Amnesty International under the gun in Sri Lanka

Shamindra Ferdinando, in the Island, 7 March 2010 under the heading: “SL calls for probe into NGO funding”

The Sri Lankan government says the recent revelation that former Secretary General of the London headquartered Amnesty International, Irene Khan and her deputy Kate Gilmore received a staggering 533,000 and 325,244 pounds, pay-off packages, respectively, should prompt a worldwide scrutiny of NGO operations.

Khan, a Bangladeshi and the first Asian to head the AI, assumed duties in 2001. During her tenure as head, AI targeted the Sri Lankan cricket team during the last World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007 over the country’s war against LTTE terrorism. Although Khan and Gilmore quit AI on Dec. 31, 2009, they remuneration remained undisclosed until Feb. 2011. The British press reported the issue last week.Evidence has surfaced that theLTTE obtained the services of former AI personnel. Their connection came to light in Oct. 2005, when Francis Boyle, a former bigwig of AI (1988-92) represented the LTTE at a meeting with the EU in Brussels, close on the heels of the EU imposing a travel ban on the LTTE leadership based in Sri Lanka. Boyle was joined by V. Rudrakumaran, now the self styled Prime Minister of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE).

A top level government spokesman told The Island on condition of anonymity that AI had been involved with the LTTE for some time and during Khan’s stewardship, an AI delegation had visited the LTTE-held Vanni in June 2002. The then UNP-led UNF government facilitated meetings between the AI delegation led by Derek Evans, a former Deputy Secretary General of AI. On their return from the Vanni, AI called a press briefing in Colombo, where it declared that the LTTE wanted its expertise to streamline its ‘judicial’ system and ‘police’ service. Evans said that AI was ready to assist the LTTE on the lines of its activities in Afghanistan.

Sources said after Khan’s exit, AI hadn’t appointed a successor thus allowing Claudio Cordone, Senior Director for Research and Regional Programmes, to run the show from Jan. to June 2010. Salil Shetty, an Indian, was appointed as AI’s eighth Secretary General last July. Shetty had been Director of the United Nations Millennium Campaign from 2003 to 2010. Sources said that under Shetty’s leadership, AI, together with Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Crisis Group (ICG) last October condemned the appointment of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

A foreign affairs analyst told The Island that such acts re-confirm the long held suspicion that organisations like AI were no longer objective critics of human rights abuse, but selectively targeted countries and situations, to serve the interests of their pay masters. “In fact, they increasingly show a tendency to draw attention to issues as part of the propaganda campaigns of vested interests, but refuse to subject their assertions to public scrutiny, as observed when AI refused to appear before the Sri Lankan LLRC,” he said.

UNP MP Harsha de Silva told The Island that it was unbelievable that AI ran on donations from millions of supporters across the world and had paid such huge sums to its outgoing Secretary General and her deputy. However, in its defence, AI has said that the situation was unique and had arisen due to an unexpected legal complication when attempting to end the contract with its Secretary General. MP de Silva said: “It is true that AI has not been in the good books of the Government of Sri Lanka in the recent past, particularly over its campaign to ensure accountability for alleged human rights violations committed during the last stages of the conflict. But that should not be reason to discount all the good work AI has been doing all over the world for almost 50 years, fighting for the abused and tortured, even winning the Nobel Prize for its dedication and commitment. While I sincerely hope the Government would work in a realistic manner with all stakeholders, local and foreign, to arrive at a solution that is acceptable to all and heals this open wound with obvious and unbearable pain of mind to hundreds of thousands if not more, it must ensure that basic human rights are protected of all citizens of Sri Lanka. This must include the investigations on abductions, enforced disappearances and killings and ensure that the perpetrators are identified and brought to justice and tried in full conformity with international standards. The Government must also ensure that the harassment, intimidation and other attacks against human rights defenders, journalists and other peaceful critics are stopped immediately. It is now just about a month since I was personally targeted in the brutal Independence Day attack on the UNP protest but to date not a single perpetrator has been identified, let alone brought to justice.”

UPFA National List MP Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe told The Island that he had been trying to get the government to thoroughly investigate funds received by various NGOs and for what purpose, how projects were coordinated with the government and how their results were monitored. He said: “Recently, I was delighted that one of my dedicated parliamentary colleagues, Dr Sudharshani Fernandopulle, also asked relevant questions, though she too did not receive satisfactory answers. If we check on these carefully, ensure accounts are filed with relevant authorities (Directorate of Companies or NGO Secretariat or whatever), reports are submitted and read and discussed, and tax paid, we can also develop more productive relationships with hard-working capable NGOs. Unfortunately, our government structures are as loose about accountability as most of their critics.

With regard to Amnesty International, I have long been prejudiced in their favour since Amnesty dates from the days when Human Rights was not fashionable, and was not used deliberately as a political tool. However, though I do not know details of what happened with regard to Irene Khan, I believe that recently it has had divergent approaches. One was what I would call the old Amnesty approach, which I appreciate, and which I felt was represented by its Geneva Representative Peter Splinter, and also Irene Khan. As the article you sent suggests, she was also concerned about economic rights, ie she worried about human beings, not about political arrangements. She was not against Sri Lanka herself ,and when we met in Geneva, she expressed appreciation of what Sri Lanka had achieved in this regard, in particular our successful efforts to extend health and education rights to the entire population.

However, during her time, Amnesty began to approximate more to those human rights groups that have emerged recently, and which are heavily funded by countries as well as individuals, keen on political interventions. Thus we had the preposterous cricket campaign against Sri Lanka, by a strange individual called Jim McDonald, who was really very stupid indeed, as even his colleagues came to realise. He may have been well intentioned, but when he claimed that Sri Lankans might have stolen cluster bombs from the Tigers and then used them, to justify an assertion he had made which the United Nations repudiated, we realised that we were dealing with an old loony.

More recently, Amnesty International hired a man called Sam Zarifi who had previously worked for Human Rights Watch, and who seems to be one of those Iranian expatriates with a visceral hatred of the current regime in Teheran. I believe he is one of the leading figures in efforts by proponents of Western interference to transform Amnesty International into another political tool. In such a context, I would assume that Irene Khan had to be sidelined.

If she demanded a large price to be got rid of, that is entirely understandable. She will probably find it difficult to get a similar job again, given her apolitical approach, and her refusal to look at things in black and white in terms of particular political agendas. It is understandable therefore that she should have got from Amnesty a package that will compensate her for difficulties about finding similar employment in the future.

Sadly, given increasing sophistication with regard to propaganda and communication tools, organisations like Amnesty will find it difficult to survive without massive funding from sources that will expect conformity to their political agendas. I believe Mrs Khan was not such a conformist, unlike for instance Mr Zarifi, who is sinister, and Mr McDonald, who is foolishly idealistic and therefore can be used by more sophisticated players of the human rights card in a much more complex world.”

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