Gordon Weiss

Gordon Weiss’s adulation of Chris du Toit is perhaps understandable in a man who strikes me as a Heroic Vitalist, the description used of romantic writers such as Nietschze and Carlyle and Lawrence, who get carried away be energy and verve, but are rather inhibited themselves. Weiss certainly is romantic, to the extent of getting carried away by suicide bombers in a way I find rather sinister. A long description of suicide attacks culminates in the rather wistful claim that ‘Suicidal bravery is poorly understood in today’s advanced economies, couched as they are in prosperity and lulled by economic distraction’, which is a line worthy of Lawrence retreating to a primordial theoretically much purer world.

Weiss’s world view is indicated in the footnote to this panegyric, when he notes that ‘Within living memory, the Second World War provides almost innumerable examples on all sides of suicidal bravery. For example, the two young Czechoslovak soldiers who parachuted into German-occupied Prague in May 1942 o assassinate the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich had been extensively briefed by senior British officers on the insignificant chances that they might survive their mission’.  Weiss’s total incapacity to distinguish between going to almost certain death to attack a particular legitimate target and destroying a great many civilians makes clear the type of warped mentality we are dealing with.

The fantasy world in which the man lives is apparent in other particulars. He simply conjures significant dates out of thin air. The attack on the Central Bank is gratuitously dated to ‘New Year’s Eve 1996’, when it actually took place at the end of January that year. Weiss claims that there was an air force attack ‘On the evening of 29 April 2009’ when ’Sri Lanka was playing Australia in the final of the International Cricket Competition (ICC) in Barbados’.  Weiss claims that ‘With Australia in an unassailable position, the author retired to bed’, presumably referring to the World Cup final of 2007. By April 2009 all Tiger airfields had been lost to the government.

Where one wonders whether the man is fantasizing or simply fulfilling his prejudices is in descriptions such as the one of the attack on Sencholai. He cites Joanna van Gerpen, the then UNICEF Head in Sri Lanka, whom he describes as ‘a seasoned UNICEF field operative’ as someone who ‘knew the complex as an orphanage for girls’, a phrase that seems to confirm the Tiger claim that ‘the buildings housed an orphanage’.  Weiss thus avoids committing himself, even though it was shown at the time that the claim was totally false, and indeed even the Tigers, after evidence was brought to show the orphanage had been moved elsewhere some years back, adjusted their claim to state that the place was a training centre.

The government claim that it was a military centre was substantiated by video footage of girls in military fatigues. Weiss however declares that ‘There was no evidence that the site had been used for military purposes’, and cites what purports to be a description of what occurred by a 17 year old girl called Juliet, which is taken straight from Tamilnet.  The later testimony, which he was well aware of, of the girls who were rescued and kept in safe custody after one of them had died when taken back to the Wanni by UNICEF, about the military training being given, is ignored, with attribution only to a Commission Weiss treats with contumely, unlike Tamilnet.

Weiss makes a valiant effort to defend UNICEF later in the book, which is understandable if what seems  a positive view of Joanna van Gerpen is anything to go by, a woman who, through gullibility I suspect rather than wickedness allowed continuing abuse of children.   I first met her in 2007, when she came into my office in the Peace Secretariat after a visit to Kilinochchi, and announced blithely that the Tigers were behaving very well, and had promised to release everyone under 17.

I asked what had prevented them from doing this for the last several years, despite commitments at the time of the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002. They had had difficulties, she said, but they would really keep their promise now. This was at the time when, as we were finally officially informed by the Norwegian Ambassador, so-called Humanitarian Agencies and the UN too having kept deathly quiet about all this although they were supposed to be protecting the civilians in the North, the LTTE was conscripting at least one member of every family.

Given that the Scandinavian Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission had ruled that the Tigers had violated the Ceasefire thousands of times, including with several cases of child recruitment,  I told Joanna that it was strange that she should credit the Tigers now. ‘But why 17?’ I added, ‘I thought the age for recruitment should be 18.’

Joanna van Gerpen meeting with S. P. Tamilselvan, the political leader of the LTTE, in Kilinochchi.

‘Yes,’ she nodded brightly. ‘But they have some problem about their legislation. They’ll amend it soon.’  ‘Legislation?’ I said. ‘The Tigers?’

She was not entirely a fool, and realized her mistake and tried to correct it, but I told her I would write to her boss to complain. I did so, and she sent back a grovel, affirming that the UN stood absolutely by the principle that 18 should be the minimum age of recruitment. I almost felt sorry for her, and actually made a point of going to her farewell party, which was attended by almost no one else in government, in marked contrast to that of her successor, who had managed, his boss noted, to restore confidence between government and UNICEF. But the problems JoAnna’s lackadaisical attitude had caused ran deep, and led to the ruthless sacrifice of thousands of youngsters.

I should note here the contrasting approach of the then Norwegian ambassador who had made it clear to the Tigers, when he had seen them earlier, before the peace talks that were meant to take place in June 2006, that they could not refuse to allow the question of child soldiers to be placed on the agenda. They had got away previously by sheer bloody mindedness, and the ineffective tolerance of UNICEF had helped. Fortunately by 2006 there were people with a greater sense of commitment to the people of the Wanni prepared to risk unpopularity to fulfil their responsibilities.

Weiss is more impressed by a fellow Australian who ‘was compelled to gather her data like an undercover agent’.  One would have assumed that, if she was working for UNICEF, by agreement with the Sri Lankan government, she was there to ensure the welfare of the children in the camp, and in particular to facilitate prompt action for trauma.  Instead she, like du Toit’s network of observers, seems to have been more anxious to build up evidence against the Sri Lankan government. She was obviously not the only one, part of a team who ‘To disguise their task…sometimes accompanied truck loads of clothes or cooking utensils that were being distributed to the exhausted camp inhabitants’.

With all this evidence, I continue astonished that our Ministry of External Affairs has not called in UN officials and found out what exactly was going on. We work with the UN in the belief that they are here to help our people. Certainly if they find that we are not doing enough, they should tell us and ensure better work.  But to set themselves up as a clandestine operation, disguising their real purposes  from government, strikes at the very heart of what the UN is supposed to be doing, and this should not be tolerated.

Daily News 7 July 2011

Letter from SCOPP SG to Peter Splinter AI Geneva dated September 10, 2007

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