Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Rape as a tactic in Sri Lanka’s war against Tigers




By Shamindra Ferdinando

The recent release of some emails, sent and received by the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, during 2009, revealed the circumstances under which uncorroborated accusations had been directed at the Sri Lankan government at a time Western powers were trying to take the shine off the country’s triumph over terrorism.

The emails, released by the US State Department, disclosed the issuing of a clarification without actually retracting baseless claim made by Clinton that rape had been used as a tactic of war in Bosnia, Burma, and Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. The statement was made on Sept. 30, 2009, at the UN Security Council. That was a calculated move to appease those who had been calling for an international inquiry into the Vanni offensive, at Sri Lanka’s expense.

Democratic presidential front-runner, Clinton, is struggling due to the raging controversy over her controversial decision to use a private server, at her home, in Chappaqua, N.Y. However, thanks to former US Secretary of State, as well as the US decision to declassify a considerable number of emails, we have an opportunity to closely examine the post-war US project. During Clinton’s tenure, as Secretary of State (2009 to 2013), the State Department took an extremely hostile approach towards Sri Lanka, in spite of helping the military to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The then Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, had diplomatic skills to secure US intelligence to hunt down four LTTE ships. Karannagoda also succeeded in enhancing the fighting capabilities of Fast Attack Craft (FAC) squadrons by mounting US built 30 mm guns on 30 craft. Sri Lanka’s military received significant help from the US, over a period of time, though it drastically changed its strategy in the wake of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s refusal to halt the offensive. The then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, too, strongly opposed Western powers throwing a lifeline to the LTTE. Perhaps, the world’s solitary super power felt humiliated by the Rajapaksas’ refusal, hence the so-called regime change project.

Interested parties propagated lies to undermine the previous government. The Clinton statement, at the UNSC, should be examined in the backdrop of a vast conspiracy meant to ridicule the administration, as well as the military.

Immediately after Clinton declared, at the UNSC, on Sept 30, 2009, that Sri Lanka had used rape as a tactic of war, the writer sought clarifications from the then Military Spokesperson, Brig. Udaya Nanayakkara, as well as the then Secretary to the Human Rights Ministry, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha.

Speaking on the adoption of a United Nations Security Council Resolution to Combat Sexual Violence, in Armed Conflict, Clinton said: "Now, reading the headlines, one might think that the use of rape, as a tactic of war, only happens occasionally, or in a few places, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Sudan. That would be bad enough, but the reality is much worse. We’ve seen rape used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere. In too many countries and in too many cases, the perpetrators of this violence are not punished, and so this impunity encourages further attacks".

The following is The Island lead story headlined ‘Now, Hillary Clinton bats for anti-Sri Lanka lobby,’ with a strap line ‘Swedish move to disgrace Lanka countered at HRC’ -The Island, Oct 2, 2009).

"The government, yesterday, strongly denied US allegations that rape had been used as a weapon in Sri Lanka’s successful war against the LTTE. Military Spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, told The Island that nothing could be far from the truth. He emphasized that there was absolutely no basis, whatsoever, to even suggest Sri Lankan forces had raped anyone during the three-year campaign.

Clinton’s attack came close on the heels of Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, meeting Robert Blake, in the US, where he explained the situation in Sri Lanka, particularly ongoing efforts to resettle the war displaced.

The US targeted Sri Lanka at a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday (September 30, 2009). U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said that rape had been used as a weapon of war in the Balkans, Burma, Sri Lanka and elsewhere and that in too many countries and in too many cases, the perpetrators had not been punished. She said that this impunity would encourage further attacks.

Government sources told The Island that Clinton had chaired Wednesday’s meeting on the last day of the US presidency of the council.

Sources said the US was trying to make a case against Sri Lanka.

The UN Security Council, on Wednesday, unanimously adopted a resolution creating new tools to combat sexual violence against women and children, in conflict situations.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary to the Human Rights Ministry, told The Island the government would like the US to reveal any specific allegations against the Sri Lankan Army.

"’Maybe she is confused with the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ he said, adding that a section of the international community was working overtime to discredit Sri Lanka. He said that it was unfortunate that those who had failed to save the LTTE from being crushed, at the hands of the SLA, was now harassing Sri Lanka.

Wijesinha said the US should explain the basis on which the allegation was levelled against Sri Lanka. Both, the US Ambassador, in Colombo, and the US Embassy spokesperson, were in the Maldives.

Prof. Wijesinha said that some countries derived a sadistic pleasure by making baseless allegations against Sri Lanka. According to him, the Swedish delegation, at the recently concluded Human Rights Sessions, in Geneva, had expressed concern over ill-treatment of children and women at government-run welfare centers in the north of Sri Lanka.

Wijesinha said that the Swedes had so far failed to keep their pledge to provide Sri Lanka with details to facilitate an inquiry. ‘They are silent now though I have contacted them on my return to Colombo,’ he said. Responding to The Island queries, he said that Sri Lanka had a right to know the reasons for their claim, made on behalf of many other countries.

The SLA said that a recent attempt to liken Vavuniya refugee camps to Nazi-era concentration camps, by a group of Sri Lankans, supportive of the LTTE cause, was part of the campaign."

Brig. Nanayakkara succeeded the then Brig. Prasad Samarasinghe on Sept 10, 2007, at the onset of the Vanni offensive. Nanayakkara functioned as the Military Spokesperson, until January 29, 2010, during an extremely difficult period, due to internal and external factors.

Subsequent to The Island report, the then Foreign Minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, took up Clinton’s allegation with US Ambassador, Patricia Butenis. Bogollagama called for immediate retraction of Clinton’s claim.

Having declared open an exhibition, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Army, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that false allegations, including those of rape, were being brought against the military. The Commander-in-Chief emphasized that the troops were the best disciplined in the world.

In the wake of Sri Lankan protests, the US Embassy’s blog had the following account posted. During the 26-year long war in Sri Lanka, there were allegations of rape and sexual violence, just as in other conflicts.

Secretary Clinton’s statement was to raise awareness of such brutality, not to implicate specific perpetrators. She made no reference to the Sri Lankan Army or to the LTTE.

Sri Lankan troops had not only being accused of rape but in some cases found guilty of such crimes. The brutal rape and murder of Premawathie Manamperi, during the 1971 JVP-led insurgency shocked the nation. There had been cases of rape in other areas during the war against the LTTE but it had never been ordered by the political, or military, leaderships. The Indian Army, too, during its deployment here (July 1987-March 1990) earned the wrath of the Tamil community for a spate of rape cases involving Indian troops. But the Indian Army never used rape as tool of war. That is the truth.

Clinton never withdrew her statement. Instead, after intense internal consultations, the State Department issued a partial retraction under the name of the then ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Melanne Verveer.

On Oct 3, 2009, Lissa Muscatine, a senior aide to Clinton, while sending a mail listing human rights violations, including rape atrocities committed in Sri Lanka, acknowledged there had been a lack of due diligence, prior to clearing Clinton’s statement. "The problem is that it was not sent to SCA or East Asia and should have been. But the rest of the building signed off on it," she wrote, referring to the South and Central Asia desk which covers Sri Lanka.

The then State Department spokesperson, Philip Crowley, sent a draft of a statement to Clinton, as a possible response to the Sri Lankan government’s protest note. But, five minutes later, he wrote of Clinton being open to the idea of the response coming from someone else.

"She feels that this has generated a great deal of media commentary in various quarters, including prominent outlets in this country, and in Asia, that we have no choice but to respond in a public way. Government supporters are saying that Clinton is listening to the Tamil Diaspora," Crowley wrote in an email to Clinton aides. Crowley hinted at active lobbying in Washington on behalf of the Sri Lankan government to put pressure for a retraction.

Crowley said that a conference call with Clinton led to a consensus that US response to Sri Lanka should not be from Clinton. "What this does is reinforces her statement, but gives the government a little something on recent experience and then goes the pivot to reconciliation and what they need to do now, reinforcing our current policy," Crowley wrote.

A little later, Philippe I Reines, Clinton’s senior advisor, wrote that if the letter was sent by Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, it will be "far more confirming of HRC’s statement", rather than from the spokesman "which will invariably read like a correction/retraction". "I fear how the 3,000 outlets, who have not even noticed the issue, will react to this statement," he added.

Clinton herself wrote an email to Crowley, saying she was "happy" to have Melanne Verveer release the letter to the Sri Lankan ambassador, but emphasized that she wanted to see it.

An hour later, a text, in language largely based on the original draft statement by the US spokesperson, was sent to Hillary to review. Verveer agreed. "We do not want to make this a bigger story, so if it makes sense for me to respond, I have no objection to course."

Within 15 minutes, Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl D Mills, said she had spoken to "HRC". "We should do this from Melanne. She still wants to see a draft".

In a missive, Verveer, assured Bogollagama: "In the most recent phase of the conflict, from 2006 to 2009, we have not received reports that rape and sexual abuse were used as tools of war as they clearly have in other conflict areas around the world." However, Verveer added that there had been such accusations only in the past. The letter further said: "We hope that this clarification puts the issue in its proper context."

The State Department adopted a similar strategy when Colombo-based US Defence Attache, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith, in June, 2011, publicly contradicted unsubstantiated war crimes accusations directed at Sri Lanka. An exclusive report in The Island, on the Smith affair, at the inaugural Defence Seminar, organized by the victorious Sri Lanka Army, prompted the State Department to claim that the Defence Attache wasn’t representing the US at the forum. The State Department never explained what Lt. Colonel Smith was doing at the venue, in US uniform.

Wikileaks revelations, as well as State Department emails, can be used to establish that the previous Sri Lankan government had been unfairly treated.

There had been a previous instance of US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, correcting an erroneous statement immediately after Sri Lanka brought it to the notice of the US State Department. Addressing a gathering on religious freedom, Albright had referred to the conflict, in Sri Lanka, as one between Hindu separatists and Sinhalese. The US State Department, in its daily news briefing, acknowledged that the Secretary of State had inadvertently made that remark. But the State Department had dealt with Clinton’s emails in an entirely a different way.

For want of a proper US retraction of a false Clinton statement, the accusation persisted. The UN repeated the allegation, in early 2014.

The media quoted Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, as having said, at the launch of a new report that dealt with rape, Sri Lanka was one of those affected countries. Responding to a query as regards the situation in Sri Lanka, Bangura said that she was concerned and spoke with the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative, Dr. Palitha Kohona, about the situation, urging him that Sri Lanka designates a focal person on the issue.

The report, covering 2013, dealt with sexual violence in the 21 countries, including Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Colombia, Guinea, Liberia, Libya, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Yemen.

When the writer sought a clarification from the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Bangura, said that she hadn’t been able to visit Sri Lanka before the release of the report which placed Sri Lanka among 21 countries, where rape and other sexual violence were committed in current and recent conflicts.

Communications Officer, Ms. La Neice Collins, said that Bangura had called for the appointment of a special person to handle the situation when she met Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Dr. Palitha Kohona. Collins was also asked whether Bangura had consulted the Office of the UN Resident Representative here regarding rape and sexual violence.

The Office of the UN Resident Representative, in Colombo, having declined to respond to The Island queries regarding the UN report that dealt with Sri Lanka, directed the questions to Bangura’s office.

It would be pertinent to reproduce what the then Military Spokesperson, Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, said in response to UN allegations. The outspoken official said that the Sri Lankan military had never been accused of systematic rape during the conflict or post-conflict period, though various interested parties propagated lies. The Brigadier said that police headquarters, as well as hospital authorities, could provide data pertaining to rape in every district. The Brigadier pointed out that the Office of the UN Resident Representative was aware of the ground situation. The military spokesman insisted that the army had expeditiously dealt with anyone found guilty of sexual violence in former conflict zones or outside. "The UN should reveal the circumstances as well as the basis under which Sri Lanka ended up among countries named in the report."

Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative at the UN, Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, asserted that allegations of rape, during the conflict, as well as port-war period, were meant to justify demands for withdrawal of the army from the Northern Province. The international community could examine the situation, on the ground, as all Northern and Eastern districts were accessible, the former General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the celebrated 58 Division told The Island. The Maj. Gen said that anti-Sri Lanka propagandists hadn’t been able to sway northern opinion.

The Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should invite the international community to verify rape accusations in accordance with the overall objective to inquire into accountability issues.