Carnival Time for HRW

Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP)

08th July 2008

Our old friends Human Rights Watch are at it again. Last week saw a spate of releases targeting Sri Lanka, timed it seem to put the kybosh on what seem successes both internally and internationally in our struggle against terrorism.

It started with a release claiming that Sri Lanka should end what it termed internment of displaced persons. If the headline was the preferred choice of HRW, it is up to its old tactic of using sensationalistic language to draw attention to itself, even though this is not substantiated in the arguments it puts forward. Thus, though the body of the text suggests that HRW understands what internment means, and does not use it to describe what is happening in Sri Lanka, the hope is that the world will be taken in by words that might recall the excesses against say those of Japanese ancestry in America during the Second World War, or even the horrors of what happened to the Jews in so many countries in Europe under the Nazis.

The text indeed indicates that we are talking only about restrictions on the movements of those coming in from terrorist controlled areas to the comparative safety and liberty of government controlled areas. As the ongoing surveys and discussions at the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Action Meetings make clear, freedom of movement during the day is generally permitted and restrictions as to long term stays elsewhere are relaxed whenever possible. However, though doubtless almost those concerned are genuine refugees from the Tiger excesses that the UN has recorded (forced recruitment of two per family, cancellation of marriages etc), previous experience indicates that there may amongst them be terrorists who will inflict massive damage on civilians in line with recent Tiger strategy. For this reason precautions are essential, as indeed UN Guiding Principles and the recent comments of the UN Special Rapporteur make clear are acceptable under exceptional circumstances. HRW, from the safety of New York, does not recognize the 'exceptional circumstances' that have led to so many civilian deaths through so many terrorist bombs in recent months. HRW's blindness is not the problem of the government, or the millions of civilians in Sri Lanka who are kept safe by such precautions, and we cannot, to satisfy HRW's concept of what is exceptional and what is not, put the lives of our citizens at risk.

Meanwhile HRW goes into another feather dance, a melodramatic performance, about precautions in France. It is doubtless coincidence that this performance came shortly after the French, who long before any other nation realized that all terrorism had to be dealt with firmly, not merely what was fashionable at any particular time because of successful slaughter, had fallen heavily on Tiger propaganda networks. However, from the Sri Lankan point of view, HRW's pontifications at this stage suggest that it sees terrorism as a game that must be played to a finish, and then only punitive measures can be imposed legally.

Terrorists measure their success by the vigour of their explosions against civilians. Advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch measure theirs by the volume and vigour of their verbal attacks on governments trying to protect civilians. It is sad when the interests of these two groups coincide, to put civilian lives at risk.

Finally, as though to make clear its totally theoretical approach to a very real problem, HRW goes into paroxysms about the need for Sri Lanka, 'after Britain failed to do so because of a lack of evidence' to prosecute Karuna, the Tiger who turned his back on terrorism and now heads a political party. Certainly Karuna was part of the LTTE in 1990 when many of the horrors HRW refers to occurred, but it must be appreciated that he turned his back on the Tigers in 2004, and there are no commensurate allegations whatsoever against him from that period on.

The only recent allegations to which HRW refers are with regard to 'kidnapping children ….. while troops stood by', which are allegedly by UNICEF. In actual fact, UNICEF, when I inquired into this, could give me only a single allegation of children in a vehicle being allowed through a check point, about which indeed the Sri Lankan army had already taken disciplinary action. There was no response to a request for further specific information, and indeed UNICEF is now working with the Sri Lankan government and the former Karuna faction to ensure that any children still with them are released. It should be noted that the faction released its cadres in 2004, as recorded by UNICEF, and it was only when nothing was done for them and they were subject to re - recruitment by the LTTE, that the faction says compelled them to take the children into protective custody.

HRW may well not credit this, but there is no doubt that children have not been used in combat by the Karuna faction since 2004 when it threw off LTTE shackles, quite unlike the LTTE who continued to use children and were even indulged by UNICEF with regard to this, until we had to reprimand the then UNICEF representative. It was because of such behaviour that the Karuna faction was wary of UNICEF but, following the excellent principled approach of the current UNICEF representative, the Sri Lankan government has been able to rebuild confidence and we have no doubt that that problem will be resolved soon.

However, given the recent rescue by Sri Lankan forces of yet another 17 year old girl who had been forced to fight for the Tigers - a fact about which HRW continues to remain conspicuously silent, paying lip service to balance by a small paragraph about Tiger excesses in the course of its diatribes against the Sri Lankan government but no longer looking into them in detail - it is worth exploring why the demonization of the former Karuna faction with regard to child soldiers began at the very beginning of 2006. Sadly, it seems that people who should know better have been taken in by Tiger propaganda on this issue, propaganda designed to excuse its refusal to negotiate on the grounds that the Sri Lankan government indulges the former Karuna faction. Of course the Sri Lankan government will continue to indulge them in their movement towards being a democratic pluralistic political party. Sri Lanka owes a debt of gratitude to Karuna and his forces for having turned their backs on the Tigers. This gratitude has to be combined with determination to restore the rule of law, but the manner in which the TMVP, the political party that has emerged from the faction, has conducted itself indicates that this can be a cooperative effort.

HRW, which evidently does not in its absolutist zeal, understand politics and people at all, claims that Karuna was ousted from the leadership of the TMVP, 'prompting his flight from Sri Lanka'. He remains its leader but, perhaps feeling that his capabilities did not lie in local electoral politics, he went to England where his family had earlier found refuge. After he had served a sentence for illegal entry, Britain was then under pressure from the LTTE as well as groups such as HRW to charge him with war crimes, but evidently found that the evidence was insufficient, in spite of testimony from within and without Sri Lanka. The HRW outburst suggests that Britain is somehow at fault for this, though thankfully it is short of the allegations of impunity that will doubtless now be flung at Sri Lanka.

All this taken together presents a pretty picture indeed. When Britain investigates and finds nothing, with regard to someone who has turned his back on the terror he engaged in as a Tiger in 1990, Britain is at fault. When France tries to investigate in order to forestall terrorist attacks that might now do harm to its citizens, and others in the world, France is at fault. When the Sri Lankan government provides, in consultation with UN agencies, shelter to those fleeing from Tiger controlled areas, it is accused of internment, a term that is used by normal people to indicate taking people from their homes and putting them into what amount to prison camps.

I have no idea who funds HRW. Their conduct however suggest a certain bias and a possible hidden agenda, which ought to be investigated carefully before they are given further funds which end up being used to promote agendas similar to those of active terrorists. Their donors should realize that advocacy to shut stable doors when there are no horses left inside will allow Tigers in the wild to run riot.

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process

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