Powered by Google

Recent Posts

RSS Feed Subscribe to this blog

Blog

These blog postings do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the Advisory Council.

29/09/2011

Going a long way for the Sri Lanka Campaign

Dear friend,

This spring, on the day it opens to the public, I will be plunging into the icy waters of London's serpentine, then swimming, cycling and running my way around one of the world's largest cities to raise money for the Sri Lanka Campaign.

You can sponsor me here

I'm the campaign director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. I know first hand how bad the situation in Sri Lanka is, and how much we need the support of people like you. I've met human rights activists who've been tortured, families that had their children killed in front of them, and journalists and lawyers who live under the constant threat of death.

We desperately need funds to continue to fight for these people. So I'm putting my trainers where my mouth is and doing something I've never done before: a triathlon.



Please do sponsor me at this link

Your donations will help us turn the Sri Lanka Campaign from the small but effective volunteer organisation it is now, into a force to be reckoned with that will take on human rights abusers in Sri Lanka and win. There is now a real opportunity to do something for the victims of both sides' brutality - but only if we have the funds to make their case heard. That is why I have become a Sri Lanka Campaign community fundraiser - and I am not the only one

Please do lend us your support.

Fred Carver
Campaign Director, Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice

PS. Inspired to do something similar? Visit our community fundraising page to find out how you can join an event, set up your own, or find out about "the Great Sri Lankan cook off" (more details soon).

23/09/2011

Religious confrontations

A recent spate of attacks and confrontations on non-Buddhist shrines and religious sites shows a worrying increase in the numbers of Sinhala Buddhist hardliners intent on suppressing the diverse religious and cultural practices that have long been a part of the island’s history.

On September 15 a group of Buddhist monks led a crowd, including around 100 monks, and demolished a Muslim shrine in Anuradhapura in scenes reminiscent of the infamous "Babri Masjid" incident in India in 1992. Reports state that the mob waved Buddhist flags and burnt a green Muslim flag, a potent action that could threaten to flare up sectarian tensions, in a place where Muslims and Buddhists have managed to live mostly in harmony.

Although Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is sacred to Buddhists and contains many monasteries and revered sites, Muslims claim that their shrine has been there for around 300 years. The monk who admitted to masterminding the demolition, Amatha Dhamma Thero, said the attack was committed because the shrine was on land that had been given to Sinhalese Buddhists 2,000 years ago. He also alleged that local Muslims were trying to convert the shrine into a mosque­ - something which Muslims have denied.

The monk states that local government officials had agreed to remove the shrine within three days, but the crowd had become impatient and proceeded to tear down the structure. The BBC reports that witnesses said police were present during the incident but did not do anything to stop the destruction of the shrine, while the police denied that they were present at all.

At the time, police spokesman Prishanta Jayakody told BBC Sinhala: "This is a fabricated story. No media in Sri Lanka has reported this and we don't have any police report. If this happened there would have been a complaint. We have not received any complaint."

If what witnesses claim to have seen is true, it highlights the lack of protection that minority ethnic and religious groups (Hindus make up 15 per cent of the population, while Christians and Muslims make up 8 per cent respectively) receive when trying to practise their religion, from a police force and government that is mainly Buddhist, and in a country where monks have an elevated role in politics.

After the incident, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa clarified the reports, condemning the monks’ actions. However, he said that the shrine would not be rebuilt. He said that no-one had consented to the act, although the monks leading the demolition said that that they had persuaded the religious affairs ministry to agree to knock down the shrine.

Hindu shrines have also come under attack by Buddhist hardliners. On September 18, the annual animal sacrifice ritual Sri Bhadra Kali Amman Kovil in Munneswaram was halted by a Court ruling, despite the practice of animal sacrifices currently being legal in the country. According to newspaper reports, Public Affairs Minister Mervyn Silva, the man famous for tying civil servants to trees, arrived at the temple, located in the north-west village of Puttalam, seized the animals and took them away.

Although the temple, which is dedicated to the god Lord Shiva, had been the subject of public protests regarding animal rights in the past, the protests of Buddhist monks and the direct intervention of the public affairs minister is unprecedented, suggesting that the operation was an attempt to disrupt the worship of devotees, at one of the oldest and holiest Hindu shrines in the country.

When describing his actions, Mervyn Silva talked about the Buddha who had intervened to stop the killing of animals on an occasion. By representing his actions as a kind of Buddhist response to Hindu practices, the government seems to be exacerbating the tension between different religious groups and stoking Buddhist fundamentalism.

During the incident at the Tamil Hindu temple, Silva threatened to “cut off the hands” of anyone sacrificing animals in future. The government’s determination to clamp on animal rights abuses seems ironic when they still have not addressed the human rights abuses and war crimes committed during the civil war in 2009, which led to the death of up to 40,000 people.

Many Muslims now fear that when the major Hajj festival takes place in early November, which is celebrated with animal sacrifices, they may face similar clampdowns.

19/09/2011

'On the record' Issue 1


It is a pleasure to present "on the record" - the quarterly newsletter for friends and supporters of the Sri Lanka campaign. You will find it here.

Inside you will find news and views from our supporters - including Bianca Jagger - details of our media freedom campaign and all our latest news, and "Sri Lanka Confidential": the page with information just for Sri Lanka Campaign supporters.

We are making this first issue available to all our supporters - please feel free to pass it on to your friends.

Many thanks,

The Sri Lanka Campaign Team

15/09/2011

Sri Lanka and the Commonwealth

A group of civil society and rights organisations have recently written an open letter to Commonwealth Foreign Ministers. The letter highlights a number of concerns relating to Sri Lanka’s human rights record and the issues this creates in terms of Commonwealth involvement.

During the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka Maja Daruwala, executive director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative argued that:

"With the United Nations warning that there could be a potential ‘bloodbath,' the CMAG [Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group] needs to assert itself to protect the civilians trapped in the fighting in a member country ……It should not stay silent during this mounting tragedy.”

Daruwala’s argument should still apply post-tragedy and thus should be taken into account by Commonwealth bodies and organisations.

The Government of Sri Lanka’s failure to effectively and independently investigate possible war crimes as well as its continued refusal to investigate or prosecute those accused of rights abuses should have a direct impact upon Sri Lanka’s relationship with the Commonwealth. Human Rights Watch points out that "The Commonwealth harms itself when it stays silent during a crisis in a member state" (Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch). In the Harare Commonwealth Declaration 1991, Commonwealth Heads of Government pledged to protect and promote fundamental human rights and to support "the United Nations and other international institutions in the world's search for peace." Sri Lanka falls short of this pledge; as consistently highlighted by the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice.

Sri Lanka is currently slated to host the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; which will in turn hand Sri Lanka the chairmanship of the Commonwealth for 2013-15. The open letter to Commonwealth Foreign Ministers quite rightly points out that:

“Awarding the next CHOGM to Sri Lanka would not only undermine the fundamental values on which the Commonwealth is based, but also has the potential to render the Commonwealth’s commitment to human rights and the promise of reforms meaningless. At this crucial juncture, when the Commonwealth is seeking to strengthen its legitimacy and relevance, there is an urgent need for the institution to take principled decisions that demonstrate its commitment to the fundamental values of democracy and human rights. The fact that the host country of the CHOGM goes on to hold the chairmanship of the Commonwealth (from 2013 to 2015) is also a serious concern. Handing over leadership of the Commonwealth to a country with a questionable record in terms of human rights and democracy should not be the outcome of an event that will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Harare Declaration.”

One of the most recognised faces of the Commonwealth is that of the high profile Commonwealth Games. Sri Lanka is to launch a bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games and has put forward the small Southern city of Hambantota as their host city. Hambantota was one of many coastal cities to be engulfed by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and has received high levels of funding. It has seen the construction of an international cricket stadium, and international air and sea ports are now being constructed, as well as a railway line. These developments, along with the possible Commonwealth Games in 2018, make the future for Hambantota very bright indeed. It is however of no surprise that the the former electoral district of the president Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current electoral district of his favoured son (Namal), his eldest brother (Chamal) and his cousin (Nirupama) should receive such preferential treatment while the rest of the East and North of Sri Lanka still struggle to recover not only from the devastating Tsunami but also from a highly destructive civil conflict. Two articles published by a leading Sri Lankan newspaper highlight the discrepancy in singling out Hambantota for such high levels of development: http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/09/04/why-hambantota/ & http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2011/04/15/the-white-elephant-in-hambantota/. The apparent inequality issues aside, the Commonwealth Games promote the ideals of the Commonwealth and therefore upholding the core values of the Commonwealth should be a factor in any decision on where the Games should be held.

The Games are the most high-profile expression of the Commonwealth itself - a collective that aims to promote democracy, human rights, the rule of law, good governance, individual liberty, multilateralism and world peace. Can it be right to hold them in a country whose media, as documented by the Sri Lanka Campaign (link to blog post), are under constant attack, with complete impunity for those who attack media professionals?

The situation is well summarised by Australia’s ABC news:

“Democracy? President Rajapaksa was re-elected in January in an election in which he used state funds to campaign and ensured that the state-run news media effectively silenced opposition candidates.
Human rights? Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both condemned the Sri Lankan government repeatedly for breaches, which continue despite the government's complete victory over the Tamil Tigers.
The Tigers, as the originators of suicide bombing in the modern era, were bound to trigger harsh counter-measures; but the Tigers are now a completely beaten and spent force, yet the authoritarian structure mobilised against them remains.”


Awarding Hambantota the Commonwealth Games would mean rewarding bad governance, grave social injustices and the denial of civil rights to a large number of Sri Lankans. The Commonwealth Games Federation in conjunction with The Commonwealth should make it clear that Sri Lanka can only be considered as a possible host for the Games if it radically improves its human rights record and show that it is ready to promote the Commonwealth, via the Games, by allowing an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes.

09/09/2011

Grease Devils

Increased fear and violence have spread across rural areas of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka over the past month following reports of assaults by ‘grease devils’.

Traditionally, the term grease devil was given to thieves who wore only underwear, covering themselves in grease in order to make themselves hard to catch. The term has now been used to describe men who have sexually assaulted women in night time attacks.

Suspicions among local residents that the ‘grease devils’ responsible for recent attacks are linked to the security services, who are also accused of providing them with protection, has led to vigilante attacks and clashes between civilians and the police and armed forces. The alleged attack on a woman near the Navy base in Kinniya, in Eastern Sri Lanka, resulted in clashes between the Navy and civilians after local residents demanded the navy hand over two men who were suspected of carrying out the attack and then returning to the Navy camp. The clash saw the Navy firing on the crowd and the arrest of twenty five civilians. Similar clashes have occurred in Navanthurai, a village in the Jaffna District, and the in the town of Puttalam, in the North West, where vigilante attacks by angry residents saw a police officer killed.

The government response to the grease devil attacks has been characterised by denial, with state media blaming the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or Peoples Liberation Front, for starting the grease devil panic in order to discredit the government. In a statement on the 23rd of August the defence secretary, Mr Gotabaya Rajapakse, denied the existence of the grease man who had sparked violence in Navanthurai, claiming that these were all constructed by opponents of the Government. The wave of retaliatory attacks and vigilante action against police and military bases (in Trincomalee, Badulla, Potuvil, and many other places) has seen the government employ increased military presence within the affected areas in order to crack down on public disorder.

Following civilian protests at the army base in Navanthurai, on the 22nd August around a 100 young men were detained in an operation conducted by the Sri Lanka Army in which reportedly men and boys were dragged from their homes and beaten by the army and later taken to the police station where they were remanded in custody. Groundviews reporters who visited the village collected testimonies from villagers who claimed that property was destroyed and stolen and women and children were also physically attacked by soldiers.

Whilst the links between the ‘grease devil’ attacks and the military and security services have been circulated by rumour and have not been officially verified, the recent events surrounding the ‘grease devils’ are notable for how they have highlighted the governments reliance on the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows the President to deploy the military whenever he feels necessary, to repress shows of public dissent. In addition since the end of the war in 2009 the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka have been increasingly militarized, with the creation of army and navy bases across the region in a government attempt to ensure control of regions previously under LTTE administration.

The recent events also point to the continued impunity and lack of accountability that surrounds the military. The government has vehemently denied allegations of war crimes committed during the civil war, and no military personnel have been investigated despite allegations by a recent Channel four news report that attacks on civilians were ordered by high ranking officers. The government’s refusal to acknowledge the attacks or investigate possible links between the perpetrators and the military and security services points to a continued privileging of state security over the personal security and rights of Sri Lanka citizens. Once you have gotten away with murder, it is easier to believe that you will get away with sexual harassment.

The government’s willingness to deploy the army to resolve public disorder and the continued impunity surrounding the military may not come as a surprise. However,the open opposition towards the government and military demonstrated by the violent protests is something not often seen within Sri Lanka since the end of the war. In a country in which the media is self-censored and criticism of the government is met with threats and intimidation, the Rajapaksa regime has been able to claim to hold popular support. However, the violent protests against the police and military seem to reflect a growing resentment from within minority communities towards the military presence - many of whom appear to not regard the locals as people, if even half the stories of Grease Devils are based in fact. What is new is the willingness to openly express this dissent towards the government.

08/09/2011

Sri Lanka's state of emergency: repealed or rebranded?



Clearly one must welcome the decisions taken by the Government of Sri Lanka to lift the Emergency Regulations which have governed the country for the past 28 years. This long overdue move has been politically symbolic, and important for Sri Lanka because an entire generation has grown up to regard these tough regulations as the norm.

The country has been governed by emergency regulations since the 1971 insurgency and remained in place even after the threat abated. Many of these regulations came into being overnight without the public being aware, a move sometimes condemned by the courts but which has continued.

With the end of the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 there has been immense pressure from neighbouring India and Western countries to lift these regulations. Of course repealing the emergency now is an attempt to earn some brownie points before the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council session in September - and so help the Government of Sri Lanka's attempts to end discussion of their abysmal human rights record, or the war crimes committed by both sides which they will not investigate. Nevertheless for those - like us - who continuously demanded an end to the emergency regulations in the past, this move is a sign that pressure can work.

The actual effects of this decision are yet to be seen. But this move itself will not lead to an improvement of the situation as other draconian laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) are still in operation. The PTA can be used as a supplement for emergency regulations and it has been suggested that, before the emergency regulations are formally repealed, there will be amendments to the PTA in order to incorporate those aspects of the emergency regulations not already included in it. In any case it has been the PTA, not the emergency, which has been the law under which the most controversial actions of the state have taken place - notably the detention of many Tamils without trial for many months or even years.

The reality is that these laws have been exercised for purposes well beyond national security. The government has been accused of using these laws to censor and crack down on opposition activists, journalists and trade unionists. Under the PTA the authorities can still arrest and detain people for up to 180 days at the discretion of a minister; the confessions of the detainees under these conditions of duress are still admissible in court; and freedom of movement and freedom of association and assembly can be arbitrarily restricted. Even employment of individuals come at the discretion of a minister, and worse, actions under PTA cannot be challenged in any court - there is complete immunity for the perpetrators. Lifting the emergency will not alter this one jot

And then of course there are the worst excesses of state brutality: endemic torture, disappearances by the thousand, and extra-judicial murder. These are not sanctioned by any law and yet this does not seem to hold back the police or the army. The lifting of the emergency will not remove this ever present threat.

With the lifting of emergency many have questioned the fate of the persons detained under emergency regulations. The Minister of Justice has stated that "between 1,200 and 1,500 people in detention may be released". However a new law has just been passed which would allow the Government to keep these people in prison should the choose to, and that does appear to be the government's plan given the Attorney General's statement that "no suspects will be released and there is no change even though the emergency has been allowed to lapse".



So it is very doubtful whether this move will do anything to restore political and civil rights. The Sri Lankan Government’s willingness to ignore the law and even Supreme Court rulings indicate that they may try to continue to do things they used to do under emergency laws even without legal authorisation.

Sri Lanka is yet to overcome post war political challenges of peace and reconciliation. There is a critical need for strong commitment by the Government towards the rule of law, economic development, peace and good governance. The repeal of these draconian laws is an absolute requirement for a transition to a just and responsive State. This change could give an opening for increased political dissent; but only if it is seized skillfully by those in Sri Lanka and only if it is monitored closely by those inside and outside.

07/09/2011

Joint letter to the Commonwealth

The heads of all the Commonwealth countries meet every two years at a conference known as CHOGM. This year they were due to meet in Hambantota, the tiny Sri Lankan fishing village (pop 10,000) that is receiving phenomenal levels of investment, an international cricket stadium, and possibly the 2018 Commonwealth Games, thanks to its local MPs Namal Rajapaksa (the President's oldest son), Chamal Rajapaksa (the President's brother), and Nirupama Rajapaksa (the President's cousin).

Given Sri Lanka's woeful human rights record the decision was taken to defer Sri Lanka's hosting of CHOGM till 2013. But it is still going ahead, despite the fact that Sri Lanka's human rights record is not improving.

Now a powerful coalition of Sri Lankan and international civil society and human rights organisations - including us - have come together to protest against this. As we say in our letter:

"The fact that the host country of the CHOGM goes on to hold the chairmanship of the
Commonwealth (from 2013 to 2015) is also a serious concern. Handing over leadership of the Commonwealth to a country with a questionable record in terms of human rights and democracy should not be the outcome of an event that will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Harare Declaration."

The letter can be read here and is signed by

Yap Swee Seng, Executive Director
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

Wong Kai Shing, Executive Director
Asian Legal Resource Centre

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director
Centre for Policy Alternatives

Maja Daruwala, Director
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

Brad Adams, Asia Director
Human Rights Watch

Sunila Abeysekera,
INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka

Souhayr Belhassen, President
International Federation for Human Rights

Ruki Fernando
Law and Society Trust

Chris Chapman
Minority Rights Group International

Edward Mortimer CMG, Chair
Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice

Joint Civil Society Letter to Commonwealth Foreign Ministers (pdf)

06/09/2011

Book Festival Interview: Gordon Weiss on Sri Lanka's Civil War

Article re-published from Salem-News.com. By Margaret Neighbour.

UN spokesman during the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Gordon Weiss says the organisation ‘should have pushed harder’ to save lives, especially those of trapped civilians

(EDINBURGH) - GORDON Weiss is driving across Sydney when I call. "Don't worry, I've got a hands-free doo-da," he says. "The police here will arrest me and do terrible things to me if they see me driving holding a handset."

Of course, the Australian police are unlikely to do terrible things to anyone, even if they catch them breaking the law. In Sri Lanka, however, where Weiss worked as UN spokesman in the capital, Colombo, from 2006-9, the police do terrible things all the time. According to one human rights expert, the law enforcement agencies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government "can do whatever they like - arrest people without reason, torture people for as long as they wish, and fabricate charges which can land people in prison without bail".


Sri Lanka, says the same expert, is "one of the most violent places on earth".

Weiss is in Edinburgh today to discuss his book, The Cage - an account of the bloody climax of Sri Lanka's long-running civil war, which played out while he was stationed there. Although the country is now at peace for the first time since the 1980s, Weiss believes there is much to be done to prevent it becoming yet another failed state.

"Without doubt, there is a much greater peace in SL now than there was in 2008," he says. "But the predictions that I make in the book have turned out to be absolutely spot on. The state has been massively securitised, that security state continues to grow and I think that that process will continue apace in the coming years."

Weiss's first impressions of the tropical island nation were very different on his arrival in 2006. The 45-year-old, a veteran of 12 years with the UN, describes finding himself in a "lush, beautiful country" populated by "very friendly people".

"It was very different from India," he says. "I knew India quite well, I'd travelled round India a lot, but I think I thought Sri Lanka was quite subdued by comparison."

This initial sense of a sleepy paradise was soon shattered, however: "A day or two after I arrived in Colombo there was this enormous bomb blast when they [the Tamil Tigers] tried to rub out Gotabhaya [Rajapaksa, brother of the Sri Lankan president]. We all heard this dull thud roaring across the city - it was very close, in fact, to where I was. It was by no means my first encounter with conflict but it was an absolutely classic welcome to Sri Lanka."

When Weiss was dispatched to Sri Lanka, after a stint in New York as head of communications for UNICEF's emergency operations wing, the country had been at war with itself for more than two decades. Following independence from Britain in 1948, it had briefly been tipped to become "the next Singapore", but tensions between the Buddhist, Sinhalese majority concentrated in the south and west of the country and the Hindu, Tamil minority in the north and east soon flared up, scuppering any chances of an economic miracle.

Between 2002 and 2006, there had been an uneasy truce between the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) and the Tamil Tigers, the paramilitary organisation which had been fighting since 1983 for an independent Tamil state in the north of the country. But, as Weiss was about to find out, in course of the next three years, following the rise to power of the hawkish President Rajapaksa, the conflict would quickly gather momentum again before racing towards a catastrophic conclusion.

The Cage is a dispassionate, well-researched account of how these disastrous events unfolded. After providing some necessary background to the conflict, Weiss fast-forwards to the final few months of the fighting, in which the SLA first overran the key Tamil Tiger strongholds at Elephant Pass, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, then advanced north and east towards the coast, trapping in a giant pincer movement the remaining Tiger fighters and several hundred thousand Tamil civilians.

By the end of January 2009, with much of their former territory in government hands, the Tigers, led by the ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran, who had pioneered the practice of suicide bombing in his quest for an independent Tamil state, seemed to be heading for an ignominious defeat. Their only hope lay in using the mass of Tamil refugees still on their side of the front line as a city-sized human shield to prevent the army advancing, so they did everything they could to keep these people where they were - even if that meant shooting them as they tried to escape.

Weiss is no Tiger sympathiser but, according to his account, the bulk of Tamil civilians were killed, not by Tiger cadres shooting at them, but by indiscriminate shelling from the SLA.

It is impossible to say how many Tamil civilians were slaughtered in the first five months of 2009 as the SLA launched its final offensive. Newspaper reports at the end of the fighting estimated there were 20,000 dead. A Channel 4 documentary in June put the number at around 30,000. According to an official UN report, a final death toll of 40,000 should not be ruled out.

The reason it is so difficult to come up with an accurate figure is because, during the final few months of the war, the government kept the combat zone tightly sealed. Journalists, unable to get anywhere near the fighting, had either to accept official government figures, which stated the SLA was operating a "zero civilian casualties" policy, or accept the equally partisan version of events provided by the information wing of the Tigers. This shortage of reliable information inevitably led to a lack of media coverage so when, in May 2009, aerial photographs showing what appeared to be mass graves on a beach in the north-east of the country were suddenly splashed across the front pages of newspapers worldwide, it came as a surprise to all but the most fastidious followers of foreign affairs.

As the sheer scale of the carnage brought about by the war's final stages began to emerge, the question on many people's lips was: where was the UN while all these civilians were being massacred? Why hadn't battalions of blue-helmeted peacekeeping troops been dispatched to Sri Lanka to prevent this massive loss of life?

As Weiss explains, the UN only became aware of the scale of the impending catastrophe relatively late in the day:

"I think awareness [that there might be significant civilian casualties] was growing throughout late 2008 and into 2009," he says. "But even until very late, the best military observers and the people who were most familiar with what had gone on in Sri Lanka, and the tos and fros of the civil war, were still saying that there wouldn't be a military solution - that the Tigers would bring about a counter stroke that would once again bust the noses of the Sri Lankan armed forces.

"It was really December 2008, January 2009 that people began to think very seriously, 'Oh, this could be the end', but it was late, it was really late. And right until the end Prabhakaran retained his reputation as a master strategist, as an almost god-like figure."

By early 2009, in spite of the best efforts of the Sri Lankan government, the UN had irrefutable evidence that the SLA had been deliberately targeting civilians. On the night of 22 January a UN convoy, led by a retired Bangladeshi brigadier called Harun Khan, came under sustained bombardment in the middle of a government-designated no-fire zone, packed with Tamil refugees. All night, Khan transmitted his coordinates to SLA commanders via UN officials in Colombo, along with descriptions of the carnage being inflicted, but there was no let-up in the shelling.

The following morning, Khan emerged from a hastily constructed bunker to find a nightmarish scene: "The bodies of entire families with whom he had been idly chatting the night before lay scattered about him. Blood and shrapnel had spattered UN vehicles, body parts were underfoot, the corpse of a baby hung from a tree."

By this stage, the UN had also managed to piece together a rough estimate of the number of civilian casualties, based on what Weiss describes as an "incident reporting system".

"When one party of people reported deaths in a certain location due to a certain incident there was a system of trying to cross-check those reports and come up with what was regarded as a reasonably conservative estimate of the number of people killed," he says "It was not a perfect science - quite the contrary - it was a very rough science, but it was a rough science carried out in the given circumstances and it was all that we had."

Several people within the UN, including Weiss, were of the opinion that Khan's report and the estimated casualty figures - some 7,000 at this stage - should be made public, but they were overruled.

"I was certainly party to some of the thinking and I was personally pressing the notion that the figures should be released," he says. "I thought if we didn't release the figures the government would continue to say 'this is a bloodless victory and no-one has died'.

"But the opposing argument was essentially that if the Sri Lankan government felt pressured they would act even more hastily than they were and would barrel in there and cause wholesale loss of life.

"Also it was a question of access - it was a question of the UN maintaining its access and doing whatever it could in the circumstances. It was thought to be better to be able to deliver humanitarian aid to those people who came out alive at the end.

"I continue to argue that the UN should have pushed harder, but I also concede that it's a moot point about whether it would have brought about a better result. I absolutely appreciate why others argued they way they did. It's not the course of action I would have chosen if it had been me, but I occupied a very humble position - I was just the spokesperson."

I suggest to Weiss that he must still feel extremely angry and frustrated about what happened.

"I don't," he says. "I wouldn't say that I feel frustrated so much as ..." He pauses, picking his words carefully. "I feel great remorse for the people who were killed, because they were innocent civilians and they were children and it was on our watch, while we were there.

I think it was a great shame - a shame for the UN, a shame for me personally - so yeah, I feel deep, deep remorse. I think we could and should have done more."

Cartoon artwork by the amazing Carlos Latuff, friend of Salem-News in Rio de Janeiro. See his work: Latuff Gallery

01/09/2011

Ban Ki Moon's "never again moment"


You might have seen that our chair, Edward Mortimer, recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post on the United Nations response to Sri Lanka. As he says:

'Never again' is the promise that has followed the Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda and Srebrenica; issued each time with outrage and contrition, and, in recent years, a report on the failure of the international community to act. Kofi Annan commissioned one such report in 1999 on the Rwandan genocide, declaring: "Of all my aims as [UN] Secretary-General, there is none to which I feel more deeply committed than that of enabling the UN never again to fail in protecting a civilian population". Less than five years later, the UN was unable to galvanise international action in Darfur. Ten years later it failed to prevent tragedy unfolding in the final stages of Sri Lanka's long-running civil war.

You can read the rest of the article here.