Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Gordon Weiss

Channel 4 and Sri Lanka

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 22 2014. It can be found on page 7 of the E-paper at:
http://www.ceylontoday.lk/e-paper.html
It was also reproduced by Sri Lanka Guardian:
http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2014/10/there-is-no-room-for-truth-in-world-of.html

There is no room for truth in the world of sound bites.

For some bizarre reason the article is credited by Sri Lanka Guardian to Upul Joseph Fernando rather than me.

No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka

I was most dismayed to read an article by my friend and colleague Sulochana Ramiah Mohan on the front page of Ceylon Today on Wednesday 15 October. Sulochana reported that Channel 4’s No Fire Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka is one of four documentaries nominated for the International Emmy Awards 2014. This news comes at a time when I am considering making a submission to Sandra Beidas, at OIHCR. Her remit is “to coordinate work and activities and act as the main interlocutor with stakeholders and oversee report writing and documentation,” in relation to a UN inquiry into alleged war crimes in the last seven years of Sri Lanka’s war.

Channel 4 first screened The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka in 2011. Why is it being nominated for an Emmy in 2014? Is the nomination timed to coincide with Beidas’s investigation?

The Allegations

The main charges covered in the programme are:

  • The Sri Lanka army and air force targeted hospitals and civilians in the NFZs (no-fire zones) leading to 40,000 civilian deaths
  • Withholding of food and medical supplies from the north
  • Summary execution of prisoners
  • Rape of female combatants and civilians
  • Imprisoning of Tamil civilians in concentration camps.

Numbers

Jon Snow introduces the Channel 4 programme by citing the “Panel of Experts” report commissioned by UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon. Callum Macrae, director of Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields said: “Channel 4 has been reporting on this throughout the past two years and the documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields represents the culmination of all that. Although the release comes not long after the Panel of Experts (Darusman), report was published, that was a coincidence and we were clearly researching at the same time. However, I think it’s significant that we both reached virtually identical conclusions.”

It would not be surprising that they reached similar conclusions if they were both using the same tainted evidence. The Channel 4 effort resembles the Darusman Report in the way it presents in a tendentious manner allegations posing as fact. The Marga Institute deconstructed the Darusman Report.[i]

When Gordon Weiss was UN representative in Sri Lanka he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by The UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson,  Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia, he increased the figure to 40,000.

In his book, The Cage, Weiss quotes a press release by Navi Pillay in which she says as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison to say 147,000?

Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator challenged even Gordon Weiss’s lower estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, Holmes stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”, which is meaningless.

A detailed discussion of numbers of civilians killed can be found in The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice, by the Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka.[ii] I summarised that report on the Transconflict website and attended a seminar on it at the Marga Institute.[iii] There was a strong theme at the seminar of the need to acknowledge the size of the catastrophe. Those who are citing inflated figures are making a demand for reckoning based on the assumption that Sri Lankans did not care. That exaggeration in turn prompted a bunker mentality among the victors who were reluctant to admit to a figure of civilian dead for fear of a litigious reaction. After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”. The IDAG-S estimate is, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some other calculations, even by Tamils.

Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere. He said: “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”. Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. On 13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.

IADG-S considers that those who claim that 147,000 civilians were killed have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

A more recent publication by the Marga Institute and the Consortium of Human Rights Agencies also deals with this issue. [iv]

 

Shelling Hospitals

Viewers would not realise that the LTTE possessed and used a wide range of artillery and mortars, including 152mm long-range guns, 130mm artillery pieces, 122mm artillery guns, 120mm mortars, 81mm mortars, 60mm mortars and multi-barrel rocket launchers. There is an odd statement in paragraph 94 of the Darusman report where it is acknowledged that the LTTE fired artillery from the vicinity of Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital (PTK) but that they did not use the hospital for military purposes. Channel 4 chose not to mention that LTTE fired from within the no-fire zones, often from the vicinity of hospitals and that the Sri Lankan army had fired back in response. They did not mention clear evidence that the LTTE shelled hospitals and shot their own people. Their own star witness Gordon Weiss says in his book that PTK hospital was hit by artillery fire on several occasions and that “a number of strikes appeared to be from Tamil Tiger positions”. Channel 4 gave the false impression that any government shelling within the no-fire zone was unilateral and unprovoked.[v]

 

Channel 4 suggests that was SLA’s policy to drive hundreds o thousands of civilians into harm’s way when the reality is that soldiers risked and often lost their lives trying to get civilians out of danger. Channel 4 repeatedly ignored the fact that the hundreds of thousands of civilians caught up in the last weeks of fighting had been forced into the combat zone by the LTTE, who then brutally prevented them from leaving.

 

Rape

In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She put it to him that the Channel 4 programme called on viewers to make many inferences from the footage used. “It suggests, for instance, that women were raped, although it is not possible to determine from the bodies whether sexual abuse had, in fact, occurred.” The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had made an accusation that GOSL were employing rape as a policy. She later withdrew the allegation.

Heyns’s response to Namini’s question was : “I think the video has to be seen in the context of all the available evidence, which includes what has been investigated and published by NGOs and the panel of the Secretary General. The cumulative effect of the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern about what both sides did during the war, and in particular what happened in the final stages, when the government gained the upper hand, and that there were no outside witnesses”.

“In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together, they gain some credibility purely from their critical mass. This is something akin to those urban myths that gather moss on the internet. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs, it is quoted repeatedly and the mere accumulation is seen as proof.

Withholding Supplies

Channel 4 alleges that GOSL deliberately withheld food and medical supplies from the north. It is a little-known (in the west) and perhaps surprising fact that throughout the conflict, the central government tried to maintain a government structure even in LTTE-held territories. It continued to send food and medicine even though it knew that much of this would be siphoned off by the enemy. The doctors working in the embattled hospitals in the north attested that they had ample supplies.

Authenticity of Tapes

Another UN Rapporteur, Philip Alston, said his experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) could prove the authenticity of the images used by Channel 4 showing abuses by SLA soldiers. Alston conceded that there were some “characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain” but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”

Alston’s “experts” do not inspire confidence. Spitz’s father, who had held the post before him, appointed him Medical Examiner for Macomb County. Spitz achieved notoriety by ruling that an execution-style death was suicide, not noticing a bullet hole in the neck and a bullet in the jaw. Fredericks had no training in photogrammetry and has no more expertise than a layperson. He lied in court about his company’s ties to Taser, and supported a police cover-up. Spivack was a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003), with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.

Unreliable Witnesses

An important witness in the Channel 4 programmes is referred to as “Vani Kumar”. The Channel 4 commentary at no point mentions that her real name was Damilvany Gnanakumar and that she was a Tamil Tiger whom Castro ordered to work in Mullivaykkal hospital. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation, an LTTE front. In Kilinochchi, she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore a cyanide capsule around her neck. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Channel 4 must have known about her past.

Semiotics

I am not an investigative reporter or an expert on authenticating videos. I have communicated with Siri Hewavitharana, the expert who questioned the authenticity of the tapes. I have had a lengthy telephone conversation with the lead author of The Numbers Game, which gives a detailed rebuttal of the figures used by Channel 4. I have participated in Marga Institute seminars on the topic. I do have some knowledge of semiotics and linguistic analysis. When I first saw the Channel 4 programme, many things about it jarred.

The title, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, is a major distortion as there is no comparison between Pol Pot’s ambition to send Cambodia to Year Zero and the efforts of a democratically elected government to deal with terrorism within its own sovereign borders. The director manipulates viewers’’ emotions throughout the film by means of images and music, as well as voice-over commentary.

Jon Snow introduces the programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. That is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence?

Alston employs strange language to defend the authenticity of the videos. The unexplainable characteristics can be explained in a manner consistent with the conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Alston is not saying the “experts” have said the video is authentic. The unexplainable can be explained to fit a conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Even if they came out and said directly that the video was genuine and had not been tampered with, this is not proof that it shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing Tamils.

IDP Camps

The Channel 4 programme includes a solemn sequence about the brutality of life in the IDP camps. The director manipulates our emotions with sinister soundtrack music. The Emmy nomination allows Channel 4 to continue to peddle untruths about the camps. Here in October 2014, we know that the predicted mass deaths from disease or a policy of genocidal extermination did not happen. Today the camps are empty.

Even in 2009, Channel 4 should have known that these were not concentration camps. The camps had banks with ATMs, shops and schools with children studying for and passing exams. B Lynn Pascoe, UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps in September 2009 and said, “You have a better story than is getting out today.” Mr. Pascoe stated that he was “impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that his team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway.

Conclusion

Channel 4 used Gordon Weiss as one of its major “witnesses” but chose to ignore what he had written about the (generally) exemplary conduct towards Tamil civilians of the SLA. There is testimony from many surviving Tamil civilians about the risks that soldiers took to protect civilians. The Red Cross and Human Rights Watch also said this. Weiss, Tamil survivors, the Red Cross and HRW also made it clear that the LTTE were firing artillery from hospitals, using civilians as human shields and shooting those who tried to escape. Channel 4 mentions none of this. The first programme devoted only 49 seconds to LTTE abuses.

A book called Corrupted Journalism[vi] produced by a collective known as Engage Sri Lanka covers these issues in far more detail than I can do here. They have the good judgement to cite me on several occasions. Channel 4 spokesperson, News Editor Ben de Pear, attempted to rubbish the book but did not, in any way, address the detailed concerns raised in it. In fact, he makes it clear that he has not even read it. “I do not have this weighty tome in my hands, so I can’t react to everything it says.” This “weighty tome” is a paperback of 222 pages. It is also available online. Engage Sri Lanka’s argument is supported by 625 detailed footnotes, an eight-page bibliography and 12 pages of appendices. De Pear’s flippant response clearly indicates that he does not want to employ joined-up thinking and address detail.

De Pear hides behind a ruling by the UK regulator, which dismissed a complaint about the programme. “All three times Ofcom found in our favour, found our journalism to be balanced and objective and dismissed all Sri Lankan complaints. All other complaints made by the government were ignored by Ofcom.”

No, they did not. This is what Ofcom said:”While all subjects in news programmes must be presented with due impartiality and reported with due accuracy, in other non-news programmes there is no requirement in the Code for issues to be treated with due accuracy.” Ofcom, despite what de Pear claimed, did not find in Channel 4’s favour in the sense that it decided that they had reported the truth. Ofcom decided not to require Channel 4 to respond to the “detailed and lengthy concerns” raised in the complaint simply because it would be too expensive for them and it might discourage broadcasters from making controversial programmes.

Engage Sri Lanka commented: “a company generating a billion pounds of revenue and employing 800 people couldn’t afford the cost of responding to a legitimate complaint. Channel 4 then added that to have to respond to the complaint posed a ‘serious threat to the future of…current affairs television’ and had the potential to be ‘highly chilling of free expression’”. At the annual Hugh Cudlipp lecture a few weeks before the complaint, Jon Snow praised Ofcom.

 

At the Marga seminar I attended, Dr Godfrey Gunatilleke, opened the proceedings by answering the question: “Do numbers matter”. He acknowledged that, while even a low number of casualties was cause for anguish, citing large and inaccurate figures raised issues of the proportionality of the military response and the ethical position of the line of command. Continual recycling of spurious figures can only inhibit the healing process.

Civilians die in war. In a “civil” war where one side deliberately holds its own people hostage there are, regrettably, bound to be civilian casualties. It is clear from the testimony of even those critical of GOSL, such as Gordon Weiss , that SLA soldiers behaved well towards Tamil civilians and there is no evidence that they were under orders to be brutal. It would have been surprising if there had not been some atavistic and brutal reaction from some soldiers who witnessed horrible things happening to their comrades and lived under traumatic fear themselves. The IDAG-S conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils. Bludgeoning them with inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

Engage Sri Lanka make an excellent point in their conclusion. “Channel 4 seems oblivious to the fact that their dubious allegations about the conflict in Sri Lanka are artificially sustaining what remains of the LTTE, one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisations, and elements of the Tamil diaspora that continues to support it in pursuing unrealistic expectations”.

 

 

[i] www.margasrilanka.org/app/webroot/…/files/Truth-Accountability.pdf

 

[ii][ii] https://www.scribd.com/doc/132499266/The-Numbers-Game-Politics-of-Retributive-Justice

 

[iii] http://www.transconflict.com/2013/06/the-numbers-game-and-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka-136/

 

[iv] https://www.dropbox.com/s/tdxwntf7wu5andq/The%20Last%20Stages%20of%20the%20war%20in%20Sri%20Lanka.pdf?n=66191473

 

[v][v] LTTE artillery can be seen on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=endscreen&NR=1&v=lFDm5KVibmE

 

[vi] http://www.corruptedjournalism.com/

 

The Cage by Gordon Weiss

This article was published in the Sunday Island on May 11, 2013
It may seem to be a little late to be reviewing Gordon Weiss’s book. It was published a while ago but is still relevant and still misleading people. While I was reading the new publication from the International Diaspora Group (IDAG-S) on counting the dead in Sri Lanka, I thought I would revisit what Weiss had to say on the subject.

 

Numbers Game

 

In this book, Weiss begins with a caveat: “I have not dealt in close detail with the matter of figures of dead and wounded, how they are calculated and how reliable those sources might be. I make the point in the text that it is for others to get closer to that particular particle of truth”.

 

Despite this disclaimer, throughout the book, Weiss repeats the mantra that 10,000 to 40,000 civilians were killed.

 

Weiss was, and is, a major player in the numbers game. When he was working for the UN in Colombo, he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by the UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson, Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia and began writing this book he increased the figure to 15,000, which he then upped to 40,000, a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with. Journalists confused the issue by failing to make clear whether information came from “an employee of the UN” or “a former employee of the UN”, rather than “the UN”.

 

In The Cage, Weiss writes: “Despite the prospect that the Tamil Tigers might be forcing the Tamil doctors or the UN staff, to give inflated figures of the dead and wounded, the accumulation of events and casualties seemed consistent”. Having raised the possibility that figures were inflated, he gives himself licence to inflate further.

 

Earlier on the same page, a press release by Navi Pillay is quoted saying that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 4,000 and Frances Harrison to say 147,000?

 
Gordon Weiss’s lower estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, was challenged by Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”, which is meaningless.

 

Lack of Expertise

 

“In Sri Lanka, even though I could not bear witness, I was close enough to the levers of action to believe that they [children] were being wounded and killed in large numbers each day”.

 
That’s not what it says on the tin. The cover blurb says: “Gordon Weiss witnessed the conflict at first hand as a UN spokesman in Colombo”.

 

The bibliography is both long and deep. If he has actually read all those publications he is a better man than I am. I wonder how he found the time. The notes are also extensive and informative although open to debate in some instances.

 

Weiss was not a witness. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

 

Praise for Sri Lankan Army

 

Weiss has good things to say about the Sri Lankan Army. “On the whole, however, the vast majority of people who escaped seem to have been received with relative restraint and care by the front-line SLA troops who quickly passed them up the line for tea, rice and first aid. The faceless enemy, such a source of terror for the young peasant men and women of southern Sri Lanka who made up the majority of the troops, were suddenly given a human aspect, as thin, bedraggled and women clutching children to their breasts and pleading in a foreign tongue fell at their feet”.

 

Note that Weiss cannot say that those who “escaped” were treated with care. It has to have the begrudging modifier “relative”. Relative to what? Relative to the care given by the LTTE from whom they had escaped?

 

He later repeats similar sentiments but drops the begrudgery. “During the course of research for this book, dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care”.

 

“It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives. Soldiers yelled out to civilians, left gaps in their lines while they waved white flags to attract people forward and bodily plucked the wounded from foxholes and bunkers. Troops bravely waded into the lagoon under fire to rescue wounded people threading their way out of the battlefield or to help parents with their children, and gave their rations to civilians as they lay in fields, exhausted in their first moments of safety after years of living under the roar and threat of gunfire”.

 

Conclusion

 

Weiss quotes Timothy Garton Ash: “Liberal internationalism… means developing norms and rules by which most states will abide, preferably made explicit in international law and sustained by international organisations. It posits some basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet…It seeks to build peace between nations on these foundations”.

 

I am a great admirer of Timothy Garton Ash. I have even set up a Google alert so that I can read all of his articles. Let us not forget, however, that Timothy Garton Ash supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the “Coalition of the Willing”. Remind me what the reason for that invasion was. First of all, Iraq was somehow behind 9/11; then Saddam had WMD; when those excuses proved spurious the invasion was retrospectively justified as being about “basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet”.

 

Weiss puts his own spin on this: “The choice between strategies when fighting an insurgency is relatively straightforward”. Weiss believes that liberal democracies choose the “hearts and minds” strategy. I am reminded of General Westmoreland’s maxim: “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. Ask the people of My Lai how the liberal democracy that is the USA conducted “counterinsurgency” in Vietnam. Weiss sermonises: “Counterinsurgencies are fought by liberal democracies in places like Afghanistan. Their leaders and decision makers understand that they are ultimately answerable to constituencies that might, like the French in the Algerian war of independence, withdraw support if they become too murderous”. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was hugely unpopular with British voters but they did not get a chance to vote on it. MPs like Siobhain McDonagh, who endlessly campaigns against Sri Lanka, voted in favour of the Iraq invasion and against an inquiry into it.

 

Despite praising the conduct of most SLA soldiers, Weiss in the end accuses the winning side of exceptional brutality, not fitting in with his sense of how liberal democracies would fight insurgency. As Sanjana Hattotuwa said in his Groundviews review: “Weiss offers no larger analysis of this tragic fragmentation between spontaneous compassion and calculated mass scale atrocity, and its effects on the civilians caught in direct or cross-fire.”

 

Has The Cage had an influence? It generated great interest in foreign embassies in Colombo. As Sanjana told me: “Several embassies had block booked 20 – 30 copies of the book, which resulted in higher than planned demand. This may have given rise to the perception at the time the book was hard to get, which it was, but not because of heavy handed Govt censorship.”

 

More on the subject of deadly accountancy and accountability after the launch of the IDAG-S paper.

 

Deadly Accountancy Part 2

Sri Lanka Eelam War IV

In an address on November 11 2011, under the auspices of the British Scholars Association at the British Council in Colombo[i], Rohan Gunaratna discussed his contention that “only” 1,400 civilians were killed in the north east Vanni pocket in the first five months of 2009. He said that this estimate was based on interviews with Tamil coroners and doctors in the area and with some of the 11,800 Tiger prisoners then held by the government.  He asserted that 1,200 were unintentionally killed by government cross-fire and 200 by LTTE gunfire.

This is in stark contrast to the figures peddled by Channel 4 and in the report by the “Panel of Experts” commissioned by Ban Ki-Moon, known in Sri Lanka as the Darusman Report.[ii] The panel did not include  military or social science experts, or anyone knowledgeable about Sri Lanka.

In Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields [iii]Jon Snow doomily intoned that ”As many as 40,000, probably more” civilians  had died. Gordon Weiss[iv] , who featured in the Channel 4 programme, started with an estimate of 7,000 which became   15,000, which he then upped to  40,000,  a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with.

Weiss, an Australian who used to work for the UN in Colombo,  went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by The UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson,  Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia he increased the figure to 40,000. Journalists have confused the issue by failing to make clear whether information came from “an employee of the UN” rather than “the UN”.

The UN Hub

The UN left the Wanni at the end of September 2008, but continued to send food convoys deep into LTTE territory, returning to base at Vavuniya after each trip. On January 21 2009, a convoy delivering food to Puthukudiruppu (PTK) returned to Vavuniya after being stuck for four days because of fighting. Two UN staffers stayed back and set up an unauthorised  “UN hub” in Susantirapuram. This was in direct contravention of UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/46/182 of 1991. The UN hub was deliberately located between two hostile military forces and the UN personnel did not follow basic UN rules for humanitarian workers in conflict zones. The Darusman  report does not name the UN personnel but in his book, The Cage, Weiss blows their cover and makes it clear that the UN officers who provided information to him and to the Darusman team were Chris Du Toit and Harun Khan, although I get the impression that Du Toit was in Colombo and not actually physically with the convoy. Weiss writes that “Du Toit would be the driving force behind the gathering of much of the intelligence revealing that large numbers of civilians were being killed”[v].

The Darusman  report says that a heavy assault on Puthukudiruppu was clearly imminent. The LTTE was firing on the army from the vicinity of the UN hub, thereby inviting the army to fire back. Civilians were encouraged to move into the danger zone by the presence of the UN handing out food. If it had not been for the UN presence the civilians could have been dispersed out of harm’s way. UN members cannot ignore the fact that UN officials took it upon themselves to set up a UN hub in the middle of a war zone, with no authorization from the government.[vi]

Views of The Cage

My own lengthy review of The Cage can be found at

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2013/05/03/the-cage-by-gordon-weiss/

Where did Weiss get his figures? Could it be from Chris Du Toit? Rajiva Wijesinha recalls meeting Du Toit: “Pressed on the number of those seen by the UN, he said it was something like 39, over the previous month.”

When he was  working  for the UN in Colombo,  Weiss  went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. The UN used that figure. In The Cage Weiss recalls a press release by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay saying that “as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison  to say 147,000?

Gordon Weiss’s lower  estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, was challenged by Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”,  which is a meaningless mantra and statistically useless.

Weiss was not a witness. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist” [vii]

A Sri Lanka Media Watch review[viii] of The Cage quotes other sources which estimated different figures to those provided by Weiss. In February 2009, the US Embassy noted that the pro-LTTE “Tamil National Alliance parliamentary group leader R Sampanthan claimed that 2000 Tamil civilians have been killed and 4500 injured since mid-December….Such reports from Tamil sources cannot be confirmed and are frequently exaggerated.”

The Voice of Tigers, the LTTE’s “official radio”, claimed on 1 March 2009, that the Sri Lankan armed forces had been responsible for the deaths of 2,018 Tamil civilians in January and February 2009 in the Vanni. These figures were repeated by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, on 13 March 2009. Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified: “The reason we have not come out with this as our figure is because, as I have said before, we cannot verify it in a way that you want to be able to verify, if you put it as your public figure.”

Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.

Michael Roberts

Professor Michael Roberts considers Gunaratna’s statistical estimates “astounding and misleading”. This is mainly because the conditions of battle at that time and the difficulty of distinguishing between “civilians” and “combatants” at a time when the LTTE was rounding up everyone to the cause, makes such precision spurious.

Rajasingham Narendran asked:  “how many coroners were available during the war in the area for recording deaths? “ Narendran had talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere.  “My estimate is that the deaths — cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro  Institute told Roberts “[approximately] 12,000  [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.

Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”. Note that Nadesan includes fighters and natural deaths. In any population, a number would die from natural causes of ill health or medical misadventure at child birth or operation. Roberts believes that 600 deaths from natural causes would be a reasonable estimate for the area and the time-frame, but it could be more because of stress and shortage of food.

In The Island, [ix]Professor Roberts wrote: “Within their attentiveness to the approximate character of any assessment, there is a striking agreement in their computations. Their evaluations also dismantle Rohan Gunaratna’s estimate on the one hand and, on the other, reveal the exaggerated character of the figures peddled by the Darusman Report, Channel Four and HR bodies abroad. In the latter instance it is both travesty and paradox that moral fundamentalism has encouraged extremism in factual claim in ways that serve the goals espoused by these organisations.”

Someone commented on Transcurrents:

“Dear Professor Michael Roberts, Rohan Gunaratna, Sarvananthan, Noel Nadesan, R. Narendran and you have been living abroad and actually over-estimated the deaths. Your vision far away from Vanni only made you people to come to such an over-estimation. I live a few kilometres from Vanni boundary. I have spoken to a number of people who were trapped in Vanni and escaped death. The majority of them told me that ONLY about 150 (hundred and fifty) civilians WERE KILLED IN THE VANNI WAR. THEY ALSO SAID THAT THE SUPPORTERS OF THE TIGER TERRORISTS ONLY give over estimated figures. We living in the North are not fools to accept your over-estimated figures!”[x]

Lies and Statistics of the Damned

In the documentary Lies Agreed Upon,[xi] it is argued that 40,000 deaths would be physically impossible. The population of the Wanni is estimated as a maximum of 300,000. This figure is based on LTTE records which were probably inflated and many would have left the area.  293,800 people were registered at the receiving centres. That leaves a maximum of 6,200 to be accounted for. Around 5,000 SLA soldiers were killed.

The government maintained for a long time that there were no civilian casualties, expressing moral outrage at the very concept of “collateral damage”. That position has modified over time to a claim that everything possible was done to avoid civilian casualties. Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the Sunday Leader: “What we did say was a ‘zero civilian casualty’ policy! That was what we were aiming at. That was what we told troops. Our goal was to achieve that”. [xii]See the Ministry of Defence’s Humanitarian Operation Factual Analysis .[xiii] However, the government PR machine and the inept foreign office and diplomatic service have allowed western critics to take sole possession of the numbers game by failing to come up with its own numbers. LLRC has recommended further investigation of certain incidents that witnesses say happened.[xiv]

Sense and Census

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the government has made a proper assessment of the number of civilians killed and missing during the last stages of the conflict. Arbitrary figures of between 10,000 and 40,000, he insisted, had “no basis in reality.” An  assessment was done by the Department of Census and Statistics through Tamil public officials in the relevant districts of the North and East.[xv] The questionnaire specifically addressed the issue of people who died or went missing during the ‘humanitarian operation.’

The government has identified by name all such persons, Rajapaksa said. The results of the census will be released in the near future. He said that some  people died of natural causes and of accidents, some  died whilst fighting as members of the LTTE, some  died as a result of being coerced to fight by the LTTE, some  died as a result of resisting the LTTE and some died because of military action. “It is only for the deaths of people in this last category that the Sri Lankan military can bear any responsibility.” The defence secretary also maintained that if, in future, any substantial evidence is provided about crimes committed by its personnel, the Sri Lankan military will not hesitate to take appropriate action.

The Numbers Game: Politics of Retributive Justice

This is a discussion paper by IDAG-S (Independent Diaspora Analysis Group – Sri Lanka). According to Michael Roberts: “The key hand is a person who wishes to remain anonymous and can be called ‘Citizen Silva.’ Born to Sinhalese parents, raised and educated in the West, he has spent the entirety of his life outside the island. This foreign setting has enabled him to build close personal links with the island’s other ethnic diaspora groups, thus shielding him from the communalistic shadows that overwhelm many of his compatriots back home. As the analysis of the satellite imagery reveals, his engineering background allows him to bring to the examination a range of technical skills not usually associated with the average empirical scientist.”

IDAG-S’s analysis only considers events and the actions of the warring parties (Sri Lankan State and LTTE) leading up to and including May 2009.

The main purpose of the survey is to estimate how many civilians were killed. “Whilst it is widely accepted that the fighting during the last few months was brutal, and that there were potentially many civilian casualties, the aim of this discussion paper will be to examine in detail the accuracy of some of these larger fatality estimates.”

The paper mentions different estimates from UN sources. In June 2010, the UN Secretary General appointed  a Panel of Experts to advise him. In their report  they gave an estimate of 40,000 deaths. Critics in Sri Lanka would quibble at the IDAG-S’s description of this as a UN report. It has generally been referred to in Sri Lanka as the Darusman Report. In November 2012, the UN published a report which pushed the estimate up to 70,000.

The IDAG-S paper quotes some surprising comments from Wikileaks.  Jacques de Maio, ICRC’s (Red Cross) Head of Operations for South Asia,  said that the Sri Lankan military was somewhat responsive to accusations of violations of International Humanitarian Law and was open to adapting its actions to reduce casualties. “He could cite examples of where the Army had stopped shelling when ICRC informed them it was killing civilians. In fact, the Army actually could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths.” [xvi]Even Robert O Blake, noted in a confidential embassy cable[xvii] : “The Army has a generally good track record of taking care to minimize civilian casualties during its advances…”.

From available media reports and other sources of information from the conflict zone during this period, it would appear there were no complaints or accusations directed at the Sri Lankan military for causing significant civilian casualties before September 2008. The Government claim that civilian casualties were minimal was widely accepted by the international community as being true, and was not challenged in international forums.

What Is a Civilian?

The IDAG paper explains that defining “civilian” is not easy.  According to Article 1 of the 1938 ILA Draft Convention for the Protection of Civilian Populations against New Engines of War, the phrase “civilian population” within the meaning of this Convention shall include all those not enlisted in any branch of the combatant services nor for the time being employed or occupied in any belligerent establishment as defined in Article 2.”

A ‘civilian’ undertaking any activity that ‘helps/contributes/ advances’ the military ‘goals / objectives’ of the LTTE – like sentry duty, building bunkers / bunds / trenches or transporting military material – cannot then enjoy the protection this category (civilian) is afforded under international law in a conflict situation.

In 2006, the LTTE maintained roughly 25,000 trained cadres. As the conflict progressed, the LTTE escalated its recruitment process, forcibly recruiting and training many more civilians, including child soldiers. At the start of 2008, the Sri Lankan Army estimated that the LTTE had within its ranks approximately 30,000 cadres.

The LTTE abused the No- Fire-Zones created by the Sri Lankan Army, to allow civilians to escape the effects of hostilities. By refusing to acknowledge the protective character of these areas and by deliberately using them for military purposes, their status as a protected space under international law became null and void. As a direct consequence, the LTTE denied the civilian population under its control the best means of shielding itself against the effects of war. The LTTE with increasing regularity fired  from near schools, hospitals and IDP settlement clusters, alongside using hospitals as bases of operation and storing weapons in and around IDP settlement areas. This was all in contravention of clear and specific prohibitions of international law. Armed LTTE operatives routinely mingled with civilians in order to cover their movements and launch attacks against the Sri Lankan Army.

“The Sri Lankan military could not forego a legitimate military objective without undermining its mission and putting at serious risk both its soldiers and the wider Sri Lankan civilian population. In those circumstances, the result of the LTTE approach was to make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for the Sri Lankan military to avoid harm to civilians and civilian structures.”

The IDAG paper cites Kenneth Watkin (Canadian Judge Advocate General who presided over the workings of the Israeli Tirkel Committee investigating the Israeli attack on  the Gaza Aid flotilla in May 2010)”[a]lthough civilians are not to be directly made the object of an attack, humanitarian law accepts that they may be killed or civilian property may be damaged as a result of an attack on a military objective.”

According to L. Oppenheim’s International Law: Disputes, War and Neutrality “civilians do not enjoy absolute immunity. Their presence will not render military objects immune from attack for the mere reason that it is impossible to bombard [the military objects] without indirectly causing injury to the non-combatants.”

Critics have concluded that there was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Sri Lankan Government to intentionally target and kill civilians. The IDAG-S point out that the Darusman Panel denies  any humanitarian intention despite the Panel’s own account of (a) how soldiers, at the risk to their own lives, had helped countless civilians attempting to escape the war-zone, and (b) their account of how the Army penetrated the second No-Fire-Zone, incurring heavy casualties amongst its troops, to rescue over 100,000 people.”

Witnesses

Eelam War IV  has often been described as a “war without witnesses” on the grounds that foreign reporters and NGOs were discouraged from entering the war zone. The authors of this study have accessed witnesses. Here is how they describe their methodology. Their evidence is gathered from the following sources:

Eyewitness Testimony – Culled from a large body of interviews conducted by the UTHR(J) (University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna)) [xviii]team in 2009 with persons from the conflict zone. The UTHR(J) was one of the few organisations to interview people in Sri Lanka, and at the same time cover a broad spectrum of views. They also provide valuable historical data through their informants in the Vanni about the state of affairs in the region from 2006 to 2009. [xix]

Satellite & associated imagery – Images from the conflict zone covering a period from 2007 to 2009.

Wikileaks – Reveals information related to the conflict from sources / contacts maintained by the U.S. Embassy within Sri Lanka and other postings outside the island.

Documentary Information – Covers information gleaned from various reports / articles / statistics.

Media Groups – Information about the conflict from media coverage during the conflict and after.

Information from human rights groups and related organisations – Covers reports / analyses / eyewitness accounts – these sources are usually independent to the ones used by the UTHR(J).

UN – Data from various UN departments in and outside Sri Lanka.

Numbers Game 

Fatality estimates, issued by various international bodies / persons after December 2009, have used  the same empirical data first sampled by the UTHR(J) team during the latter half of 2009. The results are wildly different, ranging from a low of 7,700 by the US State Department to 147,000 by  Frances Harrison[xx].

The UTHR(J) method was to subtract  from the population claimed to have been present in the second No-Fire-Zone in February 2009 – a figure close to 330,000, the final number of registered IDPs in Government camps by May 2009 – roughly +290,000.

According to IDAG-S, the validity of this framework for estimating the number of civilian fatalities depends on:

  • The accuracy of the estimate for the number of people in the second No-Fire-Zone in late February 2009.
  • The ability to differentiate between combatant and non-combatant fatalities.

The reality is that for the most part, the weight of all the evidence of mass-scale fatalities – these alleged numbers of people killed being the primary drivers behind the need for an international investigation; rests on the accuracy of a single figure – 330,000.

That figure was supplied by Assistant Government Agent  Parthipan. He did not do an individual head count. Parthipan’s estimate was based on discussions with village headmen, the Grama Niladharis. The GNs in the Killinochchi and Mullaithivu districts worked very closely with the LTTE: “The government’s social welfare measures, ration cards, identity cards, and voters lists are all routed through the headman. From the 1990s, the LTTE has used the headmen under its control to police the people, force them to attend demonstrations, perform compulsory military service as auxiliaries, impose punitive cuts of rations, diddle government aid and report on those coming in and going out…”[xxi]

The IDAG concludes that number of people in the second No-Fire-Zone towards the end of February was a figure considerably smaller than the 330,000 quoted by AGA Parthipan. This figure would also have included designated combatants like enlisted and forcibly recruited personnel. According to Parthipan, from March 31 to April 29 40,340 people were unaccounted for.

April ICRC data for the number of injured persons transported by sea shows that the mercy missions removed around ~2,800 injured civilians from the No-Fire-Zone. Sources in the conflict zone also claim that only 50% of the total numbers injured were transported by sea. This would mean that for April alone there were potentially 5,600 combat related injuries. for the whole of April 2009, TamilNet reported that there were roughly 2,600 civilian fatalities.

Comparing high-resolution satellite images of the second No-Fire-Zone between February and April 19, indicates that the No-Fire-Zone as a whole did not witness anything like the scale of sustained bombardment required for there to have been more than 40,300 fatalities. The UN estimated that for April there were potentially between 3,000 – 3,900 civilian fatalities. Assuming a worst case scenario where there were 5,000 civilian fatalities, and an additional 2,000 LTTE cadres and conscripts killed in April. This would still leave an unbridgeable deficit of close to a staggering 33,040 unaccounted for.

IADG-S calculates that the number of those who escaped from the conflict zone or detention centres would have ranged between 3,000 and 6,000 and  at least 10,000 LTTE combatants and auxiliaries were killed in this period. Up to 15,000 truly civilian people were possibly  killed in the conflict zone during the last five months, with an additional 2,000 – 3,000 having died by either being shot, shelled or having drowned whilst trying to flee the battle zone. “The respective proportion of civilians killed by the LTTE and the government forces is difficult to work out. Though it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small.”

“Although the Panel report stated from the onset that there was no authoritative figure for civilian fatalities during the final phases of the war: only assessed evidence – or interpretations of it – that it felt reinforced its primary hypothesis, that there were tens of thousands killed. Whilst at the same time other sources of credible evidence that contradicted these assessments were either by intent or sheer negligence, ignored.”Some reliable witnesses and other IDPs who were present when the Army entered on the 18th May are certain that a large number, perhaps the majority, of those killed in the NFZ during the last 12 hours were killed by LTTE shelling. Shells were falling into them and from the direction they are certain that they were fired by the LTTE”.

The IADG-S report says: “that civilian deaths and injuries from Government Forces firing did occur is indubitable, but one has to be cautious in concluding intentionality from such a result without having studied each incident in detail and taken into account issues like: (a) the conditions ruling at the time of the attacks; (b) whether the commander ordering the attack believed his actions would cause clearly excessive levels of civilian harm in relation to the anticipated military advantage gained; (c) the reasons behind the choice of weapon used in a vast majority of the attacks – mortar as against artillery, rockets and airstrikes; (d) considered the military advantage gained as being part of the overall military objective of which the attack was a part.”

Conclusions are further complicated by the fact that the LTTE killed civilians on several occasions when they sought flight.  Again, computing statistics on fatalities caused by Sri Lankan Army action is complicated by the fact that many LTTE fighters did not wear fatigues and thus deliberately contravened the protocols of war that enjoined the principal of distinction. This in turn makes the identification of a civilian corpse into a questionable issue in a significant number of instances.

Accountancy and Accountability

In 2009, the Banyan column in the Economist said:[xxii] “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”

 IADG-S consider that some critics , such as Frances Harrison and Alan Keenan have moved “into the realms of statistical fantasy in ways that raise questions about their integrity / morality”. “It would seem that such spokespersons are motivated by moral rage and retributive justice. They seek regime change in Sri Lanka – a form of 21st century evangelism that is imperialist in character and effect.”

Many in Sri Lanka would argue that even if the allegations about these incidents were proved these are small crimes given the context of a long and difficult war which resulted in a peace unknown for thirty years. The incidents  do not seem to fit the Nuremberg criteria. They do not compare in magnitude to the war crimes perpetrated by the USA and UK over the decades and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. The USA supports Israel which persistently assassinates Palestinian leaders wherever they can find them. The CIA tried many bizarre methods of assassinating Fidel Castro. Navy Seals succeeded in killing Bin Laden and dumped his body in the sea. The New York Times reports[xxiii] that President Obama presides over Tuesday Terror sessions at which he personally selects victims, including US citizens, for “targeted  assassinations. The USA blatantly ignored the Geneva Conventions and abducted innocents to torture them in foreign countries. Rather than being punished those responsible are still free to sign lucrative book deals for advocating and practising torture.

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change.

However, IDAG conclusion states clearly: “Nothing in this survey denies the probability and the evidence that some extra-judicial killings of high-ranking LTTE officers occurred during the last days of the war. These actions need to be impartially investigated by an independent body, and where possible criminal indictments pursued against the perpetrators.”

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for  genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis  of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise  the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils.  Bludgeoning them with  inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.


[iv] The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka & the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers

[v] The Cage p 107

[xx] Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War by Harrison, Frances

[xxi] UTHR(J) Information Bulletin No.39, 1 November 2005.

The Cage by Gordon Weiss

While I was reading the new publication from the International Diaspora Group on counting the dead in Sri Lanka,[i] I cast my mind back to what Gordon Weiss had to say on the subject in his book, The Cage.

Bad Writing

Jason Burke[ii], writing in the Literary Review, describes this book as a : “comprehensive, fair and well-written work”. I beg to differ about the well-written bit. It is a good read, but not a good write. As seems to be the custom with contemporary authors in any genre [iii], Weiss provides a lengthy list of acknowledgements to those without whom etc….

Weiss is readable enough but it is a pity that some of those who “helped” did not draw his attention to several examples of inelegant English or lack of clarity.

I am not sure if it is helpful  or logically sound to describe Sri Lanka as “this endemically violent country”.[iv] I will leave it to those with more expertise than I possess in linguistic analysis and Sri Lankan history to argue that one.

“Most ominously of all, there is good evidence that at least on some occasions the Tigers fired artillery into their own people”.[v] Notice the jarring disjunction between the firm “good evidence” and the slippery and logically meaningless “on at least some occasions”. The way that he expresses it make it seem like a minor peccadillo on the part of the Tigers, perhaps no more than clumsiness.

“Yet, contrary to the ICRC, the very breadth of this mandate makes for inherent contradictions, so that  the UN often finds itself   at loggerheads with itself”.[vi] It is that “contrary to” that buggers up the sentence. I think he means that the UN has a broader mandate than the ICRC.

“Hunger, however, is a great leveller, and erodes at notions of freedom, turning a resistant mood”. [vii] What?!

Navi Pillay, UN Commissioner for Human Rights,  is described as “an ethnic Indian Tamil of South African origin”. [viii]Would it not be better to say “A South African of Indian Tamil origin”?

Factual Errors

In his review on Groundviews, Sanjana Hattotuwa, pointed out some errors and even sternly scolded about “irresponsibly written and edited content”.[ix]  Sanjana points out that it was an armour-plated BMW 7 Series that saved Gotabaya’s life, not a Mercedes. When the war ended, there was a “big, riotous party” in Colombo (and indeed in Badulla) rather than ”little of the air of celebration” that Weiss claims. Sanjana points out that Weiss gets his Peirises mixed up – Prof. GL was never Attorney General.

Some of Weiss’s statements raised an eyebrow with me. “In what they called Eelam (a Tamil word implying separation) a small portion of the Tamil inhabitants of Sri Lanka began to enjoy the fruits of an independence long denied by the Sri Lankan state, including the right to use their own language”.[x] Did Tamils living under Prabakharan in Killinochchi really have a better life than those living in Wellawatte?

Am I alone in finding Weiss’s use of his Jewish forebears’ victimhood vicarious and somewhat distasteful? Weiss claims that during the Second World War his own grandfather “and dozens of other relatives were killed because of their ethnicity”. He is blasé about the LTTE’s racism. Would Weiss be in the appeasement camp had he lived in Europe in the 1930s?

On page 203 he says the Chinese built a port in Laem Chabang in Myanmar. Laem Chabang is in Thailand not far from Pattaya Beach, where I once went on holiday.

“In relative terms, and in the course of a long and bloody civil war, the number of civilians killed by terrorist acts attributed to the Tigers was somewhat modest compared with estimates on the overall death toll inflicted on the Tamils”.[xi] Discuss. What does “in relative terms” mean? The “overall death toll inflicted on the Tamils” includes, of course, Tamils killed by the Tigers. Perhaps he should have clarified that.

Weiss says on page 65 that Alfred Durayappah, Prabakharan’s first victim, was appointed mayor of Jaffna by the prime minister. He was elected not appointed.

On page 237, Mano Ganesan, is described as “the TNA party leader”. I asked Mano about this. “What to say? Gordon is a known friend. It is an oversight. No issue. haha. I am comfortably the leader of Democratic People’s Front, the party of the Voiceless, the party which conducts democratic struggles for all the people of all the regions.” [xii]

In his survey of Sri Lankan history, Weiss criticises D S Senanayake for settling Sinhalese in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa,  “part of Tamil majority ‘dry zone’ as opposed to the Sinhalese majority ‘wet zone’”.  Sinhalese view those areas as the cradle of their  ancient civilization rather than part of a Tamil homeland.

Lack of Expertise

“In Sri Lanka, even though I could not bear witness, I was close enough to the levers of action to believe that they [children] were being wounded and killed in large numbers each day”. My emphasis.

That’s not what it says on the tin. The cover blurb says: “Gordon Weiss witnessed the conflict at first hand as a UN spokesman in Colombo”.

The bibliography is both long and deep. If he has actually read all those publications he is a better man than I am. I wonder how he found the time. The notes are also extensive and informative, although open to debate in some instances.

Weiss was not a witness. Like an urban myth or an internet hoax, a story gets passed around and is treated as legal currency. The neologism “churnalism” has been credited to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir who coined the term in 2008. “You get copy coming in on the wires and reporters churn it out, processing stuff and maybe adding the odd local quote.” Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” – “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”.

Praise for Sri Lankan Army

Weiss has good things to say about the Sri Lankan Army. “On the whole, however, the vast majority of people who escaped seem to have been received with relative  restraint and care by the front-line SLA troops who quickly passed them up the line  for tea, rice and first aid. The faceless enemy, such a source of terror for the young peasant men and women of  southern Sri Lanka who made up  the majority of the troops, were suddenly given a human aspect, as thin, bedraggled and women clutching children to their breasts and pleading in a foreign tongue fell at their feet”.[xiii]

Note that Weiss cannot say that those who “escaped” were treated with care. It has to have the begrudging modifier “relative”. Relative to what? Relative to the care given by the  LTTE from whom they had escaped?

He repeats similar sentiments later but drops the begrudgery. “During the course of research for this book, dozens of Tamils described the Sinhalese as inherently kind and gentle people. The front-line soldiers who received the first civilians as they escaped to government lines, those who guarded them in the camps and the civilian and military doctors who provided vital treatment distinguished themselves most commonly through their mercy and care.”[xiv] We will forgive the dangling participle. Only a pedant would point out that Tamils were not doing the research.

Hang on – weren’t these internment camps? “If a civilian survived the crossing , they faced an uncertain future in government internment camps (of the existence of which they were well aware)” .[xv] I was tempted to file that under Bad Writing.

“It remains a credit to many of the front-line SLA soldiers that, despite odd cruel exceptions, they so often seem to have made the effort to draw civilians out from the morass of fighting ahead of them in an attempt to save lives. Soldiers yelled out to civilians, left gaps in their lines while they waved white flags to attract people forward and bodily plucked the wounded from foxholes and bunkers. Troops bravely waded into the lagoon under fire to rescue wounded people threading their way out of the battlefield or to help parents with their children, and gave their rations to civilians as they lay in fields, exhausted in their first moments of safety after years of living under the roar and threat of gunfire”.[xvi]

Numbers Game

Weiss introduces a caveat. “I have not dealt in close detail  with the matter of figures of dead and wounded, how they are calculated and how reliable those sources  might be. I make the point in the text that it is for others to get closer to that particular particle of truth”. [xvii]  A strange way of putting it. Despite this disclaimer, throughout  the book , Weiss  repeats the mantra that 10,000 to 40,000 civilians were killed.

Weiss was and is a major player in the numbers game. When he was  working  for the UN in Colombo,  he went on record as saying the number of civilian casualties was 7,000. This became the official figure quoted by The UN General Secretary’s New York spokesperson,  Michelle Monas, who told Inner City Press reporter Matthew Lee, “We have no way of knowing the exact count”. When Weiss left the UN and returned to Australia and began writing this book he increased the figure to 15,000,  which he then upped to  40,000, a figure that a whole range of media outlets, including BBC and NDTV, ran with. Journalists confused the issue by failing to make clear whether information came from “an employee of the UN”  or  “a former employee of the UN”, rather than “the UN”.

“From this confusion of information, and despite the prospect that the Tamil Tigers might be forcing the Tamil doctors or the UN staff, to give inflated figures of the dead and wounded, the accumulation of events and casualties seemed consistent”.[xviii] Having raised the possibility that figures were inflated, he gives himself licence to inflate further.

“From this point on, the death toll could only grow”.[xix] Does this mean that more people would be killed or that estimates of the dead would become more inflated? Earlier on the same page, a press release by Navi Pillay is quoted which says that as many as 2,800 civilians “may have been killed”. Weiss gives this spin: “Critically, the civilian death toll Pillay quoted finally established a baseline that had some kind of official imprimatur and weakened government efforts to confine solid numbers to the realm of speculation and confusion”. Pillay’s statement did not take us out of the realms of speculation because she said “as many as 2,800 may have been killed”. That is speculation. What does establishing a “baseline” mean? Does it mean that because Pillay says “as many as 2,800 may have been killed” that gives Weiss licence to say 10,000 to 40,000 and Frances Harrison  to say 147,000?

Gordon Weiss’s lower  estimate of 7,000 civilian deaths, made in 2009, was challenged by Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, who stated in New York on 24 March 2009 that this figure could not be verified. In spite of this, Weiss throughout The Cage routinely talks of “between 10,000 and 40,000”,  which is meaningless.

Convoy 11

In his Groundviews review, Sanjana Hattotuwa writes that The Cage is: “A mind-numbingly harrowing account of violence that supports what the UN Panel of Experts says are credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Weiss takes pains to emphasise that the appalling details are based on reports by two men who each had significant experience in active combat.”

Sanjana  chastises Weiss for naming names which the Darusman Report withheld: “Justifiable caution over and confidentiality of sources in the UN Panel’s report is ruined by the revelations in The Cage, attributed by Weiss to specific individuals. ..After reading The Cage, it is a matter of simple extrapolation that the sources were in fact Col. Khan and Col. Du Toit.”

Rajiva Wijesinha recalls meeting ”the shady South African Chris du Toit”[xx], whom he says was an intelligence officer for the apartheid regime. Weiss also claims that Du Toit had trained and commanded proxy guerrilla forces in the illicit wars fought by South Africa in Angola. Du Toit was most probably involved in the training of Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA guerrilla group who committed horrendous crimes against humanity in Angola.

Wijesinha questions Du Toit’s method of calculating civilian casualties. “He said that there were three elements taken into consideration, first the dead bodies … seen by UN staff, secondly reports they received, and thirdly extrapolation. Pressed on the number of those seen by the UN, he said it was something like 39, over the previous month. Given what he then said about the numbers calculated on the other methods, I believe the figure that was being floated around was excessive. The implications of the methods he employed, for speculation that is now treated as gospel by the panel, need to be reviewed in greater detail”.[xxi]

Wijesinha continues: “Under close questioning, he had to admit that, while there had been firing on areas near where he had been sleeping, he could not say with any certainty from which direction the firing had come. He had brought with him large pictures of craters caused by shells, and he took out one and said that was the only shot the direction of which they could be certain of, and that had come from the direction of the LTTE forces.”

The UN officer who was actually with the convoy was Retired Colonel Harun Khan. He is said to have managed counter-insurgency operations in Bangladesh,[xxii] most probably against the Buddhist Chakma hill tribes in the Chittagong Hill Tracts where horrific crimes against humanity were committed.[xxiii]

Weiss says Harun Khan took photographs of the carnage, but the only example he provided seems to be questionable. This is what Groundviews said: “The problem is that this photo, part of what Weiss claims is ‘many other images of the wounded and dead from these days in late January 2009’ taken by Col. Harun was actually taken 22nd August 2008 at 5.08pm, and not in late January 2009. This emphatically does not help any advocacy, domestic and international, to hold those responsible for alleged war crimes accountable for their actions and calls for independent investigations to determine the veracity of these very serious allegations. It is possible that Weiss was careless, and posted the wrong photograph. It is possible he and the UN, as we noted in our review of his tome, have the originals of these images, where similar scrutiny under any photo editing programme can very easily determine whether they are in fact from late January or earlier.”[xxiv]

I do not know the truth of what happened but there is a lot of churnalism here. Weiss’s account cannot “support” the Panel’s view because he was not there and they were not there. I gather from Weiss’s account that Du Toit was not with the convoy either but was back in Colombo.

Conclusion

Weiss quotes Timothy Garton Ash: “Liberal internationalism… means developing norms and rules by which most states will abide, preferably made explicit in international law and sustained by international organisations. It posits some basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet…It seeks to  build peace between nations on these foundations”.

I am a great admirer of Timothy Garton Ash. I have even set up a Google alert so that I can read all of his articles. Let us not forget, however, that he supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the “Coalition of the Willing”. Remind me what the reason for that invasion was. First of all, Iraq was somehow behind 9/11; then Saddam had WMD; when those excuses proved spurious the invasion was retrospectively justified as being about  “basic rights that belong to every human being on this planet”.

Weiss puts his own spin on this: “The choice between strategies when fighting  an insurgency is relatively straightforward”. There’s that word again; relative to what? Weiss believes that liberal democracies choose the “hearts and minds” strategy. I am reminded of General Westmoreland’s maxim: “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”. See how the liberal democracy that is the United States conducted “counterinsurgency” in Vietnam[xxv]. Weiss sermonises: “Counterinsurgencies are fought by liberal democracies in places like Afghanistan. Their leaders and decision makers understand that they are ultimately answerable to constituencies that might, like the French in the Algerian war of independence, withdraw support if they become too murderous”.

Despite praising the conduct of most SLA soldiers, Weiss in the end accuses the winning side of exceptional brutality, not fitting in with his sense of how liberal democracies would fight insurgency.  As Sanjana Hattotuwa said in his review: “Weiss offers no larger analysis of this tragic fragmentation between spontaneous compassion and calculated mass scale atrocity, and its effects on the civilians caught in direct or cross-fire. “

Has the book had an influence? It generated great interest in foreign embassies in Colombo. As Sanjana told me: “Several embassies had block booked 20 – 30 copies of the book, which resulted in higher than planned demand. This may have given rise to the perception at the time the book was hard to get, which it was, but not because of heavy handed Govt censorship.”[xxvi]

 

Jason Burke is generally positive about The Cage but finds something lacking in the coverage of President Rajapaksa: “His various political victories are not the result of electoral fraud. The end of the war in Sri Lanka has sparked an economic boom that is forecast to double the wealth of Sri Lankans – if not of northern or plantation Tamils – within a few years and possibly triple it within a decade as foreign investment and tourists flow in. If that is so, his continued rule seems assured.”


[iv] The Cage pxx

[v] The Cage p109

[vi] The Cage p139

[vii] The Cage p191

[viii] The Cage p205

[x] The Cage p8

[xi] The Cage p81

[xii] Personal communication via Facebook.

[xiii] The Cage p181[xiii]

[xiv] The Cage p186

[xv] The Cage p209

[xvi] The Cage p216

[xvii] The Cage pxxvii

[xviii] The Cage p135

[xix] The Cage p205

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