Tuesday, 29 September 2015

War winning army on the Geneva ‘human rights front’



By Shamindra Ferdinando

The combined security forces concluded ‘Exercise Cormorant Strike VI’ with an assault on enemy bases, at Punnakudha, Batticaloa, on the afternoon of September 23, 2015. The exercise involved 2,500 troops, including Army Commandos and Special Forces. Launched on September 3, the exercise covered Pulmudai, to the north of Arugam Bay, in the East. The exercise attracted 53 foreign participants, both as participants and observers.

During the exercise, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report that dealt with the Sri Lankan military. On the basis of unsubstantiated accusations, the report recommended a series of punitive measures meant to humiliate the war-winning military. The presentation of the 250-page report, on September 16, paved the way for informal discussions on the draft resolution to reach a consensus.

The Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government in no uncertain terms rejected the first draft resolution at the first Geneva informal session, on Sept. 21. A statement issued by Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, clearly reflected Sri Lanka’s disappointment.

Oddly, other members of the administration seem to be oblivious to this development. Obviously, they haven’t bothered to peruse Aryasinha’s well-articulated statement. Asserting that the first resolution hadn’t met Sri Lanka’s expectations, Aryasinha said: "... my delegation is of the view that a lengthy resolution of the nature of the current draft before us which contains 24 preambular paragraphs and 26 operative paragraphs, which is repetitive, judgmental and prescriptive is not keeping with the spirit of the process of reconciliation and reform that is underway in my country under the National Unity Government. Neither is it helpful in adopting a collaborative approach to reaching consensus. Many paragraphs in the current draft are in fact counterproductive for the reconciliation efforts of the government, and have the tendency to polarize communities, vitiate the atmosphere on the ground that is being carefully nurtured towards reconciliation, and the peace building and restrict the space required for consultations. There is a real danger that the current approach will leave room for negative interpretation, thus, only helping ‘spoilers’ in the process."

Veteran career diplomat, and one-time Foreign Secretary, Bernard Goonetilleke, frowned on the first draft of the proposed Geneva resolution under discussion.

Pointing out that the draft resolution contained 24 preamble paragraphs and 26 operative paragraphs, Goonetilleke said, "It looks like a novel to me."

Goonetilleke echoed Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, that the sections of the current draft were counterproductive to reconciliation efforts. Goonetilleke didn’t mince his words when he explained the circumstances under which Western powers used Geneva as a political instrument. The diplomatic veteran emphasized that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) remained a political tool among Western powers, though United Nations Human Rights Commission had been worse.

However, subsequent to consultations, Sri Lanka accepted an amended shorter version of the draft, a few days later, thereby paving the way for a special hybrid court, comprising Sri Lankan as well as Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators.

Sri Lanka’s triumph over the LTTE, in May, 2009, made Exercise Cormorant Strike possible. Had the then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s troops failed on the Vanni front, there wouldn’t have been Exercise Cormorant Strike or Geneva taking up accountability issues. Geneva turned a blind eye to what was happening here until nearly a three-year long offensive brought the LTTE to its knees. The Commonwealth never felt the need to intervene here during the conflict. In fact, the Commonwealth allowed influential member India to destabilize Sri Lanka, another member of the grouping. The Commonwealth also turned a Nelsonian eye to Sri Lanka’s plight. The LTTE raised massive amounts of funds in Commonwealth countries to procure weapons to cause mayhem in Sri Lanka. Commonwealth heavyweight India even funded over half a dozen terrorist groups in Sri Lanka. One of them, the People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), mounted a sea-borne assault on Male, in Nov., 1988. The operation, meant to assassinate the then Maldivian leader, went awry. The rest is history. Hope Sri Lanka has the guts to present its case before the hybrid court in correct perspective. Perhaps, one-time Liberian President Charles Taylor’s case should be closely examined in the backdrop of Sri Lanka accepting the UN backed mechanism. Taylor is now serving 50-year-long jail term in the UK after being found guilty by a UN- backed court for aiding and abetting war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone.

Having eradicated the LTTE, the then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, authorized the military to launch Exercise Cormorant Strike well over a year after the war victory. The role played by Gajaba Regiment veteran Rajapaksa can never be disputed, though an ungrateful few despised him. Some obviously cannot stomach Sri Lanka’s victory over terrorism. Unfortunately, the war winning Army Chief, now Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, never had an opportunity to give post-war leadership to troops.

The inaugural Exercise Cormorant Strike was launched on November 21, 2010, in the North Western region. The nine-day exercise had been the first post-LTTE era joint exercise conducted, on an amphibious setting, on the north-western coast.

The twice-put off training exercise had been originally scheduled to be held in the Vanni east, where the Army’s 58 and 53 Divisions finished off the LTTE in the third week of May, 2009.

The inaugural exercise coincided with LTTE’s ‘Heroes Week’ events in the West. The LTTE-organized week-long celebrations, in areas under its control in the Northern and Eastern provinces, culminated with its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday speech, until 2008. The Army brought that boru show to an end in late 2008 with the crushing of enemy formations in the Vanni west region.

Annual Defense seminar, and the Galle Dialogue, organized by the army and the navy, respectively, got underway with the blessings of former Defence Secretary Rajapaksa. That, too, was thanks to the eradication of the LTTE.

Rajapaksa also played a significant role in paving the way for Indo-Sri Lanka Defense Dialogue in the wake of the latter’s victory over the LTTE. The inauguration of the annual event, in 2012, should be examined in the backdrop of Indian intervention here, leading to a three decades long war. Rajapaksa’s successor, Eng. Karunasena Hettiarachchi, led a high level delegation for talks, in New Delhi, at the latest edition of the Indo-Sri Lanka Defense Dialogue over a week ago. Whatever, the differences between the Rajapaksas and the present administration, that shouldn’t in any way, undermine Sri Lanka’s defence. National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa recently recollected Maithiripala Sirisena had been high on the LTTE hit list during his tenure as SLFP General Secretary. Weerawansa said that President Sirisena wouldn’t do anything to facilitate the eelamists project.

The military should be prepared for a robust defense with re-examination of all available evidence and look for new avenues. The previous government had to pay a heavy price for failing to take tangible measures in the face of war crimes accusations. It would be the responsibility, on the part of the military, to pursue measures meant to disapprove lies propagated since the conclusion of the war, six years ago. Those responsible for Sri Lanka’s defence, at the proposed hybrid court, should keep in mind that Western powers moved three resolutions, twice with New Delhi’s backing and the third with our neighbour’s understanding on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. The recently released Geneva report, too, had been based on unverified accusations propagated by various interested parties, in some instances for domestic political reasons. The bottom line is that the military should focus on the forthcoming probe. The top brass should put on hold various image building and welfare projects and address accountability issues. All should be mindful that Army celebrates its 66th anniversary at a critical juncture with the former political and military leaderships facing severe charges. Accusations regarding ‘system crimes’, during closing stages of the eelam war IV, are meant to prove the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa guilty. Those who had commanded the ground forces, during operations (January-May 19, 2009) on the Vanni east front, as well as senior officers in charge of air and artillery, could face charges. The previous government will be accused of turning the Vanni east to a mass killing field, during the last five months of the campaign. It would be pertinent to refer to a statement made in the British parliament, in September, 2011, two years after the conclusion of the conflict. The British parliament was told of the Sri Lankan military killing 100,000 LTTE combatants and civilians, during the period, January-May 19, 2009 Perhaps, the Labour Party MP, Siobhain  McDonagh, who made that claim, on behalf of the influential Tamil Diaspora, can appear in the proposed hybrid court to help convict Sri Lankan leaders! With the Commonwealth playing a role in the judicial examination here, British politicians can enlighten us what had happened on the ground. Maybe her colleague Joan Ryan, formerly of the Labour Party parliamentary group, now policy advisor to UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF), can tell war crimes court what she knows about those hiding in the UK under assumed names. Among those British nationals of Sri Lankan origin are, I’m sure, many categorized as missing or allegedly executed by the Army.

The government needs to comprehend the actual situation on the human rights. In spite of warm relations with the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the US will not do anything to jeopardize its strategic partnership with the UK, EU and other powers sympathetic towards the Tamil cause, primarily due to domestic political reasons. Thanks to whistle blowing website Wiki Leaks, we know exactly why the then British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, persuaded his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, to join him in a mission to Colombo, in 2009. Miliband had no option but to intervene here or face the wrath of the influential Tamil electorate.

Wiki Leaks also revealed that the US had asserted the then government committed war crimes over two years before the first resolution on Sri Lanka was moved in Geneva. The US diplomatic mission in Colombo alleged the Rajapaksa government committed war crimes on the basis of information received from its ‘contacts’ here.

In a cable originating, in Colombo, on January 15, 2010, the US ambassador in Colombo, Patricia Butenis, said one of the reasons there was such little progress towards a genuine Sri Lankan inquiry into the killings was that the president and the former army commander, Sarath Fonseka, were largely responsible. "There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power," Butenis noted.

"In Sri Lanka, this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka." Butenis alleged that both Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa committed war crimes.

The US intervened in Geneva on behalf of those wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before an international war crimes tribunal in the wake of others failure. The US moved three consecutive resolutions on Sri Lanka during 2012, 2013 and 2014.

The previous government never took all relevant factors into consideration when countering a relentless propaganda offensive. Those responsible for Sri Lanka’s defence lacked the capacity to realize the looming danger of an international probe unless meaningful steps were taken to address accountability issues.

But, the then US Defence Attache, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith contradicted Butenis in June, 2011.

Even five years after that public contradiction, Sri Lanka is yet to examine the US military statement’s official. For want of a cohesive strategy, the country struggled in Geneva over the past several years finally leading to last week’s resolution meant to set up a hybrid court. Sri Lanka has no way of side-stepping the forthcoming probe. The Sri Lankan military face an unprecedented scrutiny with foreign judges and top experts intervening in the accountability probe.

Key recommendations included unprecedented security sector reforms in accordance with what the amended US resolution called transitional justice process. That particular recommendation is meant to deprive those who had been found guilty of serious crimes involving human rights violations, abuses or violations of international human rights law of an opportunity to serve the military, including the intelligence services. The resolution suggested that action should be taken once they were implicated through a ‘fair administrative process.’ Although there cannot be any dispute over that recommendation, Sri Lanka should go for a credible investigative process to verify hitherto unverified accusations. Let me give you an example of the circumstances under which the US State Department acted on false complaint regarding a clandestine operation carried out by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), in September, 2009.

Kathiravel Thayapararajah, allegedly abducted and killed by the DMI, surfaced in India, in May 2014. Thayapararajah disappearance, in September, 2009, prompted a section of the media, as well as some international NGOs, to accuse the DMI of executing him. No less a person than the then US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs and one-time US Ambassador in Colombo, Robert O. Blake, inquired about the missing person.

The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), the Australian Government Refugee Review Tribunal, Tamilnet and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights among others blamed the Sri Lankan intelligence for the disappearance.

After the much publicized disappearance his wife Uthayakala, too, accused intelligence services of having executed Thayapararajah.

Thayapararajah had been closely connected to the LTTE, though he wasn’t involved in actual fighting on the ground. Having graduated from the Peradeniya University, Thayapararajah had joined a project run by Vanni Tech, in Kilinochchi, with the financial backing of the US based Tamil Diaspora. The project, launched in 2003, during the Ceasefire Agreement, brokered by Norway, was one of those operations undertaken by the Diaspora, though Thayapararajah joined the organization in 2005.

Thayapararajah is still believed to be in India. His wife is with him. India can help Sri Lanka to question them to ascertain the circumstances under which one-time Vanni Tech director disappeared, in September, 2009. Thayapararajah’s case is a glaring example of Sri Lanka being falsely accused of disappearances. It wasn’t an isolated case. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know whether the previous government inquired into this particular case? Did External Affairs Ministry take it up with the Indian High Commission? Did the previous government make an attempt to extradite the suspect? The government didn’t see any requirement, in spite of the rapid deterioration of the situation.