Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Focus on wartime ICRC presence in Vanni



By Shamindra Ferdinando

Wartime head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha emphasized the pivotal importance of establishing the number of wounded civilians during the Vanni offensive. The outspoken academic called for an accurate estimate of the actual number of civilians wounded on the Vanni east front and the number evacuated with the intervention of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Prof. Wijesinha was responding to Eelam War IV: More on the Indian presence at Pulmoddai, The Island, September 14, 2016.

Sri Lanka established SCOPP in February, 2002, in accordance with an agreement with the Norwegian government to facilitate the peace process. Top career diplomat, Bernard Goonetilleke, initially headed it (2002-2004). Goonetilleke was followed by one-time top UN official, Jayantha Dhanapala (2004 -2005), Dr Palitha Kohona (2006-2007), and lastly Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha (2007-2009). The then President Mahinda Rajapaksa terminated SCOPP within weeks of the successful conclusion of the war, in May, 2009.

The previous government’s failure to conduct a thorough examination of available information, in support of Sri Lanka’s defence, in the face of mounting allegations, is inexcusable. Surprisingly, those still loyal to former President Rajapaksa seem still comfortable in simply denying accusations, than debunking the contentious allegations against the country point by point.

ICRC in risky operation

As the only NGO allowed by the then government to engage in the risky operation to evacuate the wounded, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) can shed light on the actual situation at Puthumathalan. International representatives of the ICRC had access to Puthumathalan, until May 9, 2009. Both local and ICRC staff experienced severe difficulties in keeping the high profile operation on track. A few Tamil civilians employed by the ICRC received injuries during the civilian rescue operation. Some succumbed to their wounds. The possibility of the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) being responsible for some of the injuries and deaths, caused during the Vanni offensive cannot be ruled out. But, contrary to allegations, there hadn’t been a deliberate and systematic campaign to target Tamil civilians or NGOs and INGOs, including the ICRC.

New Delhi on ICRC project

Let me reproduce the relevant section of an Indian government press report released several months after the conclusion of the war:

"Apart from providing medical assistance to IDPs (internally displaced persons) ferried by the ICRC, on-board the vessel MV Green Ocean, the Indian medical team also rendered medical assistance to hundreds of residents of Pulmoddai. Some of them were referral cases from the local hospital doctors. After the ICRC — assisted ship evacuation stopped, the medical team shifted its focus to providing medical assistance to the IDPs, housed in three camps at Pulmoddai. Over the period, the team during its stay at Pulmoddai received a total of 21 ships and treated nearly 7,000 IDPs. The hospital continued operation for over two months at this location (Pulmoddai)".

The Indian statement is clear that its Pulmoddai based medical team had received war wounded civilians, on 21 occasions, during the two-month period (March-May, 2009).

ICRC can help probe

The ICRC can easily provide the exact number of war wounded civilians, evacuated during this period. In fact, the ICRC, Colombo, I’m sure, is in a position to furnish a breakdown of evacuations of both wounded as well as helpers, carried out on 21 occasions. As the Indian government has admitted that its medical team received that many war wounded civilians, our friendly neighbour should also be able to provide a detailed breakdown of admissions to makeshift medical facilities before being transferred to state-run hospitals. The Eastern Naval Command, too, should have a detailed account of the evacuation of the war-wounded and helpers. Due to the Navy, the ICRC and India having detailed accounts of evacuations, carried out between Feb 10, 2009, and May 9, 2009, the proposed war crimes court can establish the number of wounded moved out of the war zone.

The ICRC made an abortive bid to evacuate more wounded on May 15. The ship assigned for the task had no option but to turn back due to heavy fighting. The Army brought Vanni east operations to an end, on the morning of May 19, 2009. Analysis of evacuations, carried out by the ICRC, will help the government, and the international community, to ascertain the number of war wounded civilians who couldn’t be evacuated between May 15, 2009 and May 18, 2009. Some of them would have certainly succumbed to their injuries before the Army commenced removing the wounded, both combatants and civilians.

UN on ICRC evacuations

Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts (PoE) on Accountability in Sri Lanka, obviously on the basis of information received from the ICRC, declared, on March 31, 2011, that the LTTE prevented evacuation of wounded cadres by the ICRC. The PoE said: "In all, ICRC evacuated 14,000 wounded persons, and their relatives, from the second and third No Fire Zones and delivered around 2,350 MT of food to Mullivaikkal. THOSE EVACUATED WERE ALL CIVILIANS, AS THE LTTE DID NOT PERMIT ITS CADRE TO LEAVE THE CONFLICT AREA FOR TREATMENT (emphasis mine)."

By denying permission for wounded cadres to leave, the LTTE ensured that their family members couldn’t leave the Vanni east battle zone. It would be pertinent to keep in mind that of, 14,000 evacuated, 7,000 were war-wounded and 7,000 helpers. If not for ICRC’s intervention, the vast majority of them would have succumbed to injuries suffered during fighting. Thanks to wartime Navy Chief, the then Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda’s intervention, the writer had an opportunity to observe ICRC ship engaged in the evacuation of the wounded on April 28, 2009, and then visit the Indian medical facility at Pulmoddai.

The ICRC has also played a significant role in the formulation of a confidential UN report during the Vanni offensive. Although, the UN has publicly acknowledged the existence of the report, it is not yet in public domain, though PoE acknowledged the report dealt with the situation in the Vanni during August, 2008, to May 13, 2009. The report placed the number of persons killed, and wounded, during this period at 7,721 and 18,479 respectively. The ICRC furnished information to the UN report. Interestingly, the report refrained from differentiating the dead combatants and civilians. Those who had wanted to know the truth should request the UN to make the report available to the proposed war crimes court. The report can help establish deaths caused on both Vanni west and east due to continuous fighting. There cannot be a better detailed account than the UN report as it was based on information provided by NGOs, ICRC, as well as numerous other sources trapped in the war zone.

A serious effort should be made to verify whether some of those who had been categorized as wounded, by the UN, were evacuated by the ICRC between Feb 10 and May 9, 2009.

The ICRC launched sea evacuations after fighting forced the closure of all entry and exit points by road, to the Vanni east, in late January 2009.

ICRC enters Sri Lanka conflict

The ICRC arrived in Sri Lanka, in late 1989, on the invitation of the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa to address issues concerning the second JVP-inspired insurgency. The ICRC set up project here as Premadasa was having a honeymoon with the LTTE (May 1989 to June 1990). When the LTTE resumed Eelam War II, in June 1990, the ICRC swiftly moved to the conflict zone. Since then, the ICRC played a significant role in bringing in relief to war affected communities and also facilitate contacts between successive governments and the LTTE. The armed forces, as well as the LTTE, appreciated ICRC interventions though the military strongly resented the actions of some international NGOs. In fact, some INGOs helped to prolong the war, much to the detriment of Tamil-speaking people held hostage there as a human shield, as well as the LTTE fighting cadre.

Even amidst fiercest fighting in the northern theatre, the ICRC, even at the risk of their lives, helped transfer bodies of security forces personnel and LTTE killed in combat. The ICRC intervention paved the way for families to receive bodies of their loved ones. The LTTE leadership’s cooperation in that regard made the ICRC operation a reality.

ICRC relationship with the media

One-time ICRC Information Officer, Harsha Gunewardene, helped the media to provide accurate information pertaining to ICRC operations here. Gunawardene, in early Sept. 2000, explained the circumstances under which bodies had been transferred across the northern frontlines. The writer dealt with the issue in a story headlined ICRC transfers 2,112 bodies of combatants in 5 years, The Island, Sept. 9, 2000). The following is the text of the story: "With the Wednesday’s transfer of the remains of 36 bodies of LTTE cadres killed in action early this week at Colombuthurai, Jaffna, the total number of Tiger bodies returned to the LTTE, through the ICRC, rose to 753. Those bodies had been transferred to the LTTE since 1995, ICRC Information Officer Harsha Gunewardene said. The official said 180 bodies had been transferred in 1995, 68 in 1996, 149 in 97, 132 in 98, 142 in 99 and 82 [including the bodies transferred this week] this year.

Fighting resumed in April, 1995, after the LTTE broke off a 100-day truce with the PA government and sank two gunboats at Trincomalee. The LTTE has returned bodies of 1359 security forces personnel through the ICRC during the same period, Gunawardene said. Although only 24 bodies had been returned in 1995 and 96, a staggering 1077 bodies were sent in body bags in the next two years. However, in 1999, only 55 bodies were handed over by the LTTE. Gunewardene said that 203 bodies of security forces personnel had been sent back so far this year (2000). A total of 2,112 bodies of combatants had been transferred by delegates of the ICRC in the North-East region particularly in the Wanni, Gunewardene said.

ICRC had transferred bodies of combatants to and from government held areas, even before 1995. Sri Lanka Red Cross [SLRC] has also been involved in the transfer of bodies.

"The bodies are transferred and handed over to their respective military commands for further identification and then handed over to families," Gunewardene said, adding that the ICRC will continue to play, what he called, the organization’s traditional role as a "neutral intermediary" in conflict areas by responding to the requests of all parties to hand over bodies of combatants or civilians.

However, there had been many cases where the warring parties had failed to agree on conditions necessary to effect the transfers, The Island learns. Hundreds of bodies had been cremated on battle fields as a result of their failure to accept conditions required to carry out the safe transfer of bodies."

Spearheading role

The ICRC worked closely with both the military and the LTTE until the very end of the conflict. In addition to transferring bodies of combatants across frontlines, the ICRC regularly checked on those who had been captured by warring parties, thereby brought immense relief to them as well as their families. Those who had been accusing Sri Lanka of conducting a war without witnesses should be told to get in touch with ICRC Colombo. There had been no doubt whatsoever that men, women and children had been killed due to military action not only during Eelam War IV, but the entire conflict. The Indian Army, during its deployment here (July 1987 to March 1990), too, caused civilians deaths. There had been excesses on the part of both Sri Lankan and Indian forces. But, both Sri Lanka and India never adopted a deliberate policy meant to harm civilians.

The wartime government allowed ICRC, Colombo, to operate in the Vanni east even after all other foreign NGOs were asked to vacate, in Sept. 2008. Having served the people of the Vanni west, the ICRC shifted to Vanni east as the LTTE gradually retreated across the Kandy-Jaffna A9 and positioned itself at LTTE stronghold Puthukudirippu. The ICRC vacated Puthukudirippu in January, 2009 and moved to Puthumathalan. The mission had powerful communication equipment, direct access to the LTTE as well, as the displaced and certainly facilitated UN efforts to gather information regarding the dead and the wounded.

PoE on ICRC mission

Accountability issues cannot be investigated without the proposed war crimes court knowing the ICRC’s role. The proposed hybrid court, as envisaged in the Geneva Resolution adopted on Oct 1, 2015, should listen to the ICRC. If the ICRC is unable to publicly discuss issues at hand, the court should obtain a private presentation. Anyone wanting to establish the truth, the plight of the Vanni community, and verify alleged atrocities, committed by the military, cannot under any circumstances ignore the ICRC’s version. Let me reproduce verbatim what UN PoE comprising Marzuki Darusman, Steven Ratner and Yasmin Soooka, said about the ICRC role, in early 2009: "The ICRC continued to play a leading role in alleviating the plight of the civilian population in the Vanni, by evacuating wounded civilians from the coastal strip by ship, starting on 10 February. 2009. In total, 16 ICRC ships came to the conflict zone in the final months. The international ICRC staff that had remained in Puthumathalan, left on the first ship, but they returned and stayed onshore for a few hours each time the ships came back. The government didn’t allow United Nations staff on the ships."

The PoE explained measures taken by the LTTE to ensure that only wounded civilians, accompanied by their relatives, could take advantage of the ICRC operation.

The previous government quite rightly believed the UN, Colombo, being biased towards the LTTE. The UN continued to shield the LTTE until the very end, hence the decision not to involve the UN in the ICRC operation. The UN, Colombo, went to the extent of conducting secret negotiations with the LTTE, in early, 2007, in the wake of UN Tamil employees helping some people to seek refuge in the government held area.

Proposed war crimes inquiry will certainly expose the UN, Colombo. Will Sri Lanka take up the challenging task of defending itself or succumb to Western pressure? The previous government can never absolve itself of not properly handling Sri Lanka’s defence, thereby facilitating the despicable project of those who couldn’t stomach armed forces victory over the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) backed LTTE.

Critical failure

A joint effort, made by the UN and the ICRC, in early, 1998 to persuade the LTTE to stop forcible conscription of child soldiers, failed. The LTTE persisted with the despicable practice until the very end on the Vanni east front. Both UN and ICRC failed to take tangible measures to force the LTTE to do away with the practice. In fact, the LTTE stepped-up child recruitment in the wake of failed high profile UN-ICRC project in, May, 1998, during Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the President. None of those who had been demanding accountability, on the part of Sri Lanka, for alleged atrocities committed on the battlefront dared to urge the LTTE to stop deploying children. The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) went to the extent of participating in passing out parades of children, tuned terrorists, during the Norwegian arranged Ceasefire Agreement (2002-2004 period).