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UN having private meetings in Colombo

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Former Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot Michael Wolfgang Laurence Morris, or Lord Naseby, has severely rattled the UN, relentlessly pursuing a war crimes investigation, in Sri Lanka, in accordance with Geneva Resolution 30/1, adopted on Oct. 1, 2015.

Lord Naseby’s intervention on Sri Lanka’s behalf in the House of Lords on Oct 12, 2017, and subsequent two exclusive interviews with India headquartered WION news agency, embarrassed, and jolted, the Sri Lankan government. Instead of taking advantage of the situation, the government struggled to distance itself from Lord Naseby’s declarations. In its first exclusive, WION dealt with war crimes issue and in its second demolished accusations that the Sri Lanka Army, and the CID personnel raped 50 Tamil men, now seeking political asylum in Europe, mostly the UK.


The British Conservative has placed those who had been propagating lies in an embarrassing situation. Similarly, Lord Naseby’s move has exposed the pathetic failure on the part of the Sri Lankan government and the Joint Opposition to counter unsubstantiated war crimes allegations and the absence of a common strategy to face the Geneva challenge.


The then Rajapaksa administration and the UNP couldn’t reach a consensus on war against the LTTE. Until the very end of the conflict, in early 2009, the UNP believed Prabhakaran could defeat the Army, on the Vanni east front. Now, nine years after the successful conclusion of the war, they haven’t been able to take a common stand on the Geneva issue.


One of those, who had been really perturbed by Lord Naseby’s Oct 12 declaration that the Vanni death toll couldn’t have been more than 8,000, though the UN quoted 40,000, and that Sri Lanka never purposely targeted the Vanni population, couldn’t have been made at a worse time for the UN as Pablo de Greiff, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, was in Colombo, at that time.


At the conclusion of his 14-day visit, Colombian de Greiff, at UN compound, in Colombo, on Oct 23, 2017, referred to Lord Naseby’s statement. Una McCauley, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, flanked de Greiff.


Although UN Colombo deprived The Island of an invitation to cover de Greiff’s briefing, the writer raised two issues with him a week after the Colombo event. The Island queries were based on de Greiff’s following reference to the Vanni death toll: "Transitional justice processes can help in settling interminable debates precisely of the sort that manifest and produce low levels of trust and that lend themselves easily to political manipulation. As I write this statement the debate continues in the newspapers concerning the number of victims at the end of the conflict, whether it was 40,000 or ‘merely’ 8,000. While the final number may be impossible to determine with absolute precision, there is of course a lot that has been learned in the last 30 years about forensics and other methods offering reliability that political opinions cannot."


The Vanni death toll hadn’t been an issue for both print and electronic media, except The Island, at the time of the UN briefing in Colombo. The UN man was certainly responding to The Island coverage and he essentially followed the inexcusable stand taken by the Foreign Ministry, in response to a query by the writer. Reiterating Sri Lanka’s commitment to national processes, aimed at realizing the vision of a reconciled, stable, peaceful and prosperous nation, the Foreign Ministry asserted, on Oct 25, 2017: "Engaging in arguments and debates in the international domain over the number of civilians who may have died at a particular time in the country will not help resolve any issues, in a meaningful manner, locally, except a feel good factor for a few individuals who may think that they have won a debate or scored points over someone or the other."


UN response to query from Colombo


Both the UN and our own Foreign Ministry had conveniently forgotten that unsubstantiated war crimes allegations in the international domain, since the conclusion of the war, in May 2009, led to the Geneva Resolution, in Oct 2015. Having had faithfully responded to unsubstantiated allegations, they found Lord Naseby’s defence of Sri Lanka unpalatable. Shame on them.


As none of those journalists, who had been invited to cover de Greiff’s briefing bothered to seek the UN response to Naseby’s declaration, the writer, on Oct 31, 2017, sought answers from the Colombian through two questions.


The Island queries: Greiff has had a series of meetings with political and military leaders in Sri Lanka during his two-week official visit. (a) Did Sri Lankan political and military leaders or civil society representatives make representations to him regarding a statement made by Lord Naseby in respect of accountability issues in Sri Lanka and the responsibility on the part of the UN/Geneva to revisit unsubstantiated war crimes allegations? (b) Did Greiff discuss Lord Naseby’s claims with Sri Lankan officials and civil society?


The UN acknowledged receipt of The Island queries on Nov 1.


High riding Greiff brought to grief


However, The Island had to remind de Greiff’s Office of its failure to respond to its queries.


Then on Nov 9, 2017, The Island received the following response from an aide: "With apologies, Pablo has been preoccupied with the General Assembly and other events in the past week but let me follow-up and revert back to you.


As the UN continued to delay its response, the writer again reminded de Greiff’s Office on Nov 16, 2017. The UN was told The Island would go ahead with the story regardless of its response.


The Island received the following response on Nov 17, 2017: I regret to inform you that the Special Rapporteur will not be able to comment on the content of private meetings (emphasis mine). Thanks for your understanding and best wishes."


Obviously, the Colombian felt uneasy in responding to the queries. In fact, de Greiff couldn’t have responded without compromising the UN position, vis a vis Sri Lanka, and greatly embarrassing Sri Lankan political and military leaders. But, to categorize all discussions de Greiff had in Colombo over a period of two weeks, as private, is nothing but a foolish attempt to side-step The Island queries. Before commenting further, it would be pertinent to name those who had PRIVATE meetings with de Greiff in Colombo.


According to UN Colombo, de Greiff, in addition to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, had had very productive discussions with other high level government officials including Minister of Foreign Affairs Tilak Marapana; Minister of Finance and Media Mangala Samaraweera; Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayake; Minister of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesha; Minister of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs D.M. Swaminathan; Minister of Justice Thalatha Atukorale; Minister of Education Akila Viraj Kariyawasam; Secretary to the President Austin Fernando; Secretary of Defense Kapila Waidyaratne; Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya; the Sectoral Oversight Committees on Legal Affairs and Media, and on Reconciliation and North and East Reconstruction; Chief Justice Priyasath Dep; Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya; Chief of Defense Staff Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne, Commander of the Army Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake; Commander of the Air Force Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy and Commander of the Navy Vice Admiral Sirimevan Ranasinghe; the Chief of National Intelligence; Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera; the Chairperson of the Victim and Witness Protection Authority; the Secretary-General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms; the Director-General of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation; the Human Rights Commission, the National Police Commission, members of religious communities, political parties, and representatives of the diplomatic community, academics, civil society organizations, victims groups and many others who have shared their insights. At the local level, de Greiff had the opportunity to exchange views with the Governors of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province.


It would be interesting to know whether any of those mentioned politicians, officials and civil society had sought de Greiff’s opinion on Lord Naseby’s statement to the House of Lords based on confidential dispatches from the British High Commission during January-May 2009. Although political and military leaders hadn’t been bothered to take up the issue ahead of Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva, the UN Colombo on its own referred to the House of Lords statement. The UN couldn’t have ignored Lord Naseby’s statement, particularly against the backdrop of Theresa May’s government being requested to make representations to Geneva and New York. Lord Naseby wanted the member of Geneva – based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) the UK, to revise the Vanni death toll from a staggering 40,000 to 7,000-8,000 with one fourth of them being LTTE cadres.


Have anyone heard of UN dignitaries visiting countries for private meetings? The question is whether Greiff had any official meetings at all


The Sri Lankan government’s failure to take up Lord Naseby’s revelation is inexcusable. The parliament took it up on Nov 14 evening, over a month after the original statement with Deputy Foreign Minister Wasantha Senanayake tabling a copy of a letter, dated Nov. 2, 2017, addressed to Lord Naseby by President Maithripala Sirisena. The Deputy Minister never bothered to explain why it took so long for the President to write a letter of appreciation and release it four weeks after the House of Lords debate on Sri Lanka.


Naseby has stood up for Sri Lanka at a time Sri Lankan leaders pathetically failed in their responsibility.


Government’s shocking reaction


When the writer asked Cabinet spokesman, Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, on Nov. 15, at a post-cabinet media briefing at the Information Department, whether cabinet had taken up the Naseby revelation, the usually affable SLFPer reacted angrily. Jayasekera reacted as if the writer had asked him something extremely negative of Sri Lanka and the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration. Jayasekera almost shouted at the writer that he raised the same issue previously while declaring the government wouldn’t be influenced by the ongoing The Island project. Jayasekera asserted that the cabinet hadn’t discussed the issue as it felt it was not a serious matter. Jayasekera’s assertion is nothing but ludicrous. Having been in the Rajapaksa Camp, before the January 2015 ‘rainbow revolution’, Jayasekera cannot be unaware that the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) threw its weight behind Maithripala Sirisena’s candidature on the basis of unproved war crimes allegations, with the massacre of 40,000 being the primary accusation made by the UN.


Had the current government acted sensibly in the wake of Lord Naseby’s statement, Jayasekera would have had probably asked the writer to pose suitable question for him to respond.


On the day before the cabinet briefing, Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva told the writer that Lord Naseby statement wasn’t directly relevant to UPR. The UNP politician, obviously, didn’t realize that Sri Lanka wouldn’t have had to face a tough time at UPR if not for Geneva Resolution adopted on the basis of wrong investigative accusations. Dr de Silva responded to The Island query, on the eve of his departure to attend UPR where he led the government delegation.


The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government and the UN certainly owed an explanation to Sri Lanka regarding original war crimes allegations that led to extremely unfair Resolution 30/1. Sri Lanka created history as the only country to defeat terrorism through military means. There cannot be any dispute over that. Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ensured political-military liaison throughout the relentless offensive that brought Prabhakaran to his knees, on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on May 19 morning, 2009.


Lord Naseby’s offensive has seriously undermined Trincomalee District MP R. Sampanthan’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) pushing for full implementation of the Geneva Resolution. None of those who had been demanding foreign judges and other international experts in a hybrid judicial mechanism, in line with Geneva Resolution 30/1 as well as tripartite agreement involving Sri Lanka, the US and the TNA, so far haven’t challenged Lord Naseby’s account.


Lord Naseby has also placed the Geneva human rights council member, the UK, in an extremely embarrassing position. Having examined a statement, dated May 4, 2016, issued by the UK Information Commissioner’s Office, in respect of Lord Naseby’s request for disclosure of military dispatches from the UK High Commission in Colombo, the writer is of the opinion, British authorities had acted contrary to official assessment on Vanni front. Had its own military dispatches, in any way assisted US-led global effort to condemn Sri Lanka, the UK would have certainly used them. The same can be said of military dispatches from the US and Indian officers, based in Colombo, during the war.


Relatively a clean war


It would be pertinent to recall a high profile Al Jazeera programme aired in the run up to the January 2015 presidential election. Special live programme ‘Inside story: clinging to power in Sri Lanka’ was surely meant to step up pressure on the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa over war crimes accusations. The project went awry due to UPFA MP Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, in spite of his serious differences with the Rajapaksas, at that time, steadfastly stood by Sri Lanka. Prof. Wijesinha thwarted the project though the then SLFP leadership reacted angrily without watching the entire programme. The writer pointed out to Rajapaksa loyalist Dullas Alahapperuma, at an SLFP briefing at Darley Road headquarters, the absurdity in criticizing Prof. Wijesinha not knowing what he said on Al Jazeera.


The Sri Lankan military had fought a relatively clean war against the LTTE, when compared with others engaged in such operations, Prof. Wijesinha told the programme anchored by Jane Dutton. The lady was surprised.


Prof. Wijesinha was responding to allegations made by Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesman Suren Surendiran that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government committed war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final phase of the offensive, on the Vanni east front, in early 2009.


The former head of the Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat asserted that President Rajapaksa earned the appreciation of the vast majority of the people for eradicating LTTE terrorism. However, Prof. Wijesinha faulted President Rajapaksa for not consulting others when launching post-war projects in war-torn areas. Prof. Wijesinha asserted that there had been a lot of development since the conclusion of the conflict.


Joining the programme from Dublin, Surendiran, the UK based GTF’s Director of Strategic Initiative, predicted that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) would bring out a damning report almost accusing the government of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in March 2015. The GTF official alleged Sri Lanka’s economy had been dwindling, foreign reserves sharply down with the IMF demanding the government to drastically reduce public expenditure. Surendiran alleged that people couldn’t even feed their own families in the wake of rising inflation.


Surendiran said: "The security situation is poor and the judiciary politicized."


Al-Jazeera telecast the programme the day before Prof. Wijesinha joined a rebel SLFP group led by the then General Secretary of the party, Maithripala Sirisena, to pledge support for a political movement against incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa.


Taking part in the discussion, UNP National List MP Dr. Harsha De Silva explained the discussions as regards a joint campaign against President Rajapaksa whose popularity was dwindling. The economist emphasized that the project meant to defeat the Rajapaksa government involved the Opposition as well as the SLFP.


Calling Sri Lanka a nationalist state, Surendiran said that President Rajapaksa hadn’t addressed Tamil grievances even after the conclusion of the conflict. The GTF official said that both the international community and the Tamil speaking people wanted President Rajapaksa to provide a political solution to the national problem. Surendiran accused the government of causing racial hatred among communities while specifically identifying the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) as a government tool used against other communities.


Surendiran further alleged that Sri Lanka’s relationship with India was in an extremely bad position.


Prof. Wijesinha challenged Surendiran only on the war crimes issue.


Prof. Wijesinha accused Surendiran of propagating unsubstantiated claims.


Responding to a query by Dutton, Dr Harsha de Silva said that President Rajapaksa had purchased a two-thirds majority to introduce the 18th Amendment at the expense of the 17th Amendment. Referring to a statement made by Prof. Wijesinha, MP De Silva said that President Rajapaksa, his brothers and sons were equally responsible for the current crisis in the country. The UNPer said that President Rajapaksa hadn’t been used by others as asserted by Dr. Wijesinha.


Prof. Wijesinha explained what he meant by an earlier statement which was challenged by De Silva.


Responding to Prof. Wijesinha, an irate Surendiran said that President Rajapaksa had been accused of war crimes. Some had accused him of conducting a genocidal war against the Tamil speaking people. Surendiran warned that President Rajapaksa too would be hauled up before the International Criminal Court the way one-time Liberian President Charles Taylor and Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic had been. Surendiran queried Prof. Wijesinha the basis for his assumption that the Sri Lankan military fought a relatively a clean war, when over 140,000 civilians died at their hands. The GTF spokesman alleged that the military also executed surrendering LTTE cadres and civilians, killed an 11-year-old (possible reference to the killing of LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s son) et al.


Prof. Wijesinha accused Surendiran of propagating unsubstantiated claims. The Prof. lashed out at Surendiran for repeating often mentioned allegations. The UPFA MP urged Surendiran and the GTF not to interfere in the forthcoming presidential election because that would be advantageous to the Rajapaksa government.


Those who had been vigorously campaigning for war crimes investigations quoted various figures as the Vanni death toll. What would you have to say to Surendiran, whom the writer met in Geneva during a side event during the Rajapaksa administration and subsequently in London in early 2015, regarding GTF’s continuing silence in the wake of Lord Naseby’s claim. Now that the British politician has challenged the UN’s claim of 40,000 killings, what would those who had been quoting much higher figures have to say?


The Island