Responses to questions from IRIN, the news agency funded by the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance.

1. As a government official, how do you view the report and what is your response?

I no longer have any executive responsibilities, so cannot speak for the government, but as a former government official, who headed the Peace Secretariat during the conflict period, I feel that much has been omitted. As with the Darusman report, there seems to have been reliance on allegations that have not been substantiated, and inadequate attention has been paid to facts that can be established.

2. Were there any parts you felt specifically strongly about? If so, which ones?

 I have only gone through the main part of the Report, but amongst omissions there are –

a)    Failure to record that government initially wanted WFP and UNHCR to stay on in the Wanni, along with the ICRC, when it asked other agencies to leave. Some Non-Governmental agencies had allowed the LTTE to use their vehicles for military purposes, and at least one worker declared that he thought he should be fighting for the LTTE, so you can see why government could not allow such people to continue en masse. There was also the suspicious case of an attack on a FORUT vehicle, which suggested some connivance, and clearly it was best to ensure that no casualties occurred. However the agencies that provided the most needed assistance were specifically asked to stay.

b)   The record of damage to Kilinochchi is minimal, including after the UN agencies left. As head of the Peace Secretariat, I would check each day on any allegations of abuse, and ask for explanations, and the records I have (in Colombo, but I will go over them again if you wish) indicate minimal harm to civilians. There were I think over 400 air attacks, for instance, until Kilinochchi fell, and in fewer than 30 were there even allegations of civilian deaths, and in over 20 of these the numbers were one or two. It is a pity that similar concern is not shown by the UN, or those who now criticize the UN about Sri Lanka, about civilian deaths in drone strikes and other attacks that seem to violate norms of conduct with complete impunity.

c)    There is no reference in the main report to the visits of the UN Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, and glancing through the appendices I believe only his December 2007 visit is mentioned. This seems bizarre, when there are allegations about the welfare centres, and we invited him two or three times and did our best to abide by his recommendations. Certainly we stuck by the guiding principles of the Brookings document, and our relations with him were very positive.

d)   Para 17 is full of falsehoods, in that Convoy 11, which has been used to spread much disinformation, was not trapped for two weeks. Most of the convoy returned a couple of days late, but a couple of members decided to stay on to try to negotiate with the LTTE to free the local UN workers and their families who had been refused permission to leave. Day after day government was told they were going to be granted permission to leave, which meant offensives were halted (to the benefit of the LTTE) but the LTTE proved intransigent. The UN officials finally got away by joining, as instructed by our forces, the back of the ICRC convoy which was bringing people for treatment. It should be noted that there was no transparency about the two UN officials who had stayed voluntarily, because records show one international member of staff (Colonel Haroun) and one national, but much has been cited from someone called Peter Mckie. Later the Head of UN Security thanked the army for its cooperation with that convoy.

e)    The evidence of the Resident Coordinator with regard to the first day on which casualties of three figures were alleged, that he believed most of the firing came from the LTTE, has been ignored, as also the testimony of the Bishop of Jaffna on that day, when he issued a public appeal to the LTTE to withdraw its heavy weaponry from amongst the people in the No Fire Zone.

f)     Though satellite imagery is mentioned, the report of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that graveyards did not increase in size, and that damage to houses was probably due to people taking away materials, is not mentioned. Given the stress laid on reports by Human Rights Watch, it is sad that this refutation of its claims (despite earlier assertions that the AAAS Report would prove its allegations) is unfortunate.

I should add that claims about most casualties arising from government action, and about the numbers in the Wanni, are based on selective accounts, though I would agree that we should have been more rigorous about disproving such claims long ago, and certainly when the Darusman report came out.

Finally, though perhaps not of great significance in terms of UN responsibilities, but indicative of woeful bias, are the opening remarks about State caused disappearances without explaining that most of these relate to the southern conflict rather than the ethnic one, and the claim that President Rajapaksa was backed by a nationalist coalition. Nationalist parties were part of that coalitions, but so were parties with the most pluralistic reputation in Sri Lanka, including the old Marxist parties and the Liberal party – and almost all Tamil parties excepting those who were under the control in 2005 of the LTTE.

Sunday Observer 18 Nov 2012