The report on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon from the UN Panel of Experts has been provided to the Government of Sri Lanka but, over a week later, still not publicly released. However, the report has been leaked to the Sri Lankan newspaper, The Island, which has published the summary and some extracts. And now there is a campaign by pro Government of Sri Lanka forces to delay/stop the publication. What’s the agenda here?
The report is exceedingly damning, accusing both sides of perpetrating war crimes. “In [the panel’s] opinion there is credible evidence of the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, it’s clear that both sides appear to be responsible for war crimes, and that the Sri Lankan government was responsible for the majority of the deaths through shelling,” said Former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss. Leaked parts of the report show that the UN panel is in possession of authenticated video footage of the Sri Lankan Army executing prisoners of war. In addition photographs of dead female Tamil Tigers show “rape or sexual violence may have occurred, either prior to or after execution”.
One way to understand the intent behind the leaks is to understand who the paper, The Island, represents. The Island is considered by media observers the most chauvinistically right wing of all the English-language papers in Sri Lanka, including being vociferously anti-foreigner (whether the foreigner is represented by the UN, the BBC, or ‘threatening’ countries like Norway).
According to an informed INGO specialist: “The Island has always been extremely hawkish, even at the height of the peace process. It’s occasionally critical of the government on issues of justice and impunity, but never with respect to war crimes. It’s chief reporter on these issues, Shamindra Ferdinando, is very close to [Defence Minister] Gotabaya Rajapaksa and just the other day did a puff interview with the President [Mahinder Rajapaksa]. With this relationship, it’s almost impossible that the Island would have published the report excerpt without the government’s say-so, and it’s almost certain they were given the report by someone senior in the government – not by someone in the UN.”
Another commentator says it is “basically a pro-war, pro-Sinhala, anti-Tamil newspaper that tries to show a liberal side to the English-reading, non-Sinhala public.” Interestingly, The Island has a Sinhalese language sister publication ‘Divaina” which is said to be even more extreme. This Sinhalese paper is reliably reported not to have reproduced anything from the report, thus hiding its contents from the Sinhalese-reading audience. Both are taking every effort to whip up anti-investigation sentiment.
So who owns/runs the Island? A Tamil website has commented on this and although we have not yet been able to find corroborating evidence, their article is worth considering:
For all these reasons many experienced Sri Lankan watchers have concluded that the leaks are designed to present a confused and fragmented story to the international media (and thus reduce the coverage when the full report is released) as well as mobilise the more extreme parts of the Sinhalese community, whilst the Government can claim it has nothing to do with this. It is noteworthy that the Government of Sri Lanka has warned the UN that the report could set back reconciliation. Laughable as this argument is – coming from a regime that has done much to impede reconciliation – it is also worrying given the proven tendency of nationalist governments to catalyse anti-Tamil popular riots (notably in July 1983). That event played a major role in the growth of the Tamil Tigers. Let us hope the Government of Sri Lanka has at least learnt that lesson.
What is puzzling (and deeply worrying) is why the UN Secretary General’s office has not instituted damage control. Human rights groups and activists had been reassured that the document would be made public by now. Channel 4 first reported that it was to be released on Thursday; then the UN delayed it to allow even more time for the government of Sri Lanka to prepare its response. There has been ample time for the Island newspaper and other important Sinhalese opinion shapers – including amazingly the Catholic Cardinal of Colombo – to challenge the report, absurdly seeking to discredit all its renowned authors as biased.
Is the UN’s delay perhaps because of the threat of May Day protests outside its offices in Colombo? Or is it a desire to ensure this report does not prompt sufficient outrage to spur demands for war crimes investigations which might include the failures of senior UN staff? Media attention is key to galvanising support for justice. Sri Lanka understood the power of the media to shape international opinion: that’s why it kept all independent journalists out of the war zone. The UN, with its vast machinery of advisers, strategists and media experts, could easily draw attention to the appalling human suffering in 2009, if it wanted.
Allowing this report to die a quiet death, is allowing the last hopes of the victims of this war to die. Many who spoke to the panel were sceptical of the United Nations; they’d seen the organisation abandon them in September 2008, meekly driving out of Kilinochchi at the behest of the Sri Lankan government. They still find it hard to comprehend an international community that didn’t care about ten year old children having limbs amputated with butcher’s knives without anaesthetic. It is hard to accept that hospitals could be repeatedly and deliberately shelled or that the rebels – who operated a one family one child policy – would come back to snatch their second and third sons to fight; children who never came back. But this is why the full publication of the report is so vital:
In Sri Lanka for months the injured lay next to the dead on mats on the floor of tents with no medical equipment; if they were lucky, they might see a doctor. Family members held up the intravenous drips and untrained volunteers sorted the rush of maimed and bleeding bodies, most of them children, their tiny bodies less able to survive the flying shrapnel.
In mid-May when the Tigers finally allowed civilians to cross to army controlled areas, shell shocked women and children walked out of a charnel house, that stank of decomposing bodies and burning vehicles. Wrapped in filthy rags, the dying lay on the side of the road calling out to anyone to carry them out but few had the strength to help after months of starvation. Then to compound their misery, every single survivor was detained for months against their will in a vast, unsanitary camp, surrounded by barbed wire, a trench, sandbags and armed soldiers, fearful to speak out because people were disappearing daily.
These are memories the survivors would prefer to forget. Yet they came forward and gave witness. They hoped that if they really knew what happened in Sri Lanka’s killing fields in 2009, the international community would at last care. That is why we call on Ban Ki-moon to do the right thing and publish the report NOW!