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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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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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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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