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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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Gordon Weiss

Following what Weiss describes as the ‘recriminations’ that affected UN international staff, most decided to head back to Vavuniya, and only Harun and ‘a UN engineer’ remained behind to try to get the Tigers to agree to releasing the local staff and their families. He was to stay on for over a week more, getting back only on January 29th. Needless to say, the local staff was not allowed to leave, though as it happened, in a clear indication that allegations of indiscriminate attacks on civilians did not happen, all of them survived the conflict.  Weiss refers to 132 of them, though interestingly, more recently, I have seen a lower figure canvassed, as though to belittle my point about all of them surviving.

There is also some doubt about the UN engineer Weiss describes, since the information given to the military was that Harun’s associate was a Sri Lankan Security Officer with UN Security called Mr Suganthan. It is not at all surprising that he is reported to have been able to migrate to Canada within a month of getting out of the Wanni. This again is an example of where our Ministry of Foreign Affairs should have found out more about the circumstances, but there is little coordination between the different government agencies responsible for working with the UN, and I fear even less understanding of the way in which different individuals in the UN system operate.

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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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Gordon Weiss

The United Nations has I gather taken note of my detailed account of Chris du Toit and his network of observers, as have others in the Congo who I presume came across him later, after his involvement in what his disciple Gordon Weiss describes as ‘the illicit wars fought by South Africa in Angola’. I have however been reminded that, perhaps more even than Weiss, the responsibility for the attack on Sri Lanka with regard to ‘its shelling of the United Nations hub’ rests on the other colonel who reported to Weiss, namely the retired Bangladeshi colonel Harun Khan who ‘had led brigades into battle and managed counter-insurgency operations in his own country’.

I myself continue to believe that Harun was comparatively innocent, and it was his boss Chris du Toit who was the linchpin of the operation to pile allegations on Sri Lanka. But certainly Weiss quotes Harun directly, and it would seem that it is his evidence that has contributed to the criticisms contained in Paragraphs 80 to 94 in the Darusman report.

The Darusman report leaps from place to place in its account, indicating the vague nature of the panellists’ knowledge. Para 80 begins On 20 January 2009, the Government unilaterally declared a No Fire Zone (NFZ) and remarks that The LTTE did not accept the NFZ as binding. The rationale for the location of the NFZ, which encompassed the LTTE’s western and southern defensive lines, and the boundary of which along the A35 was only 800 metres north of the advancing SLA frontline, was not clear.

That last line suggests that the panellists had some sympathy with the refusal of the LTTE to accept the NFZ, a refusal that led to concerted use of the NFZ for its own military operations. Then in Para 81 the Panel concentrates on the hospital at Vallipuram, declaring that On or around 19 to 21 January, SLA shells hit Vallipunam hospital, located in the first NFZ, killing patients. Throughout the final stages of the war, virtually every hospital in the Vanni, whether permanent or makeshift, was hit by artillery. Particularly those which contained wounded LTTE were hit repeatedly

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2018
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