Thursday, November 27, 2014

Remembering Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields

NEW YORK – One of the worst atrocity crime stories of recent decades has barely registered in the world’s collective conscience. We remember and acknowledge the shame of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. We agonize about the failure to halt the atrocities being committed almost daily in Syria. But, at least until now, the world has paid almost no attention to war crimes and crimes against humanity comparable in their savagery to any of these: the killing fields of Sri Lanka in 2009.

Three years ago, in the bloody endgame of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some 300,000 civilians became trapped between the advancing army and the last LTTE fighters in what has been called “the cage” – a tiny strip of land, not much larger than New York City’s Central Park, between sea and lagoon in the northeast of the country.

With both sides showing neither restraint nor compassion, at least 10,000 civilians – possibly as many as 40,000 – died in the carnage that followed, as a result of indiscriminate army shelling, rebel gunfire, and denial of food and medical supplies.

The lack of outrage mainly reflects the Sri Lankan government’s success in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative that had extraordinary worldwide resonance in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What occurred in the cage, according to this narrative, was the long-overdue defeat, by wholly necessary and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection that had threatened the country’s very existence.

The other key reason behind the world’s silence is that the Sri Lankan government was relentless in banning independent observers – media, NGOs, or diplomats – from witnessing or reporting on its actions. And this problem was compounded by the timidity of in-country United Nations officials in communicating such information as they had.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government claimed throughout, and still does, that it maintained a “zero civilian casualties” policy. Officials argued that no heavy artillery fire was ever directed at civilians or hospitals, that any collateral injury to civilians was minimal, and that they fully respected international law, including the proscription against execution of captured prisoners.

But that narrative is now being picked apart in a series of recent publications, notably the report last year of a UN Panel of Experts, and in two new books: UN official Gordon Weiss’s relentlessly analytical The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, and BBC journalist Frances Harrison’s harrowingly anecdotal Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.

Nobody underplays the LTTE’s contribution to the 2009 savagery; but, with the Tigers’ leaders all dead, international attention should now be focused overwhelmingly on holding the government accountable for its failure to accept its responsibility to protect its own people. For far too long, Rajapaska’s government has been evading accountability with an endless stream of diversionary maneuvers (usually involving committees of inquiry intended to lead nowhere, and duly complying), denial of physical access, outright dissimulation, and relentless verbal intimidation of anyone daring to question it.

Real international pressure is at last being placed on the government to explain its actions, most significantly by the much-maligned UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, which will consider Sri Lanka’s response in March 2013. In doing so, it is likely to be armed with a full brief of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity now being compiled from eyewitness accounts by the Australian-based International Crimes Evidence Project.

One of the most tragic aspects of the whole story, just now emerging, is the failure of UN officials on the ground to publicize at the time, when it really mattered, credible information that would have undercut the government’s narrative.

Specific estimates of casualties in the combat area were compiled by a UN team in Colombo from early 2009, based on regular radiophone contact with a handful of reliable sources – NGO, medical, and local UN Tamil staff – still on the ground. The information was incomplete, but it was solid – and alarming. But an institutional decision was taken not to use this information on the grounds that it could not be “verified.”

The real reasons are now emerging. In part, the UN team wanted to keep humanitarian assistance lines open. The team was also subjected to shameless verbal bullying by Sri Lankan officials (a deeply unpleasant experience to which I, too, have been subjected). The team’s members also knew that Sri Lanka’s government had wide support among UN member states, and that the LTTE had none at all.

But, as the Lakhdar Brahimi Panel concluded a decade ago, after reviewing some of the catastrophic failures of peace processes in the 1990’s, the responsibility of the UN Secretariat must be to tell the UN Security Council what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear.

An internal review panel studying what went wrong in the UN system’s response to Sri Lanka, commissioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and headed by the distinguished diplomat Charles Petrie, is due to report to Ban next month. All indications are that it will not be a pretty story. It is crucial that its findings be made public and acted upon.

Selective memory is a defense mechanism with which we are all familiar. For governments and international organizations, as with individuals, moral failure is easier to live with if we can pretend that it never happened. But mass atrocity crimes did happen in Sri Lanka, there was moral default all around, and if we do not learn from this past, we will indeed be condemned to repeat it.

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    1. CommentedPaul Hanly

      PS The US government could always release a series oif high resolution daily pictures of the cage over the period of the events described. The press might have been excluded, but the US (and other) satellites would not have been.

    2. CommentedPaul Hanly

      A non-Tiger Tamil refugge to Australia explained to me that this was a civil war against the ehtnic Tamil minority collaborators with foreign powers by the majority ethnic group that had been denied equal opportunity of education and employment that had been enjoyed the Tamils. The majority now had power and were seeking to impose proportional representation in commerce and public service, which meant about 70% of Tamils being forced out of more remunerative/secure/prestigious employment in favour of the underrepresented majority.

      He also explained that he became a Tamil refugee from the Tamil Tigers who werer press ganging all Tamils into their armed insurgents.

      Given this was an explanation from a well educated Tamil I accept it as the context of the events described.

      This does not excuse the events described in 2009, but the difficulty of dealing with civilian insurgents/rebels and the likely impact on the civilian, non-engaged populations within which they hide is well known from the French resistance in WW@, to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

        CommentedHarmindar Sidhu

        Paul, The civil war was about the Tamils wanting independence as they felt they were dicriminated against. When the British left, my understanding at which time, I was not alive, is that there were a lot of Tamils in high positions in public service. But that changed once the British left with changes being made. The problems came due to deliberate steps by the Sri Lankan goverment from the 60's and 70's to limit Tamil involvement in various aspects of society. Bringing in laws like Sinhalese is the language of choice and you have to speak Sinhalese to have a job marginalised the 30% Tamil population in Sri lanka who obviuosly spoke Tamil (The Tamils are now about 12.5% of the population). The North and the East where the Tamils live are the poorest areas of the country and there is no infrastruture or as recently as a decade ago - no maps of the cities. So they are not actually wealthy. Due to the firction back in the 70's, The Tamils started canvasing for independence but the government would not hold a referendum. If a referendum had been held for the North and the East - you most likely would not have had a war. The government still fears a referendum so hads started a task now of moving poor sinhalese villages to previuosly predominately Tamil areas so that the Sinhalese are the majority in the main towns and cities in the NOrth and the East. Why would the Sinhalese move?? They are given land or assistance to start off there. A referendum would still be the best way - democratic but....

    3. CommentedNiththilan Niththilan

      I have no idea what or which factor pushed Mr. Neil Herman to write down two long comments against the horror of SL war crimes. As a person got stuck in the warzone until the last day, his arguments made me very sick and felt there are still people creating ruthless shields to protect the governments like Sri Lanka. It is not only a matter of how many thousands of innocent civilians were killed, there are other elements such as starvation, children rights, health hazards, access issues,,,, existing without answers till today. As a living witness of that tragedy, it is very hard even recalling the bad memories which still kill me and made me sleepless. I would not write more, but like to ask Neil few questions fellow,
      1. Nearly 300,000 people including 25,000 severely wounded were survived at end of the war. What happened to the rest who were living in those areas when the war started? According to the government of SL statistics, more than 425,000 people were living in LTTE controlled territory when the war started. Neil can make sure the numbers from the Government statistical handbooks of the war districts.
      2. ICRC organized nearly 20 medical evacuations by ships within a three and a half month time from Feb to May 2009. Altogether, more than 20,000 people with heavy wounds were transported in those periods to government controlled hospitals. How those people received injuries if there were no shelling or bombing in that place? The Government of SL [GoSL] would say they were affected by LTTE. The fact is once they were affected by LTTE, how LTTE allowed and facilitated them to go out for further treatment? Neil should listen the statements given by those injured afterwards, never indicated LTTE for the reason of such incidents.
      3. There is thousands of evidence including photographs and clips taken by survivors regarding the war crime are now available throughout the world media. What made him refuted there is no single photograph available against crimes? Does he try to say the clips and pictures shown in Channel 4 and in other media are false?
      4. Why Neil tactically avoid speaking about the food and health crisis of that time? Have he ever got a chance to go through the US congress report about the last days including government allowed food quantities and health supplies in to that place? [ Pls don’t try to cite that those figures are made by somebody. All figures regarding the allowed supply were given by GoSL from beginning to the UN and foreign governments.
      5. Does anybody know why GoSL continuously refused to accept the true number of civilians living inside of the conflict zone until the last day? From beginning, GoSL used to state only 75,000 people were caught in LTTE’ area; never explained what sort of diplomacy was that even though 300,000 people survived at the end.
      6. Why foreign media and international humanitarian workers were not allowed by GoSL to get in the war zone? And how much of pressure was given to the INGO and UN to evacuate their international staff members from the war zone within a short notice by GoSL?
      7. Why Tamil people and international community’s access were prohibited in areas where the brutal war took place between Feb to May 2009 until the June 2012 while only Singala ‘’tourist’’ were allowed free?
      8. What’s Neil opinion about the bombardments of chemical weapons and clusters bombs in several parts of the human settlements in war zone? What will be his answer to the people who have physical evidence of that illicit arms usage and discovery of unexploded cluster bombs?
      9. What happened to the senior LTTE cardres surrendered with families or surrendered in front of families in last days? and does he has any idea about their whereabouts?
      10. Have Neil ever heard the experiences of survivors who buried dead bodies on the spots where they were killed rather than sending them to the burial places? And any idea about the number of dead bodies was removed in daily basis from the makeshift hospital by a local organization until a week before the end of that war?
      There are many ‘whys’ still existing without answers from the professional killers the GoSL. There were no people when we were screaming for assistance in those terrific days in war zone. I understand people like you never ready to listen the true account of our tragedy as well never voice against the humanitarian issues. But you can do one thing stop your writings away from truth.

    4. CommentedHarmindar Sidhu

      Mr Neil Herman Ludowyke - your arguement is badly flawed and appears to be similar to the arguements the GoSL put forward. I would not be suprised if you were linked to them or are benefitting from them.
      When someone is being raped or murdered, they are not lying there holding up a camera phone to acquire evidence. They do what they can to get away.
      Also considering the GoSL quarantined 300,000 to 500,000 Tamil civilians who came out of the warzone in "Welfare centres" -they would have been in an excellent position to have got hold of any footage (if any, as in the north there were hardly any video phones) - they could have got evidence of both Tamil Tiger abuses and also the GoSL army abuses. They provided neither but just repeatedly announced that no one was killed and they rescued the Tamil civilians from the Tamil Tigers.

      Last but not least, in regards to your claims that people are assuming that there are crimes that happened, does that same arguement not apply to the GoSL?? Surely the GoSL, which has been shown to have lied at a number of points, can have no credibility when they make a series of claims about what happened in the North and East of Sri Lanka but do not provide any evidence other than shouting down people or murdering journalists using armed militias.


    5. CommentedJ St. Clair

      "catastrophic failures of peace processes"......what is the peace process on this world.....

    6. CommentedNeil Herman Ludowyke

      Most recently I was reading through a report produced, at the request of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in May 2009, by the American Associagtion for the Advancement of Science on satellite imagery in the Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ) in northeastern Sri Lanka.’ This was announced with much hype by those two agencies, which are part of the witch hunt, but then suddenly it was forgotten.

      The reason is that it makes clear that much of what is alleged is nonsense. For instance, the figure now cited as to possible civilian deaths, shamefully also by individuals asked by the Secretary General to advise him on accountability issues, is 40,000, used also by Ms Harrison. This sort of inflation began with the Times of London which spoke only of 20,000, and gave three different sets of reasons for this, the first two of which I was able conclusively to demolish. The final reason given was that the claim was based on satellite imagery of war graves.

      The AAAS however notes that ‘In all three gravesites reviewed, a total of 1,346 likely graves are estimated to be in the imagery by May 24, 2009. The majority of the graves were present by May 6, with little change after that except in the southernmost graveyard. The southernmost site grew an estimated 28% between May 6 and May 10, and grew another 20% between May 10 and May 24’. Incidentally the report also notes that it was what were reported as LTTE gravesites that showed increase, whereas in the ‘burial ground for civilians’,‘In total, 44 burials were identified at this site on May 6, with no changes observed between May 6, May 10, and May 24’.

      There are several such details, which Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have ignored. For instance, whereas Ms Harrison declares that ‘the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately shelled and bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in a small rebel enclave in the north of the island’, AAAS notes with regard to one source of this canard that ‘These roofless buildings were initially interpreted as possible evidence of shelling or burning. However, on-the-ground photos taken immediately after the conflict instead indicate widespread removal of rooftops, which were composed of sheet metal, for use in constructing shelters throughout the area.’

      What is the reason for this deceit? I used to think that much of the nonsense came from misplaced idealism, but actual concealment of facts cannot be explained away in that fashion. Rather, I suspect the concerted efforts of these groups springs from a determination to muddy the waters, to divert attention from the horrors that are being perpetrated elsewhere, in theory for idealistic motives.

    7. CommentedNeil Herman Ludowyke

      It is assumed that there actually were crimes against humanity to be recorded on camera phones. It is this assumption of guilt that drives the false logic behind many of the hopefuls such as Gareth. As long as one’s energies are focused on an assumption, it is very unlikely that there will be light at the end of one’s own little tunnel.

      All of these hopeful pilgrims are yet to explain how, three and a half years post-war, not a single photographic image or frame of video has emerged showing even one crime against a civilian. Not a single image or frame of a civilian being killed, raped, tortured, or otherwise abused. In fact, not a single image or frame has emerged of anycivilian being killed or injured by the GoSL forces — not even accidentally. The only footage we have — and even that subject to a lot of questions — is of captured combatants being executed. No photographs even from the UN personnel claiming to have been deliberately fired on by the SL military. No photographs even from the Tigers.

      This total lack of any such photographic evidence, three years on, is gradually eroding the credibility of those crying wolf, and predicting this miraculous appearance of evidence. They are pathetically left to collect and display satellite images which show absolutely no sign of any crimes against humanity in spite of the hollow narrative imposed on these images.

      This need to find dramatic Hollywoodesque evidence out of thin air rather than do the hard work necessary is why this cause too is a lost one. Success is rare with the lazy unless blessed with remarkable talent; and even of the latter there is little evidence. and certainly not photographic.

      The US KH (“keyhole Class) satellites can resolve to 5″ which means they can see something 5 inches or larger on the ground. They would’ve definitely seen Prabha’s corpulent form attempting to surrender.

      The US (and other superpowers) can also intercept mobile and satellite phone communications. So, if they have evidence of the Sri Lankan government phoning through illegal orders, they would’ve used it to pressure GoSL into doing their bidding. Why the delay? What are they waiting for?

    8. Commentedbilly zand

      There was, indeed, a "murderous terrorist insurrection" threatening the country's existence, and yet you dismiss this fact as part of a "narrative" with which you disagree and whose logic you implicitly rule out.
      Please explain the basis for this position, and for your refusal to allow the GSOL any right at all to try to establish security for its citizens.

        CommentedHarmindar Sidhu

        Do you not think what is going on in Sri lanka threatens the country?? Killing of journalists or accusing them of treason when they question what is going on??

    9. CommentedPuni Selvaratnam

      What has been happening since the end of war has been as bad as what has been happening up to the end of war.

    10. Commentedprashanth kamath

      Civil wars can be messy. LTTE had to be defeated. The problem with Rajapakshe is not what he did during the war, but the things he is doing after the war. He still supports Sinhala supremacy and suppressing rights of the Tamil population. He still thinks Sri Lankan Tamils are a nuisance. His belief in nationhood/statehood does not include the Tamils. That's why any act is ok to achieve that end. He has suppressed free voice and democracy. Sri Lanka is slowly becoming less free and democratic under his rule.