The strange case of Peter Mackay

Perhaps the most telling perversions in the latest Channel 4 film come with regard to what is termed its first case study. This ‘begins on the 23rd of January when UN personnel from the last overland food convoy into the war zone became trapped in the fighting’. This is actually not quite correct, because most of Convoy 11 had gone back, but a few people chose to stay behind, contrary to what had been agreed with government, in order to try, it was claimed, to persuade the LTTE to allow UN workers who had been in the Wanni to leave.

The account relies heavily on a man called Peter Mackay, who was subsequently asked to leave Sri Lanka shortly after two individuals who worked for UNOPS, the agency by which he was employed, were arrested for transport of weapons. It should be noted that UNOPS had another employee too who engaged in show and tell, a man called Benjamin Dix who was featured in the first Channel 4 film. He had been doing the rounds attacking Sri Lanka under the aegis of Amnesty International in September 2008, until we complained, whereupon the UN system stopped him in terms of his contract, and the UNOPS head in Sri Lanka actually came into our Ministry to apologize and assure us that the incident would not be repeated. Unfortunately, when it was repeated, with the first Channel 4 film, we do not seem to have taken the matter up, and I suspect we will do nothing now, to make it clear to the UN that characters like Dix and Peter Mackay and Gordon Weiss are abusing the trust the UN placed in them.

Mackay is even more mysterious than the rest, since his name does not appear on the manifest of those who went into the Vanni in Convoy 11. The job description under which he was granted a visa states that he was supposed to ‘support the implementation of the UNOPS reconstruction portfolio in th current and future operational locations of Sri Lanka’. He seems however, according to an article in the Guardian that appeared after he was asked to leave, to have ‘collected high resolution satellite images’ and been part of the network of informants first publicized in the Darusman report which Chris du Toit, the Head of UN Security in Sri Lanka, and a former adviser to the terrorist Jonas Savimbi, had built up. Again, I am astonished and also very sad that the existence of this network was not taken up with the UN, whose senior officials were I believe as much in the dark about such shadowy networks and what they were actually doing as we were.

Mackay, like Gordon Weiss, implies that the remnants of the UN convoy faced great danger from the start. Weiss gives a starting date of January 22nd, Mackay of January 23rd. This is belied by what du Toit wrote to SF Headquarters on the 24th, that ‘I would like to thank you and your staff for excellent support to all the UN movements to date’. After the remnants of the convoy finally left, on January 29th, getting through with an ICRC convoy, du Toit wrote, on the 30th, ‘Many thanks for the close cooperation that my team experience with your staff’.

He did in that letter draw attention to possible danger to the local staff who had been compelled to stay behind, and wrote ‘Reports have been received of artillery fire as close as 100 meters from the hospital’. This is a far cry from Mackay’s sworn statement that ‘Now the closest shells landed a 100 meters from us indicating that they could control the fire if they wanted to’. Mackay thus implies that previously the fire fell even closer, but was adjusted when details of the convoy were conveyed, whereas on the 30th du Toit implies that 100 meters is an aberration that was unusual.

Underlying all this is the fact that, while our forces had to deal with terrorists using heavy weapons from amongst civilians and in hospitals, they maintained proportionality. The fact that hardly any shells fell in or near hospitals during this period – and I have the very few letters from the ICRC that raise the issue – is testimony to the great care that was exercised. I was also told by the doctors, including one that had got away before the final days after serving at the Udaiyarkadu hospital that Mackay refers to, that no shells fell on the hospital though there were one or two nearby, and that the LTTE was asked to remove its weapons but ignored this. None of this is of course cited from Mackay’s sworn statement, assuming he bothered to mention it, but fortunately we have the correspondence of du Toit and the Bishop of Jaffna, who wrote asking the LTTE to withdraw its heavy weaponry from amongst the citizens. We also have the evidence of the UNDP Head, Neil Buhne, who having roused us early morning with reports that there was firing in the area of the remnants of the convoy, sent a text message that evening to say that they believed most of the firing had come from the LTTE. But, unfortunately, the Darusman report, following Gordon Weiss, holds that the senior UN staff were negligent and has ordered an inquiry into their conduct or failure to act.

The alleged failure to provide supplies and the use of unreliable numbers

Channel 4’s second case study is about what it claims was deliberate denial of food. For this purpose it produces David Miliband claiming that only 60 tonnes of food was delivered to the zone between April 1st and 27th. This is incorrect, for through the ICRC over 1,000,000 kgs of food went in that month. There is also a letter from the Commissioner General of Essential Services to the ICRC asking them to expedite delivery of food he has got ready. That letter also notes over 1000 tonnes of food delivered in April.

This does not take into account the buffer stocks that had been put in place. It is precisely because of all this preparation and provision that so many of the displaced survived, and were able to make their way to safety when the LTTE grip was finally loosened. And though there were varying estimates of the numbers, the CGES continued throughout the conflict to provide supplies in terms of the numbers agreed upon with the UN. Though the UN too had lower estimates than the number that finally emerged, they are exempt from charges of deliberate lowering of figures. We however are assumed to have done everything from malice aforethought.

Contrariwise, David Miliband’s deliberate lie about the food that was taken in is seen as deep concern, not the sanctimonious humbug it is. He pretends to be very precise about his dates, in saying that there were only 60 tons between April 1st and April 27th, which suggests he knows about the 66 tons delivered on April 26th. He ignores the over 1000 tones delivered earlier in the month.

That the opposite error, that of inflating numbers, is also not entirely innocent is obvious from the manner in which the stories are supposed to be based on evidence that is then forgotten when it is shown to be unreliable. Thus the Times of London gave three different reasons for its vastly inflated figure of 20,000 casualties, the last being what it termed satellite images that showed the number of graves in the final No Fire Zone. There has also been much talk of satellite imagery from other auxiliary forces, and indeed Amnesty and Human Rights Watch commissioned a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which they thought would be the final nail in the Sri Lankan coffin. Though the report is now public, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have sedulously refrained from referring to it.

The reason for this is that the Report clearly refutes many of the allegations made against us. One claim was that the displaced had to move because of shelling. The report however says that

What caused the IDP structures to be removed between May 6 and May 10 is uncertain based solely on the imagery. It is notable how complete the removal of IDP structures appears, in that while some debris and evidence of the structures remains, overall the area appears to have been swept relatively clean. This is less indicative of the entire area being razed by shelling, though it could correspond with an emigration from those specific areas by the IDPs due to some outside driver……These roofless buildings were initially interpreted as possible evidence of shelling or burning. However, on-the-ground photos taken immediately after the conflict instead indicate widespread removal of rooftops, which were composed of sheet metal, for use in constructing shelters throughout the area.

Another canard was that the number of dead increased dramatically during the last few days. However the AAAS report states that

In all three gravesites reviewed, a total of 1,346 likely graves are estimated to be in the imagery by May 24, 2009. The majority of the graves were present by May 6, with little change after that except in the southernmost graveyard. The southernmost site grew an estimated 28% between May 6 and May 10, and grew another 20% between May 10 and May 24.

This southern graveyard seems to have been a graveyard for LTTE fighters. The report suggests this because it is similar in layout to another graveyard which was reported as having been for fighters. These were different from a third graveyard which was identified in media reports as having been for civilians.

Unlike the rigid pattern of the previous two sites, the layout of this area was much less regular. In total, 44 burials were identified at this site on May 6, with no changes observed between May 6, May 10, and May 24.

Contrariwise, in the supposed LTTE graveyard,

‘Visual inspection of the imagery identified the appearance of 148 probable graves at this location between April 19 and May 6′.

The implication therefore of the AAAS report is that several LTTE cadres were killed and buried, but there was no noticeable increase in the number of civilian dead, insofar as the evidence from graveyards is concerned. Of course it could be argued – and doubtless will be, if this report which Amnesty and Human Rights Watch commissioned is actually brought into the open – that graveyards are irrelevant to calculation of the dead, but this was not the earlier position. What is clear is that the goalposts keep shifting whenever yet another argument against Sri Lanka bites the dust.

Finally, given the claims that satellite imagery would show the deployment of heavy artillery, the report states,

‘While it is not possible to conclusively identify such sites based on image analysis alone, their locations bear noting for possible further investigations. None of the sites reviewed showed indications they were occupied by heavy artillery pieces, which are generally readily identifiable in such imagery unless camouflaged.’

In short, the report does not substantiate the positions taken up by opponents of Sri Lanka, and therefore it has been ignored.