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MargaPresentation at the Colloquium of MARGA & CHA : Re Narrative iii-Last Stages of the War; A Private Sector Perspective

Let me start with a paradox. This is an extremely impressive book, but I find it woefully depressing. It has been put together, according to the introduction, by three patriots who are also strong adherents of pluralism and the rule of law. Godfrey Gunatilleka is, as Dayan Jayatilleka once described him, arguably the best intellect in public life, Asoka Gunawardena is the most balanced and practical of administrators, and Jeevan Thiagarajah combines unparalleled energy in the service of his country with wide ranging knowledge of what happened in various spheres during the conflict.

Why then am I depressed? There are several reasons for this. The first is very simply that it comes far too late. Second, it requires fleshing out through details which are only available with government. Third, it leaves unstated the need for immediate action by government in the spheres in which it is unable to refute allegations made against the country. Fourth – and I cannot believe that the main writers were responsible for this, given the very different perspective Godfrey put forward in the television interview – it seems to swallow wholesale the allegations against the UN leadership in Sri Lanka made by the Petrie Report. Finally, it leaves out one group of significant actors, namely those who have contributed heavily to the Darusman Report, if we are to believe Wikileaks: I mean the NGO representatives who produced evidence against Sri Lanka.

For these reasons, the fourth and fifth sections of this book are weak. The first two sections are very strong, and provide an object lesson to the Sri Lankan government as to how it should have dealt with the allegations in the first place. The third section is well argued, but its main point is weakened by the failure to affirm forcefully the need for a credible internal inquiry with regard to the treatment of surrendees. In this regard the book is less balanced than the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report, which is surprising since its rationale is that of a middle way between that and Darusman.

With regard to the first three worries I have, the first could be compensated for by prompt action now on the part of government. But given the hamfisted way in which government dealt with the Darusman Report in the first place, I do not think anything more will be done. It seems incredible now that the government responded to allegations against it by producing a narrative that did not address those allegations. But, pace the book’s erroneous claim that the Ministry of Defence’s account of the humanitarian operation preceded the Darusman Report, the fact is that, in its ostrich like view that hiding one’s head in the sand would get rid of threats, the Ministry produced a document that might have been useful had it been produced in 2009, but which meant nothing after Darusman.

At the risk of making myself even more unpopular with government, which cannot bear other people having been correct, I told the Secretary of Defence, when I was called in to help with editing of that account, that it did not answer the allegations. His answer was that that was not the purpose of the narrative he was preparing. When I pointed out that the allegations needed to be answered, he said that he had allocated that task to the Chief of General Staff, who was however given neither resources nor encouragement to proceed. My own view is that this unintelligent approach has done more damage to our forces than anything else, given how easy a defence would have been of the bulk of the charges made against the forces. At the very least, citation of claims made during the conflict would have made clear the absurdity of charges made afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

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I was finally spurred, by the enormous effort made by a few expatriates to take a careful look at the casualty figures for the conflict, to try myself to put together some figures systematically. Long ago I had made some estimates, based on the details I had got from Tamilnet as well as on figures from the ICRC of the sick who had been taken to hospitals in government controlled areas. But though government has now accepted what I said, at the time I was even criticized for my candour by those who should have known much better.

I should note that I was not entirely on my own, for the army, understanding better than most what was at stake, helped me with visits to the sites where the fighting had taken place, and in particular to the hospitals which were largely undamaged, contrary to the propaganda put out about them. But when the books I produced were ignored, I thought it better to concentrate on reconciliation with regard to the future.

Recently though I have been heartened by two envoys who have done well in dealing with the media telling me that I had been their initial inspiration. And when Michael Roberts and the Marga Institute produced ‘The Numbers Game’, and the remarkably sharp journalist Kath Noble assessed this positively, I thought I should make yet another effort.

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As pressures mount in Geneva, my bemusement increases at our failure to answer systematically the many charges made against us. I had long pointed out that the criticisms made were by and large untenable, but there were certain incidents which required to be investigated further. This view, based on close observation from the vantage point of the Peace Secretariat where I had set in place mechanisms to monitor allegations and check on them, was confirmed by the LLRC Report. That highlighted the need to check on the treatment of surrendees while affirming that indiscriminate attacks on civilians etc were absurd and tendentious charges.

To dismiss those charges however requires logical argument based on evidence. This approach is sometimes not acceptable, as I realized when I was roundly attacked for having declared way back in June 2009 that there had been civilian casualties. The then Attorney General asked me why I had said this, to which my answer was that it was true. I could however understand his assertion that people would try to make use of my answer, and I sympathize with those who feel they might succumb to leading questions and therefore stay silent. But the way of dealing with such matters is to point out the nonsensical nature of such stratagems – as I did with Stephen Sackur on ‘Hard Talk’ when he asked whether I was admitting there were civilian casualties – rather than hiding one’s head in the sand, ostrich-like, and pretending one knew nothing, or even worse, denying reality.

Unfortunately, given that we have so many ostriches in the country, blank denials are thought preferable to logical argument. Thus we seem internationally to have lost the battle with regard to the number of casualties, which has reached the inflated figure now, sanctified by the blessed Darusman, of at least 40,000. These are claimed to be civilians who were killed in indiscriminate firing.

The facts speak otherwise, but we do not use the facts. The recent census report is not publicly discussed, and though there is a report that tries to use data from it to rebut allegations, the process is flawed because the report is long-winded and would not be read by anyone except those already convinced.

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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.

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Razia Iqbal: Why (did) the Govt of Sri Lanka want the UN to go? Was it because you couldn’t protect them or did you have another reason?

Rajiva Wijesinha: Well in fact we didn’t want them to go.  In Sept we asked the NGOs to leave, one of them had actually been supplying vehicles to the Tigers.

We specifically asked, and that letter is available, UNFPA and UNHCR to stay along with the Red Cross.  I’m afraid the then UNDP rep was galvanised by some people who wanted almost to blackmail us to say “No no, if we can’t all stay them we are going to leave”. So the Sec Defence said then leave. But the ICRC stayed right through and we have got all the details of the ICRC interventions during that period.  We also have the UN interventions …

RI: We’re not talking about the ICRC Sir, if I, if you wouldn’t mind …

RW: Hold on let me finish. The UN was there through convoys right through January(2009), and its nonsense to say the UNDP rep didn’t bother – they were very concerned.  I remember my Minister (Mahinda Samarasinghe) being rung up one morning and told that the people in the No-Fire Zone were being fired on, but in the evening they sent us an sms saying their information was that the firing came from the Tigers – I don’t think they were lying, but unfortunately junior members of the UN have complained about their bosses and lied about them

RI: Sir, this internal report of the UN says that under intense pressure from the Sri Lankan Govt the UN did not make clear that a large majority of deaths were caused by govt shelling, and that you put the UN under that pressure

RW: The panels of inquiries have not been transparent. We have got the letters through which the UN dealt with us and I think this is an attempt to undermine senior members of the UN.  I am sorry you can’t share the leaked report with me, but recently I saw something by a Britisher Julian Vigo which quoted young people in the UN – they are liers – for instance I checked with IOM about the person called Suzanne – they said there was no such person called Suzanne …. I’m afraid these people are not only determined to push a political agenda, but they are not truthful – I mean I don’t mind people being anonymous but don’t claim to have a name which turns out to be false.  Why don’t you check with the senior leadership of the UN? I have to say that the Sri Lankan govt has failed because when the Darusman report came out I personally checked – Sir John Holmes had not been contacted, except very briefly initially, Neil Buhne was the UNDP head and worked very well with the Sri Lankans, was not contacted. He can testify that the Tigers did not allow something like 600 Sri Lankan (UN) workers to leave, but at the end of the war all of them were safe – so this is hardly indiscriminate attacks.

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Let me deal first with what they have presented as their most damning evidence, the pictures of the dead body of Prabhakaran’s son. The killing of a child is always shocking and, unlike the celebrated Elie Wiesel, who excused the killing of members of Osama bin Laden’s family on the grounds that ‘it was bin Laden himself who placed them in harm’s way’, I do not think that is in any sense an excuse. We must investigate what happened, and take action if this was execution.

However the manner in which Channel 4 drums up evidence suggests that they are more concerned with vindictiveness towards their enemies than justice. In their anxiety to declare that the boy was tortured, they claim that they have been told this by a Sri Lankan army officer. However, in the transcript they show, it appears that, when they asked this officer how the boy had been treated, he simply responded ‘I got to know at the latter stages that they found out where Prabhakaran is through his son’.

Then there is a description from a pathologist about how he had been killed, a description that uses the word ‘likely’ three times. This uncertainty is compounded in the response to the question Channel 4 posed about torture, having declared that ‘clearly’ whoever killed him was trying to get information.

On January 15th, 2010, U.S. soldiers in Bravo Company stationed near Kandahar executed an unarmed Afghan boy named Gul Mudin in the village of La Mohammad Kalay. He was 15 yrs old.

The answer is categorical that ‘There is no evidence on the body of physical torture’. However, the obliging expert then claims that ‘if we can imagine the situation he was in’, since there were five others ‘who may well have been killed before he was killed’, and (this is now definite in what we can imagine), he was shot ‘by someone standing in front of him with the end of the gun within a few feet of his body, that would be a psychological torture in itself’. In this extraordinarily tentative world in which the Channel 4 expert lives, the alleged torture being characterized by a bizarre indefinite article too, this is enough to claim that President Rajapaksa is guilty. The sequence ends with the claim that, after several hypothetical steps, ‘the legal difficulties of linking the top to the bottom are largely eliminated’.

I should add that this video does not seem, at first sight, to contain many of the flaws of the previous video Channel 4 showed, which was initially dated wrongly (with no explanation given when we showed that the metadata indicated something else), with no editing of fragments in the wrong order with the inclusion of one fragment filmed at a different time and perhaps even a different place according to the reports the UN commissioned, with no purportedly dead figure putting down his legs which led one apparently eccentric expert to declare that is was possible he was drunk or sleeping or playing dead while others were being shot through the head around him. The video of Balachandran’s body – not  actual killing which was shown in the other video, which is bizarrely now connected to this through claims of a pattern – does not seem tampered with, which is why I believe the incident should be investigated. In the other case, it is obviously the video that should be investigated first, and for this we or the UN needs to have the original videos Channel 4 showed, not a copy as happened with the first video, when Channel 4 refused to give what they showed to us or to the UN.

Channel 4 claimed to have received the initial video from a body called Journalists for Democracy, which is the same body that supplied the UN with another copy of that video, but one that differed in salient particulars that we had pointed out. And this time round, to strengthen their case against the Sri Lankan government, it is of course a representative of Journalists for Democracy who is trotted out. Those who do not know the involvement of this group in making the film in the first place would naturally be fooled, but it is sad that governments also refer to Channel 4 approvingly, without bothering to study the sleight of hand that is used. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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The latest Channel 4 film on Sri Lanka dwells on four points, most of them expanded versions of what it claimed previously. Once again, actual evidence in the form of documents dating from the period concerned, indicate how selective it is.

Channel 4, following the Darusman report, talks of bombardments on a UN camp from January 23rd on. Unlike Gordon Weiss, who mentioned the same incident but without a date, attributing information to retired Colonel Harun Khan, from the UN Secutiry Office, Channel 4 now finally mentions its purported informant, an Australian called Peter Mackay.

There was no Peter Mackay in the list of those going on the convoy supplied to the army. Apart from Harun Khan, the only UN officer supposed to be in the convoy was a local employee called Mr Suganthan.

In contradiction it seems of the Channel 4 claim, the UN Security Chief wrote to the Security Forces on January 24th as follows – ‘I would like to thank you and your staff for excellent support in all the UN movements to date’ (it must be noted that Harun Khan had stayed behind without authorization, when the rest of the convoy left on January 20th, in order to persuade the LTTE to let local staff who were working in the Wanni leave).

Another letter of du Toit’s of January 31st, after Harun and his small group had got to safety, joining an ICRC convoy on January 29th as suggested by the army when the LTTE was delaying their escape, reads as follows, with regard to the local staff, ‘My office is keeping the SF HQ regularly updated as events unfurl on the battle field in their immediate vicinity and I can report that we are most pleased with the professional response and cooperation with SF HQ.’

So who was Mackay, where did he come from, and where did he get his footage? He may well have been there, but the fact that his presence was never informed to officials is suspicious in itself, given too his position at UNOPS which had had a number of staff with LTTE sympathies, for whom the UNOPS head had apologized (for instance Benjamin Dix whom Amnesty had taken round Geneva in a show and tell performance during an earlier sessions of the UN Human Rights Council).

It should be added that the deaths of civilians occurred largely because of the strategy of using civilians as human shields, and then fighting from amidst them. We were aware of this from the start, given the evidence of the Bishop of Jaffna who wrote on January 25th that ‘We are also urgently requesting the Tamil Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fir their artillery shells and rockets at the Army’.

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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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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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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2018
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