Geneva debacle: Negligence on the part of war winning govt.

Global Sri Lanka Forum protest in Geneva on March 18. Former navy Chief of Staff Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera and Nalaka Godahewa are among those present (pic courtesy GSLF)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meets thrice every year in regular sessions – in Feb.-March, June, and Sept. The ongoing 37th Session of the Council convened on Feb 26 will conclude on March 23. Having considered the implementation of Resolution 30/1 of 1 Oct. 2015 co-sponsored by the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), the Council, at its 34th Session (27 Feb – 24 March 2017) adopted Resolution 34/1 on 23 March 2017. By this Resolution, the Council requested the Office of the High Commissioner to continue to assess progress on implementation of its recommendations and other processes related to reconciliation, accountability and human rights and to present a written update to the Human Rights Council at its 37th Session. Sri Lanka has received two years in terms of the 34/1 to fulfill its obligations. Accordingly, as requested by the Council, the Office of the High Commissioner will present a written update to the Council today (March 21). Sri Lanka will be represented at today’s session by Foreign Affairs Minister Tilak Marapana, PC and Special Assignments Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama. Two National List MPs represent the UNP and the UPFA, respectively. Sri Lanka hasn’t been previously represented there by both political parties in power. Later, President Maithripala Sirisena instructed another National List MP, Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister Faiszer Musthapha, PC to join the government delegation to Geneva.

The Geneva project is obviously on track in spite of perennial delays in the implementation of various proposals and subsequent debilitating setbacks caused by humiliating February 10 Local Government polls debacle suffered by the ruling UNP and the SLFP. The situation has been further aggravated by the commencement of judicial proceedings into massive treasury bond scams perpetrated in 2015 and 2016. Disgraced CBSL Governor Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran, his son-in law Arjun Aloysius (owner of Perpetual Treasuries Pvt Ltd) and Kasun Palisena (CEO, PTL) have been named as suspects in Sri Lanka’s biggest financial fraud. The top UNP leadership is struggling to cope up with the Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna bid to move a no-confidence motion in parliament against the Premier and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, primarily on the basis of his alleged role in treasury bond scams. The coalition is in turmoil with President Maithripala Sirisena again coming under pressure to commit SLFP parliamentary group to JO/SLPP project.

Wickremesinghe will not easily give up premiership nor the leadership of the beleaguered ruling UNP. Those external and internal elements who had been instrumental in paving the way for a change in Sri Lanka’s leadership in 2015 will certainly do their utmost to sustain the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe marriage of convenience. Although an influential section of the UNP parliamentary group is of the view that far reaching reforms are required, urgently in the wake of the worst ever performance at local government polls by a political party in power, external interests overshadow own political requirements. They thwarted President Maithripala Sirisena bid to replace PM Wickremesinghe in the wake of Feb. 10 debacle. They derailed President Sirisena’s initiative to strengthen his tottering three-year-old administration facing unenviable task of containing war winning twice president Mahinda Rajapaksa now on the offensive. Having bagged vast majority of local government bodies at countrywide polls widely considered a referendum on the performance yahapalana administration, Rajapaksa is now threatening the fragile coalition. With elections to nine Provincial Councils scheduled to take place in 2018 and 2019, in addition to presidential and parliamentary polls before end of 2020, the current dispensation will be under tremendous Western pressure to keep the Geneva process on track regardless of domestic political consequences. Geneva project is meant to replace the existing Constitution on the premise Sri Lanka had committed war crimes. The Joint Opposition remains in the constitutional making process

War winning government’s failures

The previous government’s failure to address accountability issues certainly facilitated high profile Western powers’ project to bring in anti-Sri Lanka resolution after having changed the country’s leadership in 2015. The former President has earned the wrath of the Indians for being close to Beijing with no less a person than one-time New Delhi’s High Commissioner in Colombo, Foreign Secretary and then National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon accusing the Sri Lankan leader of receiving Chinese funding for his political project. Menon directed some shocking allegations at Mahinda Rajapaksa and in no uncertain terms expressed New Delhi’s displeasure at the way the then President had handled their security concerns vis-a-vis China.

Those who had blamed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government for not exploiting Lord Naseby’s disclosures for Sri Lanka’s benefit in Geneva, never found fault with the previous government for serious shortcomings in its Geneva strategy. For some strange reason, the Rajapaksa administration conveniently failed to take up critical disclosures, in spite of them being in the public domain at Geneva sessions. The previous government refrained from making reference to critically important statements/documents and significant developments much to the disappointment of the armed forces. In fact, the previous government treacherously neglected its duty though it had material as important as Naseby papers (wartime British dispatches from its High Commission in Colombo to London) to disapprove allegations. The Rajapaksa administration’s pathetic failure allowed Western powers to form UNP led coalitions in 2010 and 2015 presidential polls. On both occasions, Rajapaksa’s opponents were described as common candidates. They contested on the New Democratic Front (NDF) ticket under swan symbol. The UNP led coalition received the backing of the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on both occasions. Having accused the Army of massacring civilians on the Vanni east front, the TNA had no qualms in urging the Tamil electorate in 2010 to vote for the war winning Army Commander. The Tamil electorate responded enthusiastically to the TNA’s plea. Five years later, the Tamil electorate answered in a similar fashion when the TNA threw its weight behind Maithripala Sirisena, who held the defence portfolio during the week the Army wiped out LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his diehard cadres and family on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Had General Fonseka succeeded in 2010, the UNP would have certainly implemented a strategy similar to the one launched after 2015 presidential poll. Fonseka, in his capacity as the President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces would have replaced the then Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake with Wickremesinghe and pave the way for parliamentary polls. Had Fonseka won, the UNP could have had easily secured simple majority in parliament at the following polls. But, 2010 project went awry due to Fonseka’s defeat. Unfortunately, the Rajapaksa administration didn’t care to address accountability issues until it was too late. Its failure ensured the UNP led coalition that came into being in 2010 remained in tact for 2015 presidential polls. Western powers and their yes men here pursued a political strategy and deceived the electorate that the previous political and military leaderships deliberately committed war crimes. Therefore, to appease the Tamil community a new Constitution that went beyond 13th Amendment should be granted with the intervention of Geneva. The Geneva process is pursued vigorously on the assumption war crimes took place.

GSLF efforts

Global Sri Lanka Forum (GSLF) as well as other patriotic organizations should be profusely commended for highlighting Sri Lanka’s predicament and how a member state of the UN is unfairly treated. In the absence of government initiative, the GSLF plays a critically important role though it cannot reverse the Geneva process or least delay it unless the incumbent government acted on available information. The previous government certainly owed an explanation to the country as to why it didn’t counter propaganda. Sri Lanka lacked courage at least to mention in Geneva how current UN human rights council member India through covert and overt means destabilized its neighbour. Instead of taking responsibility for its murderous and monstrous 80s foreign policy that destroyed s smaller neighbour, India ended up being part of Western project meant to change post-war Sri Lanka’s direction. Sri Lanka lacked sense at least to point out that difference in UN approach to accountability issues here and Sierra Leone. A UN-backed court convicted ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor in May 2012 of war crimes over his support for terrorists who committed atrocities in Sierra Leone in the 90s. Taylor has been sentenced to 50 years in prison and is held in the UK. Sri Lanka lacked courage to raise internationally culpability of India over atrocities committed in Sri Lanka.

Main allegations

(A) The Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) ordered UN/INGOs to vacate Kilinochchi in September, 2008 to conduct ‘a war without witnesses’.

(B) Vanni population denied medicine, food and other basic needs.

(C) Coordinated mortar/artillery/MBRL (multi barrel rocket launchers) attacks on civilian population. Channel 4 News alleged the then Secretary Defence and the then Army Commander executed the operation.

(D) Massacre of over 40,000 civilians.

(E) Rape of combatants/civilians. Subsequently, the military was accused of abusing men.

(F) The use of cluster bombs (The Sirisena-Wckremesinghe government recently denied this charge)

Primary evidence

Geneva was moved on the basis of about 4,000 submissions received by three-member Darusman Panel. About 2,300 persons furnished information to the panel. But UN directed that these accusations cannot be verified until 2031. Even then, verification has to be approved by the UN.

Glaring omissions

President Rajapaksa’s government ignored two critical events. (A) In June, 2011 (over two years after the successful conclusion of the war) the then Colombo based US Defence Attache Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith defended Sri Lanka at a seminar organized by the Army. The seminar dealt with ‘Defeating Terrorism: The Sri Lanka Experience.’ In response to a question regarding the alleged move by some LTTE cadres to surrender during the last few days of the war, the US official denied that possibility, thereby effectively contradicting those propagating massacre of surrendering persons. The US official was responding to a query posed by retired Indian Maj. General Ashok Metha. (Metha served in Sri Lanka during the deployment of the Indian Army in the late 80s in accordance with the Indo-Lanka accord). The Island exclusive on the US official’s reaction was ignored by the GoSL.

This is what Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith had to say.: “Hello, may I say something to a couple of questions raised. I’ve been the defense attache here at the US Embassy since June 2008. Regarding the various versions of events that came out in the final hours and days of the conflict-from what I was privileged to hear and to see, the offers to surrender that I am aware of seemed to come from the mouthpieces of the LTTE – Nadesan, KP – people who weren’t and never had really demonstrated any control over the leadership or the combat power of the LTTE.

So their offers were a bit suspect anyway, and they tended to vary in content hour by hour, day by day. I think we need to examine the credibility of those offers before we leap to conclusions that such offers were in fact real. And I think the same is true for the version of events. It’s not so uncommon in combat operations, in the fog of war, as we all get our reports second, third and fourth hand from various commanders at various levels that the stories don’t seem to all quite match up. But I can say that the version presented here so far in this is what I heard as I was here during that time. And I think I better leave it at that before I get into trouble.”

The Rajapaksa administration refrained from at least referring to the US statement in Geneva. The government for some strange reason ignored the INCREDIBLE statement made over two years after the LTTE’s defeat. As the senior Colombo-based US military officer, he would have had certainly had access to all relevant information.

The Rajapaksa government owed an explanation to the public why Sri Lanka’s Geneva defence wasn’t built on the US statement. His failure can be compared with Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s failure to utilize Naseby’s disclosure.

The US State Department asserted that the US military official hadn’t been at the Defence Seminar on an official capacity. The government remained silent. The State Department NEVER contradicted Smith statement. Instead it disputed the military official’s right to make that statement.

Close on the heels of US military official’s defence of Sri Lankan military, the then national cricket captain Kumar Sangakkara delivered an exceptional speech in his 2011MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture in which he paid glowing tribute to armed forces with the focus on immense sacrifices they made in the fight against terrorism. The then government simply ignored Sangakkara’s statement.

(B) The Rajapaksa government failed to take advantage of leaked US diplomatic cables (Wiki leaks) in spite of them being crucial for Sri Lanka’s defense. One leaked cable dealt with a discussion Geneva-based US Ambassador Clint Williamson had with ICRC Head of Operations for South Asia Jacques de Maio. The US envoy declared on July 15, 2009, that the Army actually could have won the battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths.

The Army lost nearly 2,500 officers and men during January-May 19, 2009. Thousands suffered injuries. The government never examined leaked US diplomatic cables until it was too late. The Paranagama Commission, in its Second Mandate perused Wiki leaks. The Paranagama Commission pointed out that Wiki Leaks were admissible in court in accordance with a ruling given in the UK.

Other developments advantageous to GoSL

(A) Deployment of Indian medical team at Pulmoddai, north of Trincomalee to receive the wounded transferred from Puthumathalan under ICRC supervision. The Indian team remained there until the conclusion of the war. The Indian team received several thousand wounded civilians during February-May, 2009 via sea. The government commenced transferring war wounded by sea soon after fighting blocked overland routes to and from Vanni east. Both ICRC and India can furnish details regarding evacuations by the sea. Don’t forget the vessels deployed to evacuate the wounded transported several thousands of essential supplies to Puthumathalan. Foreign relief workers were also allowed to go ashore.

Allegations in respect of Vanni population denied medicine, food and other basic needs should be probed against the backdrop of supplies made available to Puthumathalan until the second week of May, 2009. The war ended in the following week.

Contradictory claims in respect of 40,000 civilians killed

The GoSL never sought an explanation from Geneva in respect of the number of civilians perished during the eelam war IV. Those who had been strongly opposed to foreign intervention, too, failed to take it up.

* British Labor Party MP Siobhan McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden-Labour) told House of Commons in September, 2011 that 60,000 LTTE cadres and 40,000 Tamils perished during January-May 2009. The MP made the only specific reference to the number of LTTE cadres killed during a certain period. The politician ignored the writer’s emails seeking a clarification regarding her sources. The British HC in Colombo declined to comment on the MP’s claim.

* Special Amnesty International report titled When will they get justice: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission also released in September 2011 estimated the number of civilian deaths at 10,000.

* A confidential UN report placed the number of the dead and wounded, including LTTE combatants at 7,721 and 18,479, respectively. The report dealt with the situation in the Vanni from August 2008 to May 13, 2009. The War ended a week after the UN stopped collecting data due to intensity of fighting. The vast majority of the wounded civilians were evacuated by the ICRC.The Indian medical team tasked with receiving them should be able to explain specific measures taken by India to assist the war wounded.

The UN is yet to release the report though it was made available to Darusman. Will it be placed before the proposed judicial inquiry? It would be pertinent to mention that the UN report had been based on information provided by those who were trapped in the war zone and even today further verification can be made as the identities of those who had provided information are known to the UN. Darusman refused to accept the report as it contradicted his own claims.

US Defence Advisor confirms Norwegian assessment

Wartime Norwegian Ambassador in Colombo Tore Hattrem on February 16, 2009 asserted that the LTTE was unlikely to release civilians held on the Vanni east front. The following is the text of the Norwegian’s missive addressed to the then presidential advisor Basil Rajapaksa: “I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE to release the civilian population now trapped in the LTTE controlled area has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far there has regrettably been no response from the LTTE and it does not seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree to this in the near future.”

The US Defence attache in June 2011 (over two years after the war) confirmed there had never been an agreement or an understanding regarding organized surrender between the government and the LTTE through the intervention of the UN or Western governments. The government never sought to use available information on the Geneva front

UN role in LTTE human shields

The UN remained silent and engaged in secret negotiations with the LTTE even after the group detained Tamil UN workers for helping Tamils to leave Vanni west in early 2007. The LTTE made its move in the wake of the government opening up a new front in the Vanni (west of Kandy-Jaffna A9 road).

Co-Chairs to Sri Lanka Peace Process knew what was happening. They, too, remained silent. The UN mission in Colombo kept UN headquarters in the dark. The UN Colombo never contradicted exclusive The Island reports in this regard. Other print and electronic media ignored the issue. However, UN New York confirmed The Island reports.

Had the UN, Western powers, the TNA and foreign funded civil society organizations intervened on behalf of the Vanni population in early 2007, they wouldn’t have ended up as human shields on the Vanni east front.

Response to UN accusation that Vanni population denied food and medicine

The minutes of Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) meetings can prove UN and Western governments never complained about food and medicine shortage. The then President Rajapaksa set up CCHA in Oct 2006 to ensure essential supplies to the Northern Province.

India’s accountability

Sri Lanka never referred to the origins of terrorism at Geneva or any other international forum. In January 2004, one-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo J.N. Dixit faulted former Indian PM Indira Gandhi for intervening in Sri Lanka. The previous government never exploited Dixit’s statement.

To be continued on March 28

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