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Anna Neistat - Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Over the last couple of years we have had repeated assertions that Sri Lankan forces attacked hospitals with heavy weaponry. This is taken up in a very strong statement by the Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General, which states that “The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines. All hospitals in the Vanni were hit by mortars and artillery, some of them were hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government.” It goes on to claim that this is one of the five core categories of potential serious violations committed by the Government of Sri Lanka.

This exercise began in a big way in February 2009 with a report by a Dr Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch to the American Senate. At the time I wrote that the lady – who quoted only me by name in her report, everyone else she cited, good or bad by her standards, being anonymous tried to ‘to substantiate her claim regarding ‘clearly marked hospitals’ with a long list, dating only from December, which was after we had pointed out how careful the government had been in the preceding six months, since TamilNet had alleged hardly any collateral damage.’

It is outrageous therefore that the Panel should talk of systematic shelling of hospitals. Of course I have not read the whole report yet, but the one incident I have seen mentioned, that 16 patients were killed at Putumattalan hospital on February 09 because of falling shells, is exactly as was reported by Tamilnet two days later. Surprisingly, having failed to mention this incident on the 9th or 10th, they then cited an ICRC report on the 11th.  The US report simply said the ‘A source reported that the makeshift hospital was hit by shelling, killing 16 patients.

SL Army medical clinic in Gurunagar (Jaffna)

The next time that Tamilnet reported shelling with regard to the hospital, it was ‘targeting the environs of Maa’ththa’lan makeshift hospital’. This was on March 3rd, and the US also duly reports ‘shelling in the area of the Mattalan hospital’. On the next two days again there was firing in the vicinity of the hospital, and then we get shells hitting the area ‘close to the makeshift-hospital’, causing injuries to four already wounded patients on March 13th. It is almost two weeks later that Tamilnet next mentions the hospital, though the US report cites HRW for the hospital being hit by a shell on March 16th, killing two people.

The March 26th attack on the hospital alleged by Tamilnet is not mentioned by the US report, which instead mentioned that one of the entrances to the hospital was hit, and a child was killed by a shell which landed 10 metres in front of the hospital. The Panel however states baldly that RPGs were fired at the hospital around 27 March killing several civilians. In addition to civilian casualties, the operating theatre, makeshift ward and roof all sustained damage’. Tamilnet, which had put the number of deaths at five, all patients ‘who were being treated at the Intensive Care Unit’, dwells rather on the fact that the attackalso destroyed part of the medicines recently brought to the hospital’. The Panel does not refer to this, perhaps because it would take away from its claim that ‘The Government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies’. Read the rest of this entry »

UN buildingThe revelation by the Darusman Panel that the UN had networks of observers in ‘LTTE-controlled areas’ has not received the attention it requires. The propriety of the UN setting this up needs to be questioned, inasmuch as it indicates what seems to be a parallel source of authority without reference to the government of the country.

The extract that refers to this network also records how it was formed: ‘An internal “Crisis Operations Group” was formed to collect reliable information regarding civilian casualties and other humanitarian concerns. In order to calculate a total casualty figure, the Group took figures from RDHS as the baseline, using reports from national staff of the United Nations and NGOs, inside the Vanni, the ICRC, religious authorities and other sources to cross-check and verify the baseline. The methodology was quite conservative: if an incident could not be verified by three sources or could have been double-counted, it was dismissed. Figures emanating from sources that could be perceived as biased, such as Tamil Net, were dismissed, as were Government sources outside the Vanni’.

The sweeping manner in which Government sources outside the Vanni are put on par with Tamil Net requires consideration in a context in which the UN is supposed to be working together with Government. Unfortunately this type of loose talk was encouraged by a lack of precision of the part of various agencies in Government. I have written enough about the battle I had almost single handed to ensure accountability to Government, only to be criticized for this even by people in government who thought I was upsetting good helpmates of Sri Lanka. So here I will only point out the effrontery of the European Union which had prepared ‘Modes of Operation for Aid Agencies’ which asserted that such agencies held the balance between Government and the LTTE. I got rid of this nonsense the week after I took over as Secretary, after which the Europeans lost interest in the Modes of Operation.

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Thank you for your questions. I should note however that there is an agreement that the substance of negotiations between the Government and the TNA should remain confidential. I am aware that this has been breached on occasion, but I believe I should not in any way contribute to this, so I will respond in general, rather than deal with particulars that might be seen as breaching confidence.

I think you are wrong to say that government has not embarked on significant development programmes in the North. I believe that physical progress has been fantastic, and that the level of services provided now far exceeds what was there before. Roads, irrigation works, schools, hospitals, are at levels unthinkable in the past when the Vanni was neglected by successive governments, and then destroyed during the period of LTTE control.

However we should move more quickly on human resources development, which is slow throughout the country, except in the Colombo area, because we still think in terms of centralized delivery. That should change, with more partnership, of the private sector which must be facilitated to help in human development too.

I think there have been delays in the reconciliation process caused by continuing distrust. I am sorry the TNA did not accept the olive branches the government extended in 2009, and instead went into their alliance with Sarath Fonseka. Unfortunately, after that, government thought they could not be sincere about concern for the Tamil people, and were more interested in trying to topple this government. I think we should have ignored that factor earlier, and engaged in discussions earlier, but I think it is important for both sides to appreciate why the other is so wary.

With regard to the question of Tamil civilians in custody, there has been some confusion, as I have tried to explain in different articles elsewhere. There are in fact two categories. One is the former LTTE combatants, with regard to whom I believe government has done a great job, in terms of rehabilitation. Many have been released, and I found them generally very positive about the process – though I think we should now be doing more to ensure productive futures for them. More than half, including all the females, have been released by now. Access is provided to their families and we hope that most of them, except the few who might be charged, will be released by the end of the year.

The second category is those taken into custody on suspicion of clandestine involvement with the LTTE. I was involved in the past in an initiative to expedite dealing with these, and I believe we did well towards the end of 2009 in reducing the numbers. Our position, at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, as Secretary of which I chaired the committee the President had set up, was that we could not recommend release or otherwise, but the State had a duty to proceed quickly, and release all those against whom there were no charges. Read the rest of this entry »

Text of a presentation at the Australian National University, Canberra

 May 23rd 2011

Let me begin by thanking the High Commission here, and the Consuls in Sydney and Melbourne, for inviting me to Australia and hosting my programme. I should also thank all those, in particular the Sri Lankans, Burghers and Muslims and Sinhalese and Tamils, who have come to meet me. I am the more appreciative of this because, given distances between places in your towns, and the weather, I think getting out for such meetings requires considerable effort. Read the rest of this entry »

Gordon Weiss

I read with some disappointment the account of your interview with Gordon Weiss regarding the situation in Sri Lanka in 2009. I believe it was published on May 16th. ABC then interviewed me on May 17th, but I have not been informed as yet as to when that interview will be broadcast. I am also disappointed that, contrary to assurances given, ABC will not be supplying us with a copy or a transcript of the full interview. I believe the principle of Freedom of Information requires this, and it is sad to see a media outfit not prepared to ensure a fair playing field.

With regard to Mr Weiss’s comments, I believe the following annotations might be useful to your readers –

“MARK COLVIN: It’s two years this week since the Sri Lankan Army finally defeated the Tamil Tigers to end a war that had lasted three decades.

But the passage of time has not answered the questions that were being asked even then.

In fact three weeks ago a UN expert panel said allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil Tigers were credible and could lead to formal charges.”

The Panel was charged to advise the Secretary General on action to be taken with regard to accountability. It was not required to investigate, and it has not done so. Repeating allegations made by others is of course acceptable if it wished to advise the Secretary General that these should be investigated, but to judge these ‘credible’ is strange, since hardly any evidence is provided for these claims. Where there is purported evidence, it is shoddy and shaky, as when an earlier report of the Secretary General is cited, whereas the particular paragraphs mentioned referred to actions of the LTTE.


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Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division since 2002

Amongst the more depressing discoveries of the last few years has been the realization that so-called human rights organizations are totally unwilling to discuss matters with transparency.

I found this initially with Human Rights Watch when, in 2007, they issued an outrageous press release about what they claimed were indiscriminate attacks on civilians by the Sri Lankan forces, when in fact their detailed report on the retaking of the East recorded only one instance of civilian casualties. I pointed this out to HRW, who did not admit their mistake but sent a general letter, to which I responded in detail. After that they cut off communication with me.

I made another effort in September when I was in Geneva. The new HRW representative in Geneva seemed a decent type and seemed to engage positively, after which we agreed I should write to her with my complaints about the previous public performance put on by HRW in New York. She agreed to respond, but evidently was advised against it, for I received no reply to my letter.

A few months later the Foreign Minister asked me to go to London to speak at a meeting at the House of Commons which HRW was arranging. He had been asked, but was busy so requested me to go instead. When HRW heard I was coming, they cancelled this meeting. I believe there was a causal connection for the diplomat in London who was liaising said that they had expressed fear that I would rubbish them.

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Apart from broadening the mind, travel also allows me to catch up on the ‘Economist’, which still remains my favourite news magazine. I used to be astonished that its entry into Sri Lanka was so often restricted since, while its headlines and some of the phrases it uses can be acid, its reporting is generally balanced. I also had a soft spot for it because a debate over something erroneous it had reported enabled me to pinpoint, so that the Norwegian head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission had to grant my case, the source of the negative leaks about the Sri Lankan government that were emanating from his office.

With the offending publicity officer removed from his job, we stopped the nasty little digs for which the SLMM had been held responsible, but which its by then highly professional leadership repudiated. We got on very well thereafter, and the generally earnest personnel the Norwegians sent us told me some pretty harsh stories about the LTTE by the time they finally left.

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Bruce Haigh

I am writing, as Head of the Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat in 2009, to correct some errors in the opinion piece on ‘The Drum’, reproduced it seems from ABC News. It seems best to make annotations direct on the published text, though I hope you will also reproduce the evidence from the ICRC that suggests Mr Haigh is being his usual mischievous self as regards Sri Lanka.

“Admiral Thisara Samarsinghe was recently approved by the Australian Government to become the next Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Canberra. He joined the navy in 1974 and retired in January 2011.

Admiral Samarsinghe was chief of staff of the Sri Lankan Navy at a time when the navy shelled Tamil soldiers and civilians trapped in what had been declared a safe zone at the end of the civil war. The navy then blocked attempts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate the injured, women and children from the safe zone.”

Mr Haigh advances no evidence at all for this bald statement. He completely ignores the evidence of the ICRC, which sent the letter below to the previous Commander of the Navy on February 14th 2009, following assistance provided by the navy to the ICRC. Sadly, in recent discussions of what took place, the support provided by the navy to the ICRC with regard to provision of food and evacuation of the wounded (under 5000, with about 2000 more sick and 7000 bystanders sent out, indicating that the number of war wounded was limited), the role of the navy is ignored. I need only refer you to the language used by the Head of the ICRC, and his references to discipline and kindness and respect for you to realize that Mr Haigh possesses none of these qualities and should not be let loose on an unsuspecting public. 

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One of the most depressing aspects of the recent killing of Osama bin Laden is the manner in which it seems to have warped moral judgments. Reading through the ‘Newsweek’ account of what had happened, and the wider dimensions of the incident, I came across the following claim by Elie Wiesel, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his part in bringing those responsible for the Holocaust to justice.  Wiesel notes the celebrations that attended the killing of bin Laden and that normally he ‘would respond to such scenes with deep apprehension. The execution of a human being – any human being – should never be an event to be celebrated.’  But he believes that this death was different. Wiesel claims that bin Laden’s crimes were so many, that By his actions, he gave up any right to human compassion.’

I found this worrying. I do not disagree with Wiesel with regard to there being no need to regret bin Laden’s death. But I do not think compassion is something to which people have a right. I believe compassion is a duty we owe ourselves, and that we should never cease to feel compassion for all sentient beings. Such compassion should not take away from the understanding that the death of one individual or another may be necessary so as to prevent further suffering. But inflicting death as a matter of justice or self-defence should never harden us to the need for compassion for our fellow human beings, and indeed for all forms of life.

And I fear that Wiesel went further, in justifying other deaths, in a manner that suggested that a determination to destroy what has harmed us can have even more dangerous consequences for ourselves. He wrote that bin Laden ‘was not the only one put at risk by the American operation. There were others. Among them, children. And children are never guilty. Still, it was bin Laden himself who placed them in harm’s way’.

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LTTE child soldiers on combat duties

One of the saddest aspects of the treatment of citizens of the Vanni as hostages was the manner in which several international agencies did nothing about this. I have noted previously the manner in which no one working in the Vanni deigned to make it public when the LTTE was recruiting children from each family, and it was left to the Norwegian ambassador to reveal this to us formally after his visit to the Vanni.

There had indeed been a complaint from the then head of Save the Children, when the families of his employees were affected. I upbraided him at the time for having kept silent when the children of other familes were being taken, and his excuse was that surely government would not want Save the Children to be implicated in hostilities through family members of employees. My response was that I was not upset with him for finally protesting, it was his silence when the children of others were being recruited that horrified me.

Astonishingly, all this was going on while millions were being spent on what was supposed to be programmes to ensure protection for children. Needless to say, questions about the impact of these programmes, and efforts to ensure accountability, were met with obfuscation.

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Rajiva Wijesinha


May 2011
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