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presidency 25When I read of, and hear, the President expressing concerns about an international conspiracy to destabilize his government, and topple him, I feel immensely sad. One reason is that what he fears is not entirely without foundation.

The idea was put to me, quite politely, by the head of the Sri Lanka desk at the UN, who said that, whereas Mahinda Rajapaksa had been a good leader during the War, perhaps someone else was better suited to lead during peacetime. The young man from our Embassy who had accompanied me to that meeting said the same proposition had been put to Nivard Cabraal. Both of us repudiated the idea, and indeed I recall citing Tolstoy in this connection, given the theory he had put forward in War and Peace, about the visionary Alexander having to take over after the practical soldier Kutuzov had won the war. I have no idea what arguments Nivard used, but I have no doubt that he would have shared my conclusions.

Sarath-Fonseka

… the less polite approach of some Westerners, who put forward Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency

The Tolstoyan imagery was pertinent with regard to the less polite approach of some Westerners, who put forward Sarath Fonseka for the Presidency. This seemed to me rank wickedness, and I believe some European ambassadors shared my view, for they told me – at a farewell lunch I gave the two nicest of them – that they knew what he was like, and could not understand what some of their colleagues were up to.

I am not sure that the Americans, who were foremost in the venture (or at least some of them, for I cannot believe that thoroughly decent people like the then Social Affairs Officer Jeff Anderson were involved) were actually wicked. I have long learnt that one should never attribute to wickedness what can be put down to stupidity. I suspect then that those who still had some values but went along with the idea thought that Sarath Fonseka would split what they saw as the extreme vote, and that this would enable Ranil Wickremesinghe to win.

Ranil's fault

… the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.

Ranil however was sharper than them, and withdrew – which is perhaps what prompted Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, at the Christmas Party given by the then Deputy British Head of Mission, to say that the whole debacle was Ranil’s fault for having withdrawn.

Sarath Fonseka lost conclusively – despite Sara’s efforts to suggest the election had been fraudulent – which is why the protests I suspect had been planned never got off the ground. But the American extremists had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, because Mahinda Rajapaksa abandoned his visions, and a new homespun Kutuzov emerged.

For with Fonseka as his principal opponent, Rajapaksa had to cover that flank as it were, so that it was extremists who played the largest role in his campaign, not the fundamentally decent and moderate SLFP leadership. And so they have emerged as the strongest influences on policy in the government. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

Presentation prepared by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the Oslo Debate on
Whether or not to engage with extremists
Held on June 18th at the Oslo Forum 2014
(Delivered after the presentation of M A Sumanthiran, MP)

When I was first invited to participate in this debate, I was told it was about talking to terrorists. I thought then that I would like to speak in favour of doing this. This was in line with a position I took up a quarter of a century ago, at one of the early seminars when the Liberal Party proposed a programme of far-reaching constitutional reforms.

We were faced then by two terrorist movements, one in the North, the other in the South. I had been strongly critical of some appalling terrorist activity that had taken place recently, and was challenged by one of my former students about my condemnation of those he saw rather as freedom fighters – and I think he referred then to both groups. My response was that I did not think it correct to refer to people as terrorists, though this did not detract from the moral obligation to stand foursquare against terrorist activity.

This was perhaps a naïve view, and needs fine-tuning. But I do still think that those who turn to terrorist activity may have reasons for this that the authorities they challenge need to understand and also respond to. Engaging with them then is a necessity, though it must be done with care, and based on principles that make clear that violence is not acceptable, and certainly not acceptable against individuals who have no responsibility themselves for oppression and abuse that is intolerable. But we need to distinguish actions which are reprehensible from motives that may arise from unacceptable situations for which we too are responsible.

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island

April 17th 2014

The Editor

The Island

Dear Sir

I write with reference to the article by Shamindra Ferdinando, to which he kindly drew my attention, which appeared in your columns on April 16th. While I am grateful to him for drawing attention to a period when government had dedicated agencies to deal with such matters, using analysis and argument rather than knee jerk reaction, I must draw attention to one very misleading element in the article. This is important because it will also help in clarifying how to deal with the type of situation that arose.

Mr Ferdinando has a sub-heading to introduce the section in which I figure which states ‘SCOPP Chief lambastes UN’. The sections he quotes show that I did nothing of the sort, and the whole article was about Sri Lankan aberrations, to use this to attack the UN is misleading. Indeed I had nothing but cooperation from the then UNDP Resident Representative, Mr Neil Buhne (whose name Mr Ferdinando continuously mis-spells), in trying to sort out the mess.

When I first questioned the grants to the LTTE, both he, and the then Norwegian Ambassador, Tore Hattrem, whom I also found very positive in his approach, pointed out that these grants were approved, indeed initiated it seemed, by the then Sri Lankan government. The fact that the LTTE misused the grant may have been predictable to many of us, at least after it became clear, not very long after the CeaseFire Agreement was signed, that the LTTE had no intention of abiding by its terms. But when the then elected government of Sri Lanka behaved with incredible folly, to blame the UN as a whole is wrong. Indeed Mr Hattrem wrote to the LTTE to upbraid them for engaging in terrorist propaganda on the website that had been set up with Norwegian and UN funds, but the initial grant was given in good faith at the behest of the Sri Lankan government.

I should note that I found abuse too of the grant that had been given to SCOPP, as I pointed out in the article. The Secretary General of SCOPP at the time, when I questioned him, told me he had wondered what was going on, but he never bothered to find out, or to put a stop to it.

I should note too that the new head of UNICEF, Philippe Duamelle, at my request, ensured that the funds given to UNICEF were audited (though regrettably he told me that he was unable to share the report with me). When I expressed wonder at what had gone on before his arrival, he said frankly that he could not understand it. It was his predecessor who tried to tell me that UNICEF was prepared to condone violation of laws because the Tigers had told her they needed to change their legislation to stop recruiting children under 18. I complained about this to the UN and received an apology – and an assertion from Radhika Coomaraswamy who was in charge of the subject that the UN upheld national and international laws. But on other occasions when I asked others in more senior positions to get things in writing – as when the Head of UNOPS apologized to us for the behavior of Benjamin Dix – nothing was done.

It is precisely because of our failure to deal with aberrations direct, and work together with the many senior international officials who do their best to work in partnership with us, that the few individuals who had another agenda got away with bad behavior. Even when I ceased to have any executive responsibility, I suggested to the Ministry of External Affairs that they write formally to the UN to clarify matters, but of course nothing was done. Hence our failure to rebut the excesses of the Darusman Report with the support of the UN, instead of which we allowed what I might term the interventionists in the international community to engage in as one-sided criticism of senior UN officials (through the Petrie Report) as they had done of us.

Whilst we must be constantly vigilant about those who wish to attack us, the thrust of my article was that we needed also to put our own house in order. This is more true than ever now, with a Minister of External Affairs who seems determined to alienate all potential allies, whilst grossly misleading the President about what is really happening. I trust therefore that Mr Ferdinando will also devote some of his journalistic skills to exposing what is and was wrong about our own officials, instead of highlighting only the misdemeanours of a few young international staff and then implicitly criticizing the whole UN system for this and our own failure to be firm on good grounds.

Yours sincerely

Rajiva Wijesinha

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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220px-Navanethem_PillayThe impending visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, can be seen as a great opportunity for the government to improve policies and practices as to Human Rights in this country. I can only hope that this opportunity will be taken, and that she will not instead be seen as a threat.

Unfortunately, some indiscretions early in her career have coloured our perceptions of her. Most notably, back in 2009, when the Council was discussing Sri Lanka at a Special Session initiated by the British – and sadly, it now seems from Wikileaks, supported by the Americans, even though at the time we thought the Americans still had the balanced approach to us they had evinced during our eradication of terror – Navi Pillay made a statement designed to put us in the dock.

She may well have believed what she said at the time, but even worse was her continuing condemnation after the Special Session had passed a resolution essentially endorsing the Sri Lankan position. At the next ordinary session she made a statement that seemed to challenge the Resolution passed by the Council. She was roundly rebuked for this by the Indian representative at Geneva, and I am happy to say that after that she did not do anything that could be considered improper.

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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.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2019
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