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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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sithamuA few weeks back I was approached by a body called the Oxford Research Group, asking about a workshop on the recording of casualties during the conflict in Sri Lanka. This seemed a good idea because, as we have expressed in the draft National Policy on Reconcilation, we must address the anguish of those who do not know what happened to their loved ones. I believe we took too long over preparing census returns and, even if that was understandable given concentration on physical returns and restoration for those who remained, we must remember that concern for the dead is a continuing problem for the living.

Now that we have received some sort of a record from the Census Department, which fits in with figures I cited a couple of years back on the basis of extrapolations (and which led to my being attacked by both sides as it were), we should build on this to issue documentation to all who have suffered bereavement. I believe it is true that, in some cases, those who are missing have gone abroad, but this is where we need to work coherently with foreign governments to try to match identities.

I am told that many governments will not share information with us, but we should, while recognizing any concerns they might have, press for statistics, as to the numbers at least of those who have sought asylum in the period beginning January 2009. Given that some individuals may have gone from India, we should also seek statistics from the Indian government, which has informed us of substantially large numbers entering India during the first part of that year. But precision is lacking, and we should pursue this. And I believe a coherent programme together with the ICRC and IOM will help us to match some of those who are seeking asylum abroad with those recorded as missing here.

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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

The ICRC study on overcrowding in prisons is deeply depressing, not only because of the sordid picture it reveals, but also because reform would be so easy, if only there were better coordination. Unfortunately we have now in Sri Lanka built up a system in which coordination is almost impossible, and the information that should stir authorities to change things is rarely systematically collated and effectively presented.

It was the Minister of Justice who initially alerted me to the ICRC study, and much of the change has to come from institutions connected with justice. However getting the Judiciary to move is almost impossible, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice found, her plea to the Chief Justice to convene a meeting to look at the issue having fallen on deaf ears. I have been luckier, in that I have got replies to letters I sent, but the effect of these is to make it clear that nothing will be done since the judiciary is not responsible for action.

I suppose this is strictly speaking true, but I cannot understand why the judiciary will not develop norms for sentencing based on reducing unnecessary suffering as well as expense. The ICRC study notes that, ‘Out of the total admissions in 2010…… 75.7% (100,191) consisted of remandees, of whom  21.9% spent between 14 days and 1 month in remand and 25.5% (3’367) spent less than 14 days in remand’.

Since the approximate average cost per prisoner per day is Rs. 318.00, the total per month (· Estimated approx total cost for month (100,000 detainees x 30 days) is Rs. 954,000,000, ie 12 billion rupees a year, given that some months are longer.

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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

A couple of weeks back the Task Force to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan for the first time invited persons not in government service to participate in a formal meeting. I had long wanted to do this, but government had, I suppose understandably, been wary of external involvements, which can often be interference. I had therefore continued with the system of informal consultations that had been set up earlier through the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, but it was I think a great boon that the Minister had met the ICRC head and realized how much they do and can contribute.

The ICRC after all works only with governments (or parties to conflict) and though, as we saw from Wikileaks, some of its officials succumb to the charm of powerful countries, in Sri Lanka, except for a brief period in early 2009, they have been the souls of discretion. Indeed, a study of communications between them and government during that year (as I saw from the few documents the army gave me when I was looking into claims about hospitals and civilian deaths) would make it crystal clear that we are innocent of the allegations made in the Darusman Report about the conduct of our armed forces during the conflict. Sadly study is something neither we nor our critics engage in.

I was instructed then by the Minister to set up a meeting, which proved most informative, with active contributions also from Ministry of Rehabiliation and Prison Reforms, the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation and the Prisons Department. Unfortunately the representatives designated to attend by the Attorney General’s Department and the Ministry of Justice failed to turn up, though the Secretary to the latter was most apologetic and promised to take up the matter formally with the officer concerned.

I was particularly sorry that the AG’s representative did not come, because he had nominated Suhada Gamlath, who had been Commissioner General of Rehabilitation during the conflict. Though he had not done much for the older combatants, understandably so given his other manifold duties, he had been deeply concerned about the children, which is perhaps why they were looked after positively from early on.

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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.

August 30th is the day chosen by the United Nations to commemorate missing persons, a subject that is of great concern to Sri Lankans. Its official title is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, and we are claimed to have the second highest number of such disappearances in the world. Though that statistic is based largely on past history, namely the large numbers of those alleged to have vanished during the JVP insurrection of the eighties, it is nevertheless a sad reflection on us that we have not provided clarifications to the UN Working Committee on Disappearances which maintains those statistics.

There are several reasons for working on this expeditiously, not least the fact that the figure is thrown about freely by extreme elements in the diaspora and the international community who imply that it relates to the recent conflict. An example of this came up recently when there were questions raised about a figure that appeared in a recent ICRC report, even though a careful reading of that report would have made clear that the figure relating to recently reported cases was comparatively small, and the figure of over 10,000 related to complaints of over a decade back.

We should in all cases however take steps to have the figure reduced. This is connected with what seems to me the main reason for working on the problem, namely that we need to do whatever is possible to assuage the grief and the problems of those who have no idea as to what has happened to their family members. For this purpose we ourselves should maintain records and ensure not only material support for those who lost their breadwinners but also spiritual support to help them cope with indeterminate loss.

For this purpose we must pay more attention to the development and deployment of counseling services. This has been grossly neglected over the years, and I fear our efforts to fast forward training, when the Peace Secretariat noted in 2008 that there would be great need of more trained Counsellors in the near future, were not successful. Though I had discussions with both WHO in Geneva, and those spearheading the programme in Colombo, we could not get concerted action. Indeed, because of what seemed to be internal rivalries, the excellent programme begun by John Mahoney, shortly after the tsunami, was brought to a close, and the poor man had to leave, to be redeployed later in Vietnam which clearly had a greater sense of purpose about this than we did.

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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.

I looked last week at the provisions in the LLRC Action Plan for dealing with questions about disappearances, and noted the importance of the recommendation regarding greater transparency and precision as to the actual facts. This is also important regarding detainees, where much confusion has resulted from conflation of two separate issues.

I should note that there is also a third, which is even more serious now, given that we have dealt quite effectively with the first two issues. I refer to those who have nothing to do with the conflict, but should definitely be considered under the Action Plan recommendation to create ‘a special mechanism to examine cases of persons being held in detention (for long periods without charges)’. The recent visit to the Prisons that we undertook with the Human Rights Commission brought home to us graphically what statistics had already indicated, that large numbers are held in remand with no prospect of their cases being heard. At Welikada itself there are over 1000 remandees, some of whom have been in remand for years, while the State continues to ponder as to whether charges can be brought.

I had been astonished at the failure in coordination that sometimes led to this situation. At the consultations the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies persuaded me to commence at the Reconciliation Office even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force on the Human Rights Action Plan, I found the Government Analyst’s Department for instance, which participated actively and helpfully, noting that sometimes reports they sent in were lost, and sometimes they travelled miles for cases only to be told that the prosecution was not ready.

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I was called up by the BBC when they received a leaked copy of the Report to the Secretary General on the work of UN Agencies in Sri Lanka during the conflict period. They wanted me to comment and, though they would not share with me what they had, I agreed since I did not want the debate to go by default.

UN Secretary General
Ban Ki-moon

They promised to send me the text of what their correspondent Lyse Doucette was posting on their website at 2 pm GMT. They would not send this to me beforehand, though they said they could give me some time to study it. Since however they were going on the air at 2pm, I thought I should respond straight away, and this proved sensible, for even before the email arrived, I saw the discussion begin on BBC television.

Radio actually gave me a reasonable time, though nothing like as much as had been allowed all those who attacked Sri Lanka. TV, which followed soon afterwards, cut me off after a couple of minutes, though they did ask me to answer another question for a later programme.

They have not confirmed that this was used, and a friend in Britain who accessed the link to the Newsnight programme found that I was not there. Perhaps there was a mistake, but the track record suggests that suppression is the order of the day. Lyse Doucette’s piece had comments from several of the usual suspects, including Benjamin Dix who first surfaced in Geneva in 2008, when the UN in Colombo apologized for his antics.

He is joined now by someone called Edward Mortimer, who is involved in something called the Sri Lankan Campaign. Not one of those she cites on the piece put up on the Web challenged the basis on which the current UN Report has been produced.

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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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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.

One of the most important commitments of the National Human Rights Action Plan, as agreed by Cabinet, is the adoption of legislation to ensure the right to information. Not only is this an obligation to our citizens, on whose behalf government acts, it is also practically desirable. In this modern day and age, when disinformation can be circulated so easily, and not necessarily out of malice, but through carelessness and ignorance, it would be helpful for government to have the facts readily available in clear and comprehensible form.

How useful this would be became even more clear to me when listening to the falsehoods and incomplete information purveyed by those critical of Sri Lanka at the recent discussion based on the Channel 4 documentaries that took place in London at the Frontline Club. Callum McRae, who had made them, declared that over 11,000 former LTTE combatants were still in custody, and could not be visited.

This is nonsense, for almost all combatants have been released, and throughout their stay they were visited regularly by their relatives. I did at one stage suggest to the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation that they maintain a data base of all those still in detention, with dates of visits, since I was told that none had not been visited. I suppose that would have been too complicated, but some sort of information sheet could have been prepared, and shared perhaps with the Human Rights Commission, to make it clear that there was nothing to hide.

One point we suffered from, and which I believe was a mistake, was that the ICRC was not permitted to visit. This decision sprang I believe from the view that the ICRC had been exceeding its mandate. Nevertheless, we should have made it clear that the ICRC had been involved in the registration process of

these youngsters until almost the very end. In wanting to assert our independence in this respect – which is not necessary, for the ICRC functions with scrupulous respect for the independence of those parties that have invited its assistance – we ignored this fact, whereas Wikileaks indicates that the ICRC had told the Americans in Geneva that ‘ICRC has been visiting regularly 11,400 people arrested and interned in 10 camps as suspected LTTE fighters’.

I myself had thought that the ICRC visits to the former combatants had stopped earlier, so I was pleasantly surprised when this particular Wikileaks cable was brought to my notice. What I did know was that throughout this period ICRC had had access to all those held in detention at Boossa and elsewhere, including those former combatants who had been thought hard-core, and who had therefore been transferred to Boossa (though most of them were soon transferred back, when government decided that more rehabilitation was preferable to any punitive action).

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At the Frontline Club discussion on Sri Lanka, I finally came across Frances Harrison. The name had been familiar, for in recent years, whenever I went to England, she used to tweet madly about me, in what seemed to me desperate hysteria, though I soon enough found out that many journalists tweet in that mad fashion. This time round, her fascination with me continued, in that she saw the discussion as ‘Ch 4 vs prof rajiva debate’ as she tweeted an hour before the discussion.

It is possible however that the lady is cunning rather than obsessional, because this was also a way of cutting out the contribution of Arun Tambimuttu to the discussion. Initially it had indeed been meant to be me and the High Commissioner debating Jon Snow and Callum McRae, but Snow dropped out. I thought it was because he was nervous since previously, when the High Commission had asked Channel 4 to invite me for a discussion, they had dodged, except once when we managed to corner them with the help of the BBC Today programme. However it is possible that, as one of his loyal fellow employees said before the discussion, in explaining his absence, he simply says ‘Yes’ to everything, and then changes his mind.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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