SPECIAL REPORT : Part 111February 16, 2016, 6:21 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has interpreted the first step in security sector reform as withdrawal of a section of security forces from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
The Northern Province comprises the administrative districts of Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. The Eastern Province consists of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, didn’t mince his words when he called for the reduction of the military force, deployed in the two provinces, to a less intrusive and intimidating (emphasis mine) as first step in security sector reform.
The declaration was made in the afternoon of February 9 during a media briefing at the UN compound in Colombo. The media didn’t seek an explanation from the former Jordanian diplomat Prince Hussein, as regards Geneva’s right to decide on military deployment here.
Hussein had served as Jordan’s Permanent Representative to the UN (2007 to 2010) before being appointed United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2014. Immediately before being PR in New York, Hussein served as Jordan Ambassador to the US.
Jordan wanted Prince Hussein to succeed UNSG Kofi Annan in 2007. South Korean Ban kimoon succeeded him.
Prince Hussein asserted that over six years after the end of war, people of the Northern and Eastern Provinces still lived in fear to a certain extent. Hussein, who had played a significant role in setting up of the International Criminal Court, attributed the continuing existence of fear, among the people living there, to intrusive as well as intimidating presence of the military.
Hussein declared: "The element of fear has considerably diminished, at least in Colombo, and the South. In the North and the East, it has mutated but, sadly, still exists."
Having helped to form the ICC, Hussein received the appointment as the first President of the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC, in Sept 2002.
The UN diplomat called for urgent measures, on the part of the government of Sri Lanka(GoSL), to create normalcy in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Hussein urged the government/military to vacate land, used by security forces, immediately. The bottom line is that the UN expected GoSL to reduce troops, as well as size of the bases, in eight administrative districts.
Expressing serious concern over slow progress, Hussein declared: "There are some measures that could be taken quickly which would reverse this trend of draining confidence. First of all, the military needs to accelerate the return of land it has seized (and is still holding) to its rightful owners. While some land has been returned in the Jaffna and Trincomalee areas, there are still large tracts which can and should be swiftly given back. Once the land has been given back, the remaining communities of displaced people can — if given the necessary assistance — return home, and a lingering sore will have been cured once and for all."
The UN position will certainly affect, not only the Army, but the Navy and Air Force deployment as well. Judging by statements issued by various ministers, it is clear that they hadn’t bothered at least, to peruse Prince Hussein’s prepared statement issued at the onset of the February 9 briefing. The well-funded civil society, backing the UN intervention, too, paid glowing tribute to Prince Hussein whereas the Joint Opposition struggled to comprehend the rapidly developing situation.
Prince Hussein’s statement meant that the UN expected military deployment here to be in accordance with what Geneva considered less intrusive and intimidating (emphasis mine). In other words, military deployment here should be subjected to Geneva approval.
Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Minister, Mahinda Amaraweera, recently spoke highly of the UN statement. Addressing the media, at the SLFP party office at T.B. Jayah Mawatha on February 10, Minister Amaraweera claimed that the UN had changed its hostile approach towards Sri Lanka consequent to regime change, in January 2015. When the writer challenged his position on the basis of UN dictates, especially castigation of the local judiciary and call for pruning of military, Minister Amaraweera walked out the briefing requesting Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faizer Musthapha to respond. Minister Musthapha justified Prince Hussein’s comment, on the judiciary, on the basis of the impeachment of Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake at the behest of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2013. There is no doubt President Rajapaksa’s actions caused irreparable damage to his government. Minister Musthapha voted in parliament for the Rajapaksas move. Minister Musthapha refrained from commenting on Prince Hussein’s call to reduce the military strength.
Against the backdrop of the UN statement, the possibility of the armed forces deployment being subjected to Geneva dictates cannot be ruled out. In fact, concerns raised by Geneva cannot be met by reducing the number of troops deployed in each administrative district. The military will have to review deployment of amour, artillery as well as other assets accordingly.
Had it not being for Indian intervention, in the 80s, the then UNP government wouldn’t have changed the largely ceremonial status of the armed forces. By late 90s, the LTTE acquired a conventional fighting capability. The overrunning of the fully fledged 54 Division, headquartered at Elephant Pass, in April 2000, underscored the LTTE’s achievement. At the commencement of eelam war IV in early August 2006, the LTTE wielded conventional military capability to thwart two Divisions (53 and 55) fighting their way southwards across Jaffna front-line. The LTTE defeated all their attempts until the celebrated Task Force I/58 Division advanced on enemy fortifications, northwards from Paranthan. In addition to the two fighting Divisions (53 and 55), there had been two other Divisions, on defensive posture, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula. All in all, there had been approximately 45,000 army deployed in the Jaffna backed by sizable navy and air force deployment.
Over a year, after the conclusion of the conflict, in May, 2009, the then government commenced handing over land to their rightful owners. With the re-deployment of the army, the strength in Jaffna peninsula has now come down to less than 15,000 personnel, though Prince Hussein seems to wanting further reduction.
The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and Tamil Diaspora groups, particularly the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), want the government to decrease military presence, to the bear minimum, in the two provinces. They receive the support of some well-funded civil society groups. With Geneva backing their efforts, Sri Lanka now faces the daunting task of convincing the world of her right to maintain the wherewithal to meet any eventuality.
A section of the media, too, had questioned the need to sustain armed forces as well as having a military parade, on Independence Day. They asserted that such a parade, and rehearsals, caused much inconvenience to the public and therefore, should be discontinued. Even ‘peace loving’ Norway, a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) maintains a modern fighting force capable of overseas deployment. Norwegian involvement in air strikes, in Libya, during 2011, is a case in point. During a recent live television programme, Retired Professor Deshamanya Jayaratna Banda Dissanayake, one of the leading authorities of the Sinhala Language, as well as former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Thailand queried the need for a military parade in Colombo to coincide with 68th Independence Day celebrations. Dissanayake asserted that people living in the provinces had no interest in such a parade. With Geneva pushing for down sizing armed forces, various interested parties will propagate that post-war national reconciliation required a diminished military presence in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Sri Lanka should never succumb to Western pressure meant to weaken military strength. Those who had been pushing Sri Lanka for military reform really want the government to decrease the manpower to such an extent to make it ineffecive. The denial of land will automatically compel the military to move out substantial number of troops from the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Joint Opposition should take up this issue in parliament. Retired military officers, too, should express their opinion.
Can Geneva decide post-war military deployment in Sri Lanka? What would be the military strength/deployment acceptable to the TNA, pro-LTTE Diaspora and civil society groups?
Sri Lanka needs to sustain a robust military power though the army strength can be reviewed. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa authorized the increase of the army strength from approximately 120,000 to 220,000, at the onset of eelam war IV. Sri Lanka must decide her requirements, pertaining to security, taking into post-war factors without being directed by Geneva.
It would be pertinent to mention that foreign powers always wanted to diminish military presence in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The following section from Norway - arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), finalized in February, 2002, is a case in point.
Article 2: Measures to restore normalcy
The Parties shall undertake the following confidence-building measures with the aim of restoring normalcy for all inhabitants of Sri Lanka:
2.1 The Parties shall, in accordance with international law, abstain from hostile acts against the civilian population, including such acts as torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion and harassment.
2.2 The Parties shall refrain from engaging in activities or propagating ideas that could offend cultural or religious sensitivities. Places of worship (temples, churches, mosques and other holy sites, etc.) currently held by the forces of either of the Parties shall be vacated by D-day + 30 and made accessible to the public. Places of worship which are situated in "high security zones" shall be vacated by all armed personnel and maintained in good order by civilian workers, even when they are not made accessible to the public.
2.3 Beginning, on the date on which this Agreement enters into force, school buildings occupied by either Party shall be vacated and returned to their intended use. This activity shall be completed by D-day + 160 at the latest.
2.4 A schedule, indicating the return of all other public buildings, to their intended use, shall be drawn up by the Parties and published at the latest by D-day + 30.
2.5 The Parties shall review the security measures and the set-up of checkpoints, particularly in densely populated cities and towns, in order to introduce systems that will prevent harassment of the civilian population. Such systems shall be in place from D-day + 60.
(A jointly agreed ceasefire between the GOSL and the LTTE shall enter into force on such date as is notified by the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, in accordance with Article 4.2, hereinafter referred to as D-day.)
In addition to withdrawal of troops from the then temporarily merged North-Eastern Province, the CFA also called for disbanding of Tamil para-military units supporting the military effort. The following is the relevant section from the CFA: "Tamil paramilitary groups shall be disarmed by the GOSL by D-day + 30 at the latest. The GOSL shall offer to integrate individuals in these units under the command and disciplinary structure of the GOSL armed forces for service away from the Northern and Eastern Province."
The then UNP-UNF government accepted the CFA without reservations. Secret negotiations, initiated by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in May, 1999, led to the finalization of the CFA, in February, 2002, following the PA’s defeat at the Dec 2001 parliamentary polls. In spite the CFA impacting on military deployment, including intelligence, the government didn’t bother to consult armed forces chiefs. While imposing severe restrictions, on the military, in the North-Eastern Province, including areas under its control, the CFA paved the way for the LTTE to make inroads into government-held areas in the war zone. The LTTE fully exploited the section which dealt with ‘Freedom of Movement’ to infiltrate the government-held area. The following is the relevant section: "Fifty (50) unarmed LTTE members shall as of D-day + 30, for the purpose of political work, be permitted freedom of movement in the areas of the North and the East dominated by the GOSL. Additional 100 unarmed LTTE members shall be permitted freedom of movement as of D-day + 60. As of D-day + 90, all unarmed LTTE members shall be permitted freedom of movement in the North and the East. The LTTE members shall carry identity papers. The right of the GOSL to deny entry to specified military areas applies."
Geneva never felt a desire to intervene in Sri Lanka until the conflict, caused by India, was brought to an end on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, in May, 2009.
In terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord, the Indian Army imposed severe restrictions on the military. India curbed military movements in the then temporarily merged North Eastern Province, thereby prevented security forces from thwarting the massacre of Sinhalese. India didn’t allow Sri Lanka to reinforce bases and security remained the then UNP leader President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s least concern until the LTTE resumed hostilities, in June, 1990. The UNP and the then military top brass had neglected security to such an extent, there had been just one battalion, plus infantry, deployed in the entire Jaffna peninsula and a few detachments south of Elephant Pass, including Kilinochchi, when fighting resumed, during the second week of June,1990.
Sri Lanka played an extremely heavy price for neglecting security over a long period of time. Whatever the shortcomings, on the part of the previous administration, President Rajapaksa never resorted to measures detrimental to national security. The former President’s resolute political leadership ensured a great battlefield victory. Those who had been fighting to evict the military from the Northern Province were annihilated during the Vanni battle (March 2007 to May 2009). (The LTTE almost succeeded in capturing Jaffna in early 2000).
The UN seems to be seeking to evict the military in the guise of post-war national reconciliation. With Prince Hussein unveiling his plan in Colombo, there cannot be any ambiguity.