Openness to engagement as defence to accusation
Posted on October 5th, 2009

by Jehan Perera Courtesy The Island

Hillary Clinton’s inclusion of Sri Lanka in the short list of countries that are alleged to have used rape as a tactic of war has caused fury and distress in the country.  Understandably, the Sri Lankan government has called upon Ms Clinton to withdraw her remarks, which were extreme and provocative.  As a result of these charges and counter charges, the possibility of constructive engagement that could cause problems to be dealt with in a problem solving manner and will be in the best interests of the Sri Lankan people may get further diminished.

In the long years of Sri Lanka’s three decade long war there were many accusations leveled against the Sri Lankan government, but not this one.  There is no denying that rape has occurred in the course of the war.  The judicial verdict in the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy rape case 1998 and Sri Lankan media reports of rapes elsewhere bears this out.  But these have been acts of individuals and not state policy that is systematically intended to strike fear into the hearts of the civilian population to make it easier to win the war.  US military personnel too have been convicted of rape and killings, in Iraq in recent times of war, and of rape even in peaceful conditions in Okinawa where the United States has a military base.

The fact that Ms Clinton made this allegation as US Secretary of State while presiding over a session of the UN Security Council, and passing a resolution against sexual violence on women during armed conflicts at the world’s most powerful decision making body, highlights the seriousness of the challenge that Sri Lanka faces.  This month the US Congress is expected to receive a preliminary report from US government investigators regarding human rights violations and war crimes that may have taken place in the last several years.  This month the European Union is also expected to announce its decision regarding the extension of the GSP+ tariff concession, where the main criterion for extension will be Sri Lanka’s adherence to the norms and practices of international law. 

Never before has Sri Lanka been confronted with such international pressure.  President Mahinda Rajapaksa now regularly refers to the possibility of war crimes charges and has firmly resolved not to let any soldier or member of his government to be left unprotected.  There is no doubt that the President’s assurance will be responded to positively by the majority of the Sri Lankan electorate, starting with the voters of the Southern Provincial Council, the election to which takes place over the coming weekend.  The government is also making a determined effort to overcome the threats against it with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa going to the US to meet with officials there and the government sending its most capable ministers including Basil

Rajapaksa to Europe to lobby with the EU. 


 The question that arises is whether these efforts by themselves can be successful in the absence of other efforts. In a legal judgment that helped to shape US law on freedom of thought and expression, which is one of the most protected rights in that country, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  If something is not true, it is only by examining it openly that it can be shown to be false. At that point of open inquiry those who wish to prove the falsity of a charge will be better positioned to do so, rather than to let the matter fester in secrecy.  The very avoidance of an issue serves as a tacit acknowledgement that it might be true.

During the three decade long war that successive Sri Lankan governments fought against the LTTE there were many accusations against those governments on human rights issues by international human rights organisations and even by foreign governments.  The charge of using rape as a weapon of war is new, but having to cope with criticisms of human rights violations is not new to Sri Lanka.  The key difference may lie in the highly restrictive attitude of the present government to entry into controversial areas.  These restrictive practices give scope for outsiders, particularly the powerful international media, to believe that things inside may be much worse than they actually are.

At the present time, the government is implementing an unprecedented restrictive policy towards the international community in terms of controlling information about the war and its consequences.  Entry into the welfare centres where the displaced people are being kept is restricted to approved organisations only, with even the International Committee of the Red Cross not being permitted into the biggest camps in the north. It is inevitable that the question will arise as to why the ICRC is denied access to these camps where civilians are, as well as to the camps in which those suspected of being LTTE cadre are being kept.  The organisations that are given access to the welfare camps are under strict instructions not to divulge information.  As a result the information that inevitably does get out is not subject to verification, and may very well be exaggerated, with no credible independent evidence available. 


Unfortunately it appears that the government is not prepared to be transparent about what it plans to do and what it is in fact doing on the ground.  This restrictive attitude came into play especially strongly in the last phases of the war, when the government had to bear heavy human and economic costs in order to defeat the LTTE in military battle.  The government ordered the international community, including humanitarian and UN workers out of the war zones, and did not permit the international media with access to those areas except of government-organised tours.  The problem is that what was acceptable in a time of war is not acceptable in a time when the war has come to an end.  The government’s restrictive policy which may have been effective and justifiable in a time of war has become a liability in the post-war period.

Persons who have access to the welfare camps have told me that there are positive things the government has done which have not reached the public attention as yet.  These include the screening of about 150,000 of the approximately 250,000 persons still confined to the welfare camps.  This means that these people have been cleared by the military authorities of connections with the LTTE and who ought to be permitted freedom of movement, as in the case of ordinary citizens of the country.  I was also told that the government has finalised its plans to resettle the displaced people.  Due to security concerns about 30 percent of them may not be resettled in their original areas.  It is better that the government should announce this plan and justify it on security and other grounds, rather than keep it under wraps and give the impression that it has no justifiable plan at all.  When there is no transparency the suspicion that things are worse than they are can mount, and so can the suspicions.

In order to change the international community’s impression of itself in a positive direction, the government needs to adopt a more open and transparent approach to the past and present. The government’s position is that outside investigations are not permissible due to issues of national sovereignty and dignity.  Other countries in times of war also do not usually permit outside parties to investigate their battlefield and counter terror practices.  In the current environment of polarisation, there must be stronger efforts to promote constructive engagement between the government and outside parties in which there is an information flow in which misunderstandings or different understandings are clarified and harsh judgments are not made on the basis of partial information. 

The truth about what happened cannot be hidden indefinitely, but it can be explained and justified. Other countries at war, not least the United States, have also gone through similar wars in which worse things happened.  If the government wishes the people of Sri Lanka, especially its working people, to have the benefits of the GSP+ tariff concession, it needs to show the EU that the human rights conditions within Sri Lanka do comply with the EU’s requirements for the granting of that concession.  This cannot be done by mere lobbying or speechmaking, even by the most capable members of the government cabinet. It must not become mired in denial. What the government has done for the country and people after the war needs to be shown on the ground.

4 Responses to “Openness to engagement as defence to accusation”

  1. aravinda Says:

    You have passed your use-by date. Stop Sri Lanka bashing! Can’t you find any constructive thing to do with your
    miserable life? Even if Sri Lanka loose tariff consessions, the country will survive. First time in 60 years we have capable leaders running Sri Lanka. Men who love Sri Lanka more than their lives…They have given Sri Lankans the most important thing to live in this planet. It is called dignity……

  2. cassandra Says:

    The writer may well be right in observing that “As a result of these charges and counter charges, the possibility of constructive engagement that could cause problems to be dealt with in a problem solving manner and will be in the best interests of the Sri Lankan people may get further diminished”. But I am not sure whether he means in saying this that the Sri Lankan government should have simply disregarded Hilary Clinton’s unfounded accusations of rape by the SL armed forces in order not to jeopardize this so-called “constructive engagement”. I have no doubt in my mind that the charge made by the US Secretary of State had to be rebutted as robustly as possible.

    As for the accusation of other alleged human rights violations, what I have noted is that western countries seem to assume that, almost by definition, developing countries are guilty of the most serious human rights violations. They take this as a ‘given’. So, clearly a great deal will have to be done and will need to happen before the west takes a more generous view of developing countries.

    The west is of course hypocritical in all this. For instance, the human rights violations by the US led forces in places like Iraq are only too well documented. But these do not get the same publicity or an extended run in the media as do the alleged transgressions by developing countries.

    Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ statement that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” sounds great; if only the US itself would choose to be guided by his wisdom!

    The SL government should not be unduly secretive about the situation with the IDPs and other such issues but there is no reason why the world media should be given carte blanche access to the camps and permitted to report with the spin they wish to put on things. And as for not submitting the SL service personnel to be tried by the War Crimes Tribunal, let us not forget that the US has also taken the same option. Surely, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

  3. Chintha Says:

    I think with regard to US, the well planned, organized ,commited mis information of the senetors is carried out by the LTTE funding Tamil diaspora in USA. The US citizens of Sri Lankan origin can do much with this regard. They can find out thier senetors and representatives web sites and contact them through the websites’ ‘contact me’ and write to them of the sitation in Sri Lanka. This will sure have a very big imapct in the long run. You can contact them and inform of the situation in Sri Lanka. They welcome this . You will find contacts through following links. Patriotic key board heros, it is your turn to defend mother Lanka .

  4. Nihal Perera Says:

    It is important to know the background of – Jehan Perera – who is insisting now that the GOSL must be open to the western powers and its media to avoid backlash. This is the same Jehan Perera who heads the Norwegian funded NGO called, “Peace Council” – an extremely biased organization which did everything possible to discredit the military operation against the Tamil Tigers.

    The peace council under Jehan Perera always sided with many of the pro-LTTE forces – in Sri Lanaka & abroad – which constantly demanded the GOSL stop the war immediately, and negotiate with LTTE. Jehan Perera, personally discredited our Armed Forces and their efforts to eliminate the deadly Tiger terrorism in Sri Lanka, by constantly mass e-mailing pro-LTTE propaganda to the Western Media, Politicians, HR organizations, and many of the other International organizations, thus condeming GOSL, and the Armed Forces. His peace council was a mouth peace for the pro-LTTE Norwegians, who funded peace council in order to push their pro-LTTE, anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist agenda.

    Jehan Perera has no credibility whatsoever, as he was one of the leading promoters of the LTTE propaganda – hiding behind an equally biased, foreign-funded peace council. These are the traitors who have tried to divide Sri Lanka with the help of the foreign agents, such as Norwegians, etc. Now, that they have failed to satisfy their white masters’ agenda with bogus peace proposals, and demands of ceasefires, they are trying hard once again by insisting that Sri Lanka must be open to western powers to avoid the backlash…?

    My advice to Jehan Perera and likes is, stop trying to please your “Foreign Masters” who fund your bogus NGOs, which have done nothing but promote instabilty, by helping the terrorists to achieve their goals….

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