Gordon Weiss and the Darusman Panel

17. Amongst the least plausible of the charges heaped up against the Sri Lankan government are those regarding what the Darusman panel terms ‘Human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict’.

The most dramatic of these concerns relates to rape, a word the panel uses 17 times. Over half the mentions use tentative locutions (‘may’, ‘inference’) or refer to vulnerability or fear. Other mentions are formal headings or in lists of possible crimes. There is only one assertion that instances of rape were recorded, another that instances were reported.

The desperate nature of these allegations is apparent from a related charge, that ‘women were forced to perform sexual acts in exchange for food, shelter or assistance in camps’. The footnote that is supposed to substantiate this refers to a section of a UN report that referred to activities in areas controlled by the LTTE, perhaps the shoddiest instance of  footnoting in a text replete with inaccuracies.

Gethin Chamberlain - Guardian UK

From the very start indeed there were efforts to introduce charges of sexual violence and perversity that fell apart when probed. The most vicious of these was a claim in the ‘Guardian’ by a gentleman called Gethin Chamberlain that 11 women had been found with their throats slit by the welfare centres. It turned out that there was no basis whatsoever for this story, and Chamberlain admitted that his source – which he implied was from the UN or an international Non-Governmental Organization – was unreliable. He refused however to retract the story, claiming it was too late by the time I pinned him down, but declared that he had not relied on that source again.

Sadly there were those in the UN who wanted to play such a game, though fortunately we were able to nip this in the bud, or perhaps mud. On April 30th a report was issued which claimed that ‘On 29 April the bodies of 3 women were recovered near the river in Zone 3’. This was entirely false, as was admitted by those responsible for the report when I questioned them on May 2nd.

Amin Awad - UNHCR

I was particularly careful, because the report had been issued without consultation of the Ministry of Human Rights, in terms of the procedures agreed upon by UNHCR. This was on the assumption that the purpose of UNHCR activity was to prevent abuse, but clearly some junior staff in UNHCR assumed that their role was to denigrate the government. The Head of UNHCR tried to defend its position by claiming that his staff who had contributed to the report had spoken to government officials at the Camp but this too turned out to be a lie. Fortunately I was able to bring together the girls who had issued the report and the officials they claimed to have spoken to, and they could only declare that they had spoken in general terms about problems. They had no answer when I suggested that the bodies of three dead women was a serious matter and they should, if they had any sense of responsibility, have raised such an issue immediately.

Part of the problem lay in the awe which the head of UNHCR, a Sudanese with career ambitions, seemed to feel for one of these young ladies, called Anna Pelosi. He told me that she was related to the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and that one had to be careful in dealing with her. It is possible of course that Amin Awad, a delightful and generally helpful but nevertheless slippery character, may have made all this up, but this was an area in which it seemed to me he did not display his usual self-confidence.

His deputy, a very decent lady from New Zealand, called Elizabeth Tan, also tried hard to defend her staff but all she could say was that on April 30th Ms Pelosi and a colleague had met the Competent Authority and raised ‘the issue of SGBV incidents near the river’. There was no mention at all of the three dead bodies they had asked their Colombo office to highlight in a press release.

At the same time the record of their meeting with the principal military liaison officer for civil affairs mentioned only the following ‘specific cases of gender based violence and other issues relating to women’s protection in the camp. Examples included:

  1. Incident in Poonthodam MV where a soldier followed a woman to the toilet. A girl screamed and a camp volunteer came to her rescue. The military allegedly beat up the camp volunteer.

  2. In Nelukulam a girl was abused by her uncle when her mother was in the hospital. The army allegedly encouraged the man to continue abusing the girl by providing him with liquor and turning off the lights.

  3. Reports of prostitituion in Pampaimadu’.

Assuming that the ladies did not think any serious incidents had to be hugged close in their hearts, this does not suggest any great problem. Government did however make it clear to them that the agencies which had received funding for rights monitoring should provide regular reports, and that we would have monthly meetings to ensure remedial action if there were any lapses.

I found it very difficult to get regular reports, and it turned out that UNHCR had not been very efficient about this previously. It seemed that programmes that should have been run in conjunction with government, if they were to serve the purpose of correcting any abuses, had ignored government until I demanded responsible reporting and follow up. I found cases in which follow up was weak, in particular with regard to people who had been resettled, but there were no reports at all of excesses in the camps such as nearly two years later the Darusman panel reported.

The rather lame claim of the panel is that ‘the military warned IDPs not to report cases of rape to the police or to humanitarian actors’ but there is ample evidence that reporting was pursued and took place of alleged negative aspects. Gordon Weiss gives a graphic account of a UNICEF worker, ‘a young Australian’, who gathered data ‘like an undercover agent’. It is significant then that Weiss says little about sexual abuse in camps.  Whilst noting, with his customary stance of balance, that ‘Aid workers and non-governmental organizations are prone to exaggerating the numbers of dead, or the numbers of women raped’, the predictable ‘Nevertheless’ is followed only by the claim that ‘many thousands of civilians were killed’.

It is not an accident that Weiss’s charges then relate to a matter about which first hand evidence could not be available. With regard to a matter in which direct claims might have had some substance, ie direct reports of sexual abuse, he is silent. The Darusman panel therefore talks predominantly of possibilities of sexual abuse, or indirect reports and inferences. Given their obvious determination to make categorical charges on the flimsiest of evidence, the tentative nature of their claims is perhaps the best evidence that Sri Lankan forces did not engage in wanton sexual misdemeanours as alleged in general terms.

Daily news 7 September 2011

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