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Shelters in Zone 0 and 1

Efforts to rouse concern about conditions at the welfare centres are understandable in sympathizers of the LTTE agenda seeking to bring Sri Lanka into disrepute. What is astonishing is that a panel appointed by the UN Secretary General should have followed this line, while ignoring the clear evidence provided by the UN itself about the tremendous efforts of the Sri Lankan government to provide relief.  It would seem that the panel had not bothered to look into UN records, else they would have known that the UN Resident Coordinator wrote that –

With regard to specifics

  1. The concerns expressed by the panel include claims that the whole process was illegal.  Ignored are the reports of the UN Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, who was invited three times to Sri Lanka to advise on the relief programmes. He made clear the parameters under which limitations could be placed on the freedom of movement of the displaced, and the government, through gradual expansion of the categories released and then through rapid returns, did its best, subject to security concerns as well as the need to demine and ensure basic infrastructure, to follow his advice with regard to time frames.

  2. Concern was also expressed that access for humanitarian agencies was denied.  This was nonsense as is apparent from the continuous activity of several Non-Governmental Organizations as well as UN agencies in the centres. However access was provided only in terms of specific aid projects, which irritated agencies which had seen themselves as decision makers rather than supporters of government intervention. The best comment on this was provided by the Deputy Head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, Steve Ray, who told me before he left that the international community in Sri Lanka had not understood the situation, since many aid workers came from situations in Africa where government involvement was minimal. Read the rest of this entry »


Mass wedding of ex-LTTE combatants

18.  The Darusman report makes repeated allegations of execution and rape of LTTE cadres. It relates some of this to cadres who were separated in the screening process, but provides no evidence for these allegations.

Refuting such general allegations is difficult. However the manner in which the over 11,000 cadres who were rehabilitated were treated indicates nothing but positive attitudes. The women were almost all of them released before the end of 2010, but many return for training programmes which the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation conducts. The CGR also arranged a mass wedding, which led to the predictable response from organizations determined to be critical that he was forcing couples into marriage.  One otherwise intelligent NGO activist – Sarojini Sivachandran of daily murders, abductions and extortion fame I believe – claimed that boys and girls had held hands for protection while surrendering, and they were now forced to marry.

This was nonsense, and the CGR explained how the parents of all those who sought to be married were consulted, which resulted in the ceremony going ahead for only half the over 100 couples who had applied. In general the extreme care taken by the CGR and his staff, with special Advanced Level classes and English, in addition to the various subjects of vocational training, make clear the commitment to youngsters who were inveigled or forced into battle.

The claim that the rehabilitation process was conducted in secret is also palpably false. IOM, which had had a positive approach to the conclusion of the conflict, unlike many other international organizations, has been heavily involved in supporting rehabilitation and reintegration. But, in addition, the camps were open to visitors from the start, and from 2009 onward steady streams of family and friends were to be seen whenever one visited, in addition to UN and other officials discussing modalities of providing food and other requirements. It should be noted in this regard that, when such supplies were held up, government decided to provide the equivalent of army rations to the cadres being rehabilitated.

19. In fact the relative lack of complaints about this process suggest that even the most critical voices have little to say. However there are many allegations regarding the treatment of cadres who were not taken into rehabilitation. The main claim is that they were executed, for which the strongest evidence seems to be provided by what is termed the Channel 4 video. I will use this term to describe the short extract shown in 2009 and the longer version shown the following year. These were included in what I will term the Channel 4 film, a lengthy account that was aired in 2011.

Channel 4 - Jon Snow

The videos have a shadowy history, beginning with the announcement when they were first shown that they depicted incidents that took place in January 2009. That claim has been forgotten – though never explainedafter it was shown that the metadata had a July 2009 date (though one of the fatuous experts hired by the UN to authenticate the video claimed that perhaps those who made it had falsified the date deliberately to conceal their involvement in the event).

Other examples of idiotic explanations for anomalies have been cited in various critiques, but the claim is still made that the video is genuine – even though it is granted that the second version was edited backward, and included optical zooming, whereas the mobile phones that it is still claimed were the source do not have optical zoom facilities. Of course all this does not necessarily mean that the incidents portrayed did not occur. But they raise questions that those who aired the footage should explain before the material is used as evidence of war crimes. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Truck convoy travelling to the northern Wanni region - Sri Lanka

I have written at length about the strange business of Convoy 11, which took in the last supplies of food sent to the Wanni by land in 2009. The adventures of this convoy have formed the backbone of criticism of the Sri Lankan government, beginning with a diatribe by Human Rights Watch a couple of years ago. I responded to this at the time, but the matter was not taken up by the then Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to check on what sources within the UN had claimed. These sources were doubly culpabale for the official position of the UN, and the letters we had from them, indicated that there had been hardly any problems for which government was thought responsible.

I continue to believe that more active engagement with the UN, the senior leadership of which was well aware of the true reasons for problems, would have been helpful at the time. It is still not too late, as I have advocated, in writing as well as orally, to discuss more fully with responsible people in the UN the strange allegations that have emerged in the Darusman Panel report as well as the book written by Gordon Weiss, who should still be held accountable by the UN in terms of his contract – but they will not act on this unless we request them to formally.

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LTTE Sea Tiger fast attack fiberglass boats

In addressing concerns regarding humanitarian assistance, I dealt previously with evidence that the LTTE had for a long time been determined to restrict supplies, so it could engage in propaganda about willful negligence. To achieve this end it had stopped the ICRC from escorting food ships to Jaffna, and had also attacked a foreign vessel taking supplies; it had fired on a boat with Norwegian monitors, who had then withdrawn, which satisfied the LTTE desire to create a sense of danger about sea transport; it had for a long time prevented the road northward to the Wanni from being open throughout the week, which created bottlenecks with regard to supplies.

The evil genius of the LTTE in denying humanitarian support was even more obvious however in the manner in which it corralled large groups into smaller and smaller spaces in the Wanni, refusing to let them get away to safety while it continued with its desperate struggle against the Sri Lankan government. And then it placed roadblocks in the way of supplies, refusing to allow the trucks that had been loaded by government to travel safely into the Wanni. Read the rest of this entry »

SL Air Force helps to transport essential goods to civilians in the North

The area in which there seems the greatest perversity about the concerns that have been expressed, regarding the conflict in Sri Lanka, is that of humanitarian assistance. The Darusman report claims categorically that ‘The Government systematically deprived persons in the conflict zone of humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and basic medical supplies, particularly supplies needed to treat injuries. To this end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians that remained in the conflict zone.’

14.   There are in fact two charges here, which need to be distinguished. One is that government deliberately underestimated the number of civilians in the conflict area so as to deprive them of assistance. This is a wicked attribution of motives, the more wicked because the various estimates that were made never affected the programme for supplying assistance that government had put in place in consultation with its officials on the ground as well as with the UN.

Certainly there were inaccurate estimates of the numbers, but most of these were in good faith, based on calculations that did not take into account the influx of people from other areas that had taken place in the Wanni over the previous two decades. The fact that many of those who were in the area, and who are now being resettled, came originally from the hill country, and were not there at the time of the previous census, in 1981, is one reason for the miscalculation, though there should have been greater awareness of the demographical changes that had taken place in recent years.

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Soldiers caring for wounded civilians

Soldiers caring for wounded civilians

I looked earlier at some oft expressed concerns with regard to the conflict in Sri Lanka. After a quick glance at 8 concerns that related to the post-conflict period, I looked in great detail at concerns about alleged shelling of hospitals.

The other matter about which concern has been expressed with regard to the duration of the conflict was civilian casualties. This too needs to be addressed in detail.

10.  Concern has been expressed that the Sri Lankan forces deliberately or indiscriminately targeted civilians.

  1. This concern was first expressed forcefully after the campaign to regain control of the East, which concluded in the middle of 2007. Human Rights Watch soon afterwards, through the agency of Charu Latha Hogg, issued a reoort which was publicized as recording indiscriminat attacks on civilians. However the report itself recorded only one instance of civilians being killed. This was at Kathiravelli, when the forces had used mortar locating radar.

The Human Rights Watch report noted that the LTTE had been in the camp that was struck, and that they had been carrying weapons. Bunkers had been dug in the camp. Despite HRW claiming that they had no evidence the LTTE had used heavy weapons inside the camp, the fact that there were no other instances of civilians being killed, the evidence of those inside the camp of LTTE activity therein, and the ready acknowledgment of the army of what had occurred, and the explanation it gave, all suggest that this was an obvious example of retaliatory fire that had a tragic outcome.

UAV footage of LTTE firing on fleeing civillians

More worryingly, it would seem that the reaction of HRW, and its insistence on making this the incident the centerpiece of its allegations against the Sri Lankan state, encouraged the LTTE in this strategy of promoting harm to civilians to achieve its own propaganda aims. While HRW may not have thought of the impact of its actions, implicitly supporting the LTTE technique of firing from amongst civilians and then crying foul when there was retaliatory fire, the international community must consider the long term effects of its discriminatory and selective responses. Had there been categorical condemnation of the LTTE for even the little bit that HRW claimed it had evidence for, the heavy presence of armed cadres in a camp for the displaced, the LTTE might not have gone ahead with its plan to force the civilians of the North into becoming human shelds. Read the rest of this entry »

I looked earlier at 8 oft expressed concerns with regard to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Most of them related to the post-conflict situation, though I dealt with a couple that related to the previous period too. Perhaps the harshest criticisms belong to that period, so I will look now at more of those.

9. Concerns were expressed that the Sri Lankan forces systematically targeted hospitals. It has been claimed that this was done in spite of the ICRC having clearly provided information as to the situation of hospitals, including several hospitals set up on a makeshift basis by the LTTE. It has even been claimed that the forces targeted such hospitals immediately such information was given.

a) Puthukkudiyirippu (PTK)

The shrine room at PTK hospital

There were no allegations at all with regard to attacks on hospitals from the commencement of the conflict until the beginning of 2009. With regard to the main hospital in the area east of Kilinochchi, that at Puthukkudiyirippu, there were only two allegations of attacks on it between the beginning of January and the closure of the hospital. The first was on January 12th, when Tamilnet claimed that one person was killed when the ‘hospital premises and its environs came under artillery fire’. After that there was nothing till the very end of January, when several claims were made, though according to the American State Department Report, ‘According to satellite imagery taken on January 28, the Puthukkudiyirippu Hospital did not appear to show visible damage and appeared to be functioning’.

After the incident on January 12th, the ICRC records only one shell hitting ‘the southern end of the compound of the hospital’ which led to ‘1 killed and 4 injured civilians’ on February 1st. It must be noted that several sources record the LTTE firing from very near the hospital, so the fact that the hospital was hit only twice in three weeks in retaliatory firing shows comparative precision on the part of the forces.

And it should be noted that the LTTE was also accused of firing directly onto the hospital itself, for characteristically insidious motives. The University Teachers for Human Rights reported that ‘The Government we learn did not want the Hospital moved as they hoped to be in control of Puthukkudiyiruppu soon. The LTTE on the other hand wanted it moved so that it would have some assistance for its injured.

When the Hospital was hit for the fourth time on 2nd February at 6.40 PM or on a subsequent occasion, the hospital staff and the people around soon became quite sure that it was this time the LTTE that fired. Our sources do not have direct evidence, but the LTTE is linked to the people and information that filters down has considerable authority for them.’   Read the rest of this entry »

1. There was concern that we would hold the displaced indefinitely in what were termed internment camps, and not resettle them

I was told recently by a friend that he felt we were not actually addressing the concerns that had been raised with regard to Sri Lanka. I was surprised, because I thought we had been doing this throughout. However, I could see that, in assessing the methodologies adopted to attack us, we might have been distracting attention away from simple facts. It might be useful therefore to record specific concerns – but in doing so it will be clear that, the moment one concern is addressed, another is raised, sometimes with blatant inconsistency.

1. There was concern that we would hold the displaced indefinitely in what were termed internment camps, and not resettle them.

We pointed out three reasons for keeping them in welfare centres, which were by no means internment camps. The term internment refers to taking people from their homes into custody, whereas we were dealing with people who had been taken from their homes, which were in heavily mined areas. Some of those people were security risks given their involvement, whether willingly or not, in terrorism.

Apart from security checks, we noted the need to demine the areas to which people were being returned, as well as the need to restore at least basic infrastructure. Now that that has been done, all but 10,000 of the displaced have been resettled.

Mechanical demining

As a result, we got little assistance initially, except from the Indian government, for demining. We therefore spent a massive amount of money on equipment – after which UNHCR also donated five or so machines, far fewer than the 25 or so we had bought. Our army did most of the demining required, and we were able to begin resettlement within a few months.

3.  Subsequently concern was expressed that we were resettling too quickly, without proper attention to demining.

Since resettlement began there have been hardly any mine related incidents in the areas of resettlement. I believe, apart from the death of a foreign demining expert, there was only one casualty in the Wanni last year, a boy who had been sent to collect firewood in an uncleared and marked area, whose leg was blown off.

This should be contrasted with a far higher number of accidents in the Northern peninsula, which had been demined by international agencies after it was freed from LTTE control in 1996. It should also be contrasted with incidents elsewhere, such as Cambodia, which suffered from constant explosions for years after conflict ceased. Read the rest of this entry »

The comparatively positive nature of the 2009 US State Department Report

Late in 2009 the US Department of State produced a ‘Report to Congress on Incidents during the Recent Conflicts in Sri Lanka’. The Report was shared in a very positive manner with the Sri Lankan government, and I regret very much that we did not immediately look into the matters it mentioned and produce a response to the US.

This was planned, and a Committee for the purpose was in fact appointed. I have no idea whether the general lack of urgency delayed things, but soon enough there were good reasons to feel suspicions about at least some Americans. The shenanigans with regard to General Fonseka were worrying, though I suspect we should realize that individual Americans may have exceeded their briefs in this regard. As with Sri Lankans, we cannot assume concerted policy in all cases where individuals go out on a limb, though again, as with Sri Lankans, the tendency to stand together leads to misunderstanding.

Still, we should understand that, at least in the American Defence establishment, there is a positive attitude to what we achieved. Indeed there is also awareness that excessive hypocrisy can be self-defeating, if ever international instruments subject America to the same relentless criticism some individuals apply to us, whether through self-righteousness or other more sinister motives.

Joanna van Gerpen meeting with S. P. Tamilselvan, the political leader of the LTTE, in Kilinochchi.

Joanna van Gerpen meeting with S. P. Tamilselvan, the political leader of the LTTE, in Kilinochchi.

What was interesting about the State Department Report was that it was balanced and indeed made clear the contribution of the LTTE to any abuses that might have occurred. Whereas some of those working for the UN took pains to suggest that government also bore some culpability with regard to child soldiers, the Report records 18 allegations about this appalling practice of the LTTE. Indeed if any blame should attach to the UN for its activities in Sri Lanka, it is with regard to the condoning of this practice by the UN in the years after the Ceasefire Agreement. The conduct of Joanna van Gerpen, who connived at the continuing recruitment of children over 17, with her failure to ensure proper use of the 1 million dollars that were given to the LTTE for rehabilitation, seems to me deplorable, and she should be deemed guilty by association at least of War Crimes, with appropriate recompense paid to those who suffered.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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