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Bring back the clowns

Bring back the clowns

Human Rights Watch returns to the ring:

(By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha)

This practice commenced in 2007 when, following the quick and effective operation to liberate the East from the Tigers, HRW delivered a diatribe in which it accused the Government of conducting a Dirty War (a phrase successfully calculated to hit the headlines), of indiscriminately attacking civilians, of ruthlessly displacing people and also of forcibly resettling them.

We gave the lie to all these allegations, using evidence gathered not only from the actual Human Rights report (which recorded for instance only one instance of allegations of civilian deaths, which HRW itself granted occurred in a place where the LTTE was present and where bunkers had been dug), but also from the UNHCR certification that 'the returns are voluntary and in line with international protection standards'.

HRW failed to respond to our letters, sent direct to their plenipotentiaries in the capitals, as well as to the delightful Ms Zulueta, who could not respond to our queries at the meeting to which we had invited her, as she was new to the job.

Placatory Falsehoods

Human Rights Watch has once again dropped a beautifully timed cluster bomb on Sri Lanka. Often these explosives coincide with the sessions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and this year is no exception, though we can also detect a tendency to try to prevent the Sri Lankan Forces from dealing conclusively with a terrorist threat.

Her promise to look into the matter and get back to us seems to have been yet another of those placatory falsehoods that HRW uses when in a tight corner, as when they cancelled the meeting in the British House of Commons after they heard that I would be there to respond to their allegations.

I will not be so presumptuous as to assert there was a causal connection, even though the representative of the High Commission who had secured my attendance after the Foreign Minister requested it thought the cancellation was not entirely a coincidence.

Despite running away then, HRW like the Tigers came back to fight another day, and renewed its charges, without any evidence, of 'indiscriminate bombing and shelling'.

Searching for landmines

We were able to show that this was arrant nonsense, since even adding up all the allegations on TamilNet, obviously not the most objective of sources, the figure cited of civilian casualties was not more than a hundred, in the last six months of last year.

Perhaps as a result of our citation of this fact, there have been many more allegations of civilian deaths this year, and the TamilNet allegations amount to 2000 over January and February.

The figure HRW cites is exactly that and, though they claim they have independent sources, it would require excessive credulity to believe that the two sets of figures were entirely unconnected.

HRW sadly seems to believe that, apart from the LTTE, they are the only people concerned about these civilians.

They forget that these are Sri Lankan citizens, who are the responsibility of the Sri Lankan Government, which has fed and educated them over several years, and kept them healthy with medical services provided with a dedication that all international observers have commended.

Civilian Casualties

At the Peace Secretariat we monitor all allegations of civilian casualties, and seek explanations of what happened. The reasons for allegations may not always be clear, but we have had the utmost cooperation, for instance, receiving a detailed explanation of the allegations of civilian deaths in just the one air raid in November out of a total of forty that took place in that month.

We were told what the target was, and while there could be no guarantee that there had been no collateral damage, it was explained that this was because the LTTE sometimes forced civilians into close proximity to military installations.

Certainly the inconsistencies in the TamilNet account of the incident, bombs from planes turning over a couple of days into cluster bombs made in Russia dropped from Russian planes shows very clearly how cleverly the LTTE tries to manipulate the Western opinion whose indulgence it craves.

After we had published our detailed analysis of figures last December, the LTTE evidently decided that it had to make more dramatic allegations. So the numbers have increased by leaps and bounds, to be dutifully taken up by HRW.

They also evidently decided that, since the Sri Lankan forces were careful about such casualties, they had better contribute to this themselves.

Thus we see that, on the day, January 26, on which TamilNet claimed the largest amount of civilians casualties, 300, the UN finally decided that the firing had come from the LTTE.

Just in case this sounds incredible - and a reporter I was explaining it to was actually convinced only when he saw the message, with sign off, that had been forwarded to me on my telephone - the exact words used were 'For info we believe that firing this morning most likely was from an LTTE position'.

Clear Evidence

Earlier in the day the UN had wondered whether the firing had been by the Sri Lankan army. But we have got used to this. When it is clear the LTTE has fired, the claim is that nothing can be said for certain. When nothing can be said for certain, the claim is that the Sri Lankan Forces did it.

Fortunately, as clear evidence mounts that the LTTE is not only quite happy for civilians to die, but actually unashamedly promotes this through suicide bombing and grenades and direct firing aimed at those trying to get away, that particular canard is being slowly but surely laid to rest.

Hence the second canard that was first assiduously pushed by HRW, which introduced the term internment camps to describe the centres in which civilians who escape from the LTTE into Government controlled territory are kept.

HRW started this several months ago, in an obvious attempt to justify the LTTE claim that no one really wanted to get away, and thousands of people were actually delighted to be herded into ever smaller spaces.

Surely HRW must realise that this is not a question of internment, which is what the British did to the Boers, the Germans to the Jews, the Americans to the Japanese (though this lasts without the starvation and death the British and Germans had inflicted, as the London Times so graphically described it), collecting people from their homes and herding them together against their will.

Further Mayhem

We are talking here of people who have of their own volition, and with incredible courage, got away from the LTTE. But we also know that among them there could be suicide bombers and snipers, so as in the case of all refugees, there needs to be checking and careful attention to security requirements.

These after all are our people, and as we have seen the bombs are aimed at civilians too.

We will not take the chance of further mayhem, but meanwhile we will ensure that, subject to security needs, these are people who will have all comforts possible, not only the basics that are the norm by international standards, but even more - so much so that the UN has told us that they cannot provide funding for conditions that are better than what they are mandated to provide.

The latest Human Rights Watch is replete with insinuations that Orwell's Ministry of Truth could have studied to refine its Doublespeak.

The displaced persons who 'escape to what they hope is safety' are "instead put in internment centres masquerading as 'welfare villages'."

That 'instead', aided and abetted by the HRW masquerade, does yeoman service for the LTTE as well as HRW, since it implies that they might as well stay in Mullaitivu.

However, in spite of HRW assiduously making such a point for months now, 35,000 of the displaced finally managed to make their way to safety, in spite of the LTTE even murdering some to try to stop this.

HRW claims that the Government is 'secretly taking away apparent LTTE suspects to arbitrary detention or possible enforced disappearances'. This too is arrant nonsense, based as it is on what TamilNet is claiming.

Again the use of doublespeak - 'apparent.... suspects' and 'secretly.....possible enforced disappearances' - is designed to denigrate a perfectly decent procedure whereby even of those who confess to being cadres, only a few have been committed formally to rehabilitation centres, the others being allowed to stay with their families in the welfare villages.

This may not be entirely wise but it is the humane thing to do, since doubtless many of these have been forcibly conscripted - but it also reinforces the need for constant vigilance, since the chances are that one of them may be a sleeper waiting to commit mayhem.

The majority should not suffer because of worries about one, but if that one succeeds, it will be one disaster and many deaths too many.

Human Rights Watch describes a visit to a hospital, without explaining who had made the visit, and whether it was another case of the false pretences under which it had produced its previous report.

Not unsurprisingly, where Human Rights Watch can see only problems, a lack of materials such as sheets and a paucity of personnel, more responsible international observers such as the ICRC and the UN have remarked on the dedication of those who are working and the quality of the care bestowed under difficult circumstances.

HRW, which was conspicuously silent last March, when other Human Rights organisations issued a joint statement on an earlier incursion into Gaza, is obviously incapable of giving credit to a country which is so dedicated, despite limited resources, to looking after its own.

The care taken of these patients gives the lie to the HRW assertion that the Government has claimed that those who were trapped in the war zone 'can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants'.

What prompted this perverse interpretation should be examined in details, but it must be noted that the Government has continued to provide food for these people with the assistance of the ICRC, and to get them away for required medical treatment, prompting a recent acknowledgment by the ICRC, that it 'is supporting the Ministry of Health in Trincomalee district as it provides care for this exceptional influx of patients'.

But the HRW technique is to ignore everything positive that those who actually work in the Vanni say, and instead assert abstract principles that go against the policies and practices of a Government providing and coordinating more humanitarian assistance than any other country in such a conflict situation.

So HRW talks of Government efforts being insufficient, but it ignores the fact that food was supplied throughout in massive quantities, so that even the Americans have now realised that the LTTE used to help themselves liberally to what the UN took in. Significantly, though HRW talked constantly, in the days in which the LTTE was herding people along with them, of impending epidemics, it has not acknowledged the sterling work of the Ministry of Health in preventing this, through the dedication of its personnel and the constant supply of drugs.

While the release is replete with false and malicious assertions about the Sri Lankan Government and forces, HRW masks its dependence on Tiger propaganda for such claims by expressing the usual reservations about the Tigers too. But these refer to diabolical actions that are well known, and ignore the more recent excesses of the Tigers in deliberately targeting civilians and humanitarian workers such as the nun who is now recovering in a Government hospital from LTTE shooting.

Of the 14 paragraphs in the release, eight are categorical condemnations of the Government, three blame both 'sides' and three criticise the Tigers.


The release is headlined 'Army Shells and Detains Displaced Persons, Tamil Tigers Prevent Their flight', a use of verbs that Orwell would have relished, since the army is prevented as actively wicked, the Tigers only passively so.

The first para of the release, which HRW is too skilful not to know is the most important one, reinforces this vituperation against now not just the army but the Government, in saying that it 'should immediately cease its indiscriminate artillery attacks on civilians in the northern Vanni region and its policy of detaining displaced persons in internment camps'.

The only silver lining in this cloud is that HRW now seems to have realised that the 'indiscriminate bombing' it alleged in May is simply untrue.

Writer is Secretary General, Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process.


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