|Human Rights Watch: Vicious allegations, indiscriminate attacks|
|Wednesday, 07 May 2008|
I attach a release prepared by the Peace Secretariat in Sri Lanka to another statement by Human Rights Watch attacking the Sri Lankan government in preparation for the Universal Periodic Review scheduled for May 13th. I believe this is relevant too to the latest letter you have received, distributed by HRW on behalf of what appears to be a conglomeration of Non-Governmental Organizations.
You are doubtless surprised at the intensity with which the record of a democratic government is being assailed by these groups. Whilst some of the points they make are being addressed by the Sri Lankan government, you will note that the statement is replete with falsehoods, several of which are addressed in this release. You will also notice the suppression of the April 2007 UNDP Stocktaking Report which, had it been taken seriously then, would have helped us avoid some current shortcomings.
Whilst I am sure that the motives of some of those involved in this exercise are based on ideals, however inappropriate, it cannot escape the notice of those committed to democracy and pluralism that this exercise is in the interests of the LTTE, the terrorist group that is now on the defensive following the determination of the elected Sri Lankan government to eliminate terrorist threats whilst pursuing a political solution to our problems. The number of moderate Tamil groups who have accepted the government initiative to negotiate, and restore democracy to a Province for too long subject to terrorist threats testifies to the success of these efforts. It would be sad if this programme were disrupted now. Attacks on Sri Lanka could be interpreted by opponents of the government as evidence that the international community is opposed to Sri Lanka .
Secretary General of SCOPP
We are aware that many of you are supportive of our efforts, but we urge you to reject the letter of a group that is not accountable and uphold the democratic principles of the United Nations. We will of course be happy to answer any questions you have in this connection, either informally or during the Universal Periodic Review.
The latest Human Rights Watch report on Sri Lanka, issued as a submission to the UN Human Rights Council in connection with the Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka, repeats several canards that have been refuted in the past, with no response from HRW to the detailed rebuttal of their falsehoods. In particular it begins its offensive by claiming that ‘Sri Lanka security forces have conducted indiscriminate bombing and shelling resulting in civilian casualties’. In August the claim was Security forces have subjected civilians to indiscriminate attacks …. Both the government and the LTTE have shown a brazen disregard for the well-being of non-combatants’. These were conclusively refuted in the response of the Peace Secretariat entitled ‘HRW’s dirty war and the clean record of the Sri Lankan army’, sent to HRW. As yet there has been no response to this, nor rebuttal of the arguments with regard to the Kathiravelli incident, the only one in the military action in the East in which civilians were killed.
It was shown in the SCOPP response that that incident occurred because of ‘mortar locating radar’ so that the forces believed they were firing on LTTE guns. In fact even the HRW report, as opposed to its sensationalistic press release, revealed ‘The LTTE had sentries in the area of the camp, ostensibly to monitor the movement of displaced persons’ and that they were told that ‘In the daytime, the LTTE didn’t carry weapons….When the LTTE has heavy weapons, they don’t show them because they’re afraid someone will inform’. There were bunkers in the camp, though HRW claims that these had been built by the displaced – doubtless without the knowledge or support of the LTTE soldiers in the camp.
Instead of responding to this evidence from their own report, HRW merrily continues with the same vicious allegations, making clear their determination to denigrate without looking at evidence. The same goes for many of the old allegations that are repeated in this latest report, as well as the new ones. It is claimed for instance that, since the abrogation of the Ceasefire in January this year, ’the fighting has claimed hundreds of civilians lives, and tens of thousands more have been displaced’. This is totally untrue. The total of civilian deaths related to the conflict from the beginning of the year till the end of April amount to 325. Of these 137 are due to terrorist attacks in districts in the south of the country, including suicide bombings, with the highest number of civilian deaths in a district being in Moneragala where terrorists not only bombed a bus but shot survivors as they emerged.
LTTE Terrorist Suicide Blast against innocent civilians
The total number of civilian deaths in the Northern province, where fighting is taking place, amount to 80. These include killings by the LTTE, including by a suicide bombing and a claymore that killed five soldiers plus eight civilians in a bus. There were 79 deaths in the Eastern Province, a few of them being of candidates of the TMVP (the former Karuna faction) related to the conflict. The rest were in other southern districts, including in Anuradhapura bordering the North where some of the killings were by the LTTE. This figure is 325 too much, but when compared with the deaths of civilians in other conflicts against terror, the actual figure of less than a score in the course of fighting testifies to the regard of the Sri Lankan forces for civilians. Conversely, during this same period, as a consequence of LTTE bombs alone, 98 lives have been lost. Similarly, the total of displaced has risen by just 149 between the end of December and the end of March according to UNHCR figures.
In actual fact 2384 more people have been displaced, but 2235 have been resettled in the Eastern Province. In the two LTTE controlled districts, the increase has been 480 while in the four areas controlled by the LTTE in three other districts, one has shown no change, another showed an increase of 311, a third numbers going down by 446 in two months before rising again by 2214, and the last a decrease of 1156. Despite all this, HRW has no qualms about asserting a figure of tens of thousands displaced. This is of a piece when, irritated perhaps by the comparatively low figure for displaced in the East within a few months of it being liberated, it insisted that there had been forced resettlement. Again the full report, as opposed to the aggressive press release, recorded a UNHCR spokesperson saying ‘Our staff monitoring the situation on the ground say the majority of people are eager to return home, the returns are voluntary and in line with international protection standards …. UNHCR will continue to monitor the returns and report directly to the government on any problems regarding the voluntariness and any deviation from the civilian characteristics of the move’.
Conversely, they inveigh against a return to one area in the East being prevented because of the creation of a High Security Zone, ignoring the fact that alternative lands in close proximity have been found for all displaced families. In fact, taken as a whole, the achievement of the Sri Lankan government in resettling most of the displaced and restoring normalcy to the Eastern Province is a lesson for all conflict affected countries. The fact that local government elections were held there last month, to the satisfaction of the internationally recognized monitoring group PAFFREL, is testimony to this success, as is the Provincial Council election being held now, which has attracted the two largest opposition parties which had boycotted the earlier election. The argument that the former Karuna group, now a political party known as the TMVP, is ‘routinely visible’ bearing arms in the East may be correct if the term ‘routinely’ is interpreted very loosely, since given clandestine activity by the LTTE, they need to defend themselves.
However, the government has made it clear that the weapons should not be used or displayed, so that, as an NGO hostile to the government put it in asking that elections be cancelled - ‘Though weapons are currently only visible in Batticaloa in the hands of the military, there is a deep, widely held conviction that armed groups have not permanently disarmed but only put their weapons out of sight for the moment’. Fortunately the government did not give in to such specious logic, and went ahead with the election, and normalcy is rapidly returning. Another subject used to demonize the TMVP is that of child soldiers and HRW duly claims that the government has ‘been complicit in the use of child soldiers by nonstate armed groups’. The government is still waiting for evidence to conduct investigations in this respect.
Queries to Alan Rock, who first made this claim, have fallen on deaf ears. The one instance cited by UNICEF was looked into, and it turned out that personnel involved, soldiers at a checkpoint who had passed through a truck with armed personnel including children, had been given a punishment transfer. UNICEF was asked for information about any other incidents, but could provide none. On the contrary, it should be noted with regard to allegations of recruitment by the Karuna group (the only one cited in this regard except for the LTTE), an estimated 1,800 children were released by them after they split from the LTTE in 2004.
A Husband mourns near the body of his loving wife. She was killed by the LTTE Terrorist by Claymore Bob Attack
However, this led to widespread re-recruitment of these children by the LTTE and the Karuna faction then claimed that it was forced to take in children who were otherwise in danger. UNICEF figures indicate 351 children recruited by them as opposed to the 453 claimed by HRW and, now that the East is free of LTTE control, release of these soldiers has begun, as noted and welcomed by UNICEF. It should be noted that previously, as indicated in a recent press statement, the former Karuna group was wary of UNICEF because of what seemed undue indulgence to the LTTE, exemplified in the handing over for rehabilitation purposes of $1 million dollars to an LTTE front. Accounts of this grant are still awaited, despite having been requested from UNICEF nine months ago.
HRW then raises the old chestnut about the national Human Rights Commission, both querying how it was appointed and its efficacy. This ignores the fact that the government agrees it could be made more efficacious, but that its pleas for assistance were ignored by those who now complain. In particular, the suppression of the UNDP stocktaking report on the HRC, which established that the questions about the appointment of the HRC in no way vitiated its standing or the integrity of those appointed, suggests a determination to condemn almost worthy of HRW. Now at last UNDP has begun to develop ‘a new framework for UN support to the HRC.’ This charge is of a piece with the claim that there is impunity in Sri Lanka. This is absurd since, though it may be complained that the Sri Lankan government is slow or inefficient in punishing such activities – a trait it shares with all governments – it has never sanctioned them. Indictments have been issued for some killings, and most recently, with regard to indictments, an indictment has been issued on persons arrested some months ago, but then released following a court ruling.
Hon. Minister of Highways and Government Chief Whip,
Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was killed by the LTTE suicide Bomber on 06th April 2008
HRW may see it as a problem that the courts in Sri Lanka are independent and tend, as in jurisdictions similar to ours, to acquit without evidence that may seem impossible to collect – but in the long run we should be glad of this, and indeed many activists have been pleased recently about several decisions in which the Supreme Court has ruled against measures taken for security reasons. Whether the citizenry are happy about this when bombs enclosed is another question, but that is not a reason to complain about the rule of law. Finally, given its categorical refusal to accept UN reports, it is astonishing that HRW adds its voice to the chorus demanding a UN monitoring mission. At least it would be astonishing were it not clear that the determination to establish such a mission, with its lucrative jobs for footsoldiers in the Human Rights army, had been rife even before what was supposed to be a survey by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Certainly Sri Lanka will not be dragooned into submitting to decisions taken on the basis of falsehoods, and prefers to concentrate on strengthening its own national institutions, which belatedly the UN has now agreed to think of doing. Sri Lanka is also worried about continuing denigration of the country in the claim that HRW forwards, that its government ‘publicly labeled senior UN officials as “LTTE supporters” and “terrorists” because they highlighted “disappearances” or other rights violations’. The reference is to a criticism by the Government Chief Whip, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, of a statement by Sir John Holmes, who is in charge of Humanitarian Affairs for the United Nations., because he made a statement that has since been used by the LTTE and other forces to the government to claim that Sri Lanka is the most dangerous place in the world for humanitarian workers. What Minister Fernandopulle had meant was quite clear, in that he had indicated that he thought Sir John was helping the terrorist cause by describing Sri Lanka as the second most dangerous place in the world for aid workers. And he was correct, in that that phrase has been quoted time and again by terrorists, their supporters, and Sri Lankans who oppose the government, whether or not they support the LTTE or its cause. Jeyaraj Fernandopulle knew what would happen as a result of Sir John’s loose talk, and it is a pity that he then became the butt of criticism, without Sir John feeling obliged to explain publicly the circumstances under which he had made his faux pas. Later it was revealed that Sir John had broken an agreement he had with the government which had invited him to Sri Lanka, that he should not give any private interview to the media while he was in Sri Lanka. It has not as yet been explained why he broke his agreement, nor who in his or the UN office made the arrangement.
After another LTTE Terrorist attack against innocent civilians
Significantly, Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had made a similar agreement, and again her office or the office in Sri Lanka had arranged an interview in violation of this agreement. It was only just in time, when she was being taken away for the interview, that the Minister who had invited her found out what was happening and suggested she stand by the agreement. To her credit, she agreed. Though Sir John later regretted what had happened in a letter to the Minister concerned, and indicated that his statement had been taken out of context, the damage had been done. His remark as quoted has reverberated since in reporting about Sri Lanka, transformed now into being the most dangerous place in the world for aid workers. Elsewhere the incident which contributed to this remark has been discussed at length, and it has been pointed out that, in terms of the UN manual on safety, the agency which sent 17 workers to their deaths had been in gross breach of its obligations. Though those responsible for the murder should be sought and tried, the culpability of the agency cannot be forgotten.
Sir John Holmes
But it has been forgotten, despite a Sri Lankan reporter bringing the question up when the bodies were found. It is hard to escape the conclusion that international agencies have impunity in such matters, from the international media, as well as their own governments. So there has been no question of finding out who advised Sir John to breach his agreement. He doubtless had no idea of what would result from his indiscretion. Having spent the last few years in Paris and London, doubtless he assumed that people played by the rules, so it did not matter if he himself broke them. Even now, when he sees his remark quoted all the time – assuming that is, that he has time to think of Sri Lanka – he doubtless does not think of his own culpability, but bristles with indignation that he was called a terrorist. That Mr Fernandopulle died in a suicide attack last month did register with Sir John, but he scrupulously avoided any criticism of terrorism, and instead took the opportunity to mention ‘the rising toll that fighting in Sri Lanka is having on civilians’. In strongly condemning, not a terrorist attack targeting a democratically elected Minister, but ‘all violence and indiscriminate attacks against civilians’, Sir John was again playing the LTTE game, of suggesting that terrorism can be justified.
The implication is that the Sri Lankan government also engages in indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as asserted by HRW too. This does not make them terrorists. Complex language is necessary to show that, without being terrorists themselves, they are playing into terrorist hands. In Sir John’s case it may be appreciated that this was unwitting, but as HRW goes on and on with the same vicious chestnuts, one begins to wonder whether they are really quite as innocent as they seem.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process
(Courtesy : SCOPP )
|Last Updated ( Tuesday, 24 June 2008 )|
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