ministry summoned Bhune and the Country Representative of the UNICEF over the importation of ready to eat meal packs and several other issues, Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha launched a scathing attack on one-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s confidante, Bradman Weerakoon. An irate Prof. Wijesinha was responding to Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda’s criticism of the SCOPP. Prof. Wijesinha’s critique was nothing but explosive. The Prof. declared that Weerakoon, in his capacity as Secretary to Premier Wickremesinghe as well as the Commissioner General for the Coordination of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation and the External Resources Department on Dec 19, 2003 finalized an agreement to pave the for the LTTE to receive Rs. 20 mn worth of goods and services courtesy the UNDP (United Nations Development Fund). According to him, of the Rs. 60 mn project, over a third was for so called LTTE Peace Secretariat. Although the SCOPP too, was to receive the same amount, nearly two thirds of that was for various NGOs. The Muslim Peace Advisory Group, functioning at the Premier’s Office was to receive Rs. 9 mn.

Prof. Wijesinha pointed out that Weerakoon signed the agreement presumably on behalf of Premier Wickremesinghe on Dec 19, 2003, in spite of the LTTE quitting the negotiating table in April 2003. Prof Wijesinha wrote on Nov 26, 2007: "Further information is currently being sought regarding the modalities of distribution, but before the project ground to a halt basically over $ 133,000 worth of goods and services were provided to the LTTE Peace Secretariat or to institutions functioning under its aegis. Amongst services rendered was the development of its website, the website that now features suicide squads posing proudly with Prabhakaran before being sent out on missions of destruction. I can only hope that the UN, like other donors, will at least indicate that this is unacceptable and such militaristic propaganda should be removed from a website supposedly promoting peace, not war."

Having discussed large scale funding made available to various peace building projects during the Norwegian led peace initiative since February 2002, Wijesinha added: "In any other country it would be considered essential that the public should know how much funding all these awareness building institutions have been given, by whom, for what purposes and to what extent those purposes were achieved."

Interestingly, some of these institutions continue their well funded projects targeting Sri Lanka nearly five years after the conclusion of the conflict. They played a vital role in shaping up international opinion since the end of the war leading to the adoption of US-led resolution on March 27, 2014 calling for an international investigation into the period from February 2002 to May 2009.

Undoubtedly, Prof. Wijesinha was one of the strongest critics of those who made available massive sums of funds to the LTTE as well as various NGOs promoting the much puffed up Norwegian peace initiative underwritten by the US, EU and Japan. How much did the LTTE receive from foreign donors after the signing of the ceasefire agreement? Did Sri Lankan authorities have at least a rough idea about the funds received by the LTTE? A session on the socio-economic costs of terrorism, at a counter terrorism conference in Colombo in Oct 2007 was told there hadn’t been an attempt to collate information about all such donations. SCOPP in a statement issued a few days after the conclusion of the conference quoted a participant as having said: "But this should be done as a matter of urgency, given how these funds, too, have contributed to the war efforts of the LTTE, and hence to rising defence costs." The SCOPP added: "Then, there was all the assistance permitted, nay encouraged by the government, to be supplied direct to the LTTE. There was for instance the USD 1 mn given by the UNICEF for rehabilitation, money which has not led to any tangible results or have been properly accounted for. Attention has been drawn to an even greater amount that came through the Save the Children, supposedly to be used for rehabilitation work. In many such instances, there is a lack of clarity about what was given and whether anything was achieved."

The SCOPP, while acknowledging that it received USD 2 mn from Norway, revealed Norway funding the LTTE Peace Secretariat to the tune of USD 30 mn. "The sort of use made of such money was made patently clear in late October 2007 when the LTTE proudly circulated pictures of suicide cadres involved in the devastating attack on the Anuradhapura air base." (SCOPP on how Norway, UNICEF, Save the Children strengthened the LTTE-The Island Nov 1, 2007).

Missing UNICEF property prompts probe

The government had never set up a special mechanism to monitor UN as well as other INGOs/NGOs operating in the region under LTTE control. The government’s failure allowed some of those in charge of INGO/NGO operations to engage in activities inimical to security interests. There had been some fraudulent activities outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces. UNICEF operations had been mired in controversy even at the onset of the eelam war IV.There couldn’t have been a fraud bigger than the vanishing of humanitarian items estimated at over USD 85,000 from the UNICEF’s stores located inside Global Park, in Seeduwa. Although the UNICEF transferred some personnel following the detection, it never took punitive action against those who had been responsible for the disappearance of items. A senior UN official, Jennifer Harris Taylor, in spite of being implicated in the case of missing UNICEF property had the protection of the UN to continue to remain in Sri Lanka. In fact, she remained in Sri Lanka until the chance exposure of UNICEF importing combat rations. When Taylor was identified as one of those involved in the transaction, the UN quietly moved her to UNICEF headquarters in New York before shifting her to Senegal. She was named chief of operations in the East African country.

There had been other controversial UNICEF personalities. Penny Brune, head of the United Nations Childrens Fund in Kilinochchi, was one of those who had been supportive of the LTTE. Brune was one of those who had conveniently forgotten the LTTE’s blatant use of child combatants. In spite of knowing mass scale recruitment of children in the run-up to eelam war IV, she remained silent, hence contributing to the build up of the LTTE’s conventional military capability. Following a relentless media campaign directed at the UNICEF over its failure to thwart child recruitment, Brune was moved out of Sri Lanka.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Shocking failure to examine UN role in LTTE human shield



War time UN head of operations in Sri Lanka. Neil Bhune. Having led the mission since July 2007, Bhune left in February 2011

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The report of United Nations General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) on Accountability in Sri Lanka called for a comprehensive review of actions by the United Nations system during the war in Sri Lanka as well as the aftermath. The inquiry was meant to examine the implementation of the UN’s humanitarian and protection mandates.

It was the final recommendation made by the three-member PoE comprising former Attorney General of Indonesia Marzuki Darusman (Chairman), US attorney-at-law Steven R. Ratner and NGO activist Yasmin Sooka. The PoE released its report on March 31, 2011.

For want of a cohesive strategy, the Sri Lankan government never exploited the PoE’s recommendation to push for a thorough investigation into the failure of the UN in Sri Lanka. Had there been a cohesive strategy, the government could have exposed the sordid relationship between the UN mission in Colombo and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Even five years after the conclusion of the conflict, the government is yet to examine the circumstances under which the UN and other UN agencies as well as the NGO community prolonged the war. The UN system in Sri Lanka facilitated Western strategy in Sri Lanka. They worked closely together to prevent the Sri Lankan military from finishing off the LTTE once and for all.

The UN turned a blind eye to what was happening on the ground. The first indication of the LTTE’s resolve to prevent civilians from taking refuge behind the army frontline on the Western front came in early 2007. The LTTE obviously needed the cover of civilians primarily to discourage the military from using heavy weapons. Secondly, the LTTE leadership felt the need of the population to ensure a steady supply of fresh recruits. (Remember, the forced recruitment of children continued until the very end. The PoE too, confirmed this fact.) Instead of taking tangible action to thwart the LTTE project, the UN propagated lies that the Sri Lankan military was recruiting child soldiers on behalf of the breakaway LTTE faction led by one-time Batticaloa commander, Karuna.

The special advisor to the UN Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Allan Rock in November 2006 claimed in Colombo that he had evidence of direct involvement of the Sri Lankan military in forcibly enlisting children for the paramilitary group for deployment in the Batticaloa-Ampara region.

"Sri Lankan security forces rounded up children to be recruited by the Karuna faction," Rock said at the end of a 10-day mission to study the situation of children.

It was the first time the UN has made such a charge against Sri Lanka.

In spite of Sri Lanka’s assurance that it never resorted to such tactics, the UN continued to persist with the allegations. The UN continued to make allegations as regards recruitment of child soldiers in the Eastern Province, even after fighting erupted in the Vanni, west of the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road.

First signs of exodus of Vanni civilians

Tamils started fleeing LTTE-held areas seeking refuge behind army frontlines as the 57 Division under the command of Major General Jagath Dias pushed on the central front. Although the UN knew of the LTTE bid to stop the exodus of people, it remained quiet as it didn’t want to antagonize the LTTE leadership.

The UN mission in Colombo stayed silent even after the LTTE detained two of its Tamil employees for helping civilians to flee the war zone. The LTTE refused to release them in spite of the UN repeatedly appealing to the top LTTE leadership. So called human rights champions remained tight lipped. No one dared to voice concern over the new development. Co-chairs to Sri Lanka’s peace process, namely Norway, the US, EU and Japan conveniently remained silent even after The Island revealed the unprecedented detention of UN workers While confirming the high handed LTTE action, the then Foreign Secretary, Dr. Palitha Kohona alleged that those who accused the government of death and destruction at the drop of a hat ignored what was happening in the Vanni mainland. (LTTE detains UN workers-The Island April 20, 2007).

The UN mission in Colombo remained silent. It declined to respond to The Island report. Interestingly, those Colombo based correspondents working for international media ignored the incident. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) too, disregarded The Island revelation. Obviously, they felt the story would be inimical to the LTTE’s interest, none of them wanted to cause an uproar. The government should challenge the UN mission in Colombo and the TNA to produce at least a single statement each they had issued in the wake of the detention of Tamil UN workers.

Further inquiries by The Island revealed how the UN engaged in secret negotiations with the LTTE in a bid to secure the release of its employees. An influential section of the Colombo based diplomatic community strived to resolve the issue without bringing it to the notice of the government. The UN alerted the government only after the LTTE refused to release them. The LTTE went to the extent of warning the UN that anyone disregarding its authority would have to face the consequences (UN had talks with the Tigers on the sly with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody-The Island April 23). Still, the human rights champions remained mum.

Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, in a brief interview with the writer strongly criticized the Colombo based UN bigwigs for having secret talks with the LTTE following the abduction of two UN workers in February 2007. The issue took centre stage at a meeting chaired by Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe to discuss the situation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Among those present were Colombo based heads of diplomatic missions, including the then US Ambassador, Robert O. Blake and senior officials representing UN and other agencies. During the meeting, the UN acknowledged that it had decided against going public, believing the LTTE would eventually release them (Lanka urges UN not to shield Tigers-The Island April 25, 2007).

The government should at least now request the UN to reveal the identities of the two workers held captive for helping civilians escape. They should be asked to disclose their plight before the international community. Perhaps, Sri Lanka should set up a special inquiry to examine the complicity of the UN and other various other ‘players’ including NGOs who facilitated the LTTE’s terror project.

On the day The Island published Defence Secretary Rajapaksa’s criticism of UN action, the issue was raised at the daily media briefing in New York. Responding to queries, UNSG moon’s spokesperson, Michele Montas revealed that the UN mission hadn’t informed New York of the kidnapping. Montas was speaking on the kidnapping over ten weeks after the incident. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine the accountability on the part of UN mission in Colombo? Referring to The Island exposure, Montas said: "We don’t have any confirmation of that newspaper report. We have heard them. As soon as we have a confirmation, we’ll get something for you on that. I am checking with the UN presence in Sri Lanka". Stressing that the UN mission in Colombo hadn’t confirmed the newspaper reports, Montas said: "I don’t know. We don’t have any confirmation. They haven’t confirmed those reports. I heard them through the press. (UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark with strap line SL government criticizes UN inaction-The Island April 28, 2007).

Sri Lanka never pursued the UN mission in Colombo over its shameless cover up of high handed LTTE action. Had the UN vigorously intervened, the LTTE wouldn’t have resorted to large scale use of human shields on the Vanni front. Due to the UN’s inaction as well as the failure on the part of Western powers, the LTTE forced civilians to accompany them as they gradually retreated on multiple fronts towards the Vanni east coast. The UN never urged the LTTE to release the Vanni civilians, in spite of growing evidence of them being used as human shields during the final confrontation. After the then Brigadier, Shavendra Silva’s celebrated 58 Division crossed the Jaffna-Kandy road in early January 2009, there couldn’t have been any doubt about the eventual collapse of the LTTE, hence the use of civilian shields was nothing but a certainty. Still the UN refused to push the LTTE to release civilians. Those wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal never uttered a word, as Prabhakaran forced civilians to accompany the retreating LTTE fighting cadre.

The UN was careful not to interfere with LTTE operations, though it knew the lives of UN workers as well as their dependants were in jeopardy. Still the UN decided to secretly negotiate with the LTTE instead of demanding their immediate release. The plight of UN workers and their families came to light again in late September 2008 when Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered UN international staff as well as foreign representatives of other INGOs to vacate the Vanni region. Having agreed to complete the withdrawal within three weeks, the then Resident Representative, Neil Bhune had tried to evacuate families of local UN staff (Government wants UN, INGO pullout completed by September 29 –The Island September 17, 2008).

Although the LTTE rejected the UN’s move, its Colombo mission didn’t make a big fuss. Human rights defenders too turned a blind eye to the rapidly deteriorating situation. In spite of the UN seeking three weeks to complete the withdrawal, except the project manager of an INGO called ZOA, all representatives quit the war zone by September 16, 2008. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee which represented all UN agencies and other INGOs active in Sri Lanka acknowledged the LTTE’s refusal to allow over 500 local staffers of INGOs to leave (Attempt to evacuate Tamil INGO, UN workers thwarted –The Island September 29, 2008). Subsequently, the ZOA manager returned to Vavuniya on September 26, 2008, over a week after all other foreign nationals quit the LTTE-held area. The then ZOA Country Director, Bernard Jaspers Faijer made a desperate attempt to shield ZOA employee accused of joining the LTTE (ZOA defends employee facing expulsion-The Island September 29, 2008). The Island in a front page lead story headlined INGO kingpin with Italian passport joins LTTE as a fighter with a strap line ZOA informs Defence Ministry of its project Manager’s decision on September 27, 2008.

However, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) wasn’t asked to vacate. The ICRC spokesperson, Sarasi Wijeratne confirmed the ICRC’s status in spite of other organizations being asked to move out of the area (INGOs asked to quit LTTE-held area, UN ‘relocations’ to start-The Island September 10, 2008).

Although the UN and Western powers, particularly the British could have put pressure on LTTE operatives abroad to release civilians, they did nothing to intervene. Had the LTTE lost the cover of the civilians, the Sri Lankan military could have used maximum firepower against the enemy. Instead, the government had to move large stocks of supplies overland to the LTTE-held area under the supervision of the international community. Subsequently, supplies had to be moved in ships also under the supervision of the international community. The government also allowed the ICRC to evacuate wounded LTTE cadres as well as civilians by sea.

The UN never objected to the LTTE strategy. The TNA as well as NGOs were shedding crocodile tears for Tamil civilians, though they knew the LTTE was still holding the Vanni population at gunpoint. The LTTE knew it wouldn’t have lasted for a week if it allowed the civilians to leave. The March/April 2009, the LTTE fighting cadre had been trapped in the Mullaitivu district with powerful ground forces in position to face any eventuality.

Let me reproduce what the PoE said in its report on the LTTE’s refusal to release civilians (Page 28/Point 98): "In spite of the futility of their military situation, the LTTE not only refused to surrender, but also continued to prevent civilians from leaving the area, ensuring their continued presence as a human buffer. It forced civilians to help build military installations and fortifications or undertake other forced labour. It also intensified its practice of forced recruitment, including children, to swell their dwindling ranks. As the LTTE recruitment increased, parents actively resisted, and families took increasingly desperate measures to protect their children from recruitment. (Page 28/Point 99) "…Beginning February 2009, the LTTE commenced a policy of shooting civilians who attempted to escape, and, to this end, cadres took up positions where they could spot civilians who might try to break out."

The Sri Lankan Army had to pay an extremely heavy price for fighting an enemy who took refuge among civilians. The war could have been brought to an early end if the international community had applied pressure on the LTTE to let the civilians go. But the Vanni community whatever the Western powers, the TNA as well as those NGO activists crying for their supper say had been a part of the overall defence of the LTTE. The TNA leadership throughout the LTTE retreat across the Vanni west to the Vanni east, knew the human shield was meant to be used in the defence of the LTTE leadership. Prabhakaran had no regard even for his parents. Although the terrorist leader could have made arrangements for them to surrender to advancing troops, he spurned the opportunity.