Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative (PR) to the UN, Dr. Rohan Perera, PC, in conversation with Hungarian PR, Katalin Bogyay (Left) and UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s Special Advisor on Myanmar, Vijay Nambiar (Right), formerly of the Indian Foreign Service.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
A commemorative, event held at Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission, in New York, on Dec 14, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the then Ceylon’s entry into the United Nations, was reminded of sometimes strained relations between Sri Lanka and the global body with special emphasis on the situation, during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency.
Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative, in New York, Dr. Amrith Rohan Perera, PC told the gathering: “As in other relationships, the relationship between Sri Lanka and the United Nations has, at times, undergone stresses and strains. This was particularly so during the conflict and in its immediate aftermath.”
Sri Lanka was among over a dozen countries admitted to the UN, on Dec 14, 1955.
Dr. Perera, who had served the Foreign Ministry for over 30 years, initially as assistant Legal Advisor and, thereafter, as a legal advisor, expressed the belief Sri Lanka could restore its relationship with the UN in the wake of the change of government in Sri Lanka. Let me reproduce verbatim what Dr. Perera said before discussing the UN role, during the conflict. Dr. Perera said: “With the assumption of office of the new administration, however, Sri Lanka is committed, once again, to building bridges and engaging positively with all Member States and the United Nation. We are committed to the ideal of decency and mutual respect in dealing among nations, to the protection and promotion of human rights and preserving the dignity of all people, irrespective of race, gender, colour or creed.”
Later in the day, Ambassador Perera joined a luncheon, jointly hosted by the Permanent Representatives of 16 countries, including the then Ceylon, in honour of UNSG Ban Ki-moon. Among those present, on the occasion, was UNSG’s Special Advisor on Myanmar Vijay Nambiar. Formerly of the Indian foreign service, Vijay had served in Pakistan and China as New Delhi’s top diplomat and was involved in Sri Lanka during his UN career. Vijay’s brother, retired Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar, too, had been involved in Sri Lanka during the Norwegian-arranged negotiations meant to end terrorism in Sri Lanka.
Report of the UNSG’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka made two major recommendations to the UN. Having accused both the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE of atrocities, during eelam war IV, the report, released on March 31, 2011, recommended that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) review a resolution on Sri Lanka, adopted at a Special Session, in May 2009. Obviously, the UN panel felt the May 2009 resolution is an impediment as it favoured Sri Lanka. The panelists, namely Marzuki Darusman, Steven R. Ratner and Yasmin Sooka also recommended a comprehensive review of UN operations during the war and post-war Sri Lanka. The panel asserted that such a study could help the UN system in the implementation of humanitarian and protection mandates.
Even over six years, after the conclusion of the war and with the eradication of the terrorist leadership, the UN nor Sri Lanka, hadn’t examined the role of the UN, or various UN agencies, active here, during the war.
War-Winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa never felt the requirement to undertake a thorough investigation. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) lacked the required mandate to conduct a proper investigation though the previous government depicted it as the panacea for post-war issues. Dr. Amrith Rohan Perera, too, had been a member of the LLRC, along with respected career diplomat, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, the present Governor of the Northern Province. For want of a better mechanism, to comprehensively investigate the 30-year war, the previous government ended up being portrayed as the one to cause deterioration of relations with Western powers, as well as the UN.
The External Affairs Ministry failed badly to address contentious issues. Had it being not for China and Pakistan, the situation, at successive Geneva sessions, would have been far worse. Instead of taking remedial measures on its own, the idiotic previous government hired expensive foreign PR firms, at the taxpayers’, expense to win over the US. Although a section of the media, including the writer, raised the issue during the Rajapaksa regime, the administration continued with the operation, until the very end.
Ambassador Perera, during his Dec 14 address, also referred to Sri Lanka’s close engagement with Peace Building Support Office of the UN. Although, the Foreign Ministry, as well as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission, in New York, released Ambassador Perera’s statement, it didn’t receive the coverage it deserved in the Sri Lankan press. The Ambassador asserted that Sri Lanka could receive financial assistance from the UN Peace Building Fund. “We are looking forward for closer engagement in this area, and for wider support, including from Peace Building Commission Member States.”
The undeniable truth is that Sri Lanka, or the UN, couldn’t have even contemplated a role for the Peace Building Support Office, if the LTTE leadership survived the war. The LTTE, as well as all those who had blindly backed its strategy, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), never seriously believed in a negotiated settlement. Those who had faith in the LTTE prowess believed eelam could be achieved through conventional military means. In fact, they believed, as late as Dec. 2008, the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) could be encircled and annihilated on the Vanni east front. Their assessment was that such a devastating debacle could result in the collapse of the fighting divisions. They envisaged a situation similar to that of the Vanni debacle, in the run-up to the Dec. 1999 presidential polls. In the wake of impressive battlefield gains in the Vanni, the LTTE almost succeeded in assassinating the then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga at her final propaganda rally, in Colombo. Having crushed the SLA in Vanni, the LTTE inflicted the gravest single defeat on the SLA, in April, 2002. Nothing could have humiliated the SLA as bad as the decision to abandon the strategic Elephant Pass base, headquarters to the 54 Division.
The UN did nothing to help Sri Lanka, during the 1999-2000 crisis. The Kumaratunga government faced defeat in Jaffna. Did UN, any Western country, or India, offer military assistance to Sri Lanka? Did they at least put pressure on LTTE offices, particularly the London-based LTTE Secretariat, to call off the offensive. In fact, the LTTE announced the seizure of Elephant Pass from what it called its London-based International Secretariat. Knowing the SLA was on the brink of being defeated, in the Jaffna peninsula, once and for all, the international media gathered in Colombo. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Sri Lankans had conveniently forgotten the crisis the country faced during those years. The UN system pathetically failed in Sri Lanka. It wouldn’t be unfair to assert that the UN abandoned Sri Lanka in the early 80s, thereby leaving India to terrorize the small neighbour to her heart’s content. The UN ignored Sri Lanka’s plight as the then government struggled to counter Indian trained terrorist groups. The UN turned a blind eye to India providing weapons training to Sri Lankan terrorists, on her soil, as well as millions of rupees worth arms, ammunition and equipment. The global body took no notice of some Indian trained terrorist groups securing the support of armed Palestinian faction.
No less a person than former Indian Foreign Secretary, J.N. Dixit, in his memoirs ‘Makers of India’s Foreign Policy: Raja Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha’, launched, in 2004, admitted the destabilization project undertaken under Indira Gandhi’s leadership.
Having caused terrorism in Sri Lanka, India thwarted Sri Lanka’s attempt to eradicate the LTTE, in 1987. Had India allowed Sri Lanka to bring ‘Operation Liberation’ to a successful conclusion during 1987, thousands of lives, including those of Indian servicemen, could have been saved. Instead, India had her way here while the UN looked the other way. The UN inaction caused massive destruction in Sri Lanka. India, too, paid a heavy price for its despicable terrorism project. Even after the high profile LTTE assassination of one-time Indian PM and Congress leader, Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1991, the UN didn’t resort to tough measures to curb the LTTE. In fact, the UN didn’t even take notice of the growing danger posed by the LTTE and the possibility of others following the strategies of Sri Lankan terrorists.
A thorough appraisal of the UN system, and the conduct of those who had been in charge of the UN mission, since the early 80s, is necessary to identify a string of failures on their part over the past three decades.
It would be interesting to examine the UN response to Indian-trained Sri Lankan terrorists making an attempt to assassinate Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom during the first week of Nov. 1988. Sea borne terrorists, belonging to the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) stormed Male, at the behest of Colombo-based Maldivian businessman, Abdullah Luthufi. The international community ignored the fact that those who had been involved in the raid were members of the PLOTE, fully sponsored by India. Instead of being criticized, New Delhi received glowing international approval for intervening in Male to thwart the PLOTE operation. The then US President, Ronald Reagan, strongly endorsed Indian action, calling it “a valuable contribution to regional stability”. The then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, according to the Wikipedia, reportedly commented, ‘”Thank God for India: President Gayoom’s government has been saved”.
Today, the PLOTE is a constituent member of the Tamil National Alliance which recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people.
There had never been an attempt to examine the failures on the part of the UN to stop India from exporting terrorism in the case of Sri Lanka and spreading of terrorism. Obviously, the UN never felt the need to take tangible measures to eradicate terrorism in Sri Lanka. Instead, the UN thrived on Sri Lanka’s misery. The UN, or its agencies, active here, never wanted to take punitive action against the LTTE even after its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran violated an agreement meant to stop the use of children in combat operations. Had the UN taken meaningful measures to ensure the implementation of the agreement, the war wouldn’t have lasted so long. The agreement involved the LTTE and the UN. There had never been a similar agreement during the conflict here. Interestingly, none of those demanding accountability, on the part of the government of Sri Lanka, never even bothered to push for the implementation of the unprecedented agreement, finalized by the then UNSG Kofi Atta Annan’s Special Representative, Olara Otunnu, in early May, 1998 (UN, LTTE to discuss modalities with strap line Pledge to stop using children in combat-The Island, May 11, 1998). Otunnu visited the Vanni, with the blessings of the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, to discuss the arrangement with British citizen, of Sri Lankan origin, Anton Balasingham, and Thamilselvam. At the conclusion of Otunnu’s week long visit, the UN mission, in Colombo, proudly declared that political advisor Balasingham, and Political Wing leader, Thamilselvam, had, on behalf of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, assured an immediate stop to using children in combat operations. A jubilant Otunnu declared, in Vavuniya, that the LTTE had agreed for the setting up of a mechanism to monitor commitments made to the UN. (Tigers agree to end use of children below 18 in combat-The Island, May 9, 1998) Having succeeded Boutros Boutros Ghali, in 1997, Annan intervened in Sri Lanka though his predecessor did absolutely nothing to end bloodshed in Sri Lanka. However, at the time of the disastrous Indian intervention here, Pérez de Cuéllar had been at the helm at the UN. Unfortunately, Annan failed to implement the agreement. Foreign Minister Kadirgamar quite rightly urged the LTTE to adhere to the agreement. A skeptical Kadirgamar told the writer that it was the UN’s responsibility to ensure the implementation of the agreement. Kadirgamar asserted that it was nothing but propaganda as the LTTE couldn’t sustain its war effort without fresh cadres joining depleted fighting formations (Transform commitments into action, Government urges LTTE-The Island, May 9, 1998). Otunnu had been the first foreign official to hold talks with the LTTE, with Sri Lanka’s blessings, since the Gandhi assassination, in May, 1991. Perhaps, the LTTE used the UN to boost its image in the wake of the US designating the group, in the previous year, as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Salient points of the UN-LTTE agreement
=The LTTE promised to immediately stop deployment of children, under 18 years of age. The group also promised to end the recruitment of children, below the age of 17 years.
=The LTTE assured not to interfere with those war displaced families wanting to return to areas under government control. In addition, the LTTE promised to allow Muslims, driven out by them, in late 1990, to return to their villages. (The LTTE at gunpoint ordered the entire Muslim population to vacate the Northern Province in late Oct/Nov 1990).
=The UN also received an assurance from the LTTE that it wouldn’t interfere with the distribution of relief supplies among the war affected population, particularly those living in areas under its control.
=The LTTE pledged to adhere with the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The group promised to take measures to educate its fighting cadres, as well as other units as regards the Convention.
=The LTTE assured that it would review its military strategies as regards operations directed at civilians and other non-military targets.
The UN never acknowledged its failure to ensure the implementation of any of the commitments made by the LTTE. In fact, the LTTE continued to violate promises made to the UN until the military eradicated the conventional fighting capability of the group, in May, 2009. The LTTE lasted for 11 more years after having taken the UN for a ride. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to launch a thorough study on the war.
With the government expected to finalize a judicial mechanism, to investigate atrocities committed by both parties to the conflict, before March 2015, it would be pertinent to examine the events leading to Indian intervention here, in the early 80s, deployment of the Indian Army, in July, 1987, India-LTTE war (Oct 1987-Nov 1989), assassination of Gandhi (May 1991), UN-LTTE agreement (May 1998), Norwegian Ceasefire Agreement (Feb 2002), three-year military campaign against the LTTE (Aug 2006 to May 2009) and post-war handling of the disarmed LTTE fighting cadre.
The relationship between the LTTE and Tamil political parties, particularly the murderous pact between the LTTE-TNA, should be investigated. Similarly, the alleged LTTE-UPFA agreement leading to the LTTE engineering Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the Nov. 2005 presidential poll, too, should be probed.
In spite of bringing the war to a successful conclusion, the previous government lacked foresight to conduct a proper evaluation of the events. The previous government could have used Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) for the country’s benefit. It could have launched a proper study on the conflict. LKIIRSS neglected its duty. The then External Affairs Ministry, and the war winning Army, never made an attempt, at least to simply gather/record events in a systematic way. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa couldn’t absolve himself of responsibility for failing to conduct a comprehensive post-war study. The former President deceived himself by propagating the LLRC as panacea for all Sri Lanka’s problems. The war-winning President paid a huge price for not taking tangible measures to counter the massive propaganda campaign, directed at Sri Lanka, soon after he brought the war to an end.
To be continued on January 6