by Shamindra Ferdinando
Report of UNSG Ban ki-moon’s Panel of Experts (PoE) on Accountability in Sri Lanka accused the then Sri Lankan government of five major human rights violations, committed during eelam war IV (Aug. 2006 to May 2009). Three dealt with the conduct of the Sri Lankan political and military leaderships during the war, while the two remaining allegations dealt with violations committed after the conclusion of the Vanni offensive.
The military brought the entire country under government control on the morning of May 19, 2009.
The PoE, comprising Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Steven R. Ratner (US) and Yasmin Sooka (South Africa), identified the three violations as civilian killings caused by widespread shelling, indiscriminate attacks on hospitals and other humanitarian objects, and denial of humanitarian assistance. Let me reproduce the relevant accusation verbatim: “The government systematically deprived persons in the conflict zone of humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and basic medical supplies, particularly supplies needed to treat injuries. To this end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians that remained in the conflict zone. Particularly, the denial of surgical supplies greatly increased the suffering of the civilians and added to the large death toll,” (PoE report/page 49).
The PoE released its report on March 31, 2011. The then government refused to cooperate with the investigation, thereby contributed to the release of one-sided report. On the basis of that unsubstantiated report, Western powers moved three successive Geneva resolutions, targeting Sri Lanka, in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The US project culminated with a fourth resolution moved jointly with Sri Lanka, on Sept. 30, 2015. The fourth resolution has paved the way for a joint judicial mechanism to inquire into alleged atrocities though the government still talk of a domestic mechanism. The writer is of the opinion the country should be prepared to face the external challenge.
The PoE further elaborated the allegation pertaining to denial of humanitarian assistance. The PoE accused the government of (a) deliberately and publicly underestimated the number of civilians in the LTTE-held area, in the Vanni, to reduce food relief, hindered movement of overland supply convoys, and relief ships, from entering the war zone, and, intentionally, shelled areas where humanitarian agencies operated. The PoE alleged that the strategy was meant to prevent civilians from securing essential supplies and medicine (PoE report/page 60).
The Island raised the issue of the then government deliberately depriving those who had been in LTTE-held areas, of food and basic medicine, as alleged by the PoE, with the then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Had there been such a murderous project, it would have been spearheaded by no less a person than Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa closely supervised the war effort until the very end. The proposed judicial investigation can help the international community to establish whether Sri Lanka systematically denied humanitarian assistance to the Vanni civilian population. Various interested parties repeatedly alleged that denial of humanitarian assistance had been part of the overall strategy to wipe out Tamil-speaking people. Northern Former Supreme Court judge and Northern Province Chief Minister, C.V. Wigneswaran, is one of those propagating genocide charge against the previous government. Wigneswaran has called for UN intervention to inquire into genocide charges.
Former Defence Secretary, Rajapaksa, said that the Tamil community had never been deprived of humanitarian assistance, during the conflict. Rajapaksa said that successive governments ensured that those living in LTTE-held areas received relief. Sri Lanka never adopted discriminatory approach towards any particular community, Rajapaksa said, adding that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, followed the same during eelam war IV. Rajapaksa insisted that Sri Lanka had a comprehensive mechanism to address humanitarian concerns during eelam war IV. The former Defence Secretary asserted that the PoE wouldn’t have made such an unfair accusation had it consulted top Western and UN officials, based in Colombo, during the war. The proposed judicial inquiry could summon all those who had been present during that time to examine accusations regarding denial of humanitarian assistance.
Asked whether he, as the former Defence Secretary, could absolve himself of the charge of starving civilians during eelam war IV, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said: “Soon after heavy fighting erupted, on multiple fronts, in Aug. 2006, the government appointed a Commissioner General of Essential Services to ensure supplies to the Jaffna peninsula, and LTTE-held areas, in the Vanni. But, Co-chairs to the Norway-led peace process, namely the US, EU, Japan and Norway sought a wider role for them to ensure humanitarian assistance to the war-affected community. In response to Co-chairs concerns, we established a Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) in Oct. 2006. We met almost on 30 occasions, throughout the war. The last meeting was held on May 11, 2009, eight days before the end of the conflict.”
The then Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, headed CCHA. The outfit included Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and senior presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the government had absolutely no control over distribution of food and maintaining medical services in areas under LTTE control. The government had no option but to depend on the international community to ensure required supplies to areas beyond military control, he said. “The government accommodated key international representatives in the CCHA. We never interfered with their nominees and worked very closely with them though there were differences.”
The government couldn’t have deprived Tamil-speaking people of humanitarian assistance without the international community knowing what was going on the ground. The Colombo-based diplomats had direct access to Government Agents, Ms Imelda Sukumar (Mullaitivu), Vedhanayagam (Kilinochchi), Ms P.S.M. Charles (Vavuniya), Nicholas Pillai (Mannar), as they too were, made members of the CCHA.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the proposed war crimes court could summon top diplomats who had been members of the CCHA to verify accusations. In fact, those wanting to prove war crimes allegations should urge those diplomatic representatives to come forward, Rajapaksa said. “Their evidence can help justify accusation regarding denial of humanitarian assistance. Therefore, there is no reason for them not to come before the proposed court.”
According to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, expatriate CCHA members were the then US Ambassador Robert Blake (Chairman of Co-chairs to the peace process), Julian Wilson (Head of Delegation, European Union Delegation), Juergen Weerth (German Ambassador), Dominic Chilcott (British High Commissioner), Kiyoshi Araki (Ambassador to Japan), Frederick Lyons and Neil Bhune (UN), Amin Awad (UNHCR), Ms Joanna Van Gerpen and Philippe Duamelle (UNICEF), Valentin Gatzinski and Ms Zola Dowell (Head of Office, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), Dr. Agostino Borra (WHO), Taft-Dick, Mohamed Salaheen and Adhnan Khan (WFP), Marc Bellemans (Food and Agriculture Organization), Ms Tine Staemose (ILO), Chris du Toit (Country Security Advisor, UN Department of Safety and Security), David Verboom (Head of Office, European Community Humanitarian Office) and Toon Vandenhove and Paul Castella (ICRC).
The delegates included Jeevan Thiagarajah, Executive Director, and Firzan Hashim, Deputy Executive Director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa insisted that those persons could not only easily verify the situation, prevailing during the war, but also efforts taken by the government to provide facilities for the displaced.
Responding to a query, the former Defence Secretary pointed out that the PoE accused the LTTE of six specific crimes during the conflict. The LTTE was alleged to have used civilians as a human buffer, execution of those trying to escape to the army-held area, deployment of long range mortars and artillery pieces, very close to the civilian population, forced recruitment of children, forced labour, and directing suicide attacks on civilians. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa alleged that the PoE never really examined the wartime situation. “The PoE was hell-bent on bringing in war crimes charges against us,”the former Defence Secretary said.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that the then US Ambassador Blake and his colleagues, with the CCHA, knew constant efforts made by the LTTE to disrupt food supplies to the Vanni as well as the Jaffna peninsula. Many had conveniently forgotten that the Jaffna peninsula had been isolated due to, closure of the only overland entry/exit point at Muhamalai, since late 2006, following a massive terrorist attack. The government had no option but to deploy ships to move supplies. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa recollected the ICRC declining to lend its flag to enable supply vessels to operate free of Sea Tiger threat. The former Defence Secretary said: “The LTTE stepped-up pressure on shipping movements to Point Pedro and Kankesanthurai harbour. We struggled to maintain supplies. For want of required naval assets, we experienced severe difficulties in sustaining supply runs as well as operations against Sea Tigers. Don’t forget, food requirements of over 40,000 officers and men, deployed in the Jaffna peninsula, had to be moved in ships. Diplomatic representatives of CCHA knew the situation.”
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that those wanting to haul Sri Lanka up before war crimes court remained mum even after the LTTE mounted suicide attacks on cargo ship, MV Liverpool, while it was unloading supplies, for civilians, at the Point Pedro harbour. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) worked closely with the LTTE throughout the war. The TNA leadership never uttered a word about LTTE atrocities. It would be interesting to know whether the TNA leadership ever took up LTTE atrocities with the Colombo-based diplomatic community. In fact, those foreign diplomats, with the CCHA, never complained about shortage of food, in the Vanni, during regular meetings held at the Defence Ministry, Rajapaksa said, adding that they were primarily concerned about inadequate supply of cement, fuel, aluminium utensils and takaram.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said: “Records of Defence Ministry meetings are available with relevant parties. The proposed war crimes court can call for minutes of those meetings to ascertain true facts pertaining to PoE accusation as regards denial of humanitarian assistance to the Vanni population.”
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa stressed that soon after the military had liberated and consolidated Kilinochchi, during the first week of January, 2009, fighting Divisions encountered fierce resistance, on the Vanni east front. By January 23, 2009, supplies for the Vanni population couldn’t be moved overland due to heavy fighting. Having realized the rapidly deteriorating situation, we called an emergency meeting on January 17, 2009, to work out modalities to commence sea transportation, Rajapaksa said. “We invited the ICRC to facilitate the process. ICRC mission in Colombo can verify events leading to the launch of sea transportation. Initially, we had to deploy tug boats and passenger vessels due to owners of merchant vessels refusing to join the operation. They feared suicide attacks on their vessels. Despite severe difficulties, supplies were moved to those trapped on the Vanni east front. The LTTE, too, benefited from supplies, though we continued the operation. The ICRC, and World Food Programme, are aware of the amount of supplies moved to the Vanni east (Puthumathalan area) since January, 2009.”
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the World Food Programme had acquired a fleet of extra long trucks, in 2008, on a request made by the CCHA, to expedite the food programme. The former soldier said that meticulous food supply operations underscored the then administration’s determination to meet humanitarian needs of the war-affected community. The World Food Programme had played a very significant role in the project, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said, recollecting the Bangladeshi head of WFP going out of his way to set up food stores meant for the war affected. The former Defence Secretary said: “Under the Bangladeshi’s supervision, the WFP did a fantastic job. But strangely, he was suddenly transferred to Japan. The WFP claimed that their man in Colombo was needed in Japan. They said it was an important assignment. But, it couldn’t have been as important as feeding the war affected in the Vanni. The WFP man was a key member in the CCHA. Either, those responsible for that particular transfer wanted to hinder the CCHA project, or realized the situation was stable.”
The former Defence Secretary said that before leaving Sri Lanka, the friendly Bangladeshi paid a courtesy call on him. The outspoken former official quoted the Bangladeshi as having told him that on his directions the WFP stockpiled food for a six-month period. The wartime WFP head should be called, by the new government, to contradict allegations. The PoE could be easily exposed, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said, insisting that a fair investigation was required to establish the truth.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the lady who had represented a UN agency at the CCHA raised the issue of schools and Montessoris in the wartime Vanni. “Let me remind those demanding accountability on our part for eelam war IV. The international community did nothing….absolutely nothing to avert war. The LTTE was allowed to pursue a campaign of death and destruction. They never wanted the LTTE to renounce violence and accept a negotiated settlement until the army cornered the top leadership on the Vanni east front.”
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that perhaps one of the most important decisions taken, at that time, was the directive issued by him to allow the evacuation of the wounded from Puthumathalan during the last phase of the assault. Had the government planned to eradicate the Tamil community, as alleged by some, we wouldn’t have allowed evacuation of the wounded under any circumstances, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said. The ICRC would be able to inform the proposed war crimes court of the number of wounded and their family members brought to Pulmoddai. The ICRC managed the operation. In fact, we allowed ICRC foreign representatives to go ashore when the evacuations took place., Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said. “We had no way of knowing whether those evacuated were LTTE cadres. In spite of that, we handed over all wounded to the Indian military medical team, based at Pulmoddai, alongside the navy. We never tried to hide anything. The Indians had direct access to the wounded and their families. So let the war crimes court invite the Indian government to provide details regarding the number of persons treated by them, at Pulmoddai. Immediately after the war, the Indian team moved from Pulmoddai to Menik farm to look after the refugees. Had we ran a concentration camp there, as some alleged, the Indians wouldn’t have been allowed in. In fact, there were other foreign personnel. The war crimes court can summon them. In fact, Sri Lanka’s defence can be greatly strengthened by those foreigners, Westerners, Japanese and Indians alike. We felicitated members of the Indian medical team at the Taj Samdura before they left. We appreciated what they did. They can now help us by revealing the truth.”
The writer had an opportunity to visit the Pulmoddai-based Indian medical team, in April, 2009, following a visit to Chalai waters, on board a Fast Attack Craft. The visit was made possible by the then Navy Commander, Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, who felt the necessity for media coverage of the unprecedented naval blockade off Mullaitivu, as well as the Indian project, at Pulmoddai.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said that the bottom line was that had Prabhakaran wanted, he, along with his family, could have joined those who were being evacuated from Puthumathalan and safely arrived at Pulmoddai. “We couldn’t have done anything except arrest him. But he, until the very end, believed in Western intervention to save his life,” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said.