Features

Moving the Goal Posts in front of a Credulous Public
by Ruana Rajepakse

The intellectual playing field is becoming increasingly slippery and the goalposts are continually being shifted. When one team commits a deliberate foul the umpire with equal severity warns both teams to adhere to the rules. When members of one team commit a brutal or even fatal assault on a member of the opposing team, the team of the dead or injured player is blamed for not having been vigilant and provided their comrade with adequate security; the members of the team that made the attack are not censured for carrying out mayhem and murder.

Turning from the playing field to the real world, no doubt security lapses should be investigated and remedial action taken for the future. But let it not be suggested that security lapses on the part of the victim or his guards is an extenuating circumstance. Murder is murder irrespective of whether the victim was protected or unguarded, vigilant or careless.

Double standards were also very evident over the death of SLBC/SLRC journalist Relangi Selvarajah and her husband who were gunned down on the same day that Minister Kadirgamar was assassinated.

Although "Reporters Sans Frontieres" issued a statement condemning the killing, one has not yet (at time of writing) seen any statement of condemnation from the "Free Media Movement" in this country. This is in stark contrast to the countrywide protests that were organized by these self-styled guardians of the media following the murder of Tamilnet journalist Sivaram who is also believed to have written for a section of the English media under a pen-name.

To those who asked, why mourn the killing of an LTTE journalist, the reply was that the murder of any journalist is a threat to press freedom. Yet a different rule seems to apply to Relangi Selvarajah, who worked for a State media institution, was believed to have had connections with PLOTE (a group opposed to the LTTE) and is said to have made documentaries unfavourable to the LTTE.

Her death, as much as that of any other journalist, is not only a grave crime but also an attack on freedom of thought, freedom of speech and the freedom to follow an occupation of one’s choice, as guaranteed by the Constitution.

History has shown that such freedoms are very difficult to stamp out if they are firmly rooted in the hearts and minds of people. But they can be imperceptibly negated if people are unwilling to think for themselves and credulously swallow what is handed out to them, whether by governments, international organizations or the self-styled guardians of "civil society".

doublespeak

This kind of doublespeak is not of recent origin. Take the case of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) which has just had its charity status in Britain withdrawn by that country’s Charity Commission, following an investigation into its role in terrorist funding going back to year 2000.

It is reported that the TRO has also been refused registration as a charity in Canada, while the Australian Government was quoted in the Sri Lankan media earlier this year as saying that it would not channel tsunami relief funds to the LTTE or TRO.

However the TRO continues to be registered in Sri Lanka as a NGO and charity, a status it achieved soon after the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) in 2002. This was after the organization had already come under investigation elsewhere in the world for alleged links to terrorist funding.

Following the signing of the CFA, a decision was taken by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with the concurrence of the then Government, to implement an action plan for the care of children in the North East affected by war. This plan included the establishment of three "transit centres" at Killinochchi, Trincomalee and Batticaloa respectively, to house demobilized child soldiers of the LTTE for a period of three months before they were returned to their families.

Without any competitive evaluation process, UNICEF thereupon entrusted the TRO with the implementation of the project to build and run these homes. Rs. 9 million was allocated to the TRO for the construction of each transit home. There was a separate financial component for food and another for the salaries of staff including a considerable number of expatriate "consultants" who came to Sri Lanka for this project. According to informed sources, several of these consultants described themselves as "under-aged recruitment specialists" although it was difficult to find what academic or professional institution conferred such qualifications.

All this was done despite strong protests by the then Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), Prof. Harendra de Silva, who headed the body officially charged with the prevention of child abuse and monitoring the care of the victims.

Under the NCPA Act No. 50 of 1998 the definition of "child abuse" includes the involvement of a child in armed conflict that is likely to endanger the child’s life or harm the child physically or emotionally. Incidentally, this addition to the definition of child abuse, suggested at the drafting stage, was one of the less-known contributions of the late Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar to the fight against terrorism.

When interviewed by the press at that time, neither UNICEF representative Ted Chaiban nor the then Deputy Director-General of the Government’s Peace Secretariat John Gooneratne were able to guarantee that the children housed in these TRO institutions would not end up back with the LTTE.

While there is no absolute guarantee of safety even for children who are returned directly to their parents, such parents, as the legal and natural guardians of their children, can at least use whatever means at their disposal to protect their children. They are not reduced to helpless spectators while their children are left to the mercies of a host of expatriates of uncertain credentials on the payroll of an internationally suspect NGO.

According to informed sources all three centres were constructed but only the one at Killinochchi was ever operational. According to estimates, just over a hundred child soldiers passed through its doors — a miniscule fraction of the 5,081 underage recruitments known to UNICEF to have taken place since the CFA came into being, or even the over 4,000 child soldiers who have (again according to UNICEF) been released, returned or run away during the same period.

By the end of 2004 the future of this expensive project was said to be under review by UNICEF. Observers still complain of a lack of independent financial scrutiny regarding the funds disbursed.

TRO fund-raising

The "Island" of August 18, 2005 reported that the Trincomalee District Director of TRO had been apprehended while attempting to cross into an "uncleared" (i.e. LTTE controlled) area carrying a sum of Rs. 2 million. The report stated that this person had been questioned by Police and later released — not surprisingly, since TRO fund-raising operations remain legal in this country.

One does not know where this particular sum of money came from, but the incident is evidence of the nexus between the LTTE and TRO funds.

It was recently reported that the Government has called on the international community to take tangible action against the LTTE and its numerous front organizations. The irony in the case of TRO is that other countries have taken action against this organization but Sri Lankan authorities continue to give it recognition as a charitable NGO.

At the beginning of the transit homes project, UNICEF representative Ted Chaiban was quoted in the media as justifying the homes on the grounds that the transit period would give an opportunity to assess the needs of each child and provide the child with a break from a military environment prior to going home.

This was surprising, to say the least, because UNICEF representatives should know that such a process is at variance with several provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Under Article 9(1) of the Convention, "State Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will, except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedure, that such separation is necessary in the best interests of the child."

Furthermore, Article 12 of the CRC declares that a child who is capable of forming his or her own views has a right to express such views, and such views should be given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. A "child" for the purpose of the CRC is any person under 18 years.

As the LTTE’s child conscripts would generally fall into the upper age section of "children" they would obviously be capable of expressing their views. Nowhere in the publicity that initially attended the launching of the transit homes project was there any reference to any proposed consultation with the children as to whether they would prefer to enter the TRO controlled transit home or go straight back to their parents.

All this, or course, is now in the past. The question to be asked from UNICEF and other international funding agencies today is whether they are going to continue according legitimate charity status (and even favoured charity status as with the transit homes project) to the TRO when that organization has been blacklisted in a significant number of countries where it has sought to operate.

Likewise the question to be asked from the Government is how it justifies keeping the TRO as a legitimate charity in this country when that organization has been denied that status in so many other countries, and how this squares up with the Government’s recent request to the international community to take tangible action against the LTTE and its front organizations.

To conclude, let us go back in time to the Buddha’s sermon to the Kalama people, often quoted in this country in support of freedom of thought, but which is also an exhortation to think for oneself and not be misled by others. In its original version it read thus:

"So then, Kalamas ...... Be not misled by report or tradition or hearsay. Be not misled by proficiency in the collections, nor by mere logic or inference, nor after considering reasons, nor after reflection on and approval of some theory, nor because it fits becoming, nor out of respect for a recluse (who holds it). But, Kalamas, when you know for yourselves: These things are unprofitable, these things are blameworthy, these things are censured by the intelligent, these things when performed and undertaken conduce to loss and sorrow, — then indeed do ye reject them ..... But if at any time ye know for yourselves: These things are profitable, they are blameless, they are praised by the intelligent; these things, when performed or undertaken, conduce to profit and happiness, — then, Kalamas, do ye, having undertaken, abide therein ...." (Anguttara Nikaya — Vol. 1 : Woodward’s translation)

However, a modern version might read something like this: "So then, citizens: Be not be misled by reports in the State media or the Free media. Be not be misled by proficiency in the Constitutions of South Africa or Canada; nor by workshops and seminars; nor after reading the recommendation of some consultant; nor because it is fashionable; nor out of respect for some foreign expert. But citizens, when you know for yourselves, these things are against the public interest, these things are wrong, these things have been censored by the competent authority or doctored by interested parties, these things when performed and undertaken lead to loss and danger to the people, — then indeed should you reject them. But if at any time you know for yourselves: These things are in the public interest; they are right; they have not been censored or doctored; then and only then, citizens, should you accept and undertake them."

 

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