SPECIAL REPORT : Part 128June 28, 2016, 12:00 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
An expensive survey carried out by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), affiliated to the Foundation of Human Rights in South Africa, recently released ‘Forgotten Sri Lanka’s exiled victims.’
The release of the report coincided with the commencement of the on-going 32 sessions of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
The report inadvertently revealed the existence of clandestine networks, facilitating Sri Lankans of Tamil origin, including former members of the LTTE, reaching Europe, through illegal means.
The study disclosed that LTTE personnel, including those who had been with Shanmugalingam Sivashankar alias Pottu Amman’s dreaded intelligence service, having secured citizenship in European countries, including the UK.
Obviously, the report was meant to intensify pressure on Sri Lanka on the Geneva front, justify hybrid war crimes court on the basis of exaggerated and unsubstantiated accusations directed at the Sri Lankan military.
The report dealt with information acquired from 75 Tamils, living in the UK, France, Switzerland and Norway. Almost all of them had fled Sri Lanka after the conclusion of the war, in May, 2009. The vast majority of interviews had been conducted in London. However, an ITJP bid to include some of those ex-LTTE cadres, based in Germany, in the project, had gone awry. The report claimed that the targeted group declined to participate, in protest against the role of the international community in supporting the transitional justice process in Sri Lanka.
Surprisingly, ITJP didn’t bother about those who had taken refuge in India during the conflict and post-conflict period. Perhaps, those funding the ITJP project felt that a survey in India will not be so advantageous to their overall objectives in Geneva.
A group of human rights experts, international prosecutors, investigators and transitional justice experts, who had previously served the United Nations (UN) International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), produced the report under the guidance of Yasmin Sooka, one of the three persons on UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s panel of experts. Sooka teamed up with Marzuki Darusman and Steven R. Ratner to produce Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka.
Sooka functions as the executive director of the foundation as well as ITJP. The report: "She is a former member of the South African & the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and was a legal advisor to Ban Ki-moon on Sri Lanka. She was the Soros inaugural Chair at the School of Public Policy and recently sat on the Panel investigating sexual violence by French peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic."
The writer sought a clarification from UNSG’s deputy spokesperson, Farhan Haq, regarding Sooka’s tenure as a Legal Advisor to UNSG on Sri Lanka. The Island received the following response from Haq: "Yasmin Sooka has been on high level panels, including on Sri Lanka, but she has not been the legal adviser to the Secretary-General."
On the basis of the interviews conducted, with the help of Sri Lankan Tamil interpreters, who had either worked for the UN or other International NGOs, in the Vanni, during eelam war IV, the report estimated that 72 per cent of the 75 interviewed had served various LTTE units. The report named those combat and support units as Radha, Sothiya, Imran Pandiyan and Malathy regiments as well as the Intelligence Wing. The non-combat units included the LTTE Media Unit, the TV station, the Political Wing, the Peace Secretariat, the International Secretariat, the Medical Wing, the Transport Unit, the Computer section and the Education Section.
Those who had been interviewed, but not members of the LTTE, were either at school or university, or were in some cases housewives, photographers, teachers, accountants, office administrators, farmers, businessmen, or fishermen, during the conflict. Eighty per cent of the interviewed had survived the last phase of the war on the Vanni east front.
Sooka’s team claimed having unhindered access to those who had fled Sri Lanka during eelam war and post-war period as well as the largest collection of witness testimony and other evidence, outside Sri Lanka, pertaining to the final phase of the conflict and post-war torture and sexual violence. (The claim as regards having the largest collection of witness testimony and other evidence outside Sri Lanka should be closely examined against the backdrop of UNSG Panel of Experts declaration that it received 4,000 submissions from 2,300 persons. Interestingly, Sooka also served the Panel of Experts which released its report on March 31, 2011).
Now that the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government has declared its intention to establish an Office for Missing Persons (OMP), in accordance with a Geneva resolution adopted last Sept/Oct, 2015, Sri Lanka shouldn’t hesitate to solicit the expertise of Sooka and her team. Their assistance is required to establish the whereabouts of the missing, estimated by the Foreign Ministry to be around 65,000, on the basis of various presidential commissions, since 1994. However, the Paranagama Commission placed the number of missing, since 1983, between19,000-20,000. Sri Lanka should seek Sooka’s immediate intervention to locate those who had been categorized missing here while living overseas under assumed names.
Sooka appreciated the support extended by wartime BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, Frances Harrison, to the ITJP project. Declaring that the project couldn’t have been brought to a successful conclusion without Frances’ support, Sooka referred to the role played by lawyers in facilitating interviews with those who had clandestinely left Sri Lanka. (Obviously, they had repeated to Sooka’s team what they told their lawyers engaged in the lucrative business of obtaining asylum for aliens.)
Without revealing identities of any, Sooka also thanked those who had funded the project.
Thanks to Sooka, the OMP, and those wanting to know the truth, now have an opportunity to verify the situation in the wartime Vanni with the help of former UN and INGO workers living overseas. In fact, no other INGO had so far claimed to have access to former UN and INGO workers who had experienced war and were lucky to survive the final assault on the Vanni east front. They can help establish the circumstances under which the LTTE forced the population in the Vanni west to cross the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road and move towards the Vanni east coast. The LTTE imposed severe restrictions to prevent civilians fleeing the war zone to secure refuge in army-held areas. The LTTE went to the extent of detaining UN workers responsible for helping some civilians to escape.
It would be pertinent to ask Sooka why her team totally ignored one of the most significant incidents during the conflict. She cannot be unaware as the issue had been raised at the UN.
In fact, the LTTE revealed its readiness to hold civilian hostage at the onset on the Vanni battle, in early 2007. But, the UN never inquired into the failure of its mission in Colombo to intervene on behalf of the trapped civilians. The UN mission in Colombo refused to act; even after the LTTE detained Tamil UN workers for helping Tamils to escape (LTTE detains UN workers-The Island, April 20th, 2007). The revelation was made a year before the 57 Division fought its way into Madhu. Would you be surprised that there hadn’t been a single follow-up story in both the print and electronic media other than The Island? The Colombo-based diplomatic community maintained silence. The international media, including the Colombo-based Indian media, never took up that issue. Those who had been accusing the government of abuses, at the drop of a hat, had turned a blind eye to what was happening, though The Island vigorously followed-up the story (UN had talks with Tigers, with strap line: UN workers in LTTE custody -The Island, April 23, 2007), (Sri Lanka urges UN not to shield Tigers-The Island, April 25, 2007), (UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark-The Island, April 28, 2008). The much talked about Narrative III, too, ignored the UN complicity.
Sooka’s report revealed that one of those who had been interviewed by experts, with the help of former UN/INGO workers, admitted that he refrained from informing his mother of her other son being killed during fighting in Sri Lanka. The interviewee claimed that he withheld the truth from his mother as it would have been too painful for her to accept the truth. There can be many similar cases. Those who had been demanding the truth should appeal to ex-LTTE cadres, living here or overseas, to reveal the truth as Sri Lanka cannot explain alleged disappearance of men and women killed in combat.
Sooka repeated allegations of rape, abductions, torture and general mistreatment of the Vanni civilians and LTTE personnel. Sooka obviously didn’t take into consideration the release of nearly 300,000 civilians, held by the army, and 12,000 LTTE personnel within a few years after the conclusion of the war. Sooka can easily obtain the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s approval to carry out a survey in the Vanni region, Jaffna peninsula, as well as the East. Those genuinely happy to be freed from the LTTE will be able to tell Sooka real wartime conditions in the Vanni. Western countries should not take lies propagated by those seeking political asylum at the expense of Sri Lanka.
Sooka’s blind allegations exposed her intention to paint an extremely negative picture of the previous administration. But, in her haste to blame Sri Lanka of depriving war wounded of required treatment, the NGO guru had exposed herself. Let me reproduce verbatim a section headlined ‘War Injuries Untreated’ "Half of those surveyed in this study had been injured in the war. Many of those said they are still in physical pain. Interviewees described a plethora of problems including blood pressure issues, amputated limbs, nerve damage and scar tissue. At times it seemed absurd to be asking people about their views on transitional justice mechanisms when they were still carrying pieces of shrapnel inside their bodies causing them suffering.
"What emerged from the interviewees is a large number of family members, still in Sri Lanka have not had adequate treatment for war injuries yet. Sixty per cent of this group had family members injured in the final phase of the war. Some said they, or their close family members, have been too frightened to seek medical help from government clinics in Sri Lanka for war injuries lest it arouse the suspicion of the authorities and identify them as connected to the LTTE. They are also nervous about the presence of Sinhalese medical staff in the hospitals because they fear they will report on them to the security agencies resulting in interrogations or detention."
Sooka and her experts had totally ignored an elaborate plan carried out by the previous government of Sri Lanka to evacuate the wounded, both overland and then by sea, until May 9, 2009. The military brought the war to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009. Sri Lanka could never have carried out such large scale relief operation, amidst heavy fighting, without the express support of the international community. India played a significant role in the operation. Under ICRC facilitation, Sri Lanka evacuated over 14,000 wounded persons and their relatives from Puthumathalan, the last point of evacuation from the Vanni east to Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee, between Feb 10, 2009 and May 9, 2009. In spite of Sri Lanka’s readiness to accept all wounded, regardless of their status, the LTTE prevented its wounded cadres leaving the war zone under ICRC supervision. The Panel of Experts report, released on March 31, 2011, declared that all those evacuated were civilians, as the LTTE didn’t allow its cadres to leave the war zone (page 32/108 paragraph). On the invitation of the then Sri Lankan government, Indian personnel treated the wounded at Pulmoddai, before being transferred to government hospitals. The ITJP should get in touch with New Delhi for a comprehensive briefing in respect of Indian medical assistance provided to those arriving at Pulmoddai and subsequently at Menik Farm where over 300,000 were held by the army.
The writer had an opportunity to visit Chalai seas and then Indian manned medical facility, at Pulmoddai, in April, 2009.
Sooka and her experts also conveniently neglected to mention substantial amount of food and other essential supplies shipped to Puthumathalan, from February 10, 2009, to May 9, 2009, in accordance with a joint plan implemented by Sri Lanka and the international community. Had Sooka being so interested in Sri Lanka, she couldn’t have been unaware of the existence of powerful Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA), chaired by the then Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe. In an unprecedented move, the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa included the following in CCHA: the US (Ambassador Robert Blake), EU (Ambassador Julian Wilson), EU Representative (German Ambassador Juergen Weerth and UK High Commissioner Dominic Chilcott), Japan (Kiyoshi Araki), UN (Frederick Lyons and Neil Bhune), UNHCR (Joanna Van Gerpen and Philippe Duamelle), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Valentin Gatzinski, Zola Dowell), WHO (Dr. Agnostic Borra), WFP (Taft Dick, Mohamed Salaheen and Adhnan Khan), Food and Agriculture Organization (Marc Bellemans), ILO (Tine Staermose), Country Security Advisor, UN Department of Safety and Security (Chris du Toit), European Community Humanitarian Office (David Verboom) and ICRC (Toon Vandenhove and Paul Castella). In addition to foreign representatives, CCHA accommodated Jeevan Thiagarajah and Firzan Hashim, both executive directors of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies to ensure much important local participation.
Sooka and her team of experts can and should get in touch with those foreign and local representatives of CCHA if they are genuinely keen to establish the wartime ground situation. If Sooka and her team, comprising ex-UN, ICTY and ICC experts, bothered to ask CCHA members, they would hear the circumstances under which the LTTE prevented local UN staff and their families leaving the war zone. The writer extensively dealt with the issue, during eelam war IV, though both other local media and Colombo-based international news agencies, giving coverage totally ignored it. Forgotten Sri Lanka’s exiled victims totally ignored atrocities committed by the LTTE during the conflict. The report also refrained from mentioning the despicable role played by the then five-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in clearing the way for an all-out war which the grouping obviously believed the LTTE could somehow win.
That is an undeniable truth. TNA leaders remained tight-lipped until the very end. The TNA turned a blind eye to last minute recruitment of children and adults as the top LTTE leadership struggled to thwart the Army on the Vanni east front. Instead of urging the LTTE to stop further recruitment and give up its human shield, the LTTE engaged in a fruitless campaign in Europe and Canada to compel international intervention.
Sooka and her team should obtain a copy of LTTE’s Subramanium Sivagami alias ‘Colonel’ Thamilini’s Oru Koorvaalin Nizhalil. Thamilini’s memoirs will surely help people to realize the ground situation during the conflict and post-war events. Unfortunately, those fighting against proposed hybrid war crimes court are yet to peruse the Sinhala version of Thamilini book though they realize it could certainly help their efforts.