The Sri Lankan State, once again, in serendipitous circumstances is offered an opportunity to counter the grossly unfair war crimes charges leveled against it since the release of the Darusman report (DR). The adverse publicity against Sri Lanka in relation to the ‘allegations’ arising out of DR were well orchestrated and worked as a well oiled propaganda machine. The engine was the Darusman report. The throttles were (some elements of) the western bloc of the international community, the LTTE diaspora, the international media, the human rights based INGOs and NGOs, as well as some ‘double-talking’ extremist political organizations in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The turbo-power was provided by Channel 4 film and its news casts on Sri Lanka.
Led by Channel 4, the international media gave wings to the unsubstantiated statistics of civilian deaths in the Darusman report through dramatized emotive images and heart –wrenching narration. Media company after media company, TV station after TV station and even some of the highly respected media publications churned the figure of 40,000 without checking on the methodology or reliability of sources of data. It was not respectful journalism, but ‘churnalism’ at its worst a phenomenon in modern print and electronic journalism explained by Nick Davies in his book ‘Flat Earth News’.
The published figures of civilian deaths ballooned with time and the intensity of propaganda from about 7000+ contained in an unpublished UN Country team Report to 40,000 (Darusman) 70,000 (Sooka at Frances Harrison book launch)) to 147,000 churned out in Sri Lanka.
This unfortunate situation with regard to the ‘war crimes allegation’ was further complicated due the injudicious analysis of the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry which led to the co-sponsoring and adoption of the latest Resolution on Sri Lanka in Geneva identified as UNHCR Resolution No.30/1 of 01 October 2015. Many Sri Lankans both here and abroad saw it as a huge miscalculation on the part of the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, and by extension the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL). It is said that many countries that were supportive of Sri Lanka at UNHRC previously were also surprised by the move.
The presentation made by Lord Naseby – a true and a just friend of Sri Lanka – has offered the incumbent Sri Lankan government a one in a million chance of attempting to re-channel the unfair adverse criticism leveled against Sri Lanka and the back to the wall situation that the country has been pushed into through UNHRC Resolution No. 30/1 of October 1, 2015, on war crimes. Some may argue that it was Resolution No. 30/1 that provided the trigger for Lord Naseby to come out with his well researched presentation in the British Parliament in defense of Sri Lanka. Whichever way one looks at it, it is vital for the incumbent government not to allow this golden opportunity to pass by without initiating action to clear the good name of its Security Forces, the Commander-in-Chief at that time and the image of the Country. If GOSL believes that it is the Geneva Resolution 30/1 that did the trick, it is all the more vital that the Government act on Lord Naseby’s statement with all power and resources at its command.
When Prime Minister Theresa May made a statement that her government would protect the British soldiers against unfair charges she was defending the soldiers who fought in Iraq under the policy of a different British government administration. “The Prime Minister spoke of her pride in the UK armed forces, and praised the work they do to keep our nation safe. She said that every effort must be made to prevent any abuse of the legal system, and restated her determination to protect the armed forces against any instances of vexatious complaints.”(Guardian.com/uk-news/2016/sep/23)
Therefore the onus is now upon the Sri Lankan incumbent government to take a policy decision to re-engage the international community and impress upon them the need to renounce the heavily biased approach taken by them in regard to allegations of committing systemic war crimes and intentional killing of civilians. This hypothesis can now be proved to have been based on misinformation and unsubstantiated data.
The conclusion arrived at by Lord Naseby (and his fervent appeal to the British government and the international community) is the perfect take-off point for Sri Lanka in presenting and arguing out its justifiable and defensible case. Lord Naseby stated: “I hope and pray that as a result of this debate, the UK will recognize 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. (Emphasis by the writer) On top of that the UK must recognize that this was a war against terrorism, so the rules of engagement are based on international humanitarian law, not the European Convention on Human Rights. The west and in particular the US and UK must remove the threat of war crimes and foreign judges that overhangs and overshadows all Sri Lankans, especially their leaders. We in the UK should reflect on the sacrifices of thousands of young Sri Lankan soldiers who died to create peace in that country.” Lord Naseby also described how the figure 40,000 took the world by storm and also referred to the ghastly videos of Channel 4.
Initially it may be embarrassing for Sri Lanka to do an about turn. But justice and facts are on its side. The other advantage is that the new Minister of Foreign affairs is an eminent lawyer with a brilliant legal mind and hence would understand the intricacies of the application of key principles of international humanitarian law to the internal armed conflict in Sri Lanka. It is imperative that the Sri Lankan State use this opportunity to change the perception of the world regarding the charges of war crimes as Ms. Sooka is now ratcheting up the rhetoric and is also attempting to take action to embarrass our war heroes when they travel abroad. If they happen to become confined to Sri Lanka for fear of being threatened to be arrested in a foreign country on flimsy grounds, that would be the highest form of ingratitude shown by Sri Lankans to our war heroes for having saved us from the scourge of terrorism.
It should be stated in fairness to the more even-minded academics and professionals that the Darusman report(DR) and the Channel 4 videos that provided wings to DR was not allowed to have a free and unimpeded run. These were subjected to objective criticism from many quarters beginning from around 2011. But the world was not ready to listen at that time due possibly to four main reasons.
1. The neo-colonial minded politicians of the West were angry with President Rajapaksa for not stopping the war when they signaled him to do so to save Prabhakaran; so the western policy, figuratively, from then on, was to ‘hit him and Sri Lanka hard’. 2. The LTTE diaspora and its media re-channeled its financial resources and political capital in the west (after the military defeat) to unleash a deadly international propaganda cum political war against Sri Lanka on war crimes and violation of human rights. 3. The main-stream international media having been compelled to self-censor the more dangerous and in-depth incriminating news of rights violations by the West committed during the Iraqi, Afghanistan, wars etc. had now an opportunity to show the audiences and the rights activists that they were adept at unraveling rights violations around the world. Some media in their efforts to beat competition compared Sri Lanka to the killing fields of Cambodia, and their edited and contrived images were so strong emotionally that many audiences throughout the world believed them to be ‘the truest story on Sri Lanka’. Even some Sri Lankan politicians and families apparently have been deceived. 4. True to form the Sri Lankan ‘statesmen’ were not able to come together on the greatest national issue that was facing the country at that time, ‘ending Eelam War 4 and terrorism’; unfortunately it continued to spill into the post-conflict internationalized war crimes analysis scenario as evidenced by the polarized approaches adopted by the previous and the current governments in managing unfair charges of war crimes against Sri Lanka.
For the Sri Lankan government to make a strategic directional change with regard to war crimes allegations it is vital to understand the real significance of Lord Naseby’s revelations. Professor Michael Roberts, an eminent Sri Lankan academic and now an internationally reputed Australian University don (I believe now retired), has brought out the vital arguments contained in Lord Naseby’s speech. These would be useful for GOSL’s analysis. (i) Sri Lanka did not set out to kill the Tamil civilians who were being held in LTTE territory as human shields (Emphasis by the writer) (ii) There is every indication that there were about 7,000 civilians killed and not the figure of 40,000 that has been widely proclaimed on the basis of “a guess” in the Darusman report (iii) The British Defense Attaché (in Colombo) estimated that about one fourth of those killed would have been Tamil Tigers because many LTTE soldiers had thrown away their uniforms. (iv) Some of the civilian deaths were result of Tiger gun fire. (v) the US Ambassador Blake had estimated a death toll of 5,000 civilians on the eve of his departure from the post in Sri Lanka.( Michael Roberts in article titled “Revelations In Britain: Lord Naseby Undermines the Received Wisdom” published in Colombo Telegraph, 12 Nov. 2017)
To this should be added another quote from Lord Naseby who stated in the House of Lords that “The Sri Lankan Government’s census department—a very genuine department— issued an in-depth census leading to the conclusion that 7,000 to 8,000 were missing. US Ambassador Blake stated on April 7 that there were deaths of 4,164 from January 20 to April 6. Major General Holmes in his expert military report of March 2015 concurs with 7,000 to 8,000. Above all, all the people I have cited state that there was no policy to ?kill civilians—in fact, the opposite. To these I add the British defense attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Gash, who said to me 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. There could not be a better military man: he is knowledgeable, independent and would be authoritative about what happened in his reports in his dispatches”.
As stated above there were many detractors of the Darusman report. The Marga Institute was the first to warn of the credibility concerns of the Darusman report. The Marga report titled Truth and Accountability: The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka (dated 21.07.2011) identifies 10 serious weaknesses in the Darusman report with regard to the review of military operations of the GOSL thus raising strong concerns about its credibility. One of the 10 is connected to the issue of the estimates of civilian deaths. Marga report says that after acknowledging the UN country Report estimate of 7,721 killed and 18,479 injured up to May 13, the Darusman panel opts for a much higher figure of 40,000 without indicating the basis for this estimate. The Marga report observes that the decision to opt for a high estimate is “confusing and irresponsible”.
Regarding war crimes, both the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Presidential Commission (LLRC) report and the Paranagama Commission reports categorically states that according to evidence and international humanitarian law the Sri Lankan security forces did not commit systemic war crimes at the last stages of the war. Major General John Holmes a highly reputed British Officer in counter terrorist operations and the winner of the Military Cross – the highest decoration in the United Kingdom for valour in the battle field, providing expert military advice to the Paranagama Commission states-
“In my opinion, faced with a determined enemy that were deploying most ruthless of tactics and which involved endangering the Tamil civilian population, SLA had limited options with regard to the battle strategy they could deploy. This would have posed a dilemma for the very best trained and equipped armies in the world. The SLA had either to continue taking casualties and allow the LTTE to continue preying upon its own civilians or take the battle to the LTTE albeit with an increase in civilian casualties. The tactical options were stark, but in my military opinion, justifiable and proportionate…….Therefore on evidence available to me, taking into account my own combat experience, I do not find in broad terms that the military and artillery campaigns were conducted indiscriminately, but were proportionate to military objectives sought”. (‘Expert Military Report’ by Major General John Holmes DSO,OBE,MC as Annexure 1 in Paranagama Commission Report)
There are many more such analysis available in the LLRC and the Paranagama reports both from local and international legal, military, and video experts that would support a government initiative to re-engage the international community based on the leadership provided by Lord Naseby on behalf of Sri Lanka.
(The writer is an ex Journalist, communication researcher, and a retired staff member of the International Civil Service)