I was deeply shocked by various pronouncements in the recent debate in the House of Commons on what was termed the issue of Human Rights on the Indian Subcontinent. Much of the debate was about Kashmir, and several MPs weighed in against India in what seemed a very unfair and biased fashion. But India is large enough to look after itself, and even to cope with the indignation the Britishers expressed when it was reported that India had reacted strongly to the British parliamentary debate on Kashmir. After all, as a lady called Joan Walley put it so expressively, ‘There are many people in Stoke-on-Trent from Kashmir who feel strongly…’

What shocked me, sympathetic as I am to the feelings of anyone from Stoke-on-Trent, was that these British MPs simply had no regard for truth. They made things up as and how they liked. I had previously been used to Siobhain McDonagh, but what was astonishing was that two Conservatives had jumped on the bandwagon as far as Sri Lanka was concerned.

I will confine myself here only to matters where blunders were egregious. There were several matters about which looking at evidence would suggest these sanctimonious creatures were wrong. But to be totally wrong, with no concern for evidence, struck me as very sad indeed.

A man called Lee Scott, whom I had met with Ms McDonagh, and who had struck me at the time as far less foolish than the good lady, referred blithely to reports from the United Nations ‘that 40,000 innocent people were massacred at the end of the conflict’. Actually the Darusman Report only says in Para 137 that ‘A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage’ And Gordon Weiss, whose book perhaps Mr Scott thinks is a UN report, has claims of between 10,000 and 40,000. But no, doubtless primed by his constituents, Scott has no qualms about going for 40,000.

Scott also engages in crude witticisms when he declares that ‘There are still children in some of the camps who are four or five years old, and I have yet to meet an 18 month old terrorist’. The effort at humour seems designed however also to conflates the rehabilitees with the children amongst the 7,000 in the camp. They are with their parents, none of whom were suspected of terrorism. All former child soldiers were released a year back.

Scott’s mordant wit emerges again when he refutes Mr Binley’s comment about the 160,000 people he saw in Puttalam (he calls them Tamils, but they were probably Tamil speaking Muslims from the North) who said they had been driven out by the LTTE. He accepts that they may have said this, but declares that what happened in Libya indicates that people change their story. I presume he was not referring to the sales of arms Britain engaged in to Libya shortly before they decided to overthrow Gaddafi.

Scott claims too that ‘A number of babies and children below the age of 12 were not accounted for.’ This is what the tracing service established by the Vavuniya Government Agent is about, and perhaps the British High Commission could help Scott by transmitting any names he has to the GA. But I suspect he has no real concerns, and is simply scoring brownie points with his constituents, as also with his claim that the elderly and displaced are unaccounted for, which is bizarre, because they were amongst those first released.

Scott however seems almost sensible in comparison with his fellow Conservative, Robert Halfon from Harlow, who asserted that ‘As well as the thousands and thousands of Tamils killed by the Sri Lankan regime, 17,000 Tamils are still caged behind barbed wire and another nearly 200,000 in transit camps have been refused permission to return to their homes’.

In reality, leaving aside his omission of any mention of the Tamils killed by the LTTE, the fact is that there are only 7,000 Tamils in Manik Farm and they have full freedom of movement. Transit camps are used for a day or two before resettlement, and there are hardly any in such at present. The figure of 200,000 refers to those who had been displaced long before the last year of the conflict, including the 100,000 and more Muslims expelled by the LTTE. They have been free to return but most do not wish to now.

Halfon later refers to reports of ‘Tamil civilians being summarily executed or disappearing, and that follows the genocide of 40,000 Tamils in the last decade’.

I am not sure if the first part of that statement was also about the last decade, to include the many Tamils killed by the LTTE during the Cease Fire period, about whom no sympathy was extended by British politicians. The High Commission should be asked to check with him whether there are any current reports he is referring to. Certainly he seems to have no idea about either Sri Lankan history or the current situation, for he says that ‘An estimated 180,000 Tamils are still displaced, either in transit camps or sheltering’.

The figure must refer largely to the Muslims who were chased out by the LTTE 20 years ago – again with no British politicians extending sympathy or concern – and who prefer to stay on in Puttalam, given the housing the government started before the LTTE was destroyed in Sri Lanka. Those displaced in 2009, about whom alone concerns were expressed, are almost all now resettled.

He declares too that ‘Names of prisoners have still not been published’ whereas the list is  is with the HRC, and visits have been taking place. If he is talking about the rehabilitees, that list was always available and visits were regular from the start.

Halfon is also critical of Sri Lankan relations with other countries including Libya. He is obviously not concerned about British relations with Libya. Perhaps he thinks it enhances one’s stature to display moral indignation at odds with earlier indulgence, but that seems shabby behavior, Sri Lanka never made money out of Libya and went overboard in providing prisoners for Libya to torture, but equally it does not dance on the grave of former friends.

Perhaps his most preposterous claim is that, in 2008, according to Human Rights Watch, Sri Lanka used rockets to obliterate entire refugee camps full of women and children. This is totally made up, and not even Human Rights Watch has said anything remotely like this.

He also says that, immediately after several thousand people had gathered there (a safe zone), near a United Nations Food distribution plant, the Sri Lankan military shelled the area heavily, killing thousands of people in a few hours.

This is tosh. The incident referred to is the one variously dated by Weiss and Darusman on January 22nd and 23rd, whereas the UN wrote on January 24th  thanking government for its excellent cooperation. A couple of days later, on the day Tamilnet for the first time alleged deaths in triple figures (300, not thousands) the UN, which had questioned us about this, sent an sms to say that they believed most of the shelling that day had come from the LTTE. The Bishop of Jaffna asked the LTTE to withdraw its heavy weapons from the No Fire Zone.

Then we had the irrepressible Siobhain McDonagh who, perhaps to burnish her credentials by going further than the Conservative men, claimed that ‘In the last five months of the conflict, 100,000 people were killed, 40,000 of them civilians.’

Even the worst possible estimate cited by the Darusman panel is much less – ‘One estimate is that there were approximately 40,000 surgical procedures and 5,000 amputations performed during the final phase. Depending on the ratio of injuries to deaths, estimated at various times to be 1:2 or 1:3, this could point to a much higher casualty figure. Others have put the estimate at 75,000, a figure obtained by subtracting the number of people who emerged from the conflict zone (approximately 290,000) from the estimate of the number thought to have been in the conflict zone (approximately 330,000 in the NFZ from January, plus approximately the 35,000, who emerged from the LTTE-held areas before that time).

I should note that, though Ms Mcdonagh goes much further, even this is preposterous arithmetic. Firstly, the ratios seem to be reversed, whereas usually there are twice or three times as many injuries as deaths. Darusman implies many more than 40,000 deaths whereas on this calculation it would be much less. Secondly, he seems to be suggesting that the estimate of 330,000, given by one source, was meant to exclude those who escaped from the LTTE before January, since he has to have a total of 365,000 to get 75,000 dead.

McDonagh dignifies her performance by reference to the UN, but ignores that even the Darusman Report only says that the ‘United Nations Country Team is one source of information; in a document that was never released publicly, it estimated a total figure of 7,721 killed and 18,479 injured from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, after which it became too difficult to count.’ This is all deaths, not just those of civilians.

She refers to a UN rapporteur who talks about ‘definitive war crimes’. Whom she means is not clear, but no rapporteur has used such a phrase, and even the Darusman report compilers, who are by no means UN rapporteurs, talk only of credible allegations. She cites the International Crisis Group as claiming that people were returned to places without basic amenities, which is nonsense, given that not only basic services, but also schools and hospitals, were provided.

She talks of the military routinely stealing Tamil property for use by military personnel and their families, which has not been alleged elsewhere.

Later she asks whether someone speaking positively of Sri Lanka thought it was legitimate for a democratically elected government to drop cluster bombs on hospitals, a claim that does not appear elsewhere except in the pages of pro-LTTE documents.

Finally Gareth Thomas, who I believe held ministerial office, claimed that the ‘The ICRC was for far too long denied access to the prisons in Sri Lanka, which held many of those whom the Sri Lankan government had chosen to detain’, which is confusion, for the ICRC prison visits, which had been agreed on earlier, were not stopped.

I can only hope our Ministry of External Affairs will call in the British High Commissioner, who is a much more balanced individual than his predecessor, and suggest that he convey the correct information to his Parliamentarians. Clearly his task of building bridges is going to be much more difficult, if arrant nonsense is allowed to go unchecked.

Daily News 24 September 2011