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Razia Iqbal: Why (did) the Govt of Sri Lanka want the UN to go? Was it because you couldn’t protect them or did you have another reason?

Rajiva Wijesinha: Well in fact we didn’t want them to go.  In Sept we asked the NGOs to leave, one of them had actually been supplying vehicles to the Tigers.

We specifically asked, and that letter is available, UNFPA and UNHCR to stay along with the Red Cross.  I’m afraid the then UNDP rep was galvanised by some people who wanted almost to blackmail us to say “No no, if we can’t all stay them we are going to leave”. So the Sec Defence said then leave. But the ICRC stayed right through and we have got all the details of the ICRC interventions during that period.  We also have the UN interventions …

RI: We’re not talking about the ICRC Sir, if I, if you wouldn’t mind …

RW: Hold on let me finish. The UN was there through convoys right through January(2009), and its nonsense to say the UNDP rep didn’t bother – they were very concerned.  I remember my Minister (Mahinda Samarasinghe) being rung up one morning and told that the people in the No-Fire Zone were being fired on, but in the evening they sent us an sms saying their information was that the firing came from the Tigers – I don’t think they were lying, but unfortunately junior members of the UN have complained about their bosses and lied about them

RI: Sir, this internal report of the UN says that under intense pressure from the Sri Lankan Govt the UN did not make clear that a large majority of deaths were caused by govt shelling, and that you put the UN under that pressure

RW: The panels of inquiries have not been transparent. We have got the letters through which the UN dealt with us and I think this is an attempt to undermine senior members of the UN.  I am sorry you can’t share the leaked report with me, but recently I saw something by a Britisher Julian Vigo which quoted young people in the UN – they are liers – for instance I checked with IOM about the person called Suzanne – they said there was no such person called Suzanne …. I’m afraid these people are not only determined to push a political agenda, but they are not truthful – I mean I don’t mind people being anonymous but don’t claim to have a name which turns out to be false.  Why don’t you check with the senior leadership of the UN? I have to say that the Sri Lankan govt has failed because when the Darusman report came out I personally checked – Sir John Holmes had not been contacted, except very briefly initially, Neil Buhne was the UNDP head and worked very well with the Sri Lankans, was not contacted. He can testify that the Tigers did not allow something like 600 Sri Lankan (UN) workers to leave, but at the end of the war all of them were safe – so this is hardly indiscriminate attacks.

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Mr. Tom Whipple (Journalist): I am reporting from The Times, I’ve got two very good questions, the first is, thank you for inviting us to come and visit Sri Lanka  because as you yourself know you have not granted any visas to journalists from The Times and to me personally and you say this after a year where you personally refused my visa to visit Sri Lanka to write of all things a travel piece about visiting newly opened hotels My second question is, I watched the Channel 4 documentary this morning in preparation for this. I got slightly confused. The key allegation from gathered evidence was as far as I can tell the video footage of assassinations and Tamils being tortured. I think after your video showed happy people doing basket weaving, you seemed to imply that that was video footage taken by LTTE soldiers pretending to be Sri Lankan soldiers speaking in colloquial Sinhalese shooting LTTE soldiers. Is that the correct interpretation of your position, and the key allegation in the film?

H.E. the High Commissioner: I’d like to hand that question over to Professor Wijesinha but first just one point, I did not personally refuse any visas because I was not here until the first of September (Mr Whipple subsequently apologized for his mistake)……

Professor Rajiva Wijesinha: There has been a lot of discussion about media access, some of us were very strong advocates of letting all the media in in 2009, and I’m glad we did so because a lot of the papers there reported extremely accurately and I think it helped us a lot because of the Indian situation. There were some politicians in India and some here in Britain who were up for elections and wanted to take political advantage, but we were able to refute some of the allegations because of the Indian papers, which reported very fairly. Immediately after the operation some Indian reporters were up there with the troops to report.

But the flip side for instance is a chap called Jeremy Page of the Times who I think deliberately twisted things. He called me to my office, and there was an Indian journalist there, and he stayed since they were similar questions. You should have read the two articles, the Times and I think the Deccan Standard, the same interview, and one glass was half empty and the other half full.

I went to India a few months after the war and the High Commission in Delhi was issuing visas but they did not issue visas to the Times and the Guardian. The latter had a man called Gethin Chaimberlain. I asked Jeremy Page, why do you tell lies, about supposed UN claims which the UN had specifically reported, and he said that he was told by some people in the UN that their bosses were too close to the Sri Lankan government and they told us these things.

I told him then what he should write is that certain people will disagree with their superiors and make certain revelations which the Times thinks are true, but it is not the UN that says these. One claim was specifically refuted by I think John Holmes, the British head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.

Gethin Chamberlain wrote in The Guardian – there were about four instances in which The Guardian corrected what he said subsequently – that 13 women  were found with their throats cut near the Manik Farm Welfare Centre. I asked the UN protection agency what is the basis of this? They said nothing, no basis at all, not even one such incident. Gethin said he realized the story was not true, and that he could not rely on the source he got it from, but he would not correct the story.

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Gordon Weiss and the Darusman Panel

17. Amongst the least plausible of the charges heaped up against the Sri Lankan government are those regarding what the Darusman panel terms ‘Human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict’.

The most dramatic of these concerns relates to rape, a word the panel uses 17 times. Over half the mentions use tentative locutions (‘may’, ‘inference’) or refer to vulnerability or fear. Other mentions are formal headings or in lists of possible crimes. There is only one assertion that instances of rape were recorded, another that instances were reported.

The desperate nature of these allegations is apparent from a related charge, that ‘women were forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for food, shelter or assistance in camps’. The footnote that is supposed to substantiate this refers to a section of a UN report that referred to activities in areas controlled by the LTTE, perhaps the shoddiest instance of  footnoting in a text replete with inaccuracies.

Gethin Chamberlain - Guardian UK

From the very start indeed there were efforts to introduce charges of sexual violence and perversity that fell apart when probed. The most vicious of these was a claim in the ‘Guardian’ by a gentleman called Gethin Chamberlain that 11 women had been found with their throats slit by the welfare centres. It turned out that there was no basis whatsoever for this story, and Chamberlain admitted that his source – which he implied was from the UN or an international Non-Governmental Organization – was unreliable. He refused however to retract the story, claiming it was too late by the time I pinned him down, but declared that he had not relied on that source again.

Sadly there were those in the UN who wanted to play such a game, though fortunately we were able to nip this in the bud, or perhaps mud. On April 30th a report was issued which claimed that ‘On 29 April the bodies of 3 women were recovered near the river in Zone 3’. This was entirely false, as was admitted by those responsible for the report when I questioned them on May 2nd.

Amin Awad - UNHCR

I was particularly careful, because the report had been issued without consultation of the Ministry of Human Rights, in terms of the procedures agreed upon by UNHCR. This was on the assumption that the purpose of UNHCR activity was to prevent abuse, but clearly some junior staff in UNHCR assumed that their role was to denigrate the government. The Head of UNHCR tried to defend its position by claiming that his staff who had contributed to the report had spoken to government officials at the Camp but this too turned out to be a lie. Fortunately I was able to bring together the girls who had issued the report and the officials they claimed to have spoken to, and they could only declare that they had spoken in general terms about problems. They had no answer when I suggested that the bodies of three dead women was a serious matter and they should, if they had any sense of responsibility, have raised such an issue immediately.

Part of the problem lay in the awe which the head of UNHCR, a Sudanese with career ambitions, seemed to feel for one of these young ladies, called Anna Pelosi. He told me that she was related to the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and that one had to be careful in dealing with her. It is possible of course that Amin Awad, a delightful and generally helpful but nevertheless slippery character, may have made all this up, but this was an area in which it seemed to me he did not display his usual self-confidence. Read the rest of this entry »

US President Barack Obama, right,and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi pictured during the G8/G5 summit in L'Aquila, Italy Thursday July 9, 2009.

The double standards endemic in international reporting of conflict is apparent in the manner in which Sri Lankan officials are turned into witnesses against the Sri Lankan state whenever they say things that go against the standard view of Sri Lankan officials. We are co-opted as it were into temporary membership of the network of informers the nastier elements in the international community have set up, if we declare that there were civilian casualties during the conflict.

This is never treated as a statement, but is rather almost always described as an admission. This makes no sense except in terms of a discourse redolent with preconceived prejudices. In itself the existence of civilian casualties in modern warfare is not something surprising, but what occurs in Sri Lanka has necessarily to be accompanied by finger pointing.

When it happens In other theatres of war, it is considered quite acceptable. When American drones strike civilians in Pakistan, when NATO bombs hit civilians in Libya, this is something quite natural, to be accompanied by perfunctory regrets, more often than not involving suggestions that the fault lies entirely with the enemy. There is no suggestion whatsoever that such actions, the taking of targets even though there might be risk to civilians, is an intrinsic part of  Western policy.

Personally I do not believe that Barack Obama would actually subscribe to a policy of multiple civilians casualties. I would like to think that – unlike perhaps some of his predecessors, who saw themselves as the scourge of God in dealing either with infidels or communists – he would even suggest that maximum care should be taken to avoid civilian casualties and that targets should always be military ones on pretty good if not always foolproof evidence. But the continuing saga of civilian deaths in all theatres of conflict in which the West is involved – in which the West indeed began conflicts for a range of reasons that often went against United Nations policy – suggests that there has been no policy of avoiding civilian casualties at all costs.

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When I was asked by al-Jazeera Television to be interviewed with regard to an article in the Guardian about the latest Channel 4 film on Sri Lanka, they kindly sent me a link which showed previous stories on Sri Lanka. The most prominent below the current story was an article by Gethin Chamberlain entitled ‘Civilians held in Sri Lanka camps face disease threat’.

The name and the headline brought back many memories of the tremendous threats Sri Lanka faced back in 2009. The article was written by Gethin Chamberlain in Menik Farm on April 20th that year. This was part of an effort we made then to show journalists what was going on. Most of them reported honestly, in particular the Indian journalists, who were able thus to assuage the fears of many of those in Tamil Nadu who might have succumbed to negative propaganda.

In that sense those of us who wanted an open policy with regard to journalists were justified. But we were not helped by Gethin Chamberlain and a few others, who somehow seemed determined to denigrate Sri Lanka at every conceivable opportunity. The headline he used on April 20th exemplifies this approach, with its highlighting of a ‘disease threat’.

But we were used to this by then. For several months before this, we had read reports that noted that there had been no epidemics amongst those the Tigers had forcibly taken with them when they retreated, despite the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which they were forced to live. But most such articles predicted an epidemic soon, though when nothing of the sort occurred, there were no plaudits for our health services, which we kept going throughout the war. Similarly, there were constant warnings of possible outbreaks of disease at Menik Farm, with no appreciation by journalists of the fact that they were proved wrong. Not unsurprisingly, none of them picked up on the appreciation extended by the UN to the Sri Lankan government for having avoided the catastrophe that had been so confidently predicted.

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Soldiers caring for wounded civilians http://www.army.lk

The last extract from the Report of the Darusman Panel that I read referred to rape. The Panel begins its discussion of this factor by stating that ‘Rape and sexual violence against Tamil women during the final stages of the armed conflict and, in its aftermath, are greatly under-reported’.

Hillary Clinton - 67th United States Secretary of State

They go on to indicate that their Report is based on ‘indirect accounts’ and explains this by talking about many ‘photos and video footage, in particular the footage provided by Channel 4’.  If this is their principal evidence, one wonders about their standards, given the questions raised about the authenticity of what Channel 4 showed, the discrepancies in the dates Channel 4 put forward, the shifty segments (such as the shifting leg, which even Alston’s bunch of experts could not explain).

Anyone with a modicum of intelligence combined with objectivity would have thought about previous allegations with regard to sexual violence made against our forces. The most famous of these is the pronouncement by Hillary Clinton about our forces using rape as a weapon of war, for which Ambassador Butenis apologized. While I can see that we were correct to accept her apology graciously, it is astonishing that she herself did not see fit to examine and explain how Hillary Clinton was fooled into making that particular blunder.

Medical services for evacuated civillians http://www.army.lk

Then there was the famous case of I think fourteen women found with their throats cut near Menik Farm, reported with complete fraudulence by the ‘Guardian’, though not I hasten to add by its regular correspondent. The article was written by a callow young man named Gethin Chamberlain, who later confessed to me that he realized later the story was false. He claimed that he had written it up because he thought he had a reliable source, which I think he indicated in response to a question from me, though never directly admitting it, was a UN official. He told me that after that he had realized he should not trust that particular source, but surely a good journalist would have tried to find out why such an outrageous lie was thrust upon him.

Gethin Chamberlain - Guardian UK

I do not think Mr Chamberlain was quite as innocent as he pretended to be, for in his article he claimed that he had tried to contact the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, but they did not respond. The day this happened was a holiday, but since he had the number of my mobile phone, it is clear he did not even try to get hold of me. It was typical however that he wanted to both have his cake and eat it, which is why he tried to suggest that we were avoiding him, when in fact, with the usual pusillanimity of such creatures when dealing with us, he did not dare to even try to talk to us, given the enormity of the whopper he was perpetrating.

By then I had a pretty shrewd idea of what was going on, confirmed indeed by Jeremy Paige of the Sunday Times, whom I also met in Delhi around the same time. When I asked him why he was perpetrating lies, having denied that he had anything to do with the massive figures as to deaths that his colleagues were advancing, he claimed that he had UN authority for some of the things he wrote. When I pointed out that the UN had refuted these, he claimed that there were junior people in the UN who disagreed with the position of their superiors, and were therefore leaking information to journalists. Read the rest of this entry »

Gethin Chamberlain who claimed in the ‘Guardian’ (UK) that thirteen women had been found with their throats cut, on a tip-off from a UN source he later confessed was unreliable. No correction was published.

In a pamphlet on ‘The Parliamentary System of Government’ that was published during the Second World War, the British academic Sir Ernest Barker wrote that ‘One of the great principles which the genius of France has contributed to civilization is the principle of national sovereignty’. The last few years have taught us much about this principle, and the need to be perpetually vigilant about those who seek to erode it.

In this regard I had assumed during the last couple of years that I would someday write an account of the manner in which Sri Lanka managed to maintain both its sovereignty and its unity, against all odds as it now seems. I had thought there was plenty of time to do this but, given the recent pronouncements of the Secretary General of the United Nations, who seems to feel that, provided he is talking only about his own personal predilections, he does not need to abide strictly by the UN Charter, it may be useful now to run through the various threats we have recently overcome. We need to be aware that these threats may continue in the short term, and it would help to be aware of the various directions from which efforts to control us may arise.

There are in essence five sources of threats to our sovereignty, apart of course from the major threat from terrorism. Sadly the rump of the terrorist forces will do their best in the next few months to rouse those sources, so we need to bring into the public domain the ways in which they have operated. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

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