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qrcode.26572681Basil had told me that I did not need to worry about the Peace Secretariat being closed because I had another position too, that of Secretary to Mahinda Samarasinghe’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. That was correct, and for anyone else that would have been a full time job. But the wider dimensions of the work we did, and in particular the need to coordinate work with regard to the North, had been facilitated by my position at the Secretariat, with the authority to coordinate responses from a range of Ministries.

In theory the Ministry had a coordinating role with regard to humanitarian assistance but, during the course of that year, Basil had ensured that was eroded. The Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, which Minister Samarasinghe had chaired, hardly met in 2009, and its role was taken over by a Task Force for the North which Basil chaired. That did not initially include any Tamils, which was typical of the command structures Basil enjoyed, though after some protests Minister Douglas Devananda was included.

Still, there was enough to do, given the situation in the Welfare Centres and the need to continue to liaise with the UN, and in particular the Special Representative for the Rights of the Displaced, Walter Kalin, who visited us three times during this period and was extremely helpful, whilst also pointing out areas in which we could do better. I also continued to work on humanitarian support, and in particular tried together with Mr Divaratne, who was the Secretary to Basil’s Task Force, to introduce some cohesion into the inputs of the various Non-Governmental Organizations keen to work in the welfare centres, and then in the areas in which the displaced were being resettled.

Most important of all, though, I felt, was finishing the plans we had been tasked with formulating with regard to Human Rights. One was the National Action Plan, which we had pledged in Geneva at the Universal Periodic Review, in May 2008, that we would get ready. This was done, despite all our work in relation to the conflict, through committees chaired by professionals of great ability, and we managed in the latter part of 2009 to bring the recommendations together and produce a draft.

As important I felt was the Bill of Rights, which the President had pledged in his 2005 manifesto, and for which a Committee had been appointed under the aegis of the Ministry of National Languages and Constitutional Affairs. When Mahinda Samarasinghe crossed over to the government early in 2006 and his Ministry was created, obviously it became the body responsible, but I found when I was appointed to be its Secretary in June 2008 that there had been no progress on the matter. Together with his Consultant, Nishan Muthukrishna, whom I had known long ago as a schoolboy, through the cultural activities I had worked on while at the British Council, we went into overdrive and persuaded the Chair – a distinguished lawyer who was however close to President Kumaratunga and had little confidence in the current President’s commitment to Rights – to produce a draft. He and his committee did in the end deliver, and I had that draft too ready by the end of 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

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Enemies of the President’s Promse: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sneezy (Part 1)

RW-GR-600x234The reason Mohan gave for the Secretary of Defence being annoyed with me in June 2009 was a matter that was to prove an enormous bone of contention over the next few years, namely the claim advanced by some in Sri Lanka that there had been no civilian casualties during the war. This was obviously nonsense, and it never occurred to me that any such claim was serious. I assumed that what was meant was we had not inflicted civilian casualties deliberately, which I firmly believe to have been government policy throughout the conflict. I had seen this illustrated in the East when Daya Ratnayake, who subsequently became Commander of the Army – after he had survived, with Gotabhaya’s support, an attempt by Sarath Fonseka to have him prematurely retired – came to brief me on the campaign in that arena of the war. He had been responsible for the strategy there, and I had called him up to find out details of this after Human Rights Watch had given excessive publicity to a report it had prepared on the conflict in the East, in which they claimed there had been indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

qrcode.26475888When I studied the report itself, however, I found that, while this claim was made in the publicity, the report itself recorded only one instance of civilian deaths. This was something for which the army had acknowledged responsibility, but explained that they had used radar directed mortars to respond when the LTTE opened fire on them. This however had been from a refugee centre, but even the Human Rights Watch report disclosed that the LTTE had had weapons there, though they claimed that they had been told no one had seen heavy weapons being used.

I have no doubt that it was the attack on the Sri Lankan forces by HRW in this instance that made the LTTE feel they could get away with using civilians as shields when they were on the defensive. Any investigation of abuses during the conflict should look into the role of HRW in making such outrageous claims without evidence, and dodging the questions I posed to them in this regard. Once the LTTE realized that they would not be blamed for firing from amidst civilians, but public opinion could be manipulated to pressurize the Sri Lankan government not to respond to such firing, they developed the technique to perfection. This strengthened their resolve to ensure that civilians were taken along with them as they retreated in the North as the Sri Lankan forces were advancing.

The claim of some of the Non-Governmental Organizations that the civilians went willingly because of fear of the forces was patent nonsense, for those same NGOs complained to us that their former employees had not been allowed to escape to government controlled territory. The same thing happened to UN employees, and indeed one of the most skilful maneuvers of the LTTE in the latter stages of the war was when they persuaded the UN that they might free these employees, thus ensuring that UN staff that had taken a convoy of food in stayed on, to negotiate. The LTTE almost daily claimed that the local staff would be released, and asked for a cessation of hostilities, a period they used for military maneuvering, only to prove intransigent in the end.

The UN staff then were kept on by the LTTE till the end, but in fact there were no casualties amongst them, except for one person who stepped on a landmine in the final escape, but was given immediate medical attention by our forces, and also survived. Similarly, the local employees of the NGOs, who had been forced to stay back, also all survived the final battles. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.26231205Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

Prepared for the debate on the Votes on the Ministries of Justice and of

Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms

During the Committee Stage of the Budget Debate, November 21st 2014

(Not delivered because of the common candidate press conference)

 

I rise to speak on the votes today of two important Ministries. My main concern will be rehabilitation, where I think the Ministry can be proud of its work in having rehabilitated around 12,000 former combatants after the conclusion of the conflict with the LTTE in 2009.

This is of special concern to me, Mr Speaker, because as Head of the Peace Secretariat I was deeply worried about plans for rehabilitation. Nothing was being done about this, in part because the subject was then the preserve of the Ministry of Justice, which was more concerned then with what might be termed judicial issues. This was understandable, since there was much concern then about child soldiers, given the brutality of the LTTE in its system of forced recruitment.

forced conscriptions

.. the silence of the other internationals working in the area, who were complaisant in the wicked practices of the LTTE.

In this regard, Mr Speaker, I must pay tribute to the Norwegian ambassador in place when I was first asked to work in this field, Mr Hans Brattskar. He was categorical in his response to the LTTE when it tried to remove the subject of child soldiers from the agenda of its discussions with government in June 2006. He made it clear that the Sri Lankan side had every reason to raise the issue, and perhaps it was that which led to the LTTE dodging those talks.

Later it was Mr Brattskar who first formally told the Sri Lankan government that the LTTE was engaging in forced recruitment of two persons in each family, by the time of his last visit to Kilinochchi. This was in marked contrast with the silence of the other internationals working in the area, who were complaisant in the wicked practices of the LTTE. Indeed when I upbraided the then Head of Save the Children, about his only worrying when the families of his staff were affected, he asked whether I objected to his trying to save them. Not at all, I said, what made me furious was his failure to have spoken out when other children were being abused.

joanna-van-gerpen1

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

All this was of a piece with what seemed unprincipled connivance, though I believe one should not attribute to viciousness what springs often from moral laziness and incompetence. Thus the head of UNICEF did nothing to check on the abuse of the 1 million dollars given to the LTTE for rehabilitation, and even seemed to acquiesce in recruitment of 17 year olds on the grounds that the LTTE had not amended its legislation in that regard – a shocking tolerance of the pretensions of terrorists.

It is incidents such as that, Mr Speaker, that have contributed to the deep distrust displayed by government towards the international community, and this must be understood even as we urge a more positive attitude, which will take advantage of the many with decent and positive values. We must set in place systems that will limit abuses, but there is no justification for blanket prohibitions. And of course we must also do more to make it clear that we can work effectively with aid agencies, guiding them to fulfil our national priorities whilst working in accordance with their fundamental principles and policies. 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

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