SPECIAL REPORT : Part 18April 8, 2014, 5:53 pm
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.