Shamindra Ferdinando, in Island, 9 April 2019, where the title reads “UK reiterates foreign judges as Killing Fields producers crucify Lanka again”
The House of Commons seems far more interested in Sri Lanka’s accountability in respect of war against terrorism than our own parliament. Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Mark Christopher Field, on April 04, 2019, reiterated foreign judges in Sri Lankan judicial mechanism to hear war crimes cases. Conservative Party member Field reassured the UK’s commitment to ensure participation of foreign judges in proposed mechanism in response to a query raised by Labour MP and shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury).
Mark Field Army Chief of Staff Major General Shavendra Silva recently received the appointment as the new Colonel of the Commando Regiment at its Ganemulla headquarters. Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, told Geneva sessions that it wouldn’t be fair to deprive security forces commanders of their due rights on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. Marapana said that as allegations hadn’t been proved officers couldn’t be dealt with on the basis of them. The delegation also pointed out that information supportive of the military had been disregarded.
Obviously, the misleading question was meant to compel the UK government to reiterate its stand on foreign judges in the wake of Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, briefing the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) the extreme difficulty in allowing foreign judges. Marapana addressed the UNHRC on March 20, 2019. The UK plainly dismissed Sri Lanka’s concerns over foreign judges.
Let me reproduce the question and answer verbatim to prevent possible accusation of misinterpretation of facts.
MP Emily Thornberry’s question: To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, for what reasons the Government decided to remove the requirement on Sri Lanka to allow foreign judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers to investigate human rights abuses committed in that country in Resolution A/HRC/40/L.1 presented at the Human Rights Council on 21 March 2019.”
Minister Field’s answer: “On 21 March the UK introduced a new Resolution rolling over Sri Lanka’s commitments on post conflict reconciliation and accountability at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The resolution was adopted by consensus, with 42 co-sponsors, including Sri Lanka.
The new Resolution reaffirms Sri Lanka’s commitments under Resolution 30/1, which welcomes the intention of the Government of Sri Lanka to establish a judicial mechanism to investigate allegations of violations and abuses, including the importance of independent and impartial institutions to ensure the credibility of the mechanisms of the participation of foreign judges, defence lawyers, and authorises prosecutors and investigators. The UK will continue to support and encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure full implementation of the UNHRC Resolutions.”
Having first been elected as the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster in 2001, Field received appointment as Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on June 13, 2017. Before that, Field served on the Intelligence and Security Committee, from September 2010 until March 2015. Field was also made a Privy Counsellor, in March 2015, in recognition of his service for Intelligence and Security Committee.
The UK spearheaded the latest Geneva Resolution in the absence of the US. The world’s solitary superpower quit the UNHRC in June 2018 calling the UN body a cesspool of political bias. Sri Lanka has accepted the UK as the leader in the Core Group on Sri Lanka. Iceland replaced the US. The Core Group, comprising the UK, Canada, Germany, Macedonia and Montenegro, presented a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.
One-time External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L Peiris queried as to why a single Asian-Pacific member of the UNHRC couldn’t be accommodated in the Core Group on Sri Lanka. The 47-member Geneva body, divided into five zonal, groups included 13 Asian-Pacific countries, namely Afghanistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Fiji, India, Iraq, Japan, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Prof. Peiris alleged that those hell-bent on hauling war-winning Sri Lanka military and political leaderships before foreign judges are pursuing what he called a Western agenda meant to introduce a federal structure.
A new war crimes documentary
A powerful grouping engaged in a relentless anti-Sri Lanka campaign, produced and released another documentary recently. It coincided with the recently concluded 40th Geneva sessions. The group cannot be faulted under any circumstances for continuing its strategy. The 33-minute documentary, titled ‘Sri Lanka and the Search for Justice ten years on’, began with a warning, of what the producers’ called distressing images throughout the film.
The latest documentary, made by producers of ‘No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’ dealt with what they called background to crimes perpetrated by Sri Lanka and the extremely slow progress in implementing the Geneva Resolution 30/1, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka in Oct 2015, following the change of government. ‘Sri Lanka and the Search for Justice ten years on’ delivered a powerful message in the absence of cohesive government initiative to counter a well developed campaign.
Callum Macrae directed ‘No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’ produced by Zoe Sale , and telecast on British television station, Channel 4, in June 2011. They thanked Tamil Guardian, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS),The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice and Sacha Walker for backing their latest initiative.
The war-winning Rajapaksa government pathetically failed to counter the Western propaganda. The Rajapaksas played politics with the accountability issue. Their actions, too, contributed to the current situation.
The latest documentary, began with a scene at the UN Compound, in Kilinochchi, in Sept 2008. Benjamin Dix, a former UN staffer, was shown recalling how the government directed the UN to vacate Kilinochchi. Dix asserted that it was supposed to be a war without witness. This scene had been taken from the original ‘No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka.’ Dix was followed by Gordon Weiss, a former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka (2005-2009). Weiss alleged Sri Lanka removed UN personnel as it felt international presence hindered offensive action. Sri Lanka was accused of removing independent witnesses. Weiss’s scene, too, had been taken from the original documentary.
The producers declared, in spite of the government move against the UN, there were witnesses and they filmed what happened. According to them, the witness included both victims and those who perpetrated war crimes.
The latest documentary claimed that based on UN probe six years after the conclusion of the war, Sri Lanka co-sponsored Oct 1, 2015 Geneva Resolution.
The documentary referred to the 2002 Feb Ceasefire Agreement between Sri Lanka and the LTTE arranged by Norway. The documentary expressed the view that the CFA brought peace stability.
The documentary conveniently avoided reference to India sponsoring terrorism here, or Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorists making an abortive bid to assassinate the then Maldivian President Mohammed Abdul Gayoom, in Nov 1989. The Sri Lankan raid on the Maldives took place during the deployment of the Indian Army in the Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka (July 1987-March 1990).
The documentary faulted the LTTE for forcible recruitment of child soldiers. The LTTE was also blamed for not tolerating opposition whatsoever.
Reference was made to Mahinda Rajapaksa winning the Nov 2005 presidential election and the launch of the combined security forces offensive against the LTTE in the following year. Unfortunately, the producers made no reference to the LTTE quitting the Norway-led negotiating peace process in late April 2003, high profile assassination of the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Aug 2005, helping Mahinda Rajapaksa to win the Nov 2005 presidential election by depriving the northern vote to rival UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, assassination bids on Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka in April 2006 and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Dec 2006. Of course, the documentary also conveniently refrained from mentioning President Rajapaksa’s delegation meeting LTTE at overseas venues twice to explore ways and means of resuming negotiations under Norwegian supervision.
Accountability in Sri Lanka cannot be investigated without taking into consideration the ‘pact’ between the LTTE and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The two parties reached an understanding in late 2001 in the run-up to the Feb 2002 CFA. Can anyone serious about accountability here avoid examining as to how the TNA, on behalf of the LTTE, ordered Tamils not to exercise their franchise at the Nov 2005 presidential election.
The documentary also interviewed Sir John Homes, former UN head of humanitarian affairs, as regards the situation in Northern region at that time. By early 2009, over 400,000 civilians had been on the run.
Contradicting own claim
Having alleged the Rajapaksa government ordered UN out of the war zone in Sept 2008, the documentary admitted the presence of two UN employees in the war zone, in late 2009. Former UN staffer Peter McKay dealt with the final offensive. McKay alleged government forces deliberately targeted those taking refuge in the first no fire zone declared in late January 2009. According to McKay, he had directed his staff to take photographs of the scene of devastation.
The former UN official also discussed deliberate government attacks on the second no fire zone on the Vanni east front. The documentary alleged deliberate denial of sufficient medicine and other essential requirements. The Sri Lankan military was accused of deliberate attacks on hospitals and makeshift medical facilities.
The producers of the latest documentary certainly owed an explanation as to how foreign UN personnel remained in on the Vanni east front five months after the government ordered them out. Did the government allow limited foreign presence though a section of foreign personnel was asked to leave for their own safety?
UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE), too, in its report released in March 2011 admitted the presence of UN personnel, including a highly experienced military officer functioning as the UN security officer in the first no fire zone (Section 83 and 84).
Some of those propagating the lie that foreigners were ordered out of the Vanni for the Sri Lankan military to perpetrate war crimes also refrained from referring to the presence of foreign ICRC personnel on the Vanni east front in early Feb 2009. Let me reproduce verbatim the relevant section of the PoE report (section 106): The ICRC continued to play a leading role in alleviating the plight of the civilians population in the Vanni, by evacuating wounded civilians from the coastal strip by ship, starting on 10 February 2009. In total, 16 ICRC ships came to the conflict zone in the final months. The international ICRC staff that had remained in Puthumattalan left on the first ship, but they returned and stayed onshore for a few hours each time the ships came back. The Government did not allow United Nations staff on the ships.”
The writer was among a small group of journalists taken by the Navy in late April 2009 to the Chalai-Mullaitivu waters to observe the ICRC operation and later to Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee, where an Indian medical team was in charge of receiving and treating those evacuated from Puthumattalan. According to Navy Headquarters and the PoE, the ICRC ship carried out the last evacuations on May 09, 2009, just 10 days before the successful conclusion of the war.
The ICRC evacuated 14,000 wounded and their relatives from Puthumattalan and also delivered 2,350metric tons of food to Mullivaikkal between Feb 10, 2009 to May 09, 2009. ‘Sri Lanka Humanitarian Effort’ published by the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security in the Northern Province in 2011 clarified the number of people evacuated from Puthumattalan during Feb-May 2009 period. According to the report, the total number of people evacuated were 12,820 and of them only 4,740 were wounded.
The war-winning government and the current dispensation should be ashamed of their failure to counter propaganda in spite of having the required ‘ammunition.’
An unknown death toll
‘Sri Lanka and the Search for Justice ten years on’ towards the end discussed the Vanni death toll. On the basis of PoE report, reference was made to as many as 40,000 civilians killed and 70,000 suggested subsequently.
Sri Lanka military was accused of implementing, what the producers of the latest documentary called ‘A systematic pattern of execution,’ with the focus on the arrest and execution of Ramesh, a senior LTTE cadre from Batticaloa. Among those interviewed were Prof Derrick Pounder, forensic pathologist and Prof Williams Schabas, an international human rights lawyer and Dharsha Jegatheeswaran, human rights activist. The documentary accused the military of executing senior LTTEers, its ‘police’ chief Nadesan, Pulithevan of the ‘political wing,’ as well as LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son Balachandran and his bodyguards.
Prof Williams Schabas called military action ‘murder’
Sri Lanka was flayed for a culture of impunity and sexual violence with specific accusation that troops raped and executed captured LTTE women cadres, including Isipriya, an LTTE news reader. The documentary targeted ‘Menik Farm’ where the government accommodated the displaced until they were screened and allowed to return to their villages as well as the rehabilitation programme.
Having alleged the Rajapaksa government of setting up Sinhala settlements, the documentary welcomed Maithripala Sirisena election as the President in January 2015 leading to Sri Lanka co-sponsoring Geneva Resolution in Oct 2015.
Alleging Sri Lanka hadn’t implemented the Geneva Resolution, the documentary targeted wartime General Officer Commanding (GoC) 57 Division Maj. Gen. Jagath Dias (retired), wartime Vanni Security Forces Commander Jagath Jayasuriya (retired) and serving officer Maj Gen. Shavendra Silva, Army Chief of Staff. Silva, the wartime GoC of the celebrated 58 Division was especially targeted by the documentary with Dharsha Jegatheeswaran condemning his appointment as the Army Chief of Staff. The documentary, while repeating the unsubstantiated allegation of using cluster ammunition in the northern theater, called for security sector reforms.
Reference was also made to President Sirisena sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in Oct 2018. The documentary addressed the Oct constitutional coup thereby proved readiness to take into consideration the latest developments.
A gaping hole in UK documentary
However, the latest documentary (read UK project) should be examined against the backdrop of its failure to take into consideration the following factors. (1) Wartime US Defence Advisor Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, in early June 2011, contradicted accusations pertaining to the execution of Pulithevan and Nadesan in spite of a surrender plan (2) UK headquartered Amnesty International in a special report titled ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ released in Sept 2011 placed the number of civilians killed at 10,000. This assessment was made a few months after the UN alleged 40,000 perished on the Vanni front (3) The UN in a special report placed the number of dead during August 2008 to May 13, 2009 at 7,721 and the wounded at 18,479 (4) Lord Naseby in Oct 2017 in House of Lords contradicted the UN claim of 40,000 killed. The Conservative Party member based his statement on wartime British High Commission dispatches from Colombo sent by Lt. Col Anton Gash, a colleague of Lt. Col Lawrence. Lord Naseby waged quite a battle with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to secure those dispatches and finally made the disclosure on Oct 12, 2017. It would be pertinent to mention that Lord Naseby sought the required information from FCO on Nov 06, 2014. Releasing of Gash dispatches could have derailed the high profile political project to get Sri Lanka to co-sponsor Geneva Resolution on Oct 01, 2015 on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations.
Having squandered quite a time, Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, at last used Lord Naseby’s disclosure in Geneva on March 20, 2019. Sri Lanka’s belated move didn’t hinder the unanimous approval for latest Geneva Resolution – a move meant to ensure the full implementation of the original resolution. A fresh examination of the Geneva Resolution is necessary to ascertain the truth.
Those who fought the LTTE at the risk of their lives shouldn’t be at the receiving end. The UK documentary made a despicable effort to paint a bleak a picture of Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva whose 58 Division (formerly Task Force I) played a significant role in Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism a decade ago. Senior commanders, Maj Gen. Chagi Gallage, now retired and Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva, both of the Gajaba Regiment are two of the victims of unsubstantiated allegations. But Sri Lanka’s failure to counter lies has paved the way for the entire military to be subjected to international scrutiny with UN peacekeeping missions undertaken by Sri Lanka also badly affected. Security sector reforms are still being called for on the basis of allegations that the military killed 40,000 civilians, deliberately targeted hospitals and makeshift medical facilities and purposely deprived civilians trapped up north of medicine and food.
(To be continued on April 17)