By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Lord Naseby (LN), the British peer who recently took up the allegation of 40,000 civilian casualties during the Vanni offensive in the British parliament, a principal element of UNHRC Resolution 30/1, has taken a further step in his efforts in setting the record straight.
According to a media release from his office, he has forwarded a full set of papers consisting of the Hansard transcript of the debate he initiated in the House of Lords on October 12, all copies of the heavily redacted pages of British Defense Attaché Lt. Col Gash’s dispatches, his interpretation of the un-redacted parts and the substantial corroborative evidence from many other sources. These have been sent to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, the Human Rights team at the UNHRC in Geneva, namely the High Commissioner, Prince Zeid Ra’ad AI Hussein and the nine UN Special Procedures mandate holders along with a personal letter stating his intentions of further pursuing the matter.
Many contend, opposition to UNHRC 30/1 stems from the need to escape war crimes (genocide according to some). In the eyes of others, nothing is further from the truth. The need to address accountability issues is not in dispute. However, in such an exercise, of paramount importance is to establish a fact-based estimate of civilian deaths during the Vanni offensive. PoE estimates up to 40,000 whereas some others including LN estimate between 7,000 and 8,000, including around 20% believed to be LTTE cadre in civilian garb.
Initial objections to the Geneva Resolution were primarily due to the lack of a Sri Lankan footprint in the Resolution process. The UNSG appointed Panel of Experts (PoE) and subsequently UNHRC summarily dismissed the LLRC findings and Paranagama Commission Report (second mandate), both Sri Lankan initiatives. Subsequent developments such as the Wiki Leaks documents leaked by US Private Charles Manning and Lord LN’s revelations among other material brings to question, attitudes and actions of initiators of the Geneva Resolution, namely US, UK and the European Union.
The PoE never visited Sri Lanka at any point in time. Nevertheless, Resolution 30/1 was based on their report. Some relevant paragraphs are;
“As of 31 December 2010, the Panel had received over 4,000 submissions from more than 2,300 senders (para 17/page 5).”
“A significant number of submissions contained allegations relating to particular kinds of violations or to particular time periods during the final stages, and individual complaints of specific violations of human rights or humanitarian law. Documentary information, comprised of lists of incidents or victims, photographs or videos, was also received. A limited number of unbiased analytical submissions provided analyses of general information including media reports or specific aspects of the situation. General information including media reports, web links and historical accounts, forwarded to the panel from publicly available sources also accounted for a portion of submissions” (para 18/page 5).
“In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all the victims and the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths” (para 137 / page 41).
Therein lies the questionable credibility of those who decided of the need and have initiated a resolution for a credible investigation.
The UNHRC authored Resolution, on the one hand, is based on recommendations made by PoE which in turn are based on submissions by over 2,300 nameless and faceless persons, with their identities locked away for a period not less than 20 years. They make up a substantial part of PoE’s ‘multiple sources of information.’
On the other hand, UNHRC has ignored PoE’s omission of reports, the resolution’s promoters and initiators US, UK, EU governments and UNO would have received from their respective representatives in Colombo. They are not a part of the PoE’s “multiple sources of information”.
Further, PoE apparently did not consider representatives of nations promoting the resolution such as the US Embassy and British High Commission in Colombo as “credible sources.”
PoE has failed to ascertain if some of those making submissions are persons reported missing or declared dead in Sri Lanka. Nor has it been established if depositions were fact based or made with a view to strengthen claims for political asylum.
It would have been only but correct to include testimonies of the likes of former US Ambassador Robert Blake, former UN spokesperson in Colombo Gordon Weiss, former US Military Attaché in Colombo Lawrence Smith and Lt. Col. Anton Gash into PoE’s list of ‘a number of credible sources’.
The Resolution project pursued by the said countries after locking away vital information received in dispatches from their representatives on site is not in the best interest of Sri Lanka. It is also the clearest indication of an anti Sri Lanka agenda.
Following are excerpts of a redacted dispatch from Lt. Col. Gash dated Monday, February 16, 2009, 4:44 PM Subject IDP Reception – Trincomalee 12 Feb 09 among other things states the following; “On Thu evening (12 Feb) I observed the arrival of 400 IDPs by sea in Trincomalee.” “From 1930 hrs (12 Feb) to 0300 hrs (13 Feb) the ship to shore transfer took place. (I was present 2200 – 0200 hrs). “The operation was efficient and effective, but most importantly was carried out with compassion, respect, and concern. I am entirely certain that this was genuine – my presence was not planned and was based on a sudden opportunity; I had free access to the 300m long stretch of beach over a 4-hour period and was able to observe upwards 200 SLN personnel working extremely hard in difficult conditions.” “IDPs were having their mobile phones checked, but they were then returned to them.”
There is no reason to believe, US, EU and UNO missions were not permitted similar visits to front lines.
It is indeed gratifying to learn of LN’s decision to move forward with his efforts to clear Sri Lanka of the charge of 40,000 civilian deaths.
He has commenced a race which rightfully should have been initiated by GoSL after the initial revelations in the House of Lords. Unfortunately, our leadership is yet to make up their minds if they should accept and continue or drop the baton currently carried by LN. The Foreign Minister has limited himself to a single statement in Parliament calling Naseby’s revelations “an ace”, for use at a future date. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is yet to offer an opinion or comment on the British peer’s initiative.
The yahapalana leadership, the Foreign Ministry, and its bureaucrats may be compared to a ship adrift at sea with its rudder disabled. It is now in the public domain; President Sirisena authored a letter of appreciation to LN dated November 2, 2017. Six days later, on November 8, the Foreign Secretary forwarded the document with a covering note to High Commissioner Amari Wijewardene in London, instructing her to deliver it to LN. She was directed, contents of the letter are “not shared with the media either in the UK or Sri Lanka.” The President’s letter was received at the High Commission nine days later, on November 17. It was finally delivered to the addressee by the High Commissioner on November 21 afternoon, a full nineteen days after the President signed off the letter. Meanwhile, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Vasantha Senanayake tabled contents of both President Sirisena’s and his letters of appreciation to LN in Parliament on November 14, a week before LN received the original document.
Nineteen days for delivery of a letter from the Head of State is scandalous. The blame need be placed fairly and squarely on the Foreign Office and its Secretary. A Prsidential communication should have justified the dispatch of a special diplomatic pouch in the first available flight. SriLankan Airlines currently operate nine flights a week to London. It also warranted telephone instructions to the High Commissioner to obtain an appointment from Lord LN on an urgent basis for delivery of a letter from the President.
During the entire period of the conflict, Sri Lanka rarely defended itself successfully both at international forums and in the global media. The rejection of a strongly worded UNHRC Resolution in May 2009 mostly due to the efforts of former Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka, was one such rare occasion.
President Sirisena, notwithstanding his preoccupation with party politics and local government elections, must give leadership to a project running parallel to LN’s efforts to exculpate Sri Lanka from the charge of the mythical 40,000 civilian deaths.
The opportunity that has arisen due to The Nasby initiative is too valuable to be squandered away. Towards this end, a thorough spring clean at the Foreign Office would be a good start. Improvement of procedures to enable delivery of a letter from the Head of State to any major capital in the world in no more than 72 hours is a prerequisite for such a project.