On Tuesday, 14th of November 2017, Hon Dinesh Gunawardena introduced a resolution in Parliament requesting that in view of Lord Naseby’s revelations in the House of Lords on the number of civilian deaths during the last stages of the war, “Sri Lanka should take action to pursue this matter with Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and with the Human Rights Commission[sic] to change their unjust position in regard to Sri Lanka…and that the Government should also report back to Parliament on this matter.”
State Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Vasantha Senanayake responding, informed the House that he had already written to Lord Naseby in his official capacity, thanking him for his efforts. More importantly, he also said he suspects that should the Foreign and Commonwealth Office remove the redacted sections of the letters obtained by Lord Naseby, it would prove that “the Sri Lanka Army fought a much cleaner war than is often alleged in the international arena” and that “the sincerity of the armed forces will become undisputed”.
The UK was one of the drivers of Resolution 30/1 on 1st October 2015. Were Britain’s representatives in Geneva aware at the time that UK was in possession of information that could radically alter the estimates of civilian deaths?
Before that Resolution was taken up for discussion, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the “Comprehensive report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka on its investigation on Sri Lanka”.
Responding to the presentation of this report, the British representative at the UN Human Rights Council said: “Without facts, there can be no justice, no end to impunity… We therefore welcome the report’s conclusion and recommendations…seeking the truth, ensuring justice…are essential.”
Indeed. But not all the facts were at hand. When these sentiments were being expressed at the Human Rights Council by its representative, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) already knew that not all the facts had been considered. The facts that had been withheld were of critical importance to the conclusions of the investigation by the Office of the Human Rights High Commissioner, not least because of the principle of proportionality in war.
The British representative, making General Comments after the co-sponsored Resolution was adopted, said significantly: “And I wish to express my deep appreciation to the High Commissioner and his OISL team who produced such a professional and significant report which has formed the key basis for this resolution.”
Since Britain was a leading sponsor of Resolution 30/1, one has no reason to doubt this. It therefore has to be questioned as to why Britain did not proffer to the High Commissioner’s team of investigators, information that would be critical to their conclusions, and proceeded instead to sponsor a Resolution that they knew was based on a report that lacked the completeness of information that would perhaps have led them to a different conclusion.
The Human Rights High Commissioner’s report, under the section “Impact of hostilities on civilians and civilian objects”, starts its first paragraph with the sentence:
“On the basis of the information in the possession of the investigation team, there is reasonable grounds to believe that many of the attacks reviewed in the present report did not comply with the principles on which the conduct of hostilities, notably the principle of distinction.”
It further speaks of “large scale crimes” and “system crimes” which necessitate going beyond Sri Lanka’s existing legal system:
“Effective prosecution strategies for large-scale crimes, such as those described by the investigation team, focus on their systemic nature and their planners and organizers. The presumption behind such “system crimes” is that they are generally of such a scale that they require some degree of organization to perpetrate them. Even sophisticated legal systems like those in Sri Lanka – which may be well suited to deal with ordinary crimes – may lack the capacity to address system crimes and to bring effective remedy to their victims.”
It has now been convincingly revealed thanks to Lord Naseby, that the OISL report did not possess an adequate basis on which to come to those very damaging conclusions.
The High Commissioner’s comprehensive Report, which the British representative said “formed the key basis” for the Resolution, says under the same heading, “… the investigation was not conclusive on the proportionality assessment for each of the incidents in the present report…” This is an important principle in arriving at a conclusion of whether a state has committed genocide or crimes against humanity. These are the most serious crimes that a state can commit, and no state in the world would want to be falsely accused of it.
A solution based on a falsehood can never benefit humanity, as we all saw after the “WMD” intervention by the US-UK in Iraq. The tale of the “dodgy dossier” is now the stuff of International Relations history. It only led to breeding more, and more vicious, terrorism. Withholding information which could help arrive at the truth, damages any country’s credentials as a champion of human rights.
In his impressive address to Parliament on the matter, the State Minister of Foreign Affairs Vasantha Senanayake spoke of the long standing friendly relations with Britain and “the level of trust we have always enjoyed with the UK”. He hopes his letter to Lord Naseby will help to bring “real justice” for Sri Lanka while questioning why the British authorities had gone to such “extraordinary lengths” to deprive Lord Naseby of “pertinent information”.
It is curious that if there exists any evidence that would assist in removing false allegations of a very serious sort against a friendly country that the FCO would refuse to provide that information. It is fairly clear that they have a moral obligation to comply with Lord Naseby’s request for further information. Lord Naseby revealed that it wasn’t easy to get hold of the dispatches from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and that he had to resort to the Right to Information Act to get them.
At the UPR in Geneva this week, Sri Lanka has accepted 177 of the 230 recommendations presented to it. The full report of the summary of proceedings after editorial adjustments, including the recommendations, will be made available on the 24th of November 2017. No attempt was made by Sri Lanka’s delegates to the UPR to bring the new evidence unearthed by Lord Naseby to the attention of the Human Rights Council, nor formally request the British government to release the information to the Council. Instead, they reiterated the Government’s firm commitment to implementing Resolution 30/1.
In the meantime, the second edition of Gordon Weiss’ book ‘The Cage’ is out with its back cover screaming in capital letters of “TENS OF THOUSANDS OF CIVILIANS KILLED”.
Sri Lankan citizens are not interested in a cover-up of past misdeeds. Nor however are they happy to be pawns in a wider game of international politics or electoral politics in Britain, and would do what they can to ensure that the truth about an important period of their country’s history will be established. Hon. Dinesh Gunawardena and State Minister Vasantha Senanayake showed that parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle are of the same view. Sri Lankans want to live in a decent society, enjoy human rights and have no desire to encourage impunity in their government or their military. But above all, they want justice based on truth, not false allegations.