After the diversion created by Radhika Coomaraswamy’s effort to distract attention from the actual ICES escapades, it may be useful to return to less purposive threats to our efforts to deal with terrorism. In this regard I should reiterate that I believe that the International Committee of the Red Cross is amongst the most innocuous of the agencies that engage with countries in difficult situations.
They are supposed to be apolitical, and generally they live up to this reputation. However they are sometimes dragooned into a political role, as when claims are made by some countries that assistance cannot be provided for rehabilitation unless there is a monitoring role prescribed for the ICRC.
In general this would not seem a problem. However, admirable though the ICRC generally is, at the beginning of 2009 they decided to engage in a political role in Sri Lanka, or what they themselves would term advocacy. They issued a series of bulletins, which sounded deeply critical of the Sri Lankan government and its armed forces, and naturally these were made use of by the Tigers and their sympathizers.
I was surprised at this, because I had generally found the ICRC admirable previously in their balance. Indeed they were scrupulous about this, as when they refused to publicize the fact that, at the time LTTE websites were making much of the road northward to the Vanni from Omanthai only being open three days a week, it was the LTTE that had refused to allow it to be open all week.
We managed to get it open by requesting the ICRC publicly, at a CCHA meeting which OCHA Head John Holmes attended, to get the agreement of the LTTE. This was just in time I think, because UNOPS was anxiously advocating that we buy a very expensive scanner to expedite clearing of goods, whereas obviously it was cheaper and safer to keep the road open through the week. Unfortunately some UN personnel in crisis situations do not always use their common sense, when expensive purchases can be made.
I found the then Head of the ICRC very easy to deal with, on this and other issues, and was therefore disappointed when his successor, Paul Castella, started issuing denigratory statements. I could see irritation with the ICRC developing, but wondered whether perhaps it was not his fault, and he was the victim of his local staff who I was told had strong UNP connections. I thought it best therefore to write to him quietly, and was impressed when I got a prompt reply, in which he said that the ICRC had taken a policy decision to engage actively in advocacy, but had now decided that this needed to be modified.
This recognition of the problems they were causing for themselves made me feel that my faith in them was justified. However, I had asked previously to see the Head of the ICRC in Geneva in this regard, and that meeting took place anyway, not with the Head, who was away, but with his Deputy, a Ms Bierli. She proved sensible too, and said that statements of the sort we had found objectionable would not be repeated.
To my astonishment however, that very evening, I was rung up about a statement supposedly made to the BBC by an ICRC official in Geneva called Jacques di Maio. This turned out to be extremely critical of the Sri Lankan government, and also quite nonsensical. I promptly rang up Ms Bierli, who seemed upset, and promised to check. In fact she rang back almost immediately, to say that her officer had been misquoted.
I asked her to repudiate the BBC story, but she said that was not their usual practice. However she agreed to publish the actual text of the interview on the ICRC website. That seemed to me as much as I could expect, and in fact, when it appeared, it was quite different to what had been quoted, I had a delightful time then teasing the BBC reporter for his lack of integrity, in making up things and attributing them to the ICRC.
Meanwhile the UN got in on the act, with the previously suspect Gordon Weiss reported as having said exactly what Jacques di Maio had said. The Sri Lankan UNDP head, Neil Buhne, happened to be in Geneva, and I remonstrated with him. He too checked, and said Gordon Weiss had been misquoted, he had merely told the reporter to check on what the ICRC had said. That seemed to me disingenuous, if typical of Gordon Weiss, but Neil was obviously not inclined to issue a rebuttal, and indeed only began to promptly repudiate the Weiss flow of misinformation after the latter had finally left the service of the UN.
Still, the story had died down fairly soon, and even the BBC reporter who was obviously irritated by my needling quietened down. Compared to most such episodes, I felt therefore that that little bit of falsehood had been laid to rest effectively.
It was only when I got back to Colombo that I realized that perhaps I had been unjust by the BBC. Their correspondent in Colombo told me that the reporter concerned was a senior man, not the callow youth I had assumed he was, and that the interview had taken place just as he had reported it. He had a tape of it, which he was willing to play to me, though I told him that would not be necessary.
I have little doubt that he was right. Though there was dishonesty involved, it was not on the part of the BBC. For some reason the ICRC had decided, in the person of its junior personnel who looked after Sri Lanka from Geneva, that they too should add their weight to the campaign to stop the Sri Lankan army offensive. I continue to believe that this was not Paul Castella’s idea, and indeed when I was asked, by one of the countries concerned about the lack of a programme for the ICRC in Sri Lanka now, whether things would be better if Paul were transferred, I said that, though I had nothing to do with such decisions, I thought he personally was not a problem.
However the fact that, contrary to standard ICRC policies, as confirmed by Ms Bierli, others had taken the law into their own hands, seems to me symptomatic of the concerted efforts that were made by at least some members of what terms itself the international humanitarian community to interfere with the political decisions of the government. This helped me to understand what reporters who constantly denigrated Sri Lanka claimed when I told them that their citing of the UN was misleading, inasmuch as on occasion the UN had repudiated their claims, as Sir John Holmes did with the canard that UN figures indicated that 20,000 people had died.
The answer was that some people working for the UN thought their senior officials were too close to government. Unfortunately, given the unwillingness of the UN to discipline those who go out on a limb, and the anxiety of the media to publish sensational reports, we suffered badly from these excesses. I hope for the future we can make it quite clear to agencies working in this country that they must abide by standard requirements, and not take advantage of what they term an emergency to carry on with the destructive agendas of some of their personnel, which will necessarily detract from the good work of such agencies as a whole.