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The Cluster Bomb Game

















Tamils hold banners and placards with messages to save their relatives in Wanni, during a demonstration in Jaffna peninsula, Sri Lanka, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009. (AP)

I was deeply shocked by news on Friday that stones had been thrown at the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The day before it had been the Indian cricketers, an appalling departure from our usual civilized behaviour as spectators. Such violence must stop, and I hope that message will go out loud and clear.

With regard to the ICRC indeed it is suggested that the violence was organized, and connected with criticisms made of the organization by government. That is even worse – if there are problems, they should be settled through discussions and clear instructions to the ICRC as to the parameters within which they are expected to act.

I had myself noticed a change in the ICRC approach some weeks back, and written accordingly to the new Head of Delegation, suggesting that he work more on the lines established by his predecessor, one of the most respected expatriates to head a mission in this country in recent years. I pointed out that this did not mean compromising on his views, which he always expressed forthrightly, but he did so in a manner that was effective.

Since his departure, things have changed. We are no longer getting regularly the information we need as to areas in which violations of human rights might be occurring, instead there seems to be concentration only on the conflict areas, with regular statements that are then made use of by less scrupulous forces.

The Head of Delegation however did answer my plaint, to say that this was a conscious policy decision, and that it had been implemented after ‘face-to-face meetings with our key contact persons’. He did not tell me who these were, but presumably, now that the new policy seems to have led to abuse, with the ICRC being cited as authority for criticism of the government, obviously the contact persons should ensure that the policy is changed. It is wrong to assume that the ICRC intends to bring the government into disrepute, but if its statements have this effect, then some changes are in order. Indignation should not lead to violence, and any who practice this in the belief that they are standing up for Sri Lanka should be swiftly disabused of the notion that this is acceptable.

At the same time the ICRC too should respond swiftly to criticism. When this is direct, as when I wrote to the ICRC in Geneva, after a particularly unfortunate statement, they should reply promptly, as the Head of Delegation in Colombo did. When indignation is expressed verbally, they should seek a meeting to clarify the situation and indicate what remedial action should be taken.

All this is the more urgent, inasmuch as ruthless use is being made of any loose statement by internationally respected agencies. Unfortunately even in these agencies there are loose cannons and what these fire off is taken to represent the considered opinion of the entire body.

In this regard the UN has been particularly unfortunate recently. Not entirely coincidentally, I suspect, it has been used regularly in recent months by Amnesty International, which for some reason has decided it has to stop the Sri Lankan military offensive, while at the same time doing its best to justify the Tiger refusal to allow free movement to Tamils trying to get away to government controlled territory.

This phase in the Amnesty operation began with Yolanda Foster being part of the plot of what is termed the Coffee Club to send a petition to the UN Secretary General. The strategy was to have this signed by several Sri Lankan NGOs, but the moving spirits, apart from Yolanda and some members of the Coffee Club, were Alan Keenan of Gareth Evans’ International Crisis Group and Peter Bowling who the High Commission in London told me was very close to the Tigers.

The Coffee Club meanwhile derived its authority from the UN system, or rather from one of the new UN players on the scene after the tsunami, namely the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA). This body, in 2006, set up without proper authorization something it termed the Inter Agency Standing Committee, which took upon itself even tasks such as monitoring the various projects developed under what was termed the Common Humanitarian Action Plan. Somewhere along the way the UN lost sight of the fact that its partner in Sri Lanka was the government, and actually functioned as though the IASC were there to hold the balance between government and terrorists.

Thus, though only the UN had been permitted entrance to the Wanni, as recently as last month it claimed that there had been an IASC monitoring mission. When this was pointed out to the UN Resident Coordinator, Neil Buhne, he said that that was a mistake, of a sort that he has all too often had to apologize for recently.

Such mistakes are serious, because they add to the belief that we need external monitoring of our situation. And they are doubly serious when we have what seems a symbiotic relationship between ostensibly independent agencies such as Amnesty International and the UN and what passed for its partners.

So, after Yolanda’s little flirtation with the forces determined to complain to the UN, forces that were simultaneously claiming to be UN partners, we had the Amnesty representative in Geneva, a usually sweet little man called Peter Splinte, taking a former UN employee around various missions to complain about the Sri Lankan government. The UN in Colombo apologized again, and put a stop to that, but they did not as promised issue a formal letter regretting the abuse of his UN position that this former employee, Benjamin Dix, had perpetrated.

Amnesty meanwhile had picked up another passionate opponent of Sri Lanka, Sam Zarifi, who earlier worked for Human Rights Watch (and has an impeccable American accent). Meanwhile they did not show the highly respected Head of Amnesty, Irene Khan, my letter of complaint. I was astonished by this, because Splinte had first explained her failure to respond by saying that she was away; he then promised to make sure that she got my letter when she returned, but when I met her in December, she had still not seen it. Splinte assured me that he had asked someone in London to get it to her, and had to confess that this had been ignored. He refused to answer me when I asked whether this was Yolanda.

In short, while Irene Khan expressed her willingness to engage, and to discuss issues, her underlings who are following their own agenda obviously will not allow this. As I have indicated before, their aim is to stop the Sri Lankan military, and if to achieve this they have to sacrifice the Tamil civilians, by only ambiguously asking that they be let go, they will have no qualms about this. I asked Splinte recently whether –

‘Will Yolanda and Sam grant that their attacks on the camps in Vavuniya were exaggerated, and that the people suffering in the Wanni (and now coming in larger numbers to government controlled areas) would have suffered less if encouraged and allowed to leave months ago?’

I have yet to receive a reply

Meanwhile UN embarrassments continued, when one of its security staff, a former British serviceman it seemed called John Campbell, declared to the BBC that Sri Lanka was like Somalia. Again Neil Buhne apologized, and tells me now that the offending creature is no longer in Sri Lanka, but again there was nothing in writing, and no formal rebuttal of the story on BBC.

And then, last week, Amnesty struck again with a diatribe about cluster bombs. I saw it first in an e-mail from Splinte, who clearly thought he had struck gold, and wrote to me, ‘I don’t expect you to do anything publicly other than continue to defend the often indefensible, but I do hope that you are speaking out within your government to temper the savagery. As you have so often reminded me, the people under the bomb are Sri Lankans.’

What has apparently moved him to tears and to talk of savagery was a release authored it seems by the indefatigable Zarifi, which began ‘Amnesty International has denounced the reported use of cluster bombs in a civilian area by the Sri Lankan military as a serious violation of international humanitarian law. According to a UN spokesperson, the main hospital in the town of Puthukkudirippu was hit by cluster bombs and had to be evacuated’.The statement went on to quote Zarifi doing his Bruce Fein impersonation – ‘"The use of cluster bombs in such circumstances could constitute a war crime"’.

I got this message late at night, having just come back from Manila from what should have been an intellectually stimulating workship but which was full of media requests for information and clarification. Just before getting to sleep I saw Splinte’s message and also a news flash which said ‘The UN in a statement to foreign media accepts Sri Lankan government’s assurance that it does not have facility to fire cluster bombs’.

I responded to this effect to Splinte, and then called the UN the following morning to be assured by Buhne that the original statement had been a mistake. I asked for copies of this and the retraction, but did not receive them, only to be told later that some of the various assertions had been merely verbal. My staff tried to trace any releases on the website, but could not find anything on which the Amnesty claim could have been based, though they thought that something might have been deleted.

That whole day the story reverberated, with several media outlets calling for clarification, including Al Jazeera which interviewed me from Malaysia as well as Doha. The UN had agreed to issue a written retraction, and I reminded Buhne of this as urged also by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, but nothing was forthcoming. Finally I got through on the Saturday, and late at night he obliged and sent me a correction.

This seemed even madder, an attempt at self-justification rather than an apology. Instead of simply admitting the mistake and suggesting Amnesty retract, he letter, from their spokesman, Gordon Weiss, explained that ‘United Nations staff, who had the previous night endured 16 hours of constant bombardment in areas adjoining the hospital grounds where they were sheltering, confused the explosion of cluster munitions with air-burst fragmentation munitions, which deliver shrapnel over a wide area and which have a similar loud explosive report, followed by many smaller reports’.

All this sounded wonderfully erudite, and remarkably precise for people who had spent a 16 hour night under constant bombardment (though suffering no casualties whatsoever, which suggests the bombardment was not so near – the ICRC incidentally said that ‘The PTK Hospital was shelled several times especially from 5.30 pm on Tuesday up to 4.30 am yesterday’, expanding this in a later statement to 24 hours). When I commented on this to Buhne, and asked who these munitions experts were, he said it was their local staff who had described the noises. These were the people the UN had hoped to bring out the previous week with their families, only to be rudely rebuffed by the LTTE – the foreign staff who had gone in to ensure their safety had left the previous week, perhaps realizing that they could do nothing, thus leaving the local staff to the mercy of the LTTE.The conversation had taken place on the phone, and Buhne must have realized that it may well have been in the presence of LTTE operatives. What had happened, over the phone line, was that the local staff had described what they heard, and according to Buhne the UN Security Staff had deduced the type of munition used. These Security Staff, to which category John Campbell belonged, had jumped to the conclusion that cluster bombs had been used, and Gordon Weiss had pronounced accordingly.

Amnesty had promptly picked up that pronouncement, but a few hours later Weiss made a different sort of statement. According to a local paper, ‘Cluster bombs yesterday hit the vicinity of the Puthukkudiyirippu (PTK) Hospital, the United Nations (UN) said, adding that the government had meanwhile assured that it does not use such weapons. However the UN later said it accepted the government’s assurance that it did not have the facilities to fire cluster munitions. UN spokesman Gordon Weiss told Daily Mirror that based on information received from UN ground staff the bombs hit the area surrounding the hospital; the extent of the damage caused or of casualties if any were however not known’.

The use of ‘However’ and ‘later’ there is masterly, but that may have been journalistic interpretation rather than the tireless Weiss. He must however be a complete idiot if he does not realize that, if according to the UN cluster bombs hit the vicinity of the Hospital, but the UN accepted the government assurance it did not use such weapons, the culprits in the UN view must be either the LTTE or the UN itself. Since neither of these as far as we know now has aerial bombing capacity, someone must be lying. To us it is obvious that it is either the LTTE (speaking through the poor UN staff) or those staff on their own, whether the local ones in PTK or the foreign ones here. However the impression the statement creates is that it is the Sri Lankan government that is lying.

Three days later Weiss puts all the blame on the confused local UN staff in PTK, omitting to say that the diagnosis was not those abused and now abandoned Sri Lankans but rather the UN Security Staff in Colombo. He also now says that ‘The United Nations at no time stated that the munitions in question on that particular occasion struck the hospital’. Again that ‘on that particular occasion’ is masterly, and perhaps lends some weight to the impression his original statement had on Amnesty, an impression that Buhne at least was honest enough to admit was a mistake. Weiss’s first correction however claimed that the vicinity of the hospital was hit by cluster bombs. Now, having granted that UN staff were in that area, he claims that all they heard was noise, which was obligingly interpreted for them by the eager beavers in Colombo.

Buhne, helpfully, while out jogging, assured me that the munitions which his Security Staff now claim were used are not illegal. Buhne’s technological expertise is to be admired, but it is not likely to be shared by most people around the world. Even the statement that sounds were heard in the area surrounding the hospital by frightened Sri Lankans who then described them to UN Security Staff who jumped to the conclusion that cluster bombs had been used either on the hospital or on areas surrounding the hospital, and then decided that these were not cluster bombs but munitions that deliver shrapnel over a wide area and have a loud report followed by many smaller reports, quite unlike the sound of shells (since they were able to make the distinction after listening to a description given by exhausted Sri Lankans over a telephone), is likely to be leapt on with glee by Amnesty, which seems to have immediate access to the murkier employees of the United Nations and their reports.

In short, Buhne’s management style is not quite in the league of his technological expertise. I realize that he is under much pressure, not least from the Coffee Club, some of whom think they are his main partners, not the government, but it is imperative for him now to give a clear message to his staff that they are not here to hold a balance between the government and the LTTE.

We have at the same time to recognize that there may be genuine fears. After all a respected Canadian journal quoted a diplomat, who ‘is not authorized to speak on the record’ saying ‘‘‘The government says all the right things but they speak with forked tongues ….. They just want the Tamils crushed and wiped out"’. This may be nonsense, but people are capable of believing nonsense. After all, as a distinguished diplomat once told me himself, we have to remember that most countries – India, as the recent record of those posted here shows, being an outstanding exception, though we can see something of the sort with Russia and China too – do not send their brightest and best to Colombo.

People tend to be Pavlovian in their reactions – as we saw with the Canadians and Rama Mani for instance – and we have to remember that these are conditioned by the appalling behaviour of the Jayewardene government in the eighties. The fact that the West in those days seemed to condone that sort of behaviour has not affected subsequent generations into registering distinctions between then and now, whether it be current decision makers in the West or the members of the diaspora who fled after the racist government sponsored attacks of 1983. The fact that no government since has even dreamed of the excesses of Cyril Mathew, that no one with similar influence in government has similar views, that this government has moved for more empowerment and integration for minorities than any other since independence, is forgotten in the face of emotional outbursts.

We have to be aware of this and respond sensitively and without violence to understandable concerns. Getting rid of terrorism is one priority, ensuring that the benefits of this liberation accrue to all our people is another. But in the process we must insist that our partners also behave with sensitivity and without making allegations that can then be used against us, in a way that will allow the Hydra to raise again its innumerable heads.

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