Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Comparing Operation ‘Cast Lead’ with Vanni humanitarian mission

Accountability issues: The relevance of Israeli experience




by Shamindra Ferdinando

Hillel Neuer, an executive director of UN Watch and Marissa Cramer, a Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fellow also at UN Watch, in a joint Op-ed titled A case study in UN hypocrisy in the National Post (Canada) in its July 17, 2009 edition compared war crimes allegations faced by the governments of Israel and Sri Lanka.

They compared ‘Operation Cast Lead’, - a 22-day Israeli offensive launched on Dec 27, 2008, aimed at destroying those firing rockets from the Gaza Strip into the Jewish state and the last phase of the Sri Lankan assault (January -May 19, 2009) on the LTTE on the Vanni east front.

The report that dealt with Gaza issued in September 2009, is officially called the ‘United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,’ but it is widely called the ‘Goldstone Report’ after the former South African jurist. The Gaza Fact Finding Mission comprised four persons. The dossier on the Vanni war is called Report of ‘The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability’ in Sri Lanka. It was released in March 2011. The panel on Sri Lanka comprised three persons.

The writers alleged that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) created a fact-finding mission to justify its pre-determined conclusion that Israel was guilty of massive human rights violations. Having accused the UN body of targeting Israel, the duo alleged that Sri Lanka was completely left off the hook.

The UNHRC earned the wrath of Neuer and Cramer for adopting a resolution put forward by Sri Lanka at a special UNHRC session on Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009. The then Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva, Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka spearheaded the successful diplomatic campaign. The Resolution titled ‘Assistance to Sri Lanka in the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights’ received 29 votes in support, 12 against and six abstained. The Foreign Ministry dubbed it Sri Lanka’s greatest diplomatic victory (How the Geneva vote was won-The Island May 29, 2009).

The writers analyzed a particular UNHRC session that dealt with Israel in January 2009 and the one on Sri Lanka in late May same year. They said: "At first glance, the conflicts this year in Israel and Sri Lanka appear similar. In the backdrop of territorial disputes, both countries fought terrorist groups that target civilians and use them as human shields, and in both cases, innocent civilians became casualties."But if one examines their actual conduct, the two cases are different.

First, according to The Times of London, the death toll of civilians in Sri Lanka is more than 20,000. By contrast, even according to Palestinian figures, the toll in Gaza was approximately 1,000 – meaning that Sri Lanka killed over 20 times more civilians." Second, Israel undertook extensive measures to prevent harming civilians while fighting in a densely-populated region, using leaflets and personal telephone calls to warn civilians to seek shelter. According to British Colonel Richard Kemp, no military in history had ever taken greater precautions. Sri Lanka, by contrast, never claimed to do any of this. And while Israel made humanitarian pauses every day, Sri Lanka failed to do so, and shelled civilians trapped in its self-proclaimed ‘no-fire zones.’ Third, while Sri Lanka cracked down on journalists and doctors who dared to publicize the government’s actions against civilians, Israel tolerated vehement criticism every day in newspapers, the Knesset and from pro-Palestinian NGOs.In sum, the war-time actions by Sri Lanka were far worse than that of Israel. Yet, at the council, it was Israel that got slammed and Sri Lanka praised."For some strange reason, Sri Lanka never examined/compared offensives undertaken by its military and that of Israel, though various interested parties compared the two situations at the expense of Sri Lanka. Israel as well as many experts compared the two situations over the past six years. Regardless of being always supportive of Sri Lanka during the conflict, Israel never hesitated to exploit Sri Lanka’s dilemma to its advantage. Israel cannot be blamed for seeking to advance the interests of its own.

Israel proposed to send a combined UN and WHO team to Sri Lanka to investigate the conduct of the Sri Lankan military, the day before LTTE leader Prabhakaran was killed on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. The move was made on May 18, 2009, the first day of the five-day meeting of the World Health Assembly in Geneva at the WHO headquarters. The Israeli delegation at the conference declared that Sri Lanka too, should be subjected to an inspection similar to the one carried out in the Gaza strip. Leader of the House and former Health Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva told the writer how the Israeli delegation demanded action against Sri Lanka, in spite of its longstanding support to the Sri Lankan armed forces (Israel in shocking move demands probe on Lanka-The Island May 26, 2009).

Colombo-based correspondent of The New Indian Express, P.K. Balachandran, recently quoted Dr. Jayatilleka as having said: "The UN fact finding mission on the Gaza conflict had only one person – Richard Goldstone – but the inquiry panel on Sri Lanka is a troika. It is very strong, and  heavily front-end loaded."

The Lankan panel has Martti Ahtisaari (former President of Finland, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and an international expert in peace building); Dame Silvia Cartwright (former Governor General of New Zealand and a judge in the Cambodian war crimes court), and Asma Jahangir (a leading Pakistani lawyer and a former holder of several UN human rights mandates).

With a UN probe on Sri Lanka now underway, it would be pertinent to examine the Gaza probe as well as accusations made by Hillel Neuer and Marissa Cramer, targeting Sri Lanka.

On the basis of The Times of London reportage of the conflict in Sri Lanka, they estimated the number of civilian deaths over 20,000, whereas placing the number of Gaza deaths at 1,000. They asserted that Sri Lanka killed over 20 times more civilians. As earlier mentioned, this allegation was made on July 17, 2009. In September, two years later, Amnesty International estimated the number of civilians killed at 10,000. It would be important to mention that the Amnesty International report titled ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ was issued six months after the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. For want of a cohesive action plan, Sri Lanka pathetically failed to counter propaganda, at least to point out the discrepancies in various figures quoted by those wanting to punish the country.

Let me examine the three points raised by Neuer and Cramer in their over zealous bid to paint a bleak picture of Sri Lanka. What they conveniently failed to mention was significant.

They compared the loss of civilian lives in Gaza (1,000 dead) and Vanni (20,000 dead). But they forgot to mention that the Israeli offensive lasted just 22 days, whereas the Sri Lankan army fought continuously from August 2008, until the collapse of the LTTE’s conventional fighting formations in May 2009. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed on the morning of May 19, 2009. The Sri Lankan offensive gradually pushed enemy fighting formations from the Vanni west to Vanni east across the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road. Israeli losses were negligible, when compared with the dead and wounded suffered by the Sri Lankan army. The writers ignored the fact that the Israeli army lost 10 personnel and 340 wounded during the entire offensive, whereas the Sri Lankan Army paid a very heavy price on the northern front. According to Sri Lankan military spokesman, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, the army lost 2,350 officers and men during January-May 19, 2009 on the Vanni front. During the same period, seven personnel were placed as missing in action. A further 334 personnel died during the same period, though their deaths were not due to combat. Brig. Wanigasooriya, who had played a crucial role in defending the conduct of the army during the conflict, told the writer that the losses suffered during less than five full months in 2009 was evidence of the ferocity of enemy resistance on the Vanni east front. The military spokesman said: "Let me compare the losses suffered during 2008 and 2009 (January to May 19, 200). During 2008, the army lost 2,174 personnel while 43 were categorized as missing in action. A further 279 died due to various other reasons also during the same year." Brig. Wanigasooriya declined to compare the situations faced by the Israeli army and the Sri Lankan army. "But we always value the excellent support and advice provided by successive governments of Israel since the 80s. Israel always stood by Sri Lanka during difficult times."

Neuer and Cramer totally ignored a range of measures taken by Sri Lanka to protect civilians trapped on the Vanni front. Like Israel, Sri Lanka too, allowed selected journalists, including some Indians to join frontline fighting formations. Among them were Colombo based Indian journalists, included the then Press Trust of India (PTI) correspondent based in Colombo. Had the writers bothered to get in touch with the ICRC and the government of India, they could have easily obtained data on wounded civilians and their relatives evacuated by sea (from February 10, 2009 to May 9, 2009). Under the supervision of the ICRC, 14,000 war wounded, seriously sick as well as some of their relatives were evacuated from the war zone to Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee, where Indian medical specialists took charge of the wounded and the sick before being transferred to government hospitals. The ICRC also delivered 2,350 metric tons of food to the war zone. The government allowed International ICRC staff into the war zone each time ships reached the seas adjacent to the war zone to evacuate the wounded and the sick. Hence, the international staff visited the war zone on 16 occasions, though they quit Puthumathalan on February 10, 2009, the day the ICRC launched the operation to evacuate the wounded and the sick. The war ended just 10 days after the ICRC last rescue mission on May 9. The report of The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka too, confirmed (page 32) the ICRC’s role. Neuer and Cramer could obtain data on food supplies sent both overland and by sea to the war zone from the World Food Programme (WFP), during the last phase of the conflict.

The writers’ allegation that Sri Lanka didn’t tolerate criticism is nothing but propaganda. The Tamil media as well as an influential section of the English and Sinhala media backed the LTTE’s campaign through devious means. Some went to he extent of repeatedly asserting that the LTTE couldn’t be defeated on the battlefield and the Sri Lankan army faced a catastrophe on the Vanni east front. Unlike any other terrorist group, the LTTE had its elected representatives in Parliament, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) members, who threw their full weight behind Prabhakaran. None other than a high level European Union election observation mission highlighted the nexus between the LTTE and the TNA.

Those comparing Israeli’s response to terrorism as well as that of Sri Lanka are silent on the circumstances under which the UN probe on Israel came to an abrupt end. In April, 2011, Richard Goldstone contradicted his own report. In a Washington Post op-ed column, Goldstone said he would have reached different conclusions if the Israeli military had been more forthcoming and if he had known the results of subsequent investigations.

"If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document," Goldstone declared.

Goldstone wrote that Israeli investigations found cases involving individual soldiers, but the intentional targeting of civilians was not a "matter of policy."

But the three co-authors of the U.N. report on the Israeli offensive publicly challenged Goldstone’s move. In spite of Goldstone being one of the four authors of the report, the US accepted his position much to the disappointment of co-authors, Pakistani human rights lawyer Hina Jilani, Professor of international law at the London School of Economic, Christine Chinkin and retired Irish Colonel Desmond Travers. In a Guardian newspaper column in Britain, they declared that they wanted "to dispel any impression that subsequent developments have rendered any part of the mission’s report unsubstantiated, erroneous or inaccurate."

"There is no justification for any demand or expectation for reconsideration of the report, as nothing of substance has appeared that would in any way change the context, findings or conclusions of that report with respect to any of the parties to the Gaza conflict."

"The report of the fact-finding mission contains the conclusions made after diligent, independent and objective consideration of the information related to the events within our mandate, and the careful assessment of its reliability and credibility. We firmly stand by these conclusions."

The report found both Israel and Hamas likely committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during the conflict between December 27, 2008, and January 18, 2009.

Why did Goldstone change his position? Did he consult Jilani, Chinkin and Colonel Travers before contradicting their own report? Goldstone accepted the challenging task in the wake of many other international personalities declining to take up the daunting task. One time UN rights chief Mary Robinson as well as former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari were those who refused to head the UN fact finding mission. In fact, Robinson declared on March 9, 2009: "Unfortunately, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution seeking a fact-finding mission to only look at what Israel had done, and I don’t think that’s a human rights approach."

Ahtisaari is among the three-member panel on Sri Lanka. The Goldstone inquiry was followed by another report by the U.N. committee of independent experts — chaired by former New York judge Mary McGowan Davis — that followed up on the recommendations of the Goldstone Report has found that "Israel has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in the Gaza Strip," while "the de facto authorities (i.e., Hamas) have not conducted any investigations into the launching of rocket and mortar attacks against Israel."

Basically, the Davis report was complimentary of Israel.

The bottom line is that regardless of Goldstone’s controversial retraction of his own report, its findings stands. Sri Lanka needs to closely study the Goldstone affair as faces the unenviable task of facing the three-member panel led by Ahtisaari.