Sri Lanka’s civil war ended tragically in May 2009. Ten years on, the wounds of war remain unhealed. That has significant implications for the country’s future trajectory and ensures that, absent some big changes, a return to violence at some later date cannot be ruled out. Besides, victims and their family members deserve justice.
Unfortunately, a recent opinion piece by Lord Naseby, a British politician, is inundated with false and misleading claims. Naseby incorrectly describes how the war ended. He also paints a misleading portrayal of the current state of play. Moreover, his suggestion that the country no longer warrants international scrutiny is just plain wrong. I won’trebut all the misinformation in Naseby’s piece, but let’s look at some key issues.
Regarding previously passed UN Human Rights Council (HRC) resolutions on Sri Lanka, Naseby writes: “The motivation for the alleged need for the resolutions at all was thevery heavy lobbying by that section of the diaspora in the USA, UK and Canada who in their heart of hearts still wanted an independent state ‘Eelam’.”
That’s nonsense. The initial reason for those resolutions on Sri Lanka at the HRC – the first was passed in 2012 – is that the US in particular (along with other like-minded countries) came to the conclusion that, after giving Colombo time to show some commitment to post-war reconciliation, the regime was utterly unserious about doing so.
The tragic way the war ended – with the massive slaughter of Tamil civilians – meant that accountability for wartime atrocities was urgently needed. Yet the increasingly authoritarian, nepotistic and corrupt administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa was never sincere about dealing with the past. Instead, Rajapaksa promoted an anti-Tamil agenda and a culture of brazen impunity. Indeed, the absence of accountability for wartime abuses only encouraged further violations after the conclusion of war. And, even with Rajapaksa out of power, that hasn’t changed.
Naseby’s claims about there being 6,000 end-of-war casualties and the way the war ended have already been refuted convincingly, though he continues to promote a highly dubious version of events. A credible UN investigation concluded that up to 40,000 people may have died during that time. But the reality is that many people believe that that figure could be much higher.
Naseby, a longstanding Rajapaksa apologist, alleges that the “Sri Lanka armed forces took real trouble to look after the fleeing Tamil civilians”. That’s preposterous. Sri Lanka Government forces are accused of a host of appalling (and widely documented) violations including: the deliberate shelling of hospitals; extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; rape and sexual violence; and depriving Tamil civilians of medicine and aid.
Naseby states that: “In reality, Sri Lanka has taken positive steps on the four pillars of transitional justice.” That assertion is, at best, extremely misleading. Sri Lanka’s transitional justice program has been in deep trouble for some time. The government has created an Office on Missing Persons (OMP), but we don’t yet know if the OMP will be an effective entity. The three other transitional justice mechanisms havn’t even been created. And President Maithripala Sirisena has repeatedly stated that Sri Lankan soldiers won’t be held accountable for wartime violations.
More immediately, the northern and eastern parts of the country – historically Tamil areas where most of the fighting took place – remain heavily militarised locations where a sense of normalcy has largely been illusory.
Besides, Sirisena has been promoting Sri Lankan military personnel who are alleged war criminals. Over the past four years, the president has repeatedly sent signals which suggest that a credible transitional justice plan won’t be implemented on his watch. More generally, the recent political crisis has done damage to the country’s democracy; further backsliding shouldn’t be discounted.
Frankly, we don’t know if another resolution on Sri Lanka at the HRC would be useful or not. I suspect it would not, but that doesn’t mean that international actors shouldn’t remain engaged in some fashion – perhaps by applying pressure on human rights and transitional justice bilaterally.
It’s also worth mentioning that Naseby has been involved with the Sri LankaGovernment for many years. Since 2002, he has travelled to the country on numerous occasions – including visits in 2015 and 2017. During those trips, the Government covered a lot of his costs. It’s disappointing that this pertinent information wasn’t acknowledged as a disclaimer in his piece.
Glossing over the truth is irresponsible and dangerous.
Taylor Dibbert (@taylordibbert) is a freelance writer and an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum.
TWO =“Lord Naseby responds to ‘On Lord Naseby’s Sri Lanka whitewash’,”
- Reference to the article by Taylor Dibbert, 21 February headlined ‘On Lord Naseby’s Sri Lanka whitewash’ published in the FT, Lord Naseby has sent the following response.
Sri Lanka’s civil war ended tragically; so says Taylor Dibbert, a freelance Yankee journalist. There was nothing tragic about the annihilation of the LTTE Tamil Tigers; terrorists proscribed in 32 countries who had plagued the life of Sri Lanka for nearly 30 years, killing thousands of innocent civilians across all ethnic groups let alone tens of Ministers, a President and former Prime Minister.
There was no massive slaughter of an alleged 40,000 civilians in the period 1 January to 18 May 2009. Indeed, the opposite with close on 300,000 Tamil civilians who had been used as a human shield fleeing to the safety of the Sri Lanka armed forces.
Of course, there were deaths in the fighting but after exhaustive research I stick to my figure of about 6,000 of which about 1,500 were Tigers, many of whom threw away their uniforms. I have used many sources, but the most convincing is the Department of Census report of 2011 on the deaths and missing persons in the Northern Province carried out by Tamil enumerators. Their figure for civilian deaths including those Tigers who came from the Northern Province is for Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi Districts net of normal deaths, i.e. 4890 plus 1,442 untraceable at the point of census.
Reconciliation has already been helped by the restoration of the infrastructure in the north with the rebuilding of the railway, the A9 road and most importantly getting Jaffna on the electricity grid. Of course, more has to be done particularly with the Missing Persons Commission, a revised Prevention of Terrorism Act and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with Sri Lankan judges perhaps similar to the UK Chilcot enquiry.
Of course, nothing is perfect in a democracy; just look at Brexit in the UK Parliament, chaos on Capitol Hill in the USA and riots in France. What is clear is 10 years of peace, with people able to go anywhere and over 250,000 British tourists pouring into beautiful Sri Lanka last year.
Incidentally I have tried for well over 40 years to work with every President. Unlike a journalist, I am not paid but where travel and accommodation have been provided it has always been declared in the Register of Interests in both the Commons and Lords.
ADDENDUM 28 February 2019: Email Note from Myrna Setunga
I wonder how much the Tamil Diaspora paid Dibbert for this piece of rubbish. I worked for five years in the Ampara District soon after Tsunami and then in Menik farm in 2009 (seven trips of 7 to 14 days) and a month in Jaffna and a week in Mannar in 2010. All these trips/visits were done solo and I saw no evidence of this claim even ten years ago.
DIBBERT: “More immediately, the northern and eastern parts of the country – historically Tamil areas where most of the fighting took place – remain heavily militarised locations where a sense of normalcy has largely been illusory. “
It seems he has not heard of Menik Farm.
“Naseby, a longstanding Rajapaksa apologist, alleges that the “Sri Lanka armed forces took real trouble to look after the fleeing Tamil civilians”. That’s preposterous.
A CLARIFICATION from Michael Roberts:
Myrna is in my age-bracket and was a couple of years junior at Peradeniya Uni. She migrated to Australia and then worked for INGOs in Southeast Asia and she was Field Director for PLAN International in Sierra Leone … returning to Sri Lanka to work for an INGO in Badulla in the late 1990s (?). Since settling down in Colombo she has been a live-wire charity worker and threw herself into tsunami relief in 2005 and then pursued projects in the north. When some 250-280,000 Tamil IDPs were settled in the Manik Farm IDP camps from early 2009, she initiated a specific relief programme supportive of pregnant women in the camps. She got to know conditions in these centres very well. I will readily link anyone interested in her assessments of conditions in the IDP Camps as well as Jaffna Peninsula, Mannar and the north in the years 2009-to-2012 to Myrna. Her reports on the IDP camps have been presented in THUPPAHI: begin with https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/relief-work-in-aid-of-mothers-and-babies-among-the-idps-in-2009-myrna-setungas-reports-to-her-donor-pals-then-in-2009/