SL Air Force helps to transport essential goods to civilians in the North

The area in which there seems the greatest perversity about the concerns that have been expressed, regarding the conflict in Sri Lanka, is that of humanitarian assistance. The Darusman report claims categorically that ‘The Government systematically deprived persons in the conflict zone of humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and basic medical supplies, particularly supplies needed to treat injuries. To this end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians that remained in the conflict zone.’

14.   There are in fact two charges here, which need to be distinguished. One is that government deliberately underestimated the number of civilians in the conflict area so as to deprive them of assistance. This is a wicked attribution of motives, the more wicked because the various estimates that were made never affected the programme for supplying assistance that government had put in place in consultation with its officials on the ground as well as with the UN.

Certainly there were inaccurate estimates of the numbers, but most of these were in good faith, based on calculations that did not take into account the influx of people from other areas that had taken place in the Wanni over the previous two decades. The fact that many of those who were in the area, and who are now being resettled, came originally from the hill country, and were not there at the time of the previous census, in 1981, is one reason for the miscalculation, though there should have been greater awareness of the demographical changes that had taken place in recent years.

It is also possible that some estimates were provided as a corrective to what seemed gross exaggeration, as when it was claimed that there were over 400,000 people entrapped. The various estimates balance out in the end, at approximately the figures for which supplies had been calculated. The actual number turned out to be slightly more, but this is understandable in view of the very high number of youngsters under the age of 12, suggesting that government had managed to ensure basic health and nutrition at satisfactory levels even during the period of conflict.

However it is true that there were several estimates that were inaccurate. It must also be noted though that these were not made by those responsible for supplying assistance.

15.   The second charge is that there was systematic deprivation of supplies by government. This is completely untrue, and government has provided statistics both of the amount of food that was sent into the Wanni, and also of what was purchased there for distribution. The simple fact that stocks of paddy were found in stores afterwards, while sacks of paddy and other foodstuffs had been used to construct bunkers makes it clear that there was no shortage of essentials.

Sri Lanka Air Force personnel flying in relief supplies

What is most perverse about the charge is that it makes no mention of the role of the LTTE in ensuring that people were deprived of supplies. This was a game that began early on, precisely so that it could be used for propaganda purposes. Sadly the Darusman Panel, working on the same lines as Gordon Weiss, perpetuates this myth, with no effort to look at the LTTE’s role in limiting supplies.

The tactic had indeed been used previously too, but in the recent past the most obvious instance of this was when the LTTE tried to prevent supplies being shipped to Jaffna after the A9 was closed at Muhumalai, following the attack launched by the LTTE in the guise of civilians in August 2006. Government initially asked the ICRC to take up supplies under its flag, and this was done once, after which the ICRC was told that the LTTE would no longer guarantee the safety of such a supply ship.

It was during this time that the LTTE also fired on a vessel carrying Norwegians from the Sri Lanka Monitoring Misison. Though they claimed at the time that they did not know monitors were on board, the monitors told me at the farewell party the Norwegian ambassador had for them – they had been discreet before – that they were well aware that the LTTE knew perfectly well they were there. All this was part of a deliberate effort to create the feeling that the seas were not safe, and it is a tribute to the Commissioner General of Essential Services, Mr Divaratne, and to the navy that had to escort the vessels he chartered, that supplies to Jaffna were restored, and prices soon stabilized. A report of the Danish Refugee Council on the situation there records that all goods were available, and most were affordable.

Sri Lankan govt food convoy to Mullaittivu 2008

Incidentally, that the strategy of the LTTE was well understood was apparent when, flushed with my success over having the road northward into the Wanni open almost every day in the week, I asked the ICRC whether they could not get permission from the LTTE to escort food supplies.  The ICRC Head said laconically that the LTTE was not likely to agree, since that would mean the navy would be freed up to launch even more attacks on them.

Still, the situation in Jaffna was stable by 2007, when I became Head of the Peace Secretariat. In the Wanni however things were difficult, since the road north from Omanthai was open only three days in the week, and the vehicles carrying supplies had to be checked carefully. My Director of Economic Affairs, who worked closely with UNOPS, told me that the answer was a scanning machine, but perhaps being slightly old fashioned, I was horrified at the cost. I was told that this could come from UN aid, but that seemed to me a waste of money, particularly when I was told that, if this vulnerable machine was put out of action by an explosion, as seemed all too likely, funds would be found for a replacement. I remembered then how my father had noticed that all politicians liked having power with regard to procurement, and I suspect there is something of this in UN officials too.

Instead I asked the Secretary of Defence whether we could not open the road more frequently. He was adamant that that could not be done, and explained that the attack on Muhumalai had nearly resulted in Jaffna being lost. But when I explained that I was talking only about Omanthai, he said immediately that that could be open every day.  Since I had been given the impression that he was the stumbling block, I asked him why he did not open it, and he said the ICRC had not allowed it.

So I wrote to the ICRC, my first formal contact with a body that, in its Sri Lankan operations at least, I have high regard for, though its effectiveness was briefly spoilt by what I believe were intrigues in Geneva. The then ICRC Head, Toon vanderHoven I think he was, did not reply in writing but asked to meet me, and explained that the ICRC could not supervise such an opening unless both parties agreed. He refused to say direct that the LTTE did not allow permission, since ICRC dealings were confidential, but he did not demur when I pointed out that, since I had made a request, on behalf of government, having got clearance for this from the Ministry of Defence, it was obvious who was creating the problem.

...this was at the CCHA meeting which Sir John Holmes attended – the LTTE bluff was called.

He promised to negotiate further, but did not come back to me with the urgency I had expected. So I brought the matter up at the Consultative Committee for Humanitarian Assistance, when I was asked to report on the scanner, which I said I did not advise. The Secretary of Defence made it clear that he would be very happy, for his part, to open the road northward from Omanthai seven days a week, and I then put it to the ICRC that they should bring the matter up with the LTTE, which they could not then refuse.  I had to insist that this be minuted, and with the public recording of the willingness of the Sri Lankan government to open the road daily – this was at the CCHA meeting which Sir John Holmes attended – the LTTE bluff was called. Soon after it was announced that the road would be open six days a week. Entertainingly the SLMM weekly report said this was at the request of the LTTE, which I pointed out was nonsense, but I agreed to let them say that the matter had been decided by mutual agreement. Allegations of shortages – which had in fact been avoided by Mr Divaratne’s skilful management of supplies – stopped after that, to start again only when the LTTE began its game of holding hostages to be used as human shields.

Letter from Mr. S. B. Divaratne (Commissioner General of Essential Services) to Paul Castella (ICRC) 4 May 2009

Daily News 30 Aug 2011