Two sources abroad have now brought to my attention a recent report on Sri Lanka produced by an organization called ‘Country of Origin Research and Information’. Unfortunately both told me this was a report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. This is not the case, and indeed the UNHCR Representative in Sri Lanka knew nothing of the report when I called him on April 26th. He then looked further into the matter and sent me a note about such reports on the 27th, which repeated what the front page of the Report itself says, that the views in it ‘are those of the author and are not necessarily those of UNHCR’.

It was kind of him to respond so soon, and I certainly do not think he should be blamed for the type of reporting that goes on. But it would be desirable for Sri Lanka, as a member state of the United Nations, to look into a situation that allows selective reporting about a country, reporting that seems deficient in accuracy, sensitivity and relevance. The UN should not spend enormous amounts of time and money on regurgitating prejudice that is not germane to its job. 

The CORI report begins with the old chestnut that the MEP was responsible for what it terms Sinhalese only. It ignores the fact that it was the UNP that specifically called an early election ‘to obtain a mandate from the people to make Sinhalese only the State language’ (See Ferguson’s Directory, 1956, p 156). Its account of the early eighties, when ethnic problems turned violent, is cursory and misleading, since it ignores the impact of state sponsored violence in precipitating violent reactions.

The report gives prominence to an article in the Times that draws attention, with marked inaccuracies, to relatives of the President in ‘top positions’. After this hasty impropriety, the report, in providing a ‘brief background and history of internal armed conflict’, apart from the omission noted above, underplays the impact of the Indo-Lankan Accord and the nature of LTTE resistance, as also the scope and impact of JVP violence. Then begins the process of lumping the LTTE and government together, with the LTTE being given the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Thus, it was only ‘implicated in the assassination of Indian premier Rajiva Gandhi’, though given full credit for the killing of President Premadasa.

After the 2002 Ceasefire, it is claimed that talks broke down for a number of reasons including the ‘LTTE’s numerous violations of the ceasefire’ – whereas the fact was that the LTTE simply refused to attend. After 2005 it is claimed that ‘both the government and rebels repeatedly violated the cease-fire agreement’, a statement attributed to someone called Jayshree Bajoria who had prepared a ‘Backgrounder’ for what seems to be the American Council on Foreign Relations. This is in marked contrast to the reports of the Scandinavian Monitoring Mission, which had determined that the LTTE violated the CFA more than ten times as often as the government.

After that Human Rights Watch becomes a principal source, with its farrago of lies and exaggeration. So there are claims about repeated and indiscriminate shelling, even though HRW was unable to substantiate this claim the first time it launched it; there are claims that the government fired ‘at or near hospitals’ even though its report on this made it clear that the areas it was talking about were makeshift centres which the LTTE simply declared to be hospitals, even while concentrating its own heavy weaponry around such places. Brilliantly, the report cites HRW for the claim that ‘The UN reportedly estimated that 7,000 or more civilians were killed in the final phase of the fighting’, whereas a report commissioned by the UN could have checked with the UN, at which stage it would have been clear that the UN does not take responsibility for this figure.

The report cites HRW with regard to those detained for LTTE involvement, to say they were held ‘on suspicion…in many cases citing vague and overbroad emergency laws’, without explaining that most of those coming through checkpoints had admitted to such involvement. This section comes under ‘Political development’, and is followed by the claim that the government was working hard ‘to undermine the autonomy and independent character of Tamil and Muslim parties’. This is according to the International Crisis Group that old Gareth Evans I think used to head, and it goes on to claim that Karuna was pressured to leave his original party and that Pillaiyan was ‘contemplating not supporting President Rajapaksa’s re-election bid’. What actually happened is not mentioned, even though the report was published in late April and contains much recent material.

General Fonseka is supposed to have announced his candidacy for the presidency after the President ‘sought to reassign’ him as Chief of Defence Staff. The Commonwealth Secretariat is brought into play to suggest that the state-owned media was responsible in large measure for ‘a pre-election environment full of rumour, speculation and uncertainty’, while the BBC claim that ‘just hours before his arrest, the general said he was prepared to give evidence in an international court on any war crime charges against the state’ is apparently supposed to be objective reporting. The BBC is supposed to have reported that ‘the UPFA had won 117 out of the 225 seats in parliament’, which I suspect is CORI getting things wrong rather than the BBC.

The introductory chapter ends with a section that gives pride of place again to ICG and its pessimism, notably the view that ‘Eight months later, the post-war policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa have deepened rather than resolved the grievances that generated and sustained LTTE militancy’.

All but one of the 106 references in this chaper are to Western sources (I am not sure from where the South Asia Terrorism Portal operates, but if it is the institution in Mumbai that I have dealt with before, its sources of funding suggest that its outlook will not be very different from the rest of the sources cited). The one reference to an Indian newspaper was not to give any viewpoint, but simply to provide authority for the statement that the Tiger leaders were defeated ‘in fighting on the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka in May 2009’, a piece of admittedly harmless nonsense that I cannot believe was written by Mr. Venkataramanan.

Why such selectivity? Why such nonsense? It continues in the next section, on ‘Ethnic Groups’, where all 66 references are to Western sources, culminating in the claim by Minority Rights Group International that the Veddahs suffer from ‘forcible inter-marriages with Tamil and Sinhalese people’, whatever that might mean.

The third chapter on ‘Freedom of Religion’ relies heavily on the US ‘International Religious Freedom Report’ for its 71 references, though it does at least cite our Constitution twice, and refers once to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. However, it relies on the US report for the mandate of the Ministry, even though it claims to have accessed the Ministry website on April 10th 2010. The only newspaper cited is the Sydney Morning Herald which, with a stupidity unusual even for the Herald in its anti-Sri Lankan mood (assuming the citation is accurate, a matter of doubt since CORI attributes it to March 2010), claims that it was not possible to verify who was responsible for the attack at a mosque in Akuressa in March 2009 because ‘Sri Lankan authorities ban most journalists and aid workers from the entire north, meaning such claims and counter-claims cannot be verified’.

The section on Women and Children is generally better, with some reliance on a 2005 Plan of Action of our National Committee on Women. However the report reverts to type when talking about ‘Gender-based violence’, and repeats itself under ‘Domestic Violence’ so as to rub its points in. Thus the same passage from the 2009 US Human Rights Report is cited twice, under ‘Domestic Violence’ after a one page interval, to claim that there were ‘reports that individual cases of gender based violence perpetrated by members of the security forces occurred more frequently during the conflict’. More alarmingly, ICG asserted that there were ‘reports of civilian women being raped at in (sic) refugee camps and checkpoints and female fighters raped whilst being held in detention centres’. No details are provided about these allegations, which have certainly not figured in the hyper-sensitive reports of all the Protection agencies I dealt with while Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights.

 Sadly, an institution called the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) is also brought into the act and claims that women ‘experienced rape, detainment, harassment at checkpoints and other violations of their personal security in the two decades of civil war’. This report seems to have been written in 2008, and certainly there were incidents in the past, but it is a pity that CORI is not more precise about when the claims it records were made. Typically, the UNIFEM and ICG claims are trotted out repeatedly by CORI.

 The section on Children contains one astonishing piece of news, that the rate of child marriage in Sri Lanka was 12% between 2000 and 2008, though CORI itself grants that everything else written on this subject gives a very different picture.

 The section on the media again relies heavily on foreign sources though it does cite several provisions of the Constitution. There is interestingly enough an example of the sort of reporting that we suffer from in the claim that there were ‘persistent allegations of a pre-election agreement and bribe between the Rajapaksa campaign and the LTTE’, attributed to the US HR Report of 2009. CORI adds in its footnote that the parliamentary investigation did not advance because the member placed in charge of it ‘was killed in a car accident’. The use of this particular verb in the passive voice, rather than ‘died’, is not surprising, though there was probably no definite intention to sow suspicion.

The section on ‘Human Rights Defenders’ notes (twice as might be expected) the alleged death threat against Dr Saravanamuttu, as well as what it claims is ‘a defamation campaign’ against Mr. Weliamuna. Other incidents mentioned do of course require investigation, though again it is a pity that all 46 references are to foreign sources, and nothing is cited that suggests a different viewpoint with regard for instance to the old stories about the Human Rights Commission or the ACF case.

 With regard to the Security Forces, the thrust behind this whole exercise becomes clear, with embarrassingly selective reporting. Thus the BBC report that the then army commander wanted to expand the army drastically is cited, with no comment on the actual position of the government, though this has been made crystal clear through the resignation letter of the former army commander. The fact that we have a voluntary army seems to need confirmation from the CIA. The white flag incident is reported, in its second incarnation, i.e. when General Fonseka is supposed to have attributed this to the Defence Secretary. CORI, having cited the US report on alleged war crimes, is deafeningly silent on the version contained there, according to which General Fonseka is supposed to have said he was responsible for the decision, having ignored those in air conditioned rooms.

 The next section, on ‘Freedom of Movement’, after three references to the Constitution, relies entirely on foreign sources. Not surprisingly, the chestnut from UNIFEM about rape at checkpoints is trotted out, immediately after discussion of the movements of IDPs last year, and what is claimed to be reports of disappearances ‘on their way to an initial military checkpoint at Omanthai’. Most readers would not of course notice that the UNIFEM report appeared in 2008, and deals with a 20 year period before that.

 The final section, on ‘Further Human Rights Considerations’ repeats some of the usual old stuff, about the Constitutional Council and the Human Rights Commission, though it has a useful section on ‘Prison Conditions’. Sadly it appeared too soon to note the decision of the government to have a Ministry concerned with Prison Reform, a subject that deserves much attention. Fascinatingly, after a section on ‘Health’, the report ends with a quotation from the Food and Agriculture Organization to the effect that ‘urgent action is needed to boost crop, livestock and fisheries production’.

 If one did not know how seriously the people who write such reports take themselves, and how much they are paid for their productions, one would see this conclusion, of a Country Report commissioned by UNHCR presumably for the purpose of assessing the situation of refugees and those who claim that status, as a brilliant spoof that sums up the impact the writers hope for.