Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Contradictory Pompeo statements and plight of an Army Chief

US-Lanka relations:


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo issued two contradictory statements, on Feb 04, 2020, and Feb 07, 2020, as regards Sri Lanka.

Congratulating Sri Lanka for celebrating her 72nd anniversary of Independence on Feb 04, Pompeo said the US looks forward to deepening ties with Sri Lanka. 

Three days later, Pompeo tweeted: "I am designating Shavendra Silva making him ineligible for entry into the US due to his involvement in extrajudicial killings during Sri Lanka’s Civil War." 

"The US will not waver in its pursuit of accountability for those who commit war crimes and violate human rights" Pompeo added. US sanctions also barred members of Shavendra Silva’s immediate family from entry into the US.

Wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) of the celebrated 58 Division, Shavendra Silva, of the Gajaba Regiment, is also the Acting Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). The Army Chief was targeted in respect of command responsibility thereby indicating a threat on the entire wartime chain of command. It was a calculated move meant to intensify pressure on the new government in the run up to the Feb-March Geneva sessions and parliamentary polls in late April. The US move will also help one-time LTTE proxy, the Tamil National Alliance, to rally northern public support ahead of parliamentary polls.

The Foreign Relations Ministry requested the US to verify the authenticity of the sources of information and to review its decision. The Foreign Relations Ministry, too, without further delay, reviewed its strategies in this regard. Sri Lanka faced the risk of further action as long as unsubstantiated accusations remained unchallenged.

The US decision was based on the STILL UNVERIFIED Report of the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) on Accountability in Sri Lanka, released on March 31, 2011, based entirely on mystery accusers with an indefinite time bar on their identity. So what kind of justice can we expect from a UN body like the UNHRC? In addition to that dossier, authored by Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Steven R. Ratner (US) and Yasmin Sooka, (South Africa) there were other similar questionable reports that vilified Sri Lanka.

Discrepancy in UN, AI numbers

Having faulted the Army, on three major counts, the PoE accused Sri Lanka of massacring at least 40,000 civilians. Let me reproduce the relevant paragraph, bearing no 137, verbatim: "In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths."

London headquartered Amnesty International, in Sept 2011, contradicted the PoE allegation (March 31, 2011 released report) pertaining to the massacre of at least 40,000 Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front. Quoting eyewitnesses and aid workers among others, Amnesty International, in a special report, titled ‘When Will They Get Justice: Failure of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission", estimated the number of civilian deaths at 10,000. In the first week of June 2011, the then US Defence Attaché in Colombo Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith, set the record straight at the inaugural defence seminar. The senior US military officer was responding to retired Maj. Gen. Ashok Metha of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force). Some Tamils called it the Indian People Killing Force. The US statement was made in between the PoE report and the one issued by the AI.

US defends SLA

The writer was present on the occasion. Lt. Col. Smith said: ""Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the defence attaché here, at the US Embassy, since June, 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours, and days, of the conflict – from what I was privileged to hear and to see, the offers to surrender, that I am aware of, seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, KP – people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership, or the combat power of the LTTE.

"So their offers were a bit suspect, anyway, and they tended to vary in content, hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were, in fact, real.

"And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders, at various levels, that the stories don’t seem to all quite match up.

"But I can say that the version presented here, so far in this, is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble. "

Sri Lanka never bothered to examine discrepancy in various figures quoted by those hell-bent on hauling Sri Lanka up before international war crimes tribunal. 

In June 2011, the international media reported extremely important development in Bahrain. The media quoted the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem (Navi) Pillay as having said that the information it received about the human rights situation in Bahrain during the unrest was not true.

"Certain information which we received about the developments in Bahrain is untrue," the Bahrain News Agency quoted her.

This was quite contrary to the openly heavy-handed methods used by Bahraini security apparatus to crush dissent by their majority Shia population asking for their rights!

Pillay made the comment during her meeting with Bahrain’s Social Development Minister and acting Health Minister Dr. Fatima bint Mohammed Al Balooshi in Geneva.

Then there was Justice Richard Goldstone’s disputed report that dealt with the Gaza war (Dec 2008-January 2009). The US blocked the dossier, which exposed the horrors of the Israeli invasion, under controversial circumstances after Goldstone denounced his own report on ‘Operation Cast Lead’. The US declared Goldstone report deeply flawed. That was the end of it.

In June 2018, the US quit the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling it "a cesspool of political bias."

Lt. Colonel Smith’s statement, though being dismissed by the State Department, should be examined against the backdrop of significant US support to defeat the LTTE. In 2002, the US, following a comprehensive study on the Sri Lankan military, advised Sri Lanka to use cluster bombs. Years later, the US provided invaluable intelligence directly to wartime Navy Chief Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda to destroy the LTTE’s floating arsenal and enhanced the firepower of the Fast Attack Craft et al.

TNA’s contradictory stand on command responsibility

Sri Lanka never made a genuine effort to examine accountability issues, having co-sponsored a resolution, on Oct 01, 2015, at the expense of her armed forces. Even after the US quit the Geneva body, calling the UN outfit a cesspit of political bias, Sri Lanka pledged to fully cooperate with the process. 

The UK replaced the US as the major power, handling Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. By then, Sri Lanka had in her hands wartime documents provided by Lord Naseby to disprove PoE allegation pertaining to civilian deaths, though there were opportunities they were never utilised. The Foreign Ministry OWED the public an explanation as to why Lord Naseby’s disclosure, made in the House of Lords, in Oct 2017, on the basis of wartime British Defence Advisor Lt. Colonel Anthony Gash’s dispatches, wasn’t used on behalf of Sri Lanka. The British disclosure disputed the very basis of PoE accusation that Vanni killings were deliberate.

Sri Lanka is yet to officially use Lord Naseby’s disclosure to push for re-examination of still UNVERIFIED allegations. A thorough examination of all available information will certainly help those interested in post-war national reconciliation, in establishing the truth. 

The Maha Sangha, political parties and a section of the civil society, condemned the politically motivated US move. The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) appreciated the US move. The TNA statement raised many an eyebrow as the same party campaigned for war-winning Army Commander, the then General Sarath Fonseka, at the 2010 January presidential poll. Contesting on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket (swan symbol) Fonseka comfortably won all the northern and eastern electoral districts, though he lost the election by a staggering 1.8 mn margin to Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The TNA never explained as to why it campaigned for Fonseka against the then Commander-in-Chief Mahinda Rajapaksa. TNA leader R. Sampanthan owed an explanation as to how his party embraced Fonseka and found fault with Shavendra Silva, one of the GoCs hand-picked by the Sinha Regiment veteran to command fighting formations on the Vanni front.

Lord Naseby’s disclosure, too, placed the TNA in an embarrassing position. In the absence of tangible measures by the government, Lord Naseby, as a member of the UK House of Lords, requested the Geneva body to repeal the Geneva resolution. The Island submitted the following questions to TNA and the then Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan, on Nov 27, 2017, and repeatedly reminded his Office of the delay on its part: Have you (TNA) studied Lord Naseby’s statement made in the House of Lords, on Oct 12, 2017, What is TNA’s position on Naseby’s claims?, Did TNA leaders discuss Naseby’s claim among themselves? Did TNA respond to MP Dinesh Gunawardena’s statements in parliament on Naseby’s statement? And Did TNA take up this issue with the UK High Commissioner James Dauris?

During the yahapalana administration, Australia denied visa to Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage on the basis of UNVERIFIED accusations. Australians found fault with him for taking over the command of the 59 Division also deployed on the Vanni east front, after the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009. Only The Island took up Gallage’s case. The writer revealed Gallage’s predicament on March 23, 2017 edition of The Island in a front-page lead story headlined ‘Chagie denied Australian visa over ‘war crimes’ allegations with strap line Unsubstantiated UN claim cited as reason.’ The then treacherous government did absolutely nothing. 

In addition to Gallage, several other seniors, including Field Marshal Fonseka, was denied the US visa though the US arranged for the TNA backing for the war veteran at the 2010 presidential poll. The US involvement in the formation of the UNP-led alliance to field Fonseka was proved by leaked classified US Embassy documents.

Chagie’s dilemma

General Jagath Jayasuriya, too, was denied a US visa on more than one occasion. The US didn’t even bother to respond to Gen. Jayasuriya’s visa application. Western powers also influenced the UN adopting hostile attitude towards Sri Lankan peacekeepers deployed under its command at international trouble spots. In spite of efforts to suppress the truth, sections of the media reported how the UN undermined peacekeeping projects. Unfortunately, those in authority failed to take tangible measures. Due to the collective failure on the part of successive administrations, Sri Lanka never properly defended her armed forces in Geneva. 

The parliament never bothered to address accountability issues. Then President Maithripala Sirisena, in spite of promising the Army that he would look into the contentious issue of the military being denied visas, did absolutely nothing. President Sirisena gave the assurance in Nov 2017. The then Majors General Chagie Gallage and Shavendra Silva were among those present at the Army Hospital, Narahenpita, when the President gave the assurance.

For some strange reason, those in power refused to accept that Western powers pursued anti-Sri Lanka strategies on the basis of PoE report and due to their failure to take tangible measures. For want of a proper strategy, Chagie Gallage had to retire on August 31, 2018 as a war criminal. The Gajaba veteran hit back hard soon after his retirement. Gallage delivered his farewell speech at Gajaba home in Saliyapura, Anuradhapura. Gallage dealt with a range of issues, including war crimes on the eve of the 35th anniversary of the Gajaba Regiment. There had never been a previous instance of a senior officer having the courage to declare at a farewell banquet, him being categorized as a war criminal. It would be pertinent to examine why Gallage declared: "So, I’m happy to be retired being a tiny particle of that proud chapter of the history, though designated as a ‘War Criminal.’

Chagie Gallage’s Saliyapura speech should have jolted the Army. But, unfortunately, the Army turned a blind eye to the officer’s plight. The crisis never received the coverage it really deserved. In fact, there had never been a concentrated media effort to seriously examine accountability issues. The incumbent government and other interested parties responded to the travel ban imposed on the Army Commander and his immediate family as if they were quite surprised by the US move. But, the US action was anticipated. Those in authority couldn’t have been unaware of the impending US action. Both the US and the Geneva body condemned Shavendra Silva’s appointment as the Commander of the Army in the third week of August 2019.

"I am deeply troubled by the appointment of Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva as Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, despite the serious allegations of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against him and his troops during the war," U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, a former Chilean President, said in a statement on Monday, Aug 19, 2019.

"Silva’s promotion "severely compromises Sri Lanka’s commitment to promote justice and accountability", she said, adding that it also set back security sector reform.

We like to remind Bachelet that her own country is yet violating rights of her people in the most inhuman ways, even though the West and people like her merely gloss over such happenings.

The US expressed its disapproval of Silva’s appointment in a strongly-worded statement.

"The allegations of gross human rights violations against him, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible," the U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a statement, on Aug 19, 2019.

"This appointment undermines Sri Lanka’s international reputation and its commitments to promote justice and accountability, especially at a time when the need for reconciliation and social unity is paramount."

For some strange reason, Sri Lanka continues to refrain from presenting its case properly before the international community. Sri Lanka continues to ignore Lord Naseby’s call to officially request a fresh examination of Geneva resolution/accusations on the basis of British wartime dispatches (January-May 2009) from its High Commission in Colombo. Much to the disappointment of the people, successive governments continues to neglect their responsibility with regard to accountability issue. There is at least no official reference at the Geneva body to the Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka in the ‘80s that led to the Nanthikadal battle, nearly 30 years later. Sri Lanka is repeatedly asked to explain the disappearance of even those who may have perished in the hands of the IPKF, killed during PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam) raid on the Maldives in early Nov 1988, killed in India during weapons training provided by India or operations conducted by India after the May 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. 

Sri Lanka had purposely desisted from presenting its case in Geneva properly. In fact, Sri Lanka’s, omissions and political strategies facilitated the Geneva project directed against the country. So much so, in June 2016, TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran declared in Washington, in the presence of the then Sri Lankan Ambassador there, Prasad Kariyawasam, foreign judges were acceptable to the government of Sri Lanka. Kariyawasam received appointment as Secretary to the Foreign Ministry in Aug 2017. Subsequently, he was named advisor to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. In the wake of revelation that the US paid his monthly salary, his appointment caused controversy though the parliament announced it would take the responsibility.

Addressing a gathering in Washington, Sumanthiran revealed the existence of a tripartite agreement among the governments of SL, US and the TNA to ensure accountability mechanism comprising both local and foreign judges. Lawmaker Sumanthiran’s Washington declaration made in June 2016 remains unchallenged both in and outside parliament.