Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Lanka’s Geneva defence: Course correction needed urgently Assistant Secretary Malinowski reiterates Sept deadline



by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having commemorated those who had perished, on Mullaitivu beach, US Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, Tom Malinowski, told a media roundtable, in Colombo, early this month, that the new government had time till September, 2015, to conduct an independent domestic probe into war crimes allegations. Malinowski was reiterating a deadline set by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last March. The roundtable was held at the conclusion of his three-day visit.

Malinowski told the roundtable on April 4: "We expect genuine progress to be made by September so that the findings of an investigation conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), could be fed into Sri Lanka’s domestic inquiry".

The Sunday Leader journalist, Easwaran Rutnam, quoted Malinowski as having said that he walked along the beach in Mullaitivu, where thousands were believed to have been killed. The US official said that he was emotionally moved during his visit to Mullaitivu and had paid his last respects, on behalf of the US, to those killed, from both sides, during the final weeks of the war. Surprisingly, only The Sunday Leader reported Malinowski’s comment on his visit to Mullaitivu.

Malinowski’s action reminded the writer of Canadian MP Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Human Rights, laying flowers at Elephant Pass on his way back from Jaffna, in Nov, 2013. Obhrai was in Sri Lanka for the three-day Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). The MP represented Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Defending Obhrai’s action, the Canadian government said that the country’s representative to CHOGM, took the opportunity to honour all innocent Sri Lankan victims of violence by laying a wreath at Elephant Pass, in northern Sri Lanka. The statement added that Canada will continue to stand by Sri Lankans in efforts to ensure that all citizens can live in an environment of peace, stability and dignity. An environment of peace, stability and dignity wouldn’t have been possible as long as the LTTE retained a conventional fighting capability. However, Western powers had refused to accept ground realities here.

Unlike Canada, the US had backed the Sri Lankan offensive that brought the LTTE to its knees, in May, 2009, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. The US provided specific intelligence to help the Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) hunt down four ‘floating arsenals’, belonging to the LTTE, on the high seas. The destruction of them, at an early stage of the Vanni offensive, shortened the war. The then army commander launched the Vanni campaign in early March, 2007, even before his troops completely liberated the Eastern Province.

Before discussing what President Maithripala Sirisena-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, could achieve by September, it would be pertinent to mention that Malinowski had been the long standing Washington Director of Human Rights Watch (HRW). He received appointment as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, on April 3, 2014. Prior to joining the US government, Malinowski had been the Washington Director for HRW, since 2001. From 1998 to 2001, he had served as Senior Director on the National Security Council, at the White House, where he supervised the drafting of the then President Clinton’s foreign policy speeches and strategic communications. From 1994 to 1998, he had been a speechwriter for the then Secretaries of State, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright, and member of the Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State. Obviously, Malinowski’s long standing relationship with the US administration hadn’t been an obstacle to him joining the HRW. During the period Malinowski had served the HRW, the US caused massive devastation in Afghanistan and Iraq and ran clandestine transfer of prisoners, with the involvement of friendly countries, including the UK. Sri Lanka was involved in at least one such transfer, in 2003.

During Malinowski’s tenure as the Washington Director of the HRW, the organization, along with Amnesty International and International Crisis Group (ICG), turned down a request from Sri Lanka to appear before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). They boycotted the LLRC alleging that key members had represented the government at an earlier stage. The joint statement issued from New York, London, and Brussels said: "A fundamental requirement for any commission of this type is that its members are independent. The membership of the LLRC is far from that. To start with both the chairman, C. R. de Silva, and member, H. M. G. S. Palihakkara, were senior government representatives during the final year of the war. They publicly defended the conduct of the government and military against allegations of war crimes. Indeed during two widely reported incidents – the shelling of the first "no-fire zone", declared by the government, in late January, and the shelling of Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) hospital in February – H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, then Sri Lanka’s representative to the UN, told CNN that government forces had confirmed that even though the LTTE was firing out from the "no-fire zone", the government was not returning fire; and that the military had confirmed they knew the coordinates of PTK hospital and they had not fired on it."

Malinowski made some interesting remarks, at a forum on women’s role in post-war reconciliation, at the BMICH, on April 2, at the onset of his programme here. The State Department official declared that for thirty years, Sri Lanka experienced "some of the evils that now bedevil other deeply troubled parts of the world – including terrorism, driven by a fanatical ideology, employing suicide bombing, hurting, most of all, the people it falsely claimed to defend." He said that Sri Lanka has a chance now to achieve reconciliation, justice and true peace.

Among the audience was Visaka Dharmadasa, of the Association of War Affected Women, whose soldier son was declared missing in action, on Sept. 1998, following a massive LTTE attack on Kilinochchi. Her son was among several hundred men who died in Operation Unceasing Waves which brought Kilinochchi under LTTE control, by Sept. 29, 1998. The Kilinochchi debacle had been one of the major defeats inflicted on the army by the LTTE during the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure. Having seized Kilinochchi, the LTTE rolled back the army northwards. The LTTE evicted the army from the strategic Elephant Pass, in April 2000. The army faced a humiliating defeat in Jaffna. President Kumaratunga had no option but to request India to help evacuate the army from Jaffna. India declined. Had India evacuated the army from Jaffna, the LTTE would have achieved its cherished objective, namely Tamil Eelam. Vacating the Jaffna peninsula would caused an irrevocable situation. Had that happened, Malinowshi wouldn’t have been here, comparing the situation in post-war Sri Lanka, and some other parts of the world, plagued by terrorism. Had Jaffna fallen, Sri Lanka would have been divided on ethnic lines. Lt. Gen. Fonseka’s army paid an extremely heavy price to rid the country of terrorism, fathered by neighbouring India.

Our leaders lacked the courage to tell the truth to visiting foreign officials. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and the former army commander Lt. Gen Sarath Fonseka, were the exceptions. They never minced their words and weren’t reluctant to air their views.

In his address to the gathering, at the BMICH, Malinowski paid a glowing tribute to the well-funded NGO, National Peace Council (NPC) which declared the August, 2005, assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar as tragic, but inevitable.

Nobel peace laureates have expressed serious concern over HRW’s close ties to the US government, while questioning the organization’s independence. In fact, Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and Mairead Maguire, former UN Assistant Secretary General Hans von Sponeck, current UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, and over 100 scholars, questioned the HRW’s independence. They also questioned Malinowshi’s appointment. "For example, HRW’s Washington advocacy director, Tom Malinowski, previously served as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and as a speechwriter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. In 2013, he left HRW after being nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights & Labour under John Kerry".

The concerned scholars cited several examples to highlight the relationship between the US government and the HRW, founded in 1978.

At the conclusion of Malinowski’s three-day visit, the State Department said: "US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, Tom Malinowski, who travelled to Sri Lanka recently, held talks with government officials, as well as human rights, and other representatives, on many issues, including strengthening democracy, transparency, and accountability. Malinowshi met senior government representatives to discuss human rights and strengthening democracy, transparency, and accountability. He also met representatives from human rights, religious, and civil society organizations."

President Maithripala Sirisena-Premier Wickremesinghe’s government should review the entire gamut issues pertaining to accountability. The government’s priority should be to review the number of civilians perished during the final assault. In fact, Premier Wickremesinghe recently called for reappraisal of civilian deaths. In an interview with Thanthi TV’s Hariharan, Premier Wickremesinghe asserted the accusation that 40,000 civilians, perished during the final assault, should be verified. Unfortunately, the government hadn’t taken any follow up action since Wickremesinghe’s declaration, on March 6. Surprisingly, the previous SLFP - led UPFA alliance, too, hadn’t taken up the matter, though it was accused of giving the political leadership to Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE. Regardless of change of government, in January, consequent to defeat at the presidential election, the UPFA should have focused on the Geneva matter.

The Presidential Commission, investigating missing persons, as well as war crimes accusations, hadn’t taken up Premier Wickremesinghe disputing the number of civilian deaths. In fact, Premier Wickremesinghe reminded Hariharan of India’s accountability. Sadly, political parties as well as civil society organizations, hadn’t realized the urgent need for follow up action. Would it be possible to verify allegations pertaining to the number of civilian deaths due to UN thwarting verification by categorizing all evidence received by UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts’ on Accountability in Sri Lanka.

The government should also consider the possibility of the UN report on accountability issues here scheduled to be presented in September, too, would be covered by confidentiality clause to prevent verification of allegations contained therein. Sri Lanka wouldn’t have an opportunity to verify allegations in the report prepared in accordance with US-led resolution at Geneva sessions in March last year.

Sri Lanka’s defence in Geneva seemed to be inadequate at the moment with the government yet to officially raise the failure on the part of the accusers to verify the number of civilians perished during the Vanni offensive. The previous government, as well as those in office now, hadn’t so far requested for the release of the report on the Vanni offensive that dealt with the period, from August, 2008, to May 13, 2009. The report could help the UN and Sri Lanka to re-examine the ground situation during that period and perhaps compare the UN report with the one prepared and released by Amnesty International, in Sept 2011. The UN estimated the number of dead at less than 8,000, during August, 2008-May 13, 2009 period, whereas the Amnesty International placed the number of the final phase at 10,000. However, Amnesty International didn’t specify a particular period.

Nothing could be as important as a fresh review of accusations in the wake of Premier Wickremesinghe ‘s rebuttal of the serious most allegation that the military massacred as many as 40,000 civilians. The UN and Amnesty International assertions as regards the number of civilian deaths strengthens Premier Wickremesinghe’s argument that verification of accusations was necessary.

It would be the responsibility of the UNP-SLFP administration, now in power, to prepare for the next sessions, though its current focus is on the forthcoming parliamentary election. With President Maithripala Sirisena expected to dissolve parliament, shortly, setting the stage for the next parliamentary election ahead of the Geneva sessions, in September, the administration shouldn’t neglect its duty to ensure course - correction of the Geneva strategy. The electioneering shouldn’t be at Sri Lanka’s expense. The previous government placed Sri Lanka’s defence on the hands of an expensive US public relations firm. Those responsible for spearheading Sri Lanka’s defence pathetically failed to take up the disputable number of civilian deaths, as well as the confidentiality clause, which effectively prevented verification of accusations. Premier Wickremesinghe’s stand on allegations, pertaining to the massacre of 40,000 civilians, has given Sri Lanka hope and an opportunity to clear its name.

Wikileaks cables could also help Sri Lanka’s efforts as the writer had pointed out on numerous occasions.

In fact, tangible measures to verify allegations would help the reconciliation process. A proper domestic investigation would silence most of those making wild allegations, such as accusations regarding genocide levelled by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran.

In his Thanthi TV interview, Premier Wickremesinghe explained the catastrophe caused by terrorism when he reminded that Wigneswaran had to be taken from Colombo and made the Northern Province Chief Minister because the terrorists wiped out the political leadership there. Wickremesinghe declaration should be examined with Northern Provincial Council member Dharmalingham Siddarthan claim that two Jaffna members of Parliament had been killed by TELO at the behest of Indian intelligence services.