Wartime secret negotiations between UN mission in Colombo and LTTE
Posted on January 6th, 2016

By Shamindra Ferdinando Courtesy The Island


Had the UN acted swiftly, and decisively, Sri Lanka wouldn’t have had to experience terrorism for nearly three decades. In actual fact, the UN, and its agencies, deprived successive Sri Lankan governments of much needed support during her battle against terrorism.

Last week, The Island examined the failures on the part of the UN, against the backdrop of a commemorative event, held at Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission, in New York, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the then Ceylon’s entry in to the United Nations, where the gathering was reminded of sometimes strained relations between Sri Lanka and the global body, with special emphasis on the situation during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency.

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in New York Dr. Amrith Rohan Perera, PC, told the gathering: “As in other relationships, the relationship between Sri Lanka and the United Nations has, at times, undergone stresses and strains. This was particularly so during the conflict, and in its immediate aftermath.”

Sri Lanka was among over a dozen countries admitted to the UN, on Dec 14, 1955.

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President Maithripala Sirisena shares a light moment with Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan at an event at the UN compound, Colombo in late Oct. 2014 to commemorate the UN’s 70th anniversary. Jaffna District MP M.A.Sumanthiran and UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Sri Lanka, Subinay Nandy look on.

UN policies contributed to spread of terrorism in Sri Lanka. Having immensely contributed to a catastrophic situation here, by neglecting its responsibilities, for over two decades, the UN made its biggest blunder at the onset of Sri Lanka launching the Vanni offensive, in early, 2007. Instead of taking tangible measures to thwart the LTTE from preventing Tamil-speaking people taking refuge in areas under government control, the UN facilitated the terrorist project. The Colombo-based UN mission secretly communicated with the LTTE in a bid to secure the release of Tamil employees, of the UN, accused of helping civilians to flee the war zone.

The UN mission, in Colombo, conveniently failed to immediately bring the Vanni situation to the notice of the then government. The mission negotiated with the LTTE, clandestinely. The UN, in New York, too, wasn’t briefed of the crisis. The UN mission in Colombo never explained its decision not to bring the detention of two UN workers immediately to the notice of the government.

Having failed to secure their release, in spite of secret negotiations, for perhaps over a month, the UN brought the situation to the then government’s attention in April 2007 (LTTE detains UN workers-The Island, April 20). The UN mission in Colombo never responded to The Island revelation. The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) comprising the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi, TELO, PLOTE and EPRLF, too, remained silent. In fact, none of those, who had been demanding accountability on the part of the then administration for causing civilian deaths during the final phase of the offensive, ever bothered, at least, to issue a statement calling for the release of UN workers and an immediate end to restrictions imposed on the movement of people. The Norwegian-led five-nation Scandinavian truce monitoring mission, as well as Co-Chairs to Sri Lanka’s Peace Process, refrained from commenting on the incident.

The UN and LTTE, in May, 1998, agreed that free movement/resettlement of civilians should be respected. (The UN-LTTE agreement was dealt comprehensively last week.).

The UN, and a section of the Colombo-based diplomatic community, had desperately tried to settle the issue without involving the government. Prominent Diaspora activists, particularly those with the influential British Tamil Forum (BTF), remained mum. The Colombo-based UN bigwigs kept the seizure under wraps believing the LTTE would eventually release them (‘UN had talks with Tigers on the sly’ with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody-The Island, April 23, 2007).

The UN policy eventually led to the LTTE forcing the vast majority of the Vanni population to retreat, along with its fighting cadre, across the Kandy-Jaffna A9 road, towards the Mullaitivu coast, where Velupillai Prabhakaran made his final stand, in May, 2009. The retreat began in early 2007.

The then Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, strongly condemned the UN’s approach towards terrorism. The war veteran alleged that Western powers, Diaspora activists as well as an influential section of the media, which champion human rights, remained silent. Both print and electronic media, including Colombo-based international news agencies ignored the UN-LTTE dispute. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa revealed the abduction of UN workers took centre-stage at a meeting of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance held at the Defence Ministry in April 2007. Chaired by the then Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, the CCHA met bi-weekly to discuss the situation in operational areas. The consultative apex body first met on Oct 14, 2006. Among those who had been present at the CCHA discussion, on the plight of UN workers, was the then US Ambassador in Colombo, Robert O. Blake. The LTTE resented UN workers interfering with its strategy. The UN was told in no uncertain terms that anyone challenging its authority would have to face the consequences.(Lanka urges UN not to shield Tigers with strap line UN workers in LTTE custody-The Island, April 25, 2007).

In late April, 2007, the UN admitted that its Colombo mission had withheld information pertaining to the detention of UN workers. When the issue was raised at the daily press briefing, at the UN, on April 25, 2007, UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson, Michele Montas, acknowledged that its mission in Colombo hadn’t informed New York of the incident. Without referring to exclusive The Island reportage of the incident, Montas said: “We don’t have any confirmation of those newspaper reports. We have heard them. As soon as we have a confirmation, we’ll get something for you on that. I’m checking with the UN presence there (in Sri Lanka.” Montas stressed that the Colombo mission hadn’t confirmed the newspaper reports. “I don’t know. We don’t have any confirmation. They have not confirmed those reports. I heard them through the press also.” Two days before the UN briefing, the then government strongly condemned the UN’s approach towards the abduction of UN workers (UN HQ admits Colombo office kept it in the dark with strap line The Island expose of UN employees abducted by LTTE-The Island, April 28, 2007).

Now that the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government had co-sponsored a resolution in Geneva paving the way for a comprehensive judicial investigation into alleged atrocities committed during the eelam war IV (Aug. 2006-May 2009), the culpability on the part of the UN, too, should be investigated. Had the UN and other members of the CCHA took tangible measures in the wake of the abduction of UN workers, the LTTE could have been discouraged from carrying out their dastardly project to use the Vanni population as human shields. The LTTE needed the population to ensure conscription of fighting cadres as well as use them as a tool to protect their military assets/positions.

It would be important to keep in mind the circumstances under which the LTTE moved to block those living in Vanni from seeking refuge in the government-held area. By February, the military had taken the upper hand in the Eastern theater of operations. Major LTTE bastions had been under heavy pressure in the Eastern Province while the Army was preparing to open up a new front west of the Kandy-Jaffna road. The LTTE realized that there could be an exodus of people from the Vanni in case stringent measures weren’t taken. Having lost the Jaffna peninsula, in early 1996, and its Eastern cadre in total disarray, due to split in the organization, caused by one-time field commander Karuna Amman, the LTTE couldn’t under any circumstances deprived itself of the population. The LTTE needed fresh fighting cadre. The top leadership obviously feared an exodus of civilians could have affected the morale of fighting cadre. The then Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was on the verge of opening up what was later called the Central front where the newly raised 57 Division fought. The Division was tasked with the liberation of Kilinochchi, a task it achieved on January 1, 2009, jointly with the celebrated Task Force I (later named 58 Division).

Perhaps, it would be pertinent to examine the detention of UN employee, secret negotiations between the UN and the LTTE meant to secure their release, and correspondence between the UN mission in Colombo and its headquarters in New York. Although the then UNSG’s spokesperson Montas promised to reveal its stand on the issue, it never materialized.

Let me mention the countries/ organizations and their representatives informed in late April 2007 of the February 2007 abduction of UN workers by the LTTE, namely US (US Ambassador Robert O. Blake, European Union (Head of Delegation Julian Wilson), Representative of the President to the Council of the European Union (Ambassador to Germany Juergen Weerth and UK High Commissioner Dominic Chilcott), Japan (Ambassador Kiyoshi Araki), UN (Frederick Lyons and Neil Bhune), UNHCR (Amin Awad), UNICF (Ms Joanna Van Gerpen and Philippe Duamelle), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Valentin Gatzinski and Ms Zola Dowell), WHO (Dr. Agostino Borra), WFP (Taft-Dick, Mohamed Saaheenn and Adhnan Khan), Food and Agriculture Organization (Marc Bellemans), ILO (Ms Tine Staermose), UN department of Safety and Security (Security Advisor Chris du Toit), European Community Humanitarian Office (David Verboom), ICRC (Toon Vandenhove and Paul Castella). In addition to foreign representatives in the CCHA, the apex body included two representatives of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, namely Executive Director Jeevan Thiagarajah and Deputy Executive Firzan Hashim.

As CCHA had met on 28 occasions (first meet on Sept. 14, 2006 and the final one on May 11, 2009), its minutes can facilitate ongoing efforts to establish the ground situation in the Vanni region during the war. Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had chaired CCHA can as a member of the new administration speak on the deliberations at CCHA meetings, including detention of UN workers.

The minutes of CCHA deliberations are available with those who had been tasked for that particular assignment.

Although the previous government lashed out at Western powers and occasionally criticized the UN as well as the NGO community, for want of an effective strategy, it never conducted a thorough investigation into their activities. CCHA minutes should be made available to the proposed war crimes court. Although the government and the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are yet to announce the composition of the war crimes court, the government should endeavor to produce all relevant information before the investigative mechanism.

The UN still retained vital documentary evidence which can be used to counter accusations that the Sri Lankan military had killed over 40,000 civilians during the final phase of the government offensive. In fact, the Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka in March 2011 repeated widespread accusations as regards the death of 40,000 civilians. The panel asserted: “In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths.”

However, those who had been demanding accountability on the part Sri Lanka over the deaths of 40,000 deaths during the last phase, are yet to specify the period the killings took place.

Interestingly, UNSG Ban Ki-moon’s panel rejected a comprehensive study conducted by his own mission in Sri Lanka with the support of the ICRC as well as NGOs based in the war zone during August 2008 to May 13, 2009 period. In spite of it being the only such study which placed the number of deaths at 7,721 including those of the LTTE during that period, Western powers, too, rejected the report. The previous government never raised the issue publicly at Geneva. Instead of countering propaganda with solid information, the previous government engaged in wasteful and futile projects such as employing expensive PR firms. Such image building exercises certainly didn’t help Sri Lanka. Those still loyal to former President and Kurunegala District MP Mahinda Rajapaksa are yet to review their previous strategies. They seemed to be still thinking that the proposed war crimes court can be averted and in case the present government accepted foreign judges the issue exploited to its advantage. A rethinking of their strategies is necessary.

Against the backdrop of Sri Lanka and UN celebrating the 60th anniversary of the then Ceylon’s entry in to the United Nations, a genuine reexamination of ties will help both parties. Those genuinely interested in knowing the truth, pertaining to the number of persons, both civilians and the LTTE dead, should reveal the still classified UN report which placed the number of wounded during Aug. 2008 to May 13, 2009 at 18,479. Those who contributed to the report can be summoned by the proposed court. Those who had declared that the UN report cannot be accepted because the figures pertaining to the number of dead and wounded were, too, low, readily acknowledged unsubstantiated accusations propagated by persons whose identities remained confidential until 2031 in accordance with UN requirement. The UN confidentiality clause relating to nameless witnesses remains in force with Sri Lanka officially taking it up with the global body. Sri Lanka needs to request the UN to review its confidentiality clause and present the UN report on the Vanni war to the proposed court. Those who had been opposed to the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government should pressure the new administration to take up relevant issues with the UN, instead of playing politics with accountability concerns. Having caused irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s cause due to foolish handling of the accountability issue, decision makers of the previous government should at least now rectify their mistakes.

To be continued on Jan 13

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