Geneva: Good news and bad news

Tomorrow will be D-Day in Geneva with the US sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka due to come up for discussion at the 19th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council. This will be the second time that Sri Lanka has had to face a vote at the UN-HRC. In May 2009, the Western powers tried to get a resolution passed against Sri Lanka and they failed. This is the second great test.

There’s good news and bad news in this regard. The last time, of the 47 members of the HRC, 29 voted with Sri Lanka, 12 voted against and 6 abstained. The bad news is that of the 29 countries that voted for Sri Lanka, eleven countries (Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bolivia, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, Madagascar, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa and Zambia) are no longer on the HRC. The good news is that of the 12 countries that voted against Sri Lanka in May 2009, eight are no longer on the HRC. Among those countries that are no longer on the HRC are Canada, Germany, Netherlands, France and Britain – countries most under pressure from the overseas Tamils.

Sri Lanka will have a head start with 18 of the countries that voted for her in May 2009 still on the HRC. Assuming that all these countries continue to remain with us, Sri Lanka will need to win only six more votes to clear this hurdle. Since May 2009, no less than 21 new countries have joined the HRC. The majority of these new members of the HRC can be expected to vote with Sri Lanka. Given what they have seen happening in the international arena since 2009, not to mention what had been going on before that, it is unlikely that countries like Thailand, Uganda, Mauritania, Benin, Botswana, Congo, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan and the Maldives will vote against Sri Lanka. Even Libya may vote with us despite the fact that its present government was installed in power with Western help.  Almost all third world countries have realised by now that when Western countries sponsor resolutions against a country, that’s a precursor to one more country descending into complete anarchy. If what has happened to Libya does not encourage a ganging up of everybody else against Western diplomatic warfare, then nothing will.

Thus, if it comes to a vote, the chances are that Sri Lanka will win. It’s not that Western governments are unaware of the reality in Sri Lanka. The debate that took place in the British House of Commons on Sri Lanka is a pointer to this. (See below – Hammond’s question, Burt’s answer) If one looks at the exchange that took place between members of the Conservative government and the Labour opposition, it becomes clear that if Britain will be backing the US move to pass a resolution against Sri Lanka in HRC, they will be doing so only with misgivings and doubts and due to international diplomatic compulsions and domestic fear of the Tamil vote. Britain is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to Tamil pressure, and that debate last week should give hope to the persecuted and hounded Sri Lanka that perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Sodomy in Syria

But we are not out of the woods yet. Less than three months ago on December 2, 2011, most of the friendly countries that Sri Lanka will be depending on,  voted for a Western sponsored resolution against Syria. What is happening in Syria is of course far removed from what happened in Sri Lanka. Syria is not a multi-party democracy and if a section of the population rises up against the government, there is no mechanism to call for an election that will decide on who will govern Syria. Hence when a good section of the population shows signs of being disenchanted with the existing government, perhaps it’s only natural for other nations to assume that the old regime is on the way out and to hedge their bets so that they will be on good terms with whoever takes over Syria next. Yet, one would think that after what the world saw what happened to Libya, that many more countries would disassociate themselves from Western sponsored moves against any country. Yet even as late as December last year, the West could carry a resolution against Syria in the HRC with no less than 37 countries voting with them – this despite the fact that Russia, China, Cuba and Ecuador voted with Syria.

Thus we see that the China-Russia power bloc that Sri Lanka primarily relies on has been badly defeated in the Human Rights Council. Why most third world countries are not standing by the present Syrian regime could of course be largely due to the fact that the Arab League has turned their backs on the Syrian regime. Most countries tend to see the Arab League as the final arbiter of what goes on in the Arab world; and it could be due to a desire on the part of other third world nations not to work at cross-purposes with the Arab League that they have voted against Syria. If that was the case, then Sri Lanka has no cause to worry. However, we see that even before the Arab League got involved in a big way at the first Western sponsored resolution against Syria in April 2011 too, there was no difficulty in obtaining votes against Syria from other third world nations despite the support of Russia and China for Syria. That certainly is a cause for concern and we should not stop biting our fingernails yet.

Of course, the Syrian government is not fighting against a terrorist movement that has been banned around the world as Sri Lanka did. In Syria the main antagonist is the civilian population. Hence perhaps even countries like Indonesia may feel that what should happen in Syria is that President Assad should step down the way Suharto did in Indonesia. Despite such considerations, after what has happened to Libya, one might think that most nations would come to the conclusion that it’s better to have dictatorial but functioning states than failed states spreading anarchy to neighbouring countries as well. Perhaps at the time of the last vote on Syria, the situation in Libya was not as clear cut as it is today and that could be why so many countries voted against Syria. Countries like Syria have much greater diplomatic clout than Sri Lanka, and if they were unable to prevent a vote from going against them, then what chances do we have is the question.

There is even more cause for concern.  The report of the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel on Sri Lanka has already been sent to the HRC. We have extensively critiqued that report in this column. One of the things that we pointed out was that it was not a document produced by the UN but by a committee appointed by the UN Secretary General to advice him.  As such, it was not bound by the usual restraints that the UN as an official body would be used to. For example, the UN country team in Sri Lanka had collected details of over 7,000 civilian deaths between 2009 and 2009 as a result of the offensive in the Wanni.  But the UN never officially declared these figures as they could not be verified. The Ban panel report however mentions this figure and then says that they had credible reports to the effect that the death toll could be as high as 40,000.

No evidence has been presented to justify this astronomically high death toll. The panellists just say that they have interviewed people who will remain completely anonymous for 20 years under UN regulations and it is on the basis of these nameless and faceless accusers that the Sri Lankan armed forces are being accused of causing 40,000 civilian deaths. The US Embassy in Colombo noted down every incident they heard of from all sources during the last several months of the war and they don’t report such a high death rate anywhere in the State Department Report on events during the final phase of the war.  The US Embassy could not possibly have missed so many deaths. The figures that the Ban advisory panel report have given, are thus not corroborated anywhere. The bad news in relation to this, however, is that this appears to be standard practice within the UN system in compiling reports of this kind.  The UNHRC commissioned a report on Syria and even that has been written more or less on the same format. Nameless and faceless witnesses have been interviewed, and various stories have been written on the basis of which action is being urged. Some of the stories don’t sound plausible.  Reading the report on Syria, one would think Damascus was built on the ashes of Sodom. Demonstrators were being sodomised by the armed forces. There is one instance where a 40 year old man watches a 11 year old boy being sodomized and the tormentor turns to him and says “You’re next”.  Given the attention that has been lavished on the rear end, one would think that the Syrian armed forces are trained to sodomize anybody – even middle aged men – on call.

There is obviously a confrontation going on in Syria and people are being shot by the armed forces. But the report on Syria itself is sub-standard and there appear to be asylum oriented exaggerations in it. If sub-standard reports are the norm in the HRC, its members may not see anything amiss in the Ban advisory panel report and therein lies the danger.

The US has been doing their damnedest to fix Sri Lanka. They had apparently been circulating sugar coated e-mails to members of the HRC trying to convey the impression that Sri Lanka is in close consultation with them in order to deceive HRC member states into voting for the US resolution. Coupled to this was a meeting in Colombo on Thursday  between officials of the US Embassy and around 15 business executives representing companies that were exporting to  or importing from the USA. MAS holdings, Brandix, 3M, had been represented among others. What the US Embassy had wanted from them had been regular feedbacks and information about security related matters in this country. They had tried to get something like this going  an year ago but it had not got off the ground.

The meeting had lasted a little over an hour. Patricia Butenis the US Ambassador had been present but had gone off half way. The Embassy official actually organising this meeting had been Douglas  C. Marvin. He had been talking about mitigating risk and that kind of thing, but what kind of security risk does this country pose to US business interests? This was a meeting under the auspices of the Overseas Security Advisory Council of the US State Department which had been set up to look into security threats against US business interests overseas. This had been functioning in various countries.  But one gets the impression that an attempt to start this in Colombo smacks more of sinister infiltration and underhand pressure than anything else.

Hammond’s  question, Burt’s answer

On Wednesday last week the British House of Commons had a debate on Sri Lanka on the initiative of the Labour MP for Ealing Southall, Virendra Sharma. He was demanding action at the Human Rights Council in Geneva and for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka.  The figure he gave of the number of dead civilians was 40,000 mentioned in Ban Ki-moon’s infamous Advisory Panel report of April 2011. Sharma mentioned the figure as an established fact.  During the debate, James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South raised the question as to how Parliamentarian Sharma can explain the statement made in paragraph 53 of the Ban advisory panel report that “this account should not be taken as proven facts, and any effort to determine specific liabilities would require a higher threshold.” Sharma says that he will be dealing with that point later in his speech but he never did. What Sharma did instead was to start talking about the Channel 4 video “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,”  and use words like ‘difficult viewing’ ‘disturbing footage’ in what was an obvious attempt to dodge Wharton’s very pertinent question.

Another Conservative MP Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) raised the issue that Labour MP Sharma had said that thousands of people are still being detained.  Hammond said: “At the end of the war, political prisoners—ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam cadres—numbered 11,000; the Sri Lankan Government now say they still have 300 in detention. Will the hon. gentleman (Sharma) explain exactly where he thinks the rest of those who are in detention are? We do this cause no good if we are not accurate.” This question too was dodged by Sharma.

Another Labour MP, Gareth Thomas of Harrow West raised the question that in the light of reports of continuing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, whether the policy of the British government to deport Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka can be justified. The same question was posed by other Labour MPs as well.  This was answered by Alistair Burt Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs who said:  “All asylum and human rights applications from Sri Lankan nationals are carefully considered on their individual merits, in accordance with our international obligations and against the background of the latest available country information. The situation in Sri Lanka is still evolving and where individuals can demonstrate that they face a real risk of prosecution and/or ill treatment on return, they are granted protection. It is only when the UK Border Agency and the courts are satisfied that an individual is not in need of international protection and has no leave to remain in the UK that removal is sought. We do not routinely monitor the treatment of individual unsuccessful asylum seekers once they are removed from the UK. They are, by definition, foreign nationals who have been found, as a matter of law, not to need the UK’s protection, and it would be inconsistent with such a finding for the UK to assume an ongoing responsibility for them when they return to their own country…The Foreign Office follows the human rights situation in Sri Lanka closely… We are aware of media allegations that returnees are being abused. All have been investigated by the high commission, and no evidence has been found to substantiate any of them.”

Thus, it’s is not as if we were going to Geneva in a completely gloom and doom kind of situation. There are Western governments that have seen the reality at least in parts.  One thing that last Wednesday’s House of Commons debate made clear was that Britain’s Conservative government was aware that there was a discrepancy between the reality and what was being reported in the sensationalist western media and claimed by NGOs.

Marie Colvin, Queen of Carrion Eaters

The unvarnished reality is that all journalists (including the present writer) are carrion eaters. We make a living on bloodshed and mayhem and other people’s stress. If the mayhem stops we’re out of work as happened to all ‘defence correspondents’ in this country after the war came to an end. Marie Colvin a correspondent to the ‘Sunday Times’ London, who died in Syria last week was no stranger to Sri Lankans. By her own admission, she was very close to the LTTE. She will be best remembered in this country for her contribution to creating the ‘white flag’ controversy soon after the war ended. On 24 May 2009, just days after the war ended, Colvin penned an article for the ‘Sunday Times’ London with the title “Tigers Begged me to Broker Surrender” where she had described the manner in which the LTTE political wing chief B.Nadesan and S.Pulidevan of the LTTE peace secretariat had begged her to arrange for them to surrender on the night of the May 17. She claimed that she came to know from an aid worker who had heard from a civilian eye witness that Nadesan, Pulidevan and Nadesan’s Sinhala wife had all been shot by the army as they tried to surrender with a white flag held aloft in the early hours of May 18.

In her article, she had described the conversations she had with the two LTTE front rankers in the last few hours before their death, even describing Pulidevan as a ‘jolly’ individual. Her article had much to do with turning the war victory in Sri Lanka into a human rights violation.  A little known fact is that four days before Colvin penned her article, the same story had appeared in an article titled “Tamil Leaders killed as they tried to surrender” in ‘The Independent’ of May 20, 2009, written by Andrew Buncombe. In his article however,   Buncombe honestly mentions his source of information which was the LTTE website Tamilnet and ‘LTTE officials overseas’. Buncombe wrote his article on the day that Prabhakaran’s dead body was found, May 19, having been told about Nadesan’s and Pulidevan’s deaths by LTTE officials overseas whom he had contacted. Thus it was the LTTE that was floating the story that Nadesan and Pulidevan had been killed while trying to surrender.  Colvin was one of the conduits through which the LTTE amplified their propaganda to the world.

Most of us are mere scavengers, picking up whatever carrion we can find on the way. But Colvin went one step further and engaged in what businessmen would call ‘vertical integration’. She created the carrion she ate.  Since mayhem is the bread and butter of a journalist, she was one who did her damnedest to ensure that the creators of mayhem continued in business. That way you can make a living off the problem for a longer period of time. She was a colourful personality no doubt, and much in demand in Britain as a sensational journalist. Her contacts with terrorists obviously provided many juicy stories. She never saw the LTTE as dreaded terrorists even though many Western governments did. How could she? They were her bread and butter. We hope she lived the good life from her earnings, because after helping to make carrion out of so many Tamils and Sinhalese it would be so wasteful if she did not enjoy the benefits of what she was doing.

It might be pertinent to add that the ‘Sunday Times’ (London) newspaper that she worked for also set the example that was followed later by the Ban Ki-moon’s advisory panel when calculating the number of civilian deaths in the last days of the war. The Sunday Times followed up Colvin’s article with another article on May 29, 2009 which said that according to ‘leaked UN documents’ over 7,000 civilians had died from the beginning of January to the end of April 2009 and from May 1 to May 18, civilians had been killed at the rate of 1,000 per day, bringing the total to 20,000. The UN however has never officially mentioned such figures.  During this period, the US Embassy in Colombo was also collecting information from all possible sources including the UN itself, other foreign missions and INGOs  and they published all their collected material in October 2009. Yet they never reported 1,000 deaths per day (or even 1/20th of it) during the last two weeks of the war.

Be that as it may, the ‘Sunday Times’ was to become a trail blazer in the compilation of casualty figures with the European Union quoting their figures and later Ban Ki-moon’s advisory panel adopting the same methodology.  The method quite simply is to say that they had ‘credible’ reports of civilian deaths and mention whatever figure comes to mind. The figure thus mentioned becomes a fact for other people. The ‘Sunday Times’ figures were taken as established facts by the European Union. The figures published in the Ban advisory panel report was being quoted as a fact by British MPs in parliament last week.


Courtesy: The Island