By R.M.B Senanayake –
On the 29th August the Marga Institute launched its book – “Issuesof Truth and Accountability: Narrative III .The Last Stages of the War in Sri Lanka”
It was reviewed by a panel of speakers some of whom were personally aware of some of the incidents or the underlying policies of the Government. Others had studied the book had studied them. Mr. Rajiva Wijesinha gave a critical view of the evolution of the policy dubbed the Second Narrative which was the official stand of the Government and is contained in the report of the Ministry of Defense “Humanitarian Operation : Factual Analysis” . The First Narrative reflected the thinking and views expressed or unpublished, of the UN Agencies, the Human Rights Organizations and other liberal thinkers in the West which constituted the Liberal perspective based on the UN Declarations and the Geneva Conventions. They are the Report of the Panel of Experts (POE) appointed by the UN Secretary General in 2011 and the Report by the International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP) undertaken by the Public Interest Advocacy Center. The book says both narratives were flawed. The Third Narrative says “each of the two investigating bodies was unable to gain full access to the evidence available to the other”. The witnesses who appeared before the UNSG’s Panel including the UN personnel, INGOs and others did not appear before the LLRC. The POE did not have access to the main actors as the Sri Lanka Government (GOSL) refused to allow in the POE. Hence the book says there is a need for a Third Narrative which seeks to take a more balanced view o the circumstances of the war and the alleged violations of the Humanitarian Law taking into account sources such as the reports of the University Teachers of Jaffna and secret diplomatic messages revealed by WikiLeaks.
The Book presents an alternative narrative, of the events of the last stages of the war, and has been developed as a response to the UNHRC resolution of 2014. It is in the wake of the purported conflicting and contradictory accounts of the last stages of the war in Sri Lanka. These varying accounts have come from the Defence Authorities/ Army and the Government of Sri Lanka, I-NGO’s, University Teachers for Human Rights, Academics, Documentaries, Film Clips and Publications by Individuals, ex-Soldiers and Combatants, Diaspora Groups, Civil Society Groups, Activists and Collectives in and Outside Sri Lanka and presentations by the International Community, the UN Secretary General’s panel of experts, and the LLRC. The Book compares ad contrasts the explanations of the events given by the LLRC and the First Narrative. Chapter 3 deals at length with the issues of Accountability of the Government and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.
Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke pointed out the need to understand the shifting character of the war, the blurring of the distinction between the combatants and the civilians on which is predicated the International Law. The LTTE deliberately used the civilians as a human shield.
The LTTE had been occupying a large area in the North. The LTTE had been driven out of the East and the Book points out that there were no allegations against the Sri Lankan Army of any violations of human rights or killing of civilians. Next the Sri Lankan Army launched its campaign to drive the LTTE out from the area west of A9 in the Mannar district. The LTTE retreated towards Kilinochchi. Even in this campaign there were no allegations of large scale killings of civilians or violations of the humanitarian law. Dr Godfey pointed out that the LTTE had then changed its strategy. It had accepted the position that it could not win the war and had decided to create a humanitarian crisis which would attract international intervention. The Bishop of Jaffna had appealed to the LTTTE to release the civilians and allow them to leave the war zone for safer areas. But the LTTE ignored these appeals and decided to use the civilians as human shield and engage in small unit operations rather than face a frontal assault by the Army. The LTTE saw to it that the civilian population was integrated with the LTTE cadres. Did the civilians intermingle with the LTTE cadres of their own accord or were they forced into it? Even if in the beginning the civilians went on their own accord there was a point when they wanted to leave and then the LTTE prevented them from doing so by shooting at them and killing them. This changed the whole character of the war. Dr G.G points out that the Army which fought the war in the Eastern Province without any allegations of large scale civilian casualties was the same Army that fought the war in the Kilinochchi- Puthukudirippu theatre. How then is it possible to level charges of indiscriminate killing of civilians and humanitarian violations in this theater alone queries the Book? Dr G’G thinks the Army was not deliberately targeting civilians and hospitals but had to return fire when the LTTE moved heavy weapons to civilian areas and was shooting at them from these sites?. One panelist pointed out that the UN HRC has said that there were excessive civilian casualties even in the war in the Eastern Province. Liberal minded critics however point out that the LTTE had no alternative but to use this strategy of using civilians as human shield. Yes, but then why didn’t the UN intervene at that stage and negotiate a surrender of the LTTE? Critics also point out that the UN Agencies and the International Red Cross were not present in the Kilinochchi- Puthukudiruppu theatre because the UN had been asked to leave by the Government on the ground that it could not protect the UN personnel. Sri Lanka had fired on the UN hub as referred to in the book. So the UN had got the impression that the GOSL wanted a war without witnesses so that it Could have free hand in the war against the LTTE in the theatre east of Kilinochchi. This suspicion would have been strengthened by the conditions under which the IDPs were kept in the Menik Farm They were not allowed to speak to or meet outsiders. Critics have said that the conditions were atrocious.
There are also allegations that the delivery of food and medical supplies to civilians was below requirements and that it was deliberate. The distribution of food was carried out by UN Agencies but supplies were based on figures provided by the GOSL were the figures of civilians deliberately understated? This issue is deal with in the book. It ascribes any shortage to the logistics problems. The UN had in later stages of the ward to deliver food by sea.
There is also the issue of the treatment of surrendees. This issue was not discussed by the panelists and hence one has to go through the book to see what it says about this matter.
What will the Third Narrative achieve? Mr. Rajiva Wijesinha pointed out the untenability of the Second Narrative of GOSL that there were no civilian casualties and that the war was a purely humanitarian operation. The POE takes the view that the GOSL wanted to target the civilians in the Vanni. Both positions are untenable.
Will the GOSL now adopt the Third narrative? Who was responsible for the war? Panelists ask this question. Wasn’t that the reason for this catastrophe? Could collateral damage be avoided? But then was there disproportionate action by the GOSL in order to finish the war? The International Community wanted the GOSL to stop the war. But was that an option for the GOSL who wanted to recover the territorial integrity of the Country? These are all issues which require analysis before determining accountability. But as pointed out by Mr. Rajiva Wijesinha, the GOSL failed to present its point of view because of the flawed Second Narrative it espoused. But Dayan Jaytilleka pointed out that he, as a diplomat in Geneva did not adopt this narrative and he managed to convince several countries that the GOSL could not be faulted for deliberate killing of civilians.
There is also the issue of why the GOSL declared a second and third No Fire Zones when the first one had failed. The book points out that the No Fire Zones were not declared in consultation with the LTTE and hence they were not bound by it. The LTTE moved heavy weapons to the NFZ and fired on the troops from there. But the question arises why when the first no fire zone failed, the GOSL declared a second and third NFZ’s. This has not been explained adequately in this Narrative. Of course there is an obligation for a State to provide avenues for civilians to leave the battle front. But the LTTE was not going to allow the civilians to escape. Could this have contributed to the suspicion that the GOSL wanted to corner the civilians and shoot them.
The book is a read for all those who want to find out the truth and understand the issues of accountability.