Sri Lankan War: Wrong assessment and attitude

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Unfounded allegations of war crimes against Sri Lanka:

Sir Michael Morris, known formally as Lord Naseby, has long been an ally to Sri Lanka in the West. A member of the British House of Lords, he founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka in 1975 and is currently its elected leader. He has visited the country multiple times, most recently in February 2017, and in 2005 was awarded the Sri Lanka Ratna, the highest national honour bestowed upon foreigners “for exceptional and outstanding service to the nation.”

For years Lord Naseby has defended the reputation of Sri Lanka, specifically regarding conduct during the nearly-thirty-years-long civil war, within Great Britain and the international forum more generally.

In June of 2014, Lord Naseby referenced American Military Veterans of World War II, of whom President Barack Obama once said, “These men waged war so that we might know peace.” Asked Naseby, “Why is it any different in Sri Lanka, where so many thousands of young men and women across all ethnic groups gave their lives to rid their country of terrorism?”

In July of 2016, Naseby accused Great Britain and the United States of employing double standards by requesting that war-crime allegations in Sri Lanka be investigated by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, while allowing Britain’s role in the Iraq war to be investigated domestically without foreign involvement.

And just last month, during a parliamentary debate aimed at assessing Sri Lanka’s progress toward meeting the requirements for reconciliation established by the UNHRC, Lord Naseby came to Sri Lanka’s defence again, insisting that the West “must remove the threat of war crimes and foreign judges that hovers over all Sri Lankans.”

This time around, many Sri Lankans who feel the country and its wartime conduct and its aftermath have been wrongfully maligned are hopeful that Naseby’s words won’t fall on deaf ears. There are two notable aspects to this most recent defence of Sri Lanka that lace it with the potential to permanently alter the international dialogue on Sri Lanka. The first is evidence. The second is concurrence.

Disputing the Numbers

In the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s civil war, there were calls from all sides to investigate the possibility that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed—by both the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—during the final months of fighting.

This led to the appointment of a panel of experts by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon tasked with investigating the allegations and producing a report on their findings thereafter.

The subsequent report, known colloquially as the Darusman Report and published in 2011, suggested a very different reality from the one set forth by the Sri Lankan government until then.

According to the Darusman Report, as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed during the final months of the war, most as a result of “indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan Army.” Furthermore, the Report’s authors insist that the Sri Lankan army intentionally targeted these Tamil civilians.

Lord Naseby, as he made clear during the Parliamentary debate last month, vehemently disagrees with the claims set forth by the Darusman Report. He maintained there was no governmental intent to kill Tamil civilians and disputes the estimate of 40,000 civilian deaths put forth by the Report.

And he provided what he views as evidence supporting his position: an unpublished report from the United Nations Country Team and dispatches from the British Defence attaché at the time, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Gash.

Said Naseby of the United Nations country team report: “It stated that from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, the number of civilians killed was 7,721. The war ended six days later, so it cannot possibly have got up to 40,000.”

He added that Gordon Weiss, the former UN Spokesman, estimated 7,000 civilian deaths in 2009, a number which aligns with that concluded by the Sri Lankan government’s census department, as well as the estimates of then-US Ambassador Blake and UK Major General John Holmes.

Cruel Intentions?

Naseby next asserted that “above all, all the people I have cited state that there was no policy to kill civilians—in fact, the opposite.”

To this end, he explained the process he went through to attain dispatches sent during the last few months of the war from British Defence attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Gash, who Naseby claimed said to him in January 2009 that “he was surprised at the controlled discipline and success of the Sri Lankan Army and in particular the care that it was taking to encourage civilians to escape and how well they were looked after, and that certainly there was no policy to kill civilians.”

Last year, Naseby submitted a Freedom of Information request to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office concerning Gash’s dispatches in the period 1 January to 19 May 2009, and after four appeals ended up with 39 pages of heavily redacted dispatches. In his view, the information from those dispatches exculpates the Sri Lankan government from much of what the Darusman Report accuses it.

From the dispatches: “It is not possible to distinguish civilians from LTTE cadres as few are in uniform…. IDPs are being cared for in Trincomalee. Welfare appears to be overriding security considerations…. No cluster munitions were used…. Civilians killed Feb 1 to April 26—6,432.”

These dispatches, in addition to the recently discovered UN Country Team Report and testimony from other diplomatic and military experts, led Naseby to conclude that the international community is wrong in its assessment of and attitude toward Sri Lanka regarding the war.

“I hope and pray that, as a result of this debate, the UK will recognise the truth that no one in the Sri Lankan government ever wanted to kill Tamil civilians. Furthermore, the UK must now get the UN and the UNHCR in Geneva to accept a civilian casualty level of 7,000 to 8,000, not 40,000,” said Naseby.

No Longer a Lone Voice of Dissent

Within Sri Lanka, Naseby’s opinions on the country’s wartime conduct are in relatively good company. Rajiva Wijesinha, an advisor on reconciliation to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, called Naseby’s remarks “a well-studied rebuttal of some of the critical myths about Sri Lanka.”“I agree with his [Naseby’s] assessment of the Darusman Report because it is full of prejudice and allegations with little evidence,” said Wijesinha. “They even, as I noted in the rebuttal I published in 2011, blamed the Sri Lankan forces for something their footnotes showed was done by the LTTE.”

The present Sri Lankan government, for the most part, agrees with Naseby’s version of events, which largely align with the version outlined in the Report published under President Rajapaksa by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Yet as Naseby himself admitted during his speech, most of the world disagrees.

On one matter, though, there does seem to be some consensus forming—at least among a few Lords and Baronesses seated in the UK Parliament: that since 2015, the present government has made significant progress in meeting the requirements for reconciliation established by the UNHRC.

Naseby, for his part, explained that due to what he saw on his most recent visit to Sri Lanka in February, he believes the “government is addressing all the issues raised in the UN resolution.” He specifically commended the creation of the Office of Missing Persons and the participation of Tamil parties in debating the New Constitution, but conceded that the reconfiguration of the current Prevention of Terrorism Act is taking far too long.

Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, Naseby’s colleague and also a member of the House of Lords, commended the present government for doing its best to uphold religious freedom, especially in comparison to the previous one. To prove her point, she outlined the decrease in violence towards Christians since 2015. As well, she demonstrated the improved governmental response to anti-Muslim extremism by invoking the attack on Rohingya refugees at a UN shelter in September.

“The Cabinet Spokesman, Rajitha Senaratne, was unequivocal in his condemnation the following day. The refugees were quickly moved to a safe location and the government has now arrested nine people. It is so good—but all too unusual—to hear of such prompt action by a government that had previously stood by and watched.”

She concluded that the present government should be commended for the steps it has taken to curb religious extremism, namely because although the problem still exists, further encouragement might motivate even tougher penalties against such negative behavior.

“The excellent work begun by the Sri Lankan government to foster religious unity, freedom, and tolerance, although incomplete, should be supported.”

Baroness Caroline Cox, another member of the House of Lords, echoed the statements made by Naseby and Berridge regarding the progress made by the current government. She concluded:

“I fully support the appeal made by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, to Her Majesty’s government to offer a hand of friendship and appropriate support to Sri Lanka and its President as he seeks to implement his commitments to bring healing, hope and peace to a nation and a people who have suffered too much for too long.”

Naseby’s Assurances Not Satisfactory to Everyone

Still, Naseby’s views were far from universally accepted in Parliament. Notably, even the Lords and Baronesses who agreed with Naseby on the present government’s progress said nothing in support of his claims disputing the Darusman Report. And some members of the Parliament registered outright disagreement.

Lord Mohamed Sheikh expressed concern that the progress of reform has slowed in recent months.

“Much more assertive efforts need to be made in a number of respects. Of particular concern are the tens of thousands of people who are still unaccounted for. Many people are still seeking the truth about what happened to their friends and family during the war. There are many allegations of human rights abuses on both sides.”

Lord Ray Collins of Highbury also critiqued the pace of progress, specifically of the demilitarisation of the North and the full return of land by the military to its rightful owners. “I acknowledge that things are happening—I said that in my opening remarks. But if we do not speed up the pace of reform, there is certainly the prospect of continuing discontent.” However, even those in disagreement with Lord Naseby’s take on current events acknowledged that the best way forward would be to engage with Sri Lanka rather than isolate it.

“Sri Lanka has undergone extreme turmoil and is still in the early stages of reconciliation. Peace building is slow and often frustrating. The Unity Government has made strides that were not possible just five years ago,” said Lord Sheikh. “We must recognise this and understand the fragile climate that still exists. I hope we can move forward with a policy of positive engagement, firm scrutiny and support for Sri Lanka.

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