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.

Security Forces personnel providing medical assistance to an IDP woman

I should add that, in contrast to HRW with its cowardly ways, I had the highest regard for Amnesty International, so much so that its representative in Geneva, Peter Splinter, asked me why I did not rubbish them. I said that I felt Amnesty was generally sincere, even though I might disagree with them on particular points. They had been concerned about Human Rights before it became fashionable, and as was noted in the Australian Parliament recently, they used to criticize left and right alike. This was before Human Rights became a tool in political agendas – though I should note that, after Sam Zarifi joined them from HRW, Amnesty International seems to have changed a bit.

I should add that Peter noticed that I did not rubbish certain Sri Lankan organizaztions too, such as the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights and the National Peace Council, and my response was that they too seemed to me sincere, and the NPC certainly had always been willing to engage, even if we had different points of view.

Human Rights Watch however makes a fetish of ignoring anyone and anything that they dislike, and in particular reasoned debate and discussion based on evidence if they do not like the protagonists.

Thus they have condemned out of hand the “Seminar on Defeating Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Experience” to be held from May 31 to June 2, 2011 in Colombo. They declare that it is a ‘Military Conference to Whitewash War Crimes’ and that ‘Invited Countries Should Stay Home, Press for Accountability’.


Treating the wounded

Brad Adams, the sanctimonious Asia director at HRW declares unequivocally that the model of counter-insurgency the Sri Lankan government will illustrate ‘included repeatedly shelling civilians, targeting hospitals, and trying to prevent the world from finding out about it’.

This is nonsense. Even if Adams believes that such activities took place, the argument Sri Lanka will advance indicates a more humane approach. Surely those who believe that different tactics were adopted should listen to what is said, and critique on the basis of evidence, instead of setting up a scarecrow they can blithely knock down.

Adams quotes from a report he claims came from a panel of experts that seems to substantiate his view. He does not mention that these are not experts in conter-insurgency warfare, they are experts in legal issues asked to advise the Secretary General on accountability issues, not sit in judgment as a war crimes tribunal. They have recorded allegations, which perhaps is acceptable if they are thinking about accountability, but their determination that the allegations are credible goes beyond their brief, since there is no indication of them sifting evidence, and sometimes the backing they purport to cite is quite contradictory.

Medical services for evacuated civilians

Worse, Adams cites as definitive what even the panel records merely as allegations, credible or otherwise. He uses the word ‘indiscriminate’, which his agent Charu Latha Hogg trotted out in 2007, even while the report noted only one instance of civilian casualties. Though he records the Panel’s findings that the LTTE deliberately put civilians in danger by firing from amongst them, and by siting heavy weaponry near hospitals and other areas of humanitarian activity, it never occurs to him that it is precisely through discussion and debate that one can work round the the moral issues this type of conduct by terrorists raises (Does one refrain from firing and allow the LTTE to kill one’s own forces? Does one fire indiscriminately? Does one fire as carefully as possible to limit civilian casualties, knowing that these may be inevitable but that not firing will be to expose both one’s own forces as well as civilians to greater danger).

Brad Adams does not care, because he lives in a cosy world which terrorist activity does not affect, where the hard decisions as to how one stops terrorism are not made. We have recently seen even a humanist like Elie Wiesel seeming to blame Osama bin Laden for putting children at risk, as though those who harmed children in the course of eliminating bin Laden did not need to think any further about the moral dilemmas the presence of children presented.

LTTE child soldiers

It would be nice to live in the simple safe world of Brad Adams, but we in Sri Lanka suffered from terrorism, we are all glad it has been eliminated. The viciousness with which Adams still pursues the Sri Lankan government, his adamant refusal to engage and discuss issues, will not serve the real world well. Had he encouraged people to attend and ask hard questions about the problems we faced in eliminating terrorism, I could have respected him. But a man who runs away from a discussion in the House of Commons is not likely to help the world in maintaining moral perspectives whilst also dealing with the evils – indeed the terror – of terrorism.