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.
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
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
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
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'.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.