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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.
Going through the figures released by the Census Department, I was struck again by the contrast between data based on investigation and wild claims based on general statements and suppositions. The most recent example of this occurs in the book by Frances Harrison which is rapidly becoming the new Bible of critics of Sri Lanka, following on the Darusman Report and the book by Gordon Weiss. Interestingly the Petrie Report does not seem on the way to iconic status, perhaps because its selective attacks on UN officials, with no regard for truth, was too much for any establishment to stomach.
I cannot but reiterate enough however that the perpetuation of much of this hype is our own fault. Whereas we should have engaged straight away, as possible, in systematic investigation of the fate of all Sri Lankan citizens, we allowed several years to lapse before setting in motion any mechanisms at all. And now that we have the census data, we have done nothing about it that will facilitate refutation in the public domain of the claims of Harrison and her ilk.
This is the more astonishing in that we have long known how statistics can be regurgitated to haunt us. The legacy of the disappearances during the second JVP insurrection continues to dominate the records about Sri Lanka maintained by the Working Group on Disappearances. Sadly there was no systematic effort to convey the findings of the several Commissions set up in President Kumaratunga’s time to the WGD. Though at intervals the Foreign Ministry tried, together with the Attorney General’s Department, to work on this later, those efforts too were sporadic. And though we did our best when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights, leading for the first time in ages to positive comments on our engagement in WGD reports, that too was abandoned when the Ministry was shut down. Responses to communiqués ceased, leading to the harsh criticism that has resurfaced in recent WGD pronouncements.
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.
The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.
Soon after the New Year, the Human Rights Commission summoned a consultation with regard to the recommendations made with regard to Sri Lanka at the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the Human tights Council in Geneva in 2008. This was a timely move by the Commission, and brought home to me how grossly we had neglected paying formal attention to the recommendations since their inception. We had after all accepted several of the recommendations made, and we had an obligation therefore to carry out our pledges.
The fault is mine even more I suppose than that of anyone else, since having been appointed Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights in the middle of 2008, I continued in that position for well over a year after those pledges had been made. Though I think I did a little bit, and perhaps more than anyone else would have done, I should obviously have been more systematic. In mitigation however I should note that I had a massive problem with regard to one important area with regard to which there were several recommendations, namely the Human Rights Commission itself. We were supposed to get international assistance for this, but our principal collaborator in this, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, refused to recognize its status.
That this involved deceit and sleight of hand had been clear to me earlier, when I discovered that a UNDP sponsored report on the HRC had been suppressed and not shown to the Head of Capacity Building in Geneva. The line being pushed by critics of the government in Colombo was that the HRC was illegal, and this had been swallowed – if indeed he had not been responsible for propagating it in the first place – by an Australian (yet another to add to the serried ranks of David Savage and Gordon Weiss and James Elder and Peter Mackay) called Rory Mungoven who was in charge of the Sri Lanka desk in Geneva. He had previously been the representative of the High Commissioner in Colombo, and had no affection at all for our elected government.
I tried early on to engage with him, but found him a liar, and sanctimonious at that. When I asked him why he had not supported regional activities of the HRC, he told me that donors were not willing to contribute to the HRC as it was constituted, but a Swiss diplomat who was very helpful while also clearsighted about our shortcomings that should be overcome, told me that the Swiss had provided funds for the purpose, and they had not been used. Rory, I should add, had proconsular ambitions, and was one of those who told me the UNOHCHR could do a better job than the Norwegian led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission at monitoring the ceasefire, on similar lines to Gareth Evans who thought that he would do a better job himself, as head of the International Crisis Group.
Rory’s successor was a much more helpful person but, typically, she was soon taken away and replaced by an American young lady called Cynthia Veliko. Cynthia, like Rory, thought her primary allegiance was to opponents of the government, but she was more gracious, and helped to set up a training session for police trainers, which was I think extremely helpful.
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’.
After the Wikileaks revelation about Guy Rhodes, I went back to the various assessments I had made in 2008 and 2009. What I found was fascinating, and suggests that what we are going through now was carefully prepared by just a few members of what calls itself the international community. Sadly the many decent members of the international community who work here stand by their own kind, and will refuse to look at the evidence of shady dealing. But I suppose one cannot blame them, given the manner in which government too ignored the evidence placed before them.
The long history of the network that continues to hinder efforts at progress in Sri Lanka can be seen in the minutes of what was termed the UN Protection Group. This indicated that ‘In a daily meeting of Security Operations Information Centre comprising UNDSS, UNOCHA, SOLIDAR and UNOPS analysis of satellite imagery and other information is being used to try to identify numbers and locations of IDPs in the Vanni and in particular in the no-fire/safe area. The number of civilians in safe area is thought to be between 70,000 to 100,000 individuals.’
I wrote about this in March 2009, in an essay entitled ‘The Great NGO Game’, that ‘ I was not sure whether it was appropriate that the UN should be dealing in satellite imagery of conflict areas on a daily basis, but I could see that permission might have been given for this by the Ministry of Defence, given our continuing cooperation with the UN. But what was SOLIDAR doing as a member of the Security Operations Information Centre?’
Incidentally it should be noted that this bunch of security experts, with access to satellite imagery, thought that there were between 70,000 and 100,000 civilians in the safe area. I thought then that ‘this particular bit of information had not been shared elsewhere in the UN system, so that the poor High Commissioner for Human Rights was still claiming that ‘According to UN estimates, a total of 150,000 to 180,000 civilians remain trapped in an ever shrinking area’. The significant point in the current context though is that the Darusman panelists are clearly bonkers to claim that we deliberately underestimated figures for the Wanni, since it would seem the UN too made similar errors to our own.
For my current analysis however what is vital is something I missed then, namely the components of this exclusive UN club of which Solidar was so unusual a member. In wondering what an NGO was doing in this Security Operations Information Centre, I did not focus on the involvement also of UNOPS. This last, I should note, is a strange entity that does not function like other UN agencies we are used to, which receive funding to fulfil particular purposes. UNOPS on the contrary brings no money to the countries in which it operates, but rather picks up contracts from other segments of the UN as well as donor countries.
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.
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.
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 »
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.