Q: The UN claims the panel of experts set up to advise Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on accountability issues with respect to the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka has found ‘credible reports of war crimes’ committed by both the Government and Tamil rebels. How valid are these assertions in your opinion?
The Sri Lankan government should respond, not react, to the panel report. This should be viewed as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to tell its side of the story. The UN Panel of Experts never visited Sri Lanka and interviewed the key players. For instance, the Panel should visit the centres rehabilitating former LTTE leaders and cadres, the unprecedented development in the north and the east devastated by 30 years of war, review the documentation on how government provided humanitarian assistance to the LTTE controlled areas, and interview the formation commanders that fought in the last war. The UN panel report is largely based on reporting by human rights, media, and international organizations heavily lobbied by the LTTE as well as front, cover and sympathetic organizations of the LTTE. For instance the Panel quotes from the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), a LTTE front group acknowledged by the international security and intelligence community as a principal provider of funds for LTTE procurement of arms, ammunition and explosives. While the Sri Lankan government lacking in public diplomacy failed to reflect the ground reality of the fight in the terminal phase (October 2008-May 2009), LTTE’s aggressive and selective reporting influenced human rights, media and international organizations.
In Iraq and Afghanistan where over a million civilians have been killed, there is no UN Panel advising the UN Secretary General to investigate war crimes. In May 2009, Sri Lanka was successful in dismantling the LTTE the battlefield but failed to counter the LTTE led misinformation and the disinformation campaign globally. Governments, International organizations and NGOs today react to lobbying and campaigning, a capability Sri Lanka needs to build and operationalize in the coming months and years. The number one lesson from Sri Lanka for contemporary and future war fighters is that they must win both the battlefield and the information operation campaign.
Q: The UN statement issued on the release states that ‘The Secretary-General sincerely hopes that this advisory report will make a contribution to full accountability and justice so that the Sri Lankan Government and people will be able to proceed towards national reconciliation and peace.’ Given the long term repercussions of the report, how would you recommend the government’s respond to the contents of this report?
In addition to a point by point rebuttal of what is factually inaccurate, the Sri Lankan government should respond to the Panel report in many other ways. The outcome of such a Report signifies a massive failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government especially of the Ministry of External Affairs to respond to a new type of threat.
The Sri Lanka government should produce a White Paper detailing what happened in the terminal phase of the battle and recommendations to ensure that Sri Lanka will remain stable and peaceful. The White Paper should also list what government has done since May 2009 to build reconciliation between the different communities, rehabilitation efforts to give a second life to LTTE leaders and cadres, and the unprecedented development in the north and the east. Sri Lanka must highlight that not a single terrorist incident has occurred in the country since the LTTE was dismantled and all communities in Sri Lanka now live in peace and harmony.
Q: The panel in its recommendations calls for ‘initiating an effective accountability process beginning with genuine investigations’. How far do you believe the government should go in heeding these recommendations?
The Sri Lankan government routinely investigates allegations of atrocities. Whenever there is a credible allegation, it is absolutely essential for the Sri Lankan criminal justice and prisons system to act. If a soldier or an officer is found guilty, the state has the responsibility to punish that individual. However, there is a distinction between isolated acts of atrocities conducted by individual soldier and systematic war crimes conducted by an army. The UN Panel report alleges that there were war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE. It is apparent that the LTTE had a policy of conducting massacres of border villages, bombings of public places and forced recruitment of children. Even during the IPKF period, the LTTE used hospitals as cover to attack Indian peacekeepers causing high fatalities and casualties among Indian soldiers. In defence, when the IPKF fired back, both LTTE cadres and civilians were killed. As a professional military trained by the US, UK, India and other countries, the Sri Lankan military did not systematically and deliberately kill or injure civilians. In contrast, the LTTE has been notorious for using human shields, human bombs and provoking retaliatory attacks. After penetrating a government declared zone for civilians, the LTTE deliberately hid behind a human wall and attacked causing suffering, injury, and death to both civilians and military personnel. Alleging that Sri Lankan security forces intentionally and wilfully targeted civilians stated by a UN panel of experts need careful study. Similar allegations by UN agencies, NGOs, and other bodies have been levelled against the armies of US, UK, Israel and other standing militaries fighting brutal insurgencies.
As such, the Sri Lankan government should meet with the UN Panel and discuss these allegations. It should not be an adversarial process. It should be a process to clarify, elucidate and educate each other. The Sri Lankan government should not shy away from the truth. As the LTTE was not amenable to a negotiated solution mediated by India and Norway backed by the US EU and Japan, the intention of the Sri Lankan government was to military contain, isolate, and eliminate the LTTE. The LTTE forcibly uprooted and moved the Wanni population as a human shield and eventually infiltrated the government designated No-Fire Zone reserved for civilians. Despite repeated calls to surrender, the LTTE persisted. Eventually, the LTTE engineered a humanitarian crises by taking civilians as hostage and attacking the Sri Lankan security forces from within the NFZ. Although the Sri Lankan government never intended to harm Tamil civilians and had a policy of zero-tolerance civilian casualties, it must admit that there were deaths and injuries.
Q: The Panel also recommends that the SG should ‘immediately’ proceed to establish an independent international mechanism, to conduct investigations independently in to the alleged violations. Can you compare with other instances where such a mechanism has not interfered with the domestic freedoms?
The UN Secretary General has no authority or mandate to appoint such an advisory panel without the approval of the Security Council or the General Assembly. This is the first time in the history of the UN that such an advisory panel has been appointed. With Sri Lanka increasing looking eastward, there is a view that the Secretary General, campaigning for his second term of office, is vulnerable to pressure from a few western countries. This is likely to be perception rather than reality. However, considering the scale of human rights violations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sri Lanka has been singled out and targeted by the UN. Is it because Sri Lanka is drifting closer to China? Does the US and EU want to use human rights to bring Sri Lanka’s back to her previous alignment?
Nonetheless, both the content and the manner in which the report was released has impeded rather than facilitated the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. If such an international mechanism is established, it will be a huge boost to LTTE remnants globaly. The LTTE fronts in New York – the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam led by Rudrakumaran, the legal advisor to the LTTE, in the UK – the Global Tamil Forum led by Father Emmanuel, a LTTE propagandist, and in Oslo -Nediyawan, the current LTTE leader controlling the LTTE branches including the British Tamil Forum (BTF) already celebrated the release of the report.
Today, the LTTE remnants has taken credit for this fete against Sri Lanka and is now pressurizing the Tamil diaspora to once again contribute to the LTTE. After the defeat of the LTTE, the bulk of the diaspora that was forced to contribute to the LTTE distanced itself from the LTTE. The release of the report has created an environment for the LTTE to re-emerge and persist as a ideological, political and diplomatic force in the west. Already, photos of Prabhakaran that was removed from grocery shops have begun to emerge. With the release of the report, the LTTE has instilled a feeling that the West is against Sri Lanka.
Such an international mechanism will polarize the two communities, the avowed goal of the LTTE. The report has already drifted the TNA, a LTTE proxy towards LTTE remnants overseas. When the report was released, the government was in the process of engaging the TNA with the intention of mainstreaming the group. After years of functioning as the mouthpiece of the LTTE, TNA is likely to re-emerge as the voice of the LTTE remnants.
Q: Its second recommendation involves providing death certificates to the families and releasing the displaced and providing interim relief etc. According to your findings how much of this really remain to be done?
Sri Lanka has made immense progress in this area but much more work needs to be done to relieve the surviving victims of the war. Among the living, those who suffered most were the IDPs. After screening for LTTE traces in 2009 and 2010, all IDPs have been released. A few thousand who are free to travel remain in government run open welfare centres because the LTTE has mined their areas or their homes were destroyed during the war. Without exception, all IDPS received government grants to rebuild their homes. A few NGOS such as the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and a few governments such as India assisted. However, these IDPs need continued assistance. When the LTTE forcibly uprooted them from their traditional homes, most of the IDPs lost their livelihood. As such, the assistance provided by the government is insufficient. Ideally, government should reach out to foreign governments, international organizations and NGOs that are genuinely interested in the future well being of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans to help those who survived the war. This will prevent the LTTE remnants overseas from reaching out to the resettled IDPs and re-radicalizing them once again to hate the government and other communities.
Since 2010, the Sri Lankan government has started to compile a list of persons that died in the Wanni including in the NFZ. After matching that list against security databases of cadres and civilians that worked for the LTTE, the government will be able to identify the exact number of non-combatants killed. As the LTTE front, cover and sympathetic organizations and LTTE influenced personalities and NGOs have come up with extraordinary figures of civilian deaths, the Sri Lankan Victim’s of the War Database will help to determine the accuracy of that data. As 20-22,000 cadres and employees of the LTTE perished in the war, it is necessary to distinguish between the different classes of deaths. Ideally, the Sri Lankan government should create a secretariat to house these databases including those LTTE cadres and employees undergoing rehabilitation. Considering that the Tamils in the Wanni suffered most from the war, Sri Lanka should issue not only death certificates but ensure that the parents, siblings and children of those killed are cared for. The Sri Lankan government should reach out to governments, international organizations and NGOs to assist in their community rehabilitation.
Q: The Panel also calls for the Human Rights Council to ‘reconsider’ its May 2009 Special Session Resolution. Would you say there was a valid call for such a reversal of a resolution of this kind?
As it stands the panel is advising the Secretary General, therefore any action deriving from the report must be initiated by the Secretary General. There is no precedence where the Secretary General has called on the Human Rights Council to reconsider its resolutions.
One could argue that there is new evidence that was not available in May 2009 which must be considered. Rather than moving a new resolution, the Secretary General is using Sri Lanka’s own resolution of 2009 where Sri Lanka also drew attention to the Secretary General –Government of Sri Lanka joint statement as a peg to re-open the issue. Now its up to the countries in UN General Assembly, Security Council or Human Rights Council to move things forward, with Secretary General’s office keeping a watching brief.