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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.
To return to the fears of resurgent terrorism in the North, this would seem preposterous given the patent relief of the majority of the Tamil people that the terrorism to which they were subject is over, a fact the military obviously recognizes. But at the same time it is clear that the people in the North have aspirations that are not being addressed, and this contributes to resentments that could be taken advantage of. Instead then of actions that could contribute to further resentments, the Secretary of Defence should rather work on those who have not only failed to overcome resentments, but have contributed to exacerbating them. Many of the better informed military personnel in the North understand this, and are at a loss to understand the myopia of government in this regard. But sadly, excellent politician though he is, the President will not put his mind seriously to the problem that has arisen in the last few years, and the Secretary of Defence has not produced comprehensive intelligence reports that assess the real reasons for resentment.
The resentment of the people was apparent in the massive vote against government at the recent election to the Northern Provincial Council. The President knew that he would not win the election, and I suspect this was true of everyone in government, even though the Minister of Economic Development, who had been entrusted with the government’s Northern policy, kept claiming that the government would do well. Indeed his belief seems to have been sincere, since the resentment he displayed after the results came in suggested that he was deeply upset at the total failure of his strategy. It was he, the President had told Dayan, who had insisted that the poll be postponed, on the grounds that the work he was doing would win popular favour, whereas the Secretary of Defence had been willing to have the election much earlier. It should be noted then that the Secretary’s opposition to holding the election last year was based on practicalities, the certainty of loss, rather than intrinsic opposition to a Northern Provincial Council, which he had sensibly enough thought should have been constituted earlier. But sadly his reaction to awareness of increasing unpopularity was not to ensure measures to reduce that unpopularity, but to try to sweep it under the carpet by even going to the extent of challenging the President when he made it clear that he intended to abide by his commitment to have the election.
That the Secretary was right to have wanted to have the election earlier is apparent from the results of preceding elections in the North. In the first set of local elections government actually won some local authorities. In the Wanni, government actually came close to winning in two of the three areas that polled, and in one the combined poll for government parties exceeded that of the Tamil National Alliance.
The Leader omitted salient points in the answers given to the various questions asked. It may have felt diffident about carrying criticism of the Minister of External Affairs and the Head of the NGO Secretariat, but given how badly the incompetence of such individuals affects the country, it seems desirable to publish the interview in full.
>Q. How will the listing of Diaspora groups impact on the reconciliation process?
This seems to have been a hasty decision without proper consideration of the possible consequences. The general tendency of our decision makers in promoting reconciliation seems to be to do too little too late, but this time it is a question of too much too late.
Basically we should four years ago have sent a very clear message about the disruptive impact of certain diaspora groups while working positively with the majority. Four years ago, when I still had an executive position and met the British Foreign Office they told me that we should be talking to the Tamils, which I said was obviously the case. However when they mentioned the TGTE I told them that was an outrageous suggestion, and they should distinguish betweent the TNA and Tamils in Sri Lanka, who are our people on behalf of whom too we fought terrorism, and separatist movements which had encouraged and financed terror.
Unfortunately we have a Foreign Minister who cannot make such distinctions, but simply bleats and follows whatever is the fashion of the moment. So he, and his monitor, sabotaged discussions with the TNA, but did not deal firmly with the more cynical of the international community when they played ball with separatists with a history of support for terrorism. They have still not investigated the Audit Query about our former Representative in Geneva, now Foreign Secretary, giving an important contract to someone thought to be supportive of the LTTE. Indeed they have suppressed the file. But now, having been indulgent for so long, now when they proscribe everyone in sight, it will be difficult for anyone to take this seriously.
The Foreign Ministry has done nothing about the LLRC recommendation to build up positive relations with the diaspora. Instead, as happened with Dayan Jayatilleka, they engaged in adverse propaganda about those who talked to the moderate Tamils. No attempt has been made to work with multi-racial groups in Britain or Australia, where there are very moderate Tamils. But when you have a lunatic situation where the person supposedly in charge of implementation of the LLRC initially was suspicious of people simply because they were Tamil, you have a recipe for disaster. So we have now institutionalized a blunderbuss sort of approach which will alienate the positive people – while I have no doubt those who are engaged in nefarious pursuits will slip through the net.
Reconciliation and the role of India
Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
At the Observatory Research Foundation
Delhi, December 13th 2013
I must admit to being deeply worried about the current state of relations between India and Sri Lanka. I contrast this with the excellent situation that obtained in 2009, when India was the chief component of the protective barrier against efforts to stop us eradicating terrorism from our shores. One might have thought that this was a goal the whole world would have supported, but sadly this is not an ideal world and countries will naturally put their own self interest first. Fortunately, not only did India’s interests coincide with our own at that stage, but given the terrible toll terrorism funded by external sources was taking on both our countries, I think it is also true to say that we worked in accordance with the highest moral perspectives.
But the aim we shared then, of eradicating terrorism on our shores, went hand in hand with another commitment, which was the promotion of pluralism in Sri Lanka. This again is a moral goal, but it also has a practical dimension, in that the full incorporation of the Tamil people in the body politic in Sri Lanka would have reduced the potential for future terrorism.
Sadly Sri Lanka has not pursued the Reconciliation process with the commitment it requires. Given its urgency I believe we should try to understand the reasons for this, and try to overcome them. In this process India has a significant role to play.
At the recent discussion held at the Marga Institute on accountability and reconciliation, I was confronted with an accusation I found interesting, and not entirely groundless. One of the brighter individuals earlier involved in advocacy NGO work suggested that my explanations for some responses of government were similar to what was claimed in mitigation by those who refused to criticize the LTTE when it was intransigent in discussion and continued to engage in terrorist activity.
I think there are differences, not least because I have drawn attention to governmental lapses in various areas, while also arguing that, while one should understand why government hesitates to move forward on issues that would contribute to reconciliation, one should nevertheless point out the need to move. As a distinguished Indian diplomat put it when talking about his government’s support for terrorist groups in the eighties, one can understand why this was forthcoming, but that does not justify it. That is why I will continue to point out the need for government to develop better mechanisms of consultation of the people in the North, as well as sensitivity to their concerns.
But it is true that I can understand why government feels so diffident, and that is why I believe it is necessary for those who are contributing to the insecurity government feels to also mend their ways. The apologists for the LTTE would point out how Tamils had suffered in the past not only because of majoritarian political decisions but also because of waves of violence that government had unleashed, or at least not actively discouraged. Their argument was that one had to indulge the LTTE because of the distrust they felt.
I seem to have struck a raw nerve in making public my account of what Siobhain McDonagh’s researcher was up to, in publishing false stories and possibly making up false videos too. He finally got in touch with me again, not to send me the clips he had promised of attacks on hospitals, the evidence he had second thoughts about sharing, but rather to upbraid me and tell me about his prominent friends.
Amongst them it seems it the British Defence Secretary. This seems to me highly unlikely, since Philip Hammond is not the sort to consort with terrorists, even if they might bring him a few extra votes. Perhaps Daran is counting on those who have recently, ever since they realized David Miliband was not going to bring home the bacon, been contributing massive amounts to Conservative Party coffers. But I cannot see Hammond succumbing to such blandishments.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, in speaking on this Motion I should perhaps start by saying that I do not think the way it has been put quite expresses the enormous relief in this country at having got rid of the need for Emergency Regulations, in fact at the removal of an Emergency situation in Sri Lanka. This has happened after a very long time. Even though in the past forty years we have sometimes had brief alleviation of the Emergency Regulations, we knew that the Emergency situation still continued, and very soon the Regulations were reintroduced.
So the fact that this Emergency is now lifted for good is a most welcome. But I also think it is important for us to remember the need to make sure that terrorism does not arise again. It is for that reason that, unfortunately or otherwise, certain regulations have been reintroduced under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. However, I agree with the last speaker from Jaffna who mentioned that we all hope the Prevention of Terrorism Act will also be lifted soon. We cannot forget the genesis of that Act in 1979, which was unfortunate. It was accompanied by excesses of the part of the then Government, which led to an increase of terrorism rather than a reduction. I think it is important therefore that, in our usage of the Act, we make sure that it prevents and does not exacerbate tensions, it prevents terrorism and does not allow it to expand
However, having said that, I think we need to remember that for the future there is a need for greater regulations, given the rise of terrorism worldwide. In the West you have things like the Homeland Security Act. We need to rethink our whole security situation and make sure that laws are introduced that are justiciable but that still make very clear the need to guard against modern methods of terrorism.
I have written at length about the strange business of Convoy 11, which took in the last supplies of food sent to the Wanni by land in 2009. The adventures of this convoy have formed the backbone of criticism of the Sri Lankan government, beginning with a diatribe by Human Rights Watch a couple of years ago. I responded to this at the time, but the matter was not taken up by the then Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to check on what sources within the UN had claimed. These sources were doubly culpabale for the official position of the UN, and the letters we had from them, indicated that there had been hardly any problems for which government was thought responsible.
I continue to believe that more active engagement with the UN, the senior leadership of which was well aware of the true reasons for problems, would have been helpful at the time. It is still not too late, as I have advocated, in writing as well as orally, to discuss more fully with responsible people in the UN the strange allegations that have emerged in the Darusman Panel report as well as the book written by Gordon Weiss, who should still be held accountable by the UN in terms of his contract – but they will not act on this unless we request them to formally.
One of the most significant omissions on the part of those bearing witness against the Sri Lankan government is detail about the manner in which the LTTE used the No Fire Zones. Though both the Darusman Report and the book by Gordon Weiss mention that the LTTE used military equipment ‘in the proximity of civilians’, they treat this as a distinct issue from the allegations they make against the Sri Lankan government. Given that returning hostile fire is not a war crime, they should have discussed the actual actions taken by the government in the context of proportionality, but this is avoided. The impression they seek to create is that the government attacked hospitals and civilians systematically, whereas the evidence, when it can be quantified – as with actual hits on hospitals, including within hospital premises – suggests that such incidents were extremely rare. Given the systematic manner in which the LTTE used civilians and places of civilian gathering, including hospitals, the record shows remarkable care on the part of the government.
Damilvany of course never mentions the systematic use the LTTE made of hospitals and such areas. The Sri Lankan government did try at one time to draw attention to what was going on, but it received no support whatsoever. The answer the ICRC sent in response, one letter to four urgent appeals, suggests how the international community as it is termed continued formulaic in its responses –
‘Re: Complaints about LTTE firing from the no fire zone
In reference to your different letters on the above mentioned matter (dated 16.02,. 17.02, 18.02 and 19.02 2009) the International Committee of the Red Cross wishes to inform you of the following.
The ICRC is aware the Sri Lankan authorities have announced the demarcation of a new “safe zone” along the Mullaitivu lagoon, and welcomes this development as it may help to find practical humanitarian solutions that may enhance the protection of civilians and those no longer directly taking part in the hostilities in the Wanni.
However, the ICRC would like to point out that not having been agreed upon by both parties to the conflict with the aim to shelter the wounded, sick and civilians from the effects of hostilities or with the aim to demilitarize it, the zone as such is not specifically protected under International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This being said, the civilians and those no longer taking a direct part in the hostilities who have taken in the ‘no fire zone’ remain of course protected persons under IHL.
The ICRC has in the past not missed any opportunity, and will continue to do so, to remind both parties to the conflict to respect in all circumstances their obligations under IHL, in particular the principles of precautions, distinction and proportionality, in order to spare all protected persons from the effects of hostilities.
We stay at your disposal, should you have any query on the above.’
That last line seems typical of the ICRC, and one wonders whether it was as helpful to the LTTE. Of course one has to recognize that the ICRC worked on the basis of confidentiality, and they could not be expected to make public what advice they gave to the LTTE. Still, one can understand, particularly in the context of the deceit practiced by Jacques de Maio, who headed the Sri Lanka desk in Geneva, the anger of the Sri Lankan government at what seemed deliberately aggressive critical statements of the ICRC during the first couple of months of 2009, with specifics that seemed designed to present the Sri Lankan government in the worst possible light, with no matching criticism of the LTTE. The fact that the LTTE was deploying its weapons in close proximity to hospitals was never mentioned.
When I wrote last week about the two terrorist attacks that had taken place in Norway, I was also making the point that these were not especially significant in terms of the Norwegian relationship with Sri Lanka. I was indeed worried that some Sri Lankans might see this as an opportunity to vent their resentment at Norway for the encouragement it was thought to have extended to terrorists, and I wanted to make it clear that I felt this would be inappropriate. In fact, though there have been one or two regrettable pronouncements, by and large the reaction has been suitably sympathetic.
Obviously there was some sort of link, in that Sri Lanka had suffered appallingly for terrorism for a long time, and Norway had been involved in trying to help us to overcome this, though as I have noted, their involvement was not always of the wisest. That however was in line with the attitude of some Sri Lankans too, so we should not blame them. On the other hand, a few recent pronouncements, after the LTTE was destroyed in Sri Lanka, seemed unnecessarily provocative, and I believe Erik Solheim in particular spoke out of turn some months back. However he too has been more sensible recently, while the Norwegian Foreign Ministry has by and large behaved circumspectly, in a manner I had thought indicated its comparative professionalism, as opposed to the ambitious Mr Solheim.
So, despite the occasional continuing dissonant voice from Norway, balanced by the recent arrest of one of the more extreme characters trying to revive the LTTE, I thought it necessary to preserve a distinction between our own victimization by terrorists and what Norway suffered last week. But I was shocked out of this position when I saw an aerial view of Utøya Island, where the main tragedy happened. It is shaped exactly like Sri Lanka, even down to a small peninsula at the top and an indentation on the East Coast which looks like Trincomalee Harbour.
And then I read, in the article to which the picture was attached, the last quotation, of a Norwegian girl who said, ‘It is unbelievable that a Norwegian guy could do this to his own country.’ That phrase struck me then as symptomatic of a whole mindset about terrorism, which needs to be adjusted, if we are to get rid of terrorism worldwide, or at least reduce its impact.
First is the assumption that terrorists are alien, not like us, and they harm others, not people like themselves. This is obviously a part of the truth, because terrorism thrives on othering, on hardening distinctions between those who act and those against whom they act. This has been encouraged by the dichotomizing the West engages in as a matter of course, in terms of its own dialectics, and I suspect we would all be much better off if we had a more oriental view of our relations, in which we thought in circles rather than straight lines, in terms of overlapping inclusivities rather than oppositional compartments. Read the rest of this entry »