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.