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Gordon Weiss omits ....

Colonel Harun finally left PTK on January 29th. There is no mention in the Weiss narrative of the UN engineer who had volunteered to stay behind. There is also no mention of the way in which he got away.

Weiss notes that ‘the ICRC and the UN were able to negotiate the evacuation of hundreds of seriously wounded’. He does note that ‘The Tamil Tigers had refused the request for days’, but omits to mention that the army had been supporting this request, and had indeed suspended operations on previous days when it was told the Tigers were about to agree, only for hopes to be repeatedly dashed.

Weiss also omits to record that the UN, together with the Sri Lankan government, had been trying to negotiate for more supplies of food to be sent in. It was with that convoy that Harun was supposed to come back, since that was a UN responsibility, but the Tigers refused the request.  It was then that Harun was advised, by the forces, to drive out when the ICRC convoy was allowed to move. When he arrived in Vavuniya, he said that he had been refused permission to leave by the LTTE but that, as advised by the army, he had told them to shoot if they wanted, but he was leaving. Those who briefed me from the army described him as being immensely relieved when he reached their headquarters. With him they recollect was the Sri Lankan Suganthan who migrated to Canada about a month later.

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Gordon Weiss

Following what Weiss describes as the ‘recriminations’ that affected UN international staff, most decided to head back to Vavuniya, and only Harun and ‘a UN engineer’ remained behind to try to get the Tigers to agree to releasing the local staff and their families. He was to stay on for over a week more, getting back only on January 29th. Needless to say, the local staff was not allowed to leave, though as it happened, in a clear indication that allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilians did not happen, all of them survived the conflict.  Weiss refers to 132 of them, though interestingly, more recently, I have seen a lower figure canvassed, as though to belittle my point about all of them surviving.

There is also some doubt about the UN engineer Weiss describes, since the information given to the military was that Harun’s associate was a Sri Lankan Security Officer with UN Security called Mr Suganthan. It is not at all surprising that he is reported to have been able to migrate to Canada within a month of getting out of the Wanni. This again is an example of where our Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have found out more about the circumstances, but there is little coordination between the different government agencies responsible for working with the UN, and I fear even less understanding of the way in which different individuals in the UN system operate.

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US President Barack Obama, right,and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi pictured during the G8/G5 summit in L'Aquila, Italy Thursday July 9, 2009.

The double standards endemic in international reporting of conflict is apparent in the manner in which Sri Lankan officials are turned into witnesses against the Sri Lankan state whenever they say things that go against the standard view of Sri Lankan officials. We are co-opted as it were into temporary membership of the network of informers the nastier elements in the international community have set up, if we declare that there were civilian casualties during the conflict.

This is never treated as a statement, but is rather almost always described as an admission. This makes no sense except in terms of a discourse redolent with preconceived prejudices. In itself the existence of civilian casualties in modern warfare is not something surprising, but what occurs in Sri Lanka has necessarily to be accompanied by finger pointing.

When it happens In other theatres of war, it is considered quite acceptable. When American drones strike civilians in Pakistan, when NATO bombs hit civilians in Libya, this is something quite natural, to be accompanied by perfunctory regrets, more often than not involving suggestions that the fault lies entirely with the enemy. There is no suggestion whatsoever that such actions, the taking of targets even though there might be risk to civilians, is an intrinsic part of  Western policy.

Personally I do not believe that Barack Obama would actually subscribe to a policy of multiple civilians casualties. I would like to think that – unlike perhaps some of his predecessors, who saw themselves as the scourge of God in dealing either with infidels or communists – he would even suggest that maximum care should be taken to avoid civilian casualties and that targets should always be military ones on pretty good if not always foolproof evidence. But the continuing saga of civilian deaths in all theatres of conflict in which the West is involved – in which the West indeed began conflicts for a range of reasons that often went against United Nations policy – suggests that there has been no policy of avoiding civilian casualties at all costs.

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The University Teachers for Human Rights, whose reports are a mine of information about what happened in the North during the conflict, have sections called ‘Bearing Witness’. These give personal accounts of people caught up in the conflict.

These are particularly useful, because one feels that UTHR has no particular axe to grind in quoting from such sources. They present a range of viewpoints, and while obviously one cannot be sure that all accounts are accurate, it is clear that UTHR does not doctor what they hear, or seek to present a particular perspective. This seems to me unlike many other reports, usually by journalists, which produce evidence to emphasize their own predilections.

Mullaitivu GA’s office

During my recent visit to the North, having looked carefully at various sites that figure prominently in recent critiques of government action, I thought it might be useful to talk to people who had lived through the last few months of conflict in the No Fire Zones. I spoke to three people at the Mullaitivu GA’s office, to two families at Suthanthirapuram and at the Udaiyaarkadu hospital, and to two people at the Vallipuram school that had been used as a hospital. On the next day, I spoke to 18 people at the last two sections in Manik Farm which still house the displaced.

Many had only come out at the very end, though a few had got away in April in the first great exodus. One enterprising old man had walked out on March 16th, while two had escaped by sea. One had got away reasonably early together with her husband and a couple of children, paying Rs 200,000 for passage for the whole family. A few weeks later the price had been Rs 200,000 for one person. The school teacher who had got away thus, along with his brother, told me however that the Sri Lankan forces had fired on their boat, killing several, before registering that they were not Tigers. They had then apologized, and treated the survivors well.

Udaiyaarkadu hospital

This was the only story I was told of casualties during escape from the Zone. In fact, apart from stories of individual deaths in a few other cases, this was the only account of people having lost their lives. None of the people I spoke to gave a single instance of women or children being killed. Seven men I spoke to in Ananda Coomaraswamy village in Manik Farm had all got away during the last few weeks with their entire families, one of them with seven children – and a few grandchildren – all now living. Of the seven women I spoke to, four were widows, but two of the husbands had died earlier, of fever and a fall from a tree respectively. All their children had survived, five in one case.

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The reasons for UN Convoy 11 staying on in the Wanni

Gordon Weiss

If  Gordon Weiss’s book is anything to go by, the main purveyor of evidence for the prosecution he plans against the Sri Lankan government is the retired Bangladeshi army colonel Harun Khan, who led a food convoy into the LTTE controlled territory on January 16th 2009. He is quoted throughout the chapter entitled ‘Convoy 11’ in a manner that suggests that he attributes most of the destruction he saw to government forces.

This seemed odd, because my recollection was that government thought Harun was quite sympathetic to their difficulties, and had described to them in graphic terms what he had suffered while forcibly held back by the LTTE. Certainly what I gathered from Neil Buhne, during those tense days when two UN staff stayed behind after the rest of the convoy came back to government controlled areas, was that Harun and his companion were most anxious to get away, but the LTTE continued to tease them about a possible release for the Sri Lankan workers they had hoped to rescue. And when I did finally meet Harun myself, I felt he was very different in his approach to his boss, Chris du Toit.

And even du Toit, who had seemed hostile when we first spoke to him about reports of casualties which he it seemed he had been responsible for, climbed down as Nishan Muthukrishna and I cross questioned him, and said finally that the only shell of which the provenance could be definitely identified had

The Darusman Panel

come from the LTTE. Though Weiss confirms that it was indeed du Toit who set up a ‘monitoring cell’, presumably that which is called a UN ‘network of observers’ as first openly revealed by the Darusman Panel, Weiss indicates that that cell was set up only on February 4th, so it would seem that for the earlier period his information was derived largely from the convoy which Harun had headed. Du Toit had indeed been so thorough in his explanation of what the convoy had experienced that I thought he had been with it, and I still suspect that he was the principal purveyor of information to the panel. But, for reasons which I think are understandable, whereas the panel conceals the name of the ‘The United Nations security officer, a highly experienced military officer’, Weiss freely uses Harun’s name and quotes him direct as though he alone were responsible for what is cited.

Given the anomalies I perceived in the descriptions of Harun I had received, I thought it best to check exactly what Weiss had claimed, after I had discussed the story of Convoy 11 with army personnel who had been directly involved in the operation. It struck me then that there was much misinformation, and much manipulation too.  I have accordingly suggested to the Ministry of External Affairs that they should, together with senior personnel in Colombo, go through the records to clarify matters.

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One of the most significant omissions on the part of those bearing witness against the Sri Lankan government is detail about the manner in which the LTTE used the No Fire Zones. Though both the Darusman Report and the book by Gordon Weiss mention that the LTTE used military equipment ‘in the proximity of civilians’, they treat this as a distinct issue from the allegations they make against the Sri Lankan government. Given that returning hostile fire is not a war crime, they should have discussed the actual actions taken by the government in the context of proportionality, but this is avoided. The impression they seek to create is that the government attacked hospitals and civilians systematically, whereas the evidence, when it can be quantified – as with actual hits on hospitals, including within hospital premises – suggests that such incidents were extremely rare. Given the systematic manner in which the LTTE used civilians and places of civilian gathering, including hospitals, the record shows remarkable care on the part of the government.

Damilvany of course never mentions the systematic use the LTTE made of hospitals and such areas. The Sri Lankan government did try at one time to draw attention to what was going on, but it received no support whatsoever. The answer the ICRC sent in response, one letter to four urgent appeals, suggests how the international community as it is termed continued formulaic in its responses –

‘Re: Complaints about LTTE firing from the no fire zone

In reference to your different letters on the above mentioned matter (dated 16.02,. 17.02, 18.02 and 19.02 2009) the International Committee of the Red Cross wishes to inform you of the following.

The ICRC is aware the Sri Lankan authorities have announced the demarcation of a new “safe zone” along the Mullaitivu lagoon, and welcomes this development as it may help to find practical humanitarian solutions that may enhance the protection of civilians and those no longer directly taking part in the hostilities in the Wanni.

However, the ICRC would like to point out that not having been agreed upon by both parties to the conflict with the aim to shelter the wounded, sick and civilians from the effects of hostilities or with the aim to demilitarize it, the zone as such is not specifically protected under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This being said, the civilians and those no longer taking a direct part in the hostilities who have taken in the ‘no fire zone’ remain of course protected persons under IHL.

The ICRC has in the past not missed any opportunity, and will continue to do so, to remind both parties to the conflict to respect in all circumstances their obligations under IHL, in particular the principles of precautions, distinction and proportionality, in order to spare all protected persons from the effects of hostilities.

We stay at your disposal, should you have any query on the above.’

ICRC Letter 20 Feb 2009

ICRC Letter 20 Feb 2009 to SF Commander - Security Forces Headquaters (Wanni) Vavuniya

That last line seems typical of the ICRC, and one wonders whether it was as helpful to the LTTE. Of course one has to recognize that the ICRC worked on the basis of confidentiality, and they could not be expected to make public what advice they gave to the LTTE. Still, one can understand, particularly in the context of the deceit practiced by Jacques de Maio, who headed the Sri Lanka desk in Geneva, the anger of the Sri Lankan government at what seemed deliberately aggressive critical statements of the ICRC during the first couple of months of 2009, with specifics that seemed designed to present the Sri Lankan government in the worst possible light, with no matching criticism of the LTTE. The fact that the LTTE was deploying its weapons in close proximity to hospitals was never mentioned.

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Sir John Holmes -I did not say that I had not heard such allegations, but that I had not at the time seen significant evidence to support allegations which were being made by TamilNet and others…

One of the lesser known Agatha Christies, as I recall, had a rather strange title, ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ The plot hinged on the fact that the parlour maid had not been asked to witness a will – the reason for this was that the man who made the will was an imposter.

I was reminded of this story when I read the Darusman Report and saw how it had left out the testimony of those best equipped to speak about what had happened in Sri Lanka. The records of the ICRC had not been considered, it seemed, nor the evidence of senior UN personnel as to their interactions with the Sri Lankan government.

The reason for this I believe is that senior UN personnel were usually very proper in their approach, as I noted in my dealings with them. There were a few exceptions, but these were people who had come from outside the system and saw their future too as lying in confrontation with sovereign states. Those who had worked in public administration or held academic positions in which they were authorities were much more straightforward. Thus Neil Buhne who was Resident Coordinator of the UN in Colombo, Walter Kalin who was Special Representative of the Rights of the Displaced and who had been largely responsible for the Brookings Guiding Principles on the subject, Adnan Khan and his predecessor who looked after the World Food Programme in Colombo, Tine Staermose of ILO and Dr Mehta and his predecessor of WHO, all saw their role as developmental and humanitarian, to work together with an elected government rather than in opposition to it.

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Ms Damilvany Gnanakumar

In writing about the various UN personnel from Britain who appeared to have other tasks to fulfil in addition to the ostensible one of contributing to humanitarian operations, I noted the fact that the way in which UN staff is sent to Sri Lanka is not always clear. Often we were not informed when particular positions were not in fact UN ones but had been specifically funded by the British for purposes that were not transparent.

In this shifting situation, with the UN being used with preconceptions and for purposes for which it was never intended, as I was first advised by a senior Indian diplomat, we need to be doubly careful, but unfortunately this shift seemed to have passed our Foreign Ministry by. I can only hope that now, with a much more thoughtful and experienced Secretary in place, we will begin to plan a bit more carefully for the challenges of the 21st century.

Lack of care seems to have contributed too to what happened with regard to Ms Damilvany Gnanakumar, about whom I first heard when I was negotiating the release of a New Zealand national, for whom I had been asked to liaise on behalf of the New Zealand embassy in Delhi. I think I spoke to the wrong person in the military, who failed to deal with the issue, but I did locate the lady with the help of UNHCR, and tried to expedite her release.

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Watching the Channel 4 film that is now doing the rounds, I was struck by its essential predictability. It relied very heavily on three individuals whom it suggested were independent witnesses, though in all three cases their reliability is in grave doubt. I had in fact drawn attention previously to the potential dangers posed by these individuals.

The failure to have taken action in this respect is I believe another indictment on the lack of professionalism within our government departments, a lack of professionalism which I fear will continue in the absence of intelligent, high-powered groups to monitor and anticipate and deal with problems. I have been suggesting such bodies for months now, only to be told endlessly about the difficulties of setting them up. We thus tend to react to attacks on us, often without consistency, which often contributes to further attacks.

Three star witnesses

An example of what we failed to do is provided by Benjamin Dix, who was trotted out after two years to be one of the three star witnesses in the case against the Sri Lankan state. There had previously been a dress rehearsal for this, when he had popped up in Geneva to attack us, way back in 2008. We got the UN to put a stop to this, but we failed to get from them, despite my suggesting this at the time, something in writing that specifically repudiated Dix and what he was doing.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

March 2017
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