Gordon Weiss

I never met Gordon Weiss. This surprised Zola Dowell, head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance in Sri Lanka, for I had often complained to her and her senior colleagues about him, but understandably enough our paths never crossed. The book he has written now serves to confirm my view that junior staff of the UN came to Sri Lanka with particular agendas, some insidious, some based on idealism that was vague and / or intense. This led to conflicts with senior staff, and confidences to journalists that contradicted the official position of the UN – irregularities justified in the belief that they served a higher purpose, identified only by the perpetrator.

Weiss’s irritation with his superiors comes through forcefully in the book, culminating in the assertion near the end of the narrative that ‘One senior UN official did not help matters by rashly announcing to the BBC that all civilians had been rescued’. This approach explains why, after one of my several complaints, Neil Buhne, Head of the UN, just sighed, ‘Oh, Gordon!’ But this was not an unusual situation, for I was told also by a Head of Mission, in confidence, that he had a lot of trouble with his own junior staff – all of which explains perhaps why Prabhakaran and his senior commanders never doubted that what they termed the international community would rescue them in the end. More horrifyingly, this could also explain why they had no qualms about taking so many civilians hostage, believing that they would thus help their supporters, still deluded into thinking of them as freedom fighters, to cry havoc, and ensure continuation of the dogs of war.

Weiss’s narrative also confirms the conclusion I reached when I first read the Darusman report, that perhaps the most insidious of UN officials at the time was the South African Head of Security, Chris du Toit. I had noted after reading the report that du Toit was probably the man who set up what was termed a network of observers, and I suggested then that our Ministry of External Affairs call in the head of the UN and find out how and with what mandate such a network had been set up.

Weiss confirms my deduction, it revealing that ‘Du Toit would be the driving force behind the gathering of much of the intelligence revealing that large numbers of civilians were being killed’. Even more interestingly, Weiss gives us more of his previous history – ‘Retired colonel Chris Du Toit of the South African Defence Force was a graduate of some of the toughest campaigns fought by his country in the jungles and veldts of southern Africa. He had commanded regular forces, and had also been in the unusual position of training and commanding proxy guerilla forces in the illicit wars fought by South Africa in Angola’.

Those words brought back a constant refrain of Dayan Jayatilleka in the long evenings in Geneva when we were preparing for yet another onslaught by Weiss type proxy guerilla forces. He used to talk about the awful nature of the Angolan guerilla movement, led by a man called Jonas Savimbi, who proved a personal block to piece. After he died his guerilla movement folded up and Angola finally achieved peace, a phenomenon Dayan said would be replicated in Sri Lanka once Prabhakaran was dead.

Dayan obviously could not anticipate a man who had worked with Savimbi’s forces organizing and training another type of long range guerilla movement. The information confirmed what I had long argued, that Sri Lanka was simply too indulgent to the UN about letting in staff without a proper assessment of whether they were suited to the job they were supposed to be doing on behalf of our people. Weiss however is full of adulation for this hard-bitten military man , singling out only du Toit (apart from his racquets partner Vincent Hubin, whom I finally met at the very end of his stay here) of UN officials to thank in his list of acknowledgments. Du Toit receives perhaps the greatest accolade possible from a man like Weiss, for he is thanked ‘for his example’.

What was that example? It seems to be secretiveness combined with falsehood. This is apparent from the great set piece in the middle of Weiss’s book, which constitutes also one of the main sections in the Darusman report used to attack the Sri Lankan government. It deals with what is termed ‘Convoy 11’, the convoy that went into the Wanni to take food to the civilians – and the Tigers – on January 16th 2009. The chapter of that name begins with a lie, when Weiss claims that in January 2009 a majority of ‘330,000 people’ waited in a triangle of land one third the size of London. Then, with what is standard precision for Weiss, he declares that ‘10,000 to 40,000 civilians died, and many more were seriously injured’, for which no evidence whatsoever is provided (Weiss’s difficulties with numbers is apparent from the fact that he claims the ICRC evacuated 18,000 patients and bystanders by sea, when the actual figure was under 14,000, with only 4,000 of these being wounded).

Part of the convoy stayed on in the Vanni for nearly two weeks. Weiss does not mention that they did so without permission, ostensibly to negotiate the release of their staff whom the Tigers were holding hostage. It had earlier been claimed that permission would be granted for these to leave, but day after day the Tigers refused, so that the halting of operations by Sri Lankan forces, day after day, was in vain. All this placed the UN under considerable strain, as I found when we had meetings with them to discuss the humanitarian assistance which my Ministry was coordinating. I still remember one evening when Neil Buhne kept hoping his people would be released, only to be let down yet again.

I told him then that, had the Sri Lankan side done the half of what the Tigers were doing, the UN would have been down on us like a ton of bricks. He agreed, and added, ‘But you guys wouldn’t….’ He paused, and I finished the sentence for him, ‘Kill you,’, and he nodded.

None of this comes through in Weiss’s narrative, the indulgence day after day by the Sri Lankan forces to what seemed a reckless decision of the UN to stay on in the Wanni in a quest that turned out to be hopeless. I suspect they knew it was hopeless all along, and now, instead of thinking they were being quixotic, I realize that perhaps they were simply doing what Chris du Toit had wanted all along, information that large numbers of civilians were being killed.

We suspected something of the sort, for it was soon after that the story was leaked that a thousand or so civilians had been killed. That was when my Minister asked me to call du Toit in, and Nishan Muthukrishna, our Human Rights adviser, and I, questioned him closely. He said then that there were three categories to make up the figure: direct observation by UN staff (which he admitted had led to a count of about 39 if I recollect aright), eyewitness reports by others, though there was uncertainty about whether these were reliable sources, and finally what was described as extrapolation, which was assessments based on reports of incidents. The methodology was never changed as far as we were informed, which is doubtless why the UN in Sri Lanka was wary about the figures.

My recollection was that du Toit spoke about the incident as though he had been there himself, though Weiss says otherwise, and that it was his subordinate, a Bangladeshi colonel usually stationed in Vavuniya, who actually stayed on in the Wanni. Anyway, Weiss acknowledges that, with regard to the shooting that was supposed to have taken place near Puthukkudiyirippu Hospital, the colonel who was quartered in a house just across the way from the hospital, slept soundly. Weiss quotes the colonel as describing scenes of horror, but du Toit told us none of this when we met. He also noted that he could not say with any certainty from which direction the firing had come. He had brought with him large pictures of craters caused by shells, and he took out one and said that was the only shot the direction of which they could be certain of, and that had come from the direction of the LTTE forces.

That was the day on which Neil had rung up my Minister early morning to say that we were firing into the No Fire Zone. My Minister had checked with the army which had denied this, and later the Bishop of Jaffna had issued a statement asking the LTTE to withdraw its heavy weapons from the Zone. That evening Neil sent my Minister an sms to say that they believed most of the firing had come from the LTTE. But none of us figures in Weiss’s book, and he would doubtless have dismissed it as yet another rash announcement.

Daily News 6 July 2011