One of the most significant omissions on the part of those bearing witness against the Sri Lankan government is detail about the manner in which the LTTE used the No Fire Zones. Though both the Darusman Report and the book by Gordon Weiss mention that the LTTE used military equipment ‘in the proximity of civilians’, they treat this as a distinct issue from the allegations they make against the Sri Lankan government. Given that returning hostile fire is not a war crime, they should have discussed the actual actions taken by the government in the context of proportionality, but this is avoided. The impression they seek to create is that the government attacked hospitals and civilians systematically, whereas the evidence, when it can be quantified – as with actual hits on hospitals, including within hospital premises – suggests that such incidents were extremely rare. Given the systematic manner in which the LTTE used civilians and places of civilian gathering, including hospitals, the record shows remarkable care on the part of the government.

Damilvany of course never mentions the systematic use the LTTE made of hospitals and such areas. The Sri Lankan government did try at one time to draw attention to what was going on, but it received no support whatsoever. The answer the ICRC sent in response, one letter to four urgent appeals, suggests how the international community as it is termed continued formulaic in its responses –

‘Re: Complaints about LTTE firing from the no fire zone

In reference to your different letters on the above mentioned matter (dated 16.02,. 17.02, 18.02 and 19.02 2009) the International Committee of the Red Cross wishes to inform you of the following.

The ICRC is aware the Sri Lankan authorities have announced the demarcation of a new “safe zone” along the Mullaitivu lagoon, and welcomes this development as it may help to find practical humanitarian solutions that may enhance the protection of civilians and those no longer directly taking part in the hostilities in the Wanni.

However, the ICRC would like to point out that not having been agreed upon by both parties to the conflict with the aim to shelter the wounded, sick and civilians from the effects of hostilities or with the aim to demilitarize it, the zone as such is not specifically protected under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This being said, the civilians and those no longer taking a direct part in the hostilities who have taken in the ‘no fire zone’ remain of course protected persons under IHL.

The ICRC has in the past not missed any opportunity, and will continue to do so, to remind both parties to the conflict to respect in all circumstances their obligations under IHL, in particular the principles of precautions, distinction and proportionality, in order to spare all protected persons from the effects of hostilities.

We stay at your disposal, should you have any query on the above.’

ICRC Letter 20 Feb 2009

ICRC Letter 20 Feb 2009 to SF Commander - Security Forces Headquaters (Wanni) Vavuniya

That last line seems typical of the ICRC, and one wonders whether it was as helpful to the LTTE. Of course one has to recognize that the ICRC worked on the basis of confidentiality, and they could not be expected to make public what advice they gave to the LTTE. Still, one can understand, particularly in the context of the deceit practiced by Jacques de Maio, who headed the Sri Lanka desk in Geneva, the anger of the Sri Lankan government at what seemed deliberately aggressive critical statements of the ICRC during the first couple of months of 2009, with specifics that seemed designed to present the Sri Lankan government in the worst possible light, with no matching criticism of the LTTE. The fact that the LTTE was deploying its weapons in close proximity to hospitals was never mentioned.

The Sri Lankan army was kind enough to give me copies of all communications it received from the ICRC during the first five months of 2009. It is possible that it omitted some, and there may have been other oral communications, but what I have tells a very different story from what Darusman and Weiss and Channel 4 present. I believe it would therefore help if the ICRC made public any other communications it might have made, and also the communications it made to the LTTE ‘to respect in all circumstances their obligations under IHL, in particular the principles of precautions, distinction and proportionality, in order to spare all protected persons from the effects of hostilities’.

If the silence of the ICRC, though breached irresponsibly on occasion, can be explained by its obligations of confidentiality, there is no such excuse for the UN. They never declared openly that the LTTE was preventing its local staff from leaving the No Fire Zone, and even the one occasion on which they expressed awareness that the UN Communications Hub in Puthukkudiyirippu was being endanged, they used the passive voice to avoid attributing agency – It was reported to us that ‘artillery and mortar bases have been established in the general area of our communications hub from where they deliver fire to your forces’.

Having acknowledged awareness of what was going on, Chris du Toit, who with his experience of working with the ghastly terrorist forces of Jonas Savimbi in Angola had been made Chief Security Adviser to the UN, then requested the Security Forces Commander to ‘inform your respective ground commanders and artillery commanders not to deliver any artillery, mortar or small arms fire into the general area of the hub’.

Letter from Chris Du Toit - UN Office of the Chief of Security, 20 January 2009.

Whatever interpretation is given of the term ‘general area of the hub’, this is rich indeed. ‘They are firing at you from the general area of the hub, but you should not fire back,’ is essentially what Chris Du Toit is advising. Given the suspicious manner in which the so-called hub was set up, and continued to operate, which I shall look into elsewhere – in discussing the information purportedly supplied by Colonel Harun Khan, the head of the convoy in the hub at the time – one wonders indeed whether du Toit had not thought up a brilliant Savimbi type tactic to throw the Sri Lankan forces off their stride.

Du Toit’s letter was sent on January 20th. That was when the first No Fire Zone had been declared, which encouraged the LTTE to continue with the tactic, perhaps heartened by the knowledge that, since they had not agreed to the NFZ, it was not protected by IHL. Needless to say, whatever they did seemed innocent to the Darusman panel, which engaged in its customary whitewash of the LTTE by declaring about incidents on January 24th – ‘Although LTTE cadre were present in the NFZ, there was no LTTE presence inside the United Nations hub. The LTTE did fire artillery from approximately 500 metres away as well as from further back in the NFZ, but the area where the United Nations was based was very clearly civilian’.

The UN did not it seems ask the Tigers to take their weapons away from the NFZ. The Bishop of Jaffna was made of sterner stuff, and on January 25th, in a letter which thanked the government for declaring a ‘Safety Zone’ as he termed it, and asked that it be extended (which would surely not have been proposed had he thought the government was firing into the Zone), he noted that ‘We are also urgently requesting the Tamil Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fire their artillery shells and rockets at the Army’.

That appeal failed. Meanwhile Chris du Toit, in discussing with Nishan Muthukrishna and me the shells that had fallen near the UN hub – and it should not be forgotten that no member of UN staff was injured during this whole period – noted that they could not say from where the shells had been fired. Of only one, did he note, could the direction be definitely stated, and that had come from the LTTE positions.

But none of this was made public, and so the LTTE continued on its merry way, using the civilians as fodder, precisely as it had intended all along. Whether it was pusillanimity or practice that prevented the so-called international community from objecting at the time is not clear. But it is particularly rich that now, when all that is forgotten and those who abused the civilians are beyond criticism or justice, they all in their different ways throw at us the book they clutched sedulously to their chests while the people were suffering.

Daily News 3 August 2011

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