Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Premier in unprecedented call for verification of Vanni death toll

Tells South India’s Thanthi TV of need to substantiate varying figures



by Shamindra Ferdinando

The much touted UN claim, of over 40,000 civilians killed, during the final phase of the Sri Lankan – offensive, on the Vanni east front, in Jan-May, 2009, has been challenged.

The urgent need to verify UN claims as well as various other accusations, was stressed by no less a person than Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Premier Wickremesinghe in an exclusive with Thanthi TV, insisted that figures, quoted by the UN, or other organizations, couldn’t be acceptable without being verified. The March 6, 2015, interview couldn’t have been conducted at a better time.

When the interviewer, Hariharan, pointed out that the Tamil Diaspora had estimated the number of civilian deaths, closer to 100,00, PM Wickremesinghe asserted that it wouldn’t even come up to 40,000.The Premier stressed that his government was willing to inquire into all allegations with an open mind.

PM Wickremesinghe pointed out that, in addition to the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, there had been other official reports that dealt with accountability issues. The Premier emphasized the pivotal importance of verifying such accusations to establish the number of civilian dead. The Premier said that some official reports placed the number of civilian dead at 5,000.

Since the conclusion of the conflict, in May 2009, those who had been wanting to haul Sri Lanka up, before an international war crimes tribunal, propagated varying figures, pertaining to the number of civilians, and LTTE cadres, dead during the final phase of the conflict. In fact, there hadn’t been a general agreement as regards the period called the final phase. For some, the final phase meant the ground offensive, during January-May 19, 2009, whereas others categorized the May battles as the final phase.

The UNP leader has never called for the verification of the UN report before. Now that Premier Wickremesinghe has called for a second look at the UN report, it would be pertinent to examine, the various varying figures, quoted by interested parties.

The previous government should be thankful to Premier Wickremesinghe for taking up this issue. For some strange reason, the previous government refused to push for the re-examination/verification of the UN claim of over 40,000 killed. In fact, the previous government never realized the need to counter specific allegations. It also ignored discrepancy in the number of civilians killed, as quoted by various interested parties.

Ranil and Mangala face challenging task

Perhaps, Premier Wickremesinghe can explore ways and means of securing, UN assistance to verifying accusations regarding over 40,000 civilians killed. The biggest impediment to a transparent investigative process is nothing but the UN itself. Premier Wickremesinghe, and Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, should examine, the confidentiality clause of the Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka. In fact, the confidentiality clause is undermining the investigation. Now that the war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government is no longer in power, the UN should review its confidentiality clause and help the new Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration establish the truth.

The three-member panel comprising, Marzuki Darusman (Chairman), Steven R. Ratner and Yasmin Sooka, has classified almost all substantive records as strictly confidential as well as additional protections regarding future use for two decades, from the day of its release March 31, 2011. Even after 20 years, the release of Sri Lanka records is subject to yet another de-classification review.

The panel is on record as having stated that the report was based on over 4,000 submissions from over 2,300 persons. The tragedy is their submissions had been accepted, without being verified.

Can unverified allegations be the basis for war crimes investigation targeting Sri Lanka or any other country? Unsubstantiated UN war crimes allegations had been the foundation for the US-UK led resolution, adopted at the March, 2014, Geneva sessions. There had never been a similar case where an external investigation was ordered on the basis of unverified accusations. Consequent to an appeal made by the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the Geneva rights body deferred the report of the external investigation headed by one-time Amnesty International top gun, Ms Sandra Beidas, until September, 2015.

The UN declined either to confirm or deny whether the Darusman report had been taken into consideration by Ms Beidas team. There is no doubt that the Beidas report, too, will have a confidentiality clause to prevent verification its ‘sources’, most probably for a 20-year period.

Suppression of UN report on Vanni

Premier Wickremesinghe will also have to look into the possibility of having the UN release a classified report that comprehensively dealt with the Vanni offensive. The Darusman panel refused to take the dozier into consideration in spite of it being prepared by the United Nations Country Team with information received from national staff (those living in the Vanni region), NGOs inside the Vanni, the ICRC, as well as the clergy, in the Vanni. While the Darusman panel has estimated over 40,000 deaths, among civilians, during unspecified final phase, the United Nations Country Team identified the specific number of dead (7,721) and wounded (18,479), both civilians and LTTE combatants, from mid-August, 2008, to May 13, 2009. The United Nations Country Team admitted that it couldn’t maintain records for only six days, due to the intensity of fighting.

Premier Wickremesinghe, and Foreign Minister Samaraweera, should take up with the UN the contentious issue of withholding a thorough UN inquiry into the Vanni deaths. Now that the Western powers had given Sri Lanka’s Maxwell Paranagama Commission an opportunity to inquire into the Vanni deaths, the UN should review its stand on the classified report. If the UN is still reluctant to release it, publicly, it should, at least, be shared with the Maxwell Paranagama Commission, as well as an international advisory group, led by Sir Desmond de Silva, an internationally acclaimed and prominent British lawyer, with Sri Lankan origins, who was the former United Nations Chief War Crimes Prosecutor in Sierra Leone.

The previous government never bothered to push for the release of the still classified UN report. Premier Wickremesinghe didn’t mince his words when he repeatedly declared, during the exclusive interview with Thanthi TV, that all available information/allegations should be thoroughly and speedily inquired into to establish the truth.

The previous government foolishly believed in hiring costly US PR firms to save Sri Lanka at Geneva. The External Affairs Ministry, the Central Bank and the Presidential Secretariat engineered useless but expensive project. Unfortunately, the previous government, and its hired PR agents, failed to realize that the UN had in its procession evidence which could save Sri Lanka, hence its refusal to release the report prepared by the United Nations Country Team. The report that deliberately dealt with Vanni deaths, from mid August 2008, to May 13, 2009, had, in fact, delivered a decisive blow against unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. The previous government never bothered to press the UN on the issue of suppressed report. Government representatives never made a reference to the secret report during the Geneva sessions. The External Affairs Ministry, as well as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission, in Geneva, acted as if the report never existed though Darusman acknowledged its existence and inadvertently released the number of dead and wounded at 7,721 and 18,479, respectively.

In line with overall investigation, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Premier Wickremesinghe to probe glaring lapses on the previous government’s part to properly defend the country. Their failure brought the war-winning military into disrepute. Although the then claim of zero civilian casualty was nothing but a joke, the political and military leadership never engaged in a specific project to decimate Tamil-speaking people, or executed surrendering LTTE cadres and civilians, on the Vanni east front.

The then US Defence Advisor in Colombo, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith defended Sri Lankan Army’s record when a retired Indian Maj. General Metha, who had been here with India’s IPKF (some called it Indian People Killing Force) raised the issue of executions on the Vanni east front during the last couple of days, the assault, as well as killing surrendering LTTE cadres and their families. Metha sought an explanation from celebrated Major General Shavendra de Silva, the General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the 58 Division, only to be responded to by Lt. Col. Smith. The US official’s declaration is significant in a sense that he was defending the Sri Lankan military, in June, 2011, a couple of months after the release of the Darusman report. The US must have gathered authentic information since the end of the conflict in May 2009. The embassy would have shared data relevant to the Vanni war, with the British High Commission, without any doubt.

For want of cohesive strategy, Sri Lanka’s case collapsed in Geneva.

Those who had been prepared to accept unverified claims, made by unknown persons, never bothered to seek an explanation from the US official who served the mission, in Colombo, during the Eelam war IV. Strange isn’t it?

Amnesty International findings ignored

The London headquartered Amnesty International (AI) report released in September 2011 (six months after the release of the Darusman report), disputed the 40,000 figure. Premier Wickremesinghe, during his Thanthi TV interview, quite rightly emphasized the requirement to verify various figures, regardless of accusers. The British media outfit, the Channel 4 News, too, propagated the 40,000 figure. The UN, Channel 4 News, as well as all those giving inflated figures conveniently ignored the AI report. Perhaps, Premier Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Samaraweera should call for the AI report titled "When will they get Justice?" Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which dealt with the final months of the war, estimated the number of civilian deaths at 10,000.

Addressing the House of Commons, MP McDonagh (Labour) on September 15, 2011, alleged, during the last five months of the conflict (January to May, 2009), that 100,000 people died - 40,000 of them civilians. Our High Commission, in the UK never responded to this. In fact, Sri Lanka had never sought a clarification from MP McDonagh, in an effort to disappprove enemy propaganda.

Premier Wickremesinghe performed magnificently when Thanthi TV’s Hariharan pressed him over Sri Lanka’s accountability, as well as related issues. The interviewer was somewhat taken aback when Premier Wickremesinghe reminded him that Tamil speaking people died at the hands of the IPKF. Until then Hariharan was careful not to discuss India’s culpability for atrocities committed on Sri Lanka’s soil.

Premier Wickremesinghe’s remarks on the IPKF should be examined, taking into consideration what one-time Indian Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit’s admission in his memoirs, "Makers of India’s Foreign Policy", that India trained terrorists here and deployed them on a large scale destabilization project. Dixit faulted the then Indian Premier Indira Gandhi for setting up terrorist groups in the 80s. Dixit went onto say that launching a terrorist war in Sri Lanka was one of the two foreign policy blunder’s made by Mrs Gandhi, the other being India failure to condemn the then Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Obviously, the Indian destabilization project was meant to pave the way for direct military intervention here.

India lost over 1,500 officers, and men, fighting the LTTE before withdrawing the IPKF, in March, 1990. India never probed accusations made against its army. Indian Premier Narendra Modi, on Saturday, paid homage to the IPKF memorial, in Colombo, a monument to a colossal Indian blunder which almost destroyed the neighboring country. India should at least publicly regret what the Congress leadership did to Sri Lanka.

If not for President Rajapaksa’s resolute political leadership, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have been able to eradicate the LTTE.

Premier Wickremesinghe reminded the interviewer that terrorists, particularly the LTTE, wiped out the Tamil political leadership. Lambasting Northern Province Chief Minister retired Supreme Court judge, C.V. Vigneswaran, for calling for a wider UN probe for genocide of Tamil speaking people, since 1948, the Premier accused him of acting irresponsibly. Recollecting the circumstances under which Tamil terrorists annihilated the Jaffna political leadership, Premier Wickremesinghe told the interviewer, Vigneswaran wouldn’t have been taken from Colombo and made the Chief of the Northern Province if not for vacuum caused by a spate of political assassinations, by the LTTE.

Premier Wickremesinghe emphasised two critical points during the interview.

The UNP leader said that the then President Rajapaksa couldn’t have brought the war to a successful conclusion without India’s support. When the interviewer pointed out that India had categorically denied helping the Rajapaksa government to defeat the LTTE, a smiling Premier Wickremesinghe said: "amnesia is, you know, very common among politicians."

Alleging that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran ensured Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at the Nov. 2005, presidential poll, by depriving the northern electorate from voting for him (Wickremesinghe), the UNP leader asserted that had Prabhakaran allowed the electoral process to continue without interference, the Vanni deaths wouldn’t have happened. Wickremesinghe claimed that Prabhakaran took money from the Rajapaksas to manipulate the Nov. 2005 presidential poll.