Out last night amongst the tawdry lights of Sydney’s Darling Harbour with Philip Hoare, author of the lauded and exceptionally beautiful book Leviathon, the story of the whale today, and before. Philip is a wonderful author of course, having written biographies of Stephen Spender and Noel Coward, but far more importantly to me he is a childhood friend of an (almost) childhood friend of mine, Clare Goddard, with whom I spent a lot of very happy beer and theatre luvvies time when living in Prague (we set up the first English-language theatre group) in the years following the Velvet Revolution. Philip is an extraordinary man, self-evidently, who castigates and comforts his spirit each day with the iron discipline of a swim, usually in the chilly black waters off Southampton, but in this case in the much more welcoming Watsons Bay. Through Philip I can almost honestly say that I have ‘worked with’ Stephen Fry, Tilda Swinton, Simon Callow, and David Cameron (that is, the current UK Prime Minister). Philip gave me a chapter (number 87, The Grand Armada) to read in his 3 MILLION HITS-strong Moby Dick Big Read. A few weeks after I recorded the piece, having wrestled with the longest chapter in the book, I was sitting on the clifftops in Newcastle, watching several passing whales when my daughter Catalina raised her finger and I followed her signal to the horizon. There, slow rising against the violet clouds of an early evening I could see precisely the vaporous purple spray of spouting whales, etching a row of perfect curlicues of water on the lip of the curve of the sea, and my heart stood still at the wonder. Philip has swum many times with whales, and his book is full of details almost too fantastic to comprehend, such as the sheer age of the Bowhead whale, still hunted in North America, which is thought to live more than 300 years. He also gave me an interesting take on the current stoush in the International Court between Australia and Japan, where the former is seeking to stop the hunting of Minke whales. The Japanese were taught deep sea whaling by the Americans in the 1920s and 1930s, and equipped with US vessels at the end of WWII so that she might feed her hungry and devastated people. Whale meat formed an important part of the Japanese diet, but it had been in steep decline for years (when I lived in Japan in the late 1980s I was offered whale meat and told by my host that soon it would no longer be possible to find it in the markets). Australia’s efforts to stop the killing of whales (a practice I abhor) is probably generating greater interest in the meat as a ‘tradition’ in Japan, at a time of rising nationalist sentiment. And of course, the Japanese rightly look askance at those countries like Norway and the US who continue to hunt kill far more precious whale species that the Minke. Thanks Philip for the barrel of laughs.

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Towards a resolution in March 2014

When I left the UN in late 2009, when my assignment to Sri Lanka had come to a close, to write “The Cage”, and made my first public remarks about what I thought was the true proportion of civilian deaths, the UN office in Colombo very correctly issued a brief paragraph statement that my remarks were my own, and that my views did not reflect the position of the UN. It was a bare statement of fact but, conversely, it did not represent a refutation, rejection, or modification of my central point by the UN. Here’s what I said at the time:

“I believe that between 10,000 and 40,000 is a reasonable estimate. I think most likely it’s somewhere between 30,000 to 40,000.”

In March 2011, after a year of research and writing, my book was published by Pan Macmillan and and Random House, and eventually by Bellevue Literary in the US. The commissioning editors, Kay Peddle at RH, Tom Gilliat at PM, and my close friend Erika Goldman at Bellevue, deserve huge credit for their prescience, as does my New York agent Jonah Straus.

Since that time, the UN has decisively owned what I said, and has gone much further. First, in April 2011, at the direction of UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, a panel of international judicial experts issued a report claiming that upwards of 40,000 civlians were probably killed, the vast majority of them by government of Sri Lanka forces.

Then, in November 2012, another report commissioned by the Secretary-General, the Petrie Report, claimed that somewhere between 40-70,000 civlians may have been killed in the final months of the war. Once again, the Petrie Report placed responsibility for those deaths at the feet of government forces, and my own comments looked conservative by comparison.

In early 2013, spurred by an April resolution in the UN Human Rights Council calling on Sri Lanka to account for its conduct of the war (and not just that of the LTTE), I began to cooperate with a group of Australian lawyers, war crimes investigators, military experts, and international law academics, in order to bring about a comprehensive examination of the factual and legal elements of the allegations. The ambition was to use the same standards of proof used by UN international inquiries into war crimes in places like Darfur and Gaza, and to compile a body of evidence that might be substantial enough to serve as a “prosecution ready” brief.

The Australian philanthropist Graham Wood, a man of huge integrity, entirely funded the initial stages. Soon, the International Crimes Evidence Project was operating under the auspices of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney, with the board and its tireless CEO, Ed Santow, having fully committed to the project. This report was tabled in the Australian Senate last week, was reported in The New York Times and Al-Jazeera among many other media groups, and the issue of Sri Lanka was editorialized by the NYT.

Australia followed with a Senate motion calling for Australia to support reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. Our own Senate motion was weaker than a motion presented by Republican senators the previous week in the US, calling for an international investigation into allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka.

This far more interesting motion calls for “the United States and the international community to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to evaluate reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka.”

Linked to this was a clause in the motion calling upon President Obama to “develop a comprehensive policy towards Sri Lanka that reflects United States interests, including respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, economic interests, and security interests.”

So where’s this heading? In February, the US indicated that it will be putting a resolution forward at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. It’s expected that this will include a motion for an international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka, the government so manifestly having failed to either make any effort at a true account of civilian dead, or even to propose a serious political solution to the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka. Worse, as the International Crimes Evidence Project uncovered, the government seems to have been systematically digging up and destroying mass graves.

It’s been an interesting few years. Meanwhile, I’ve been offered numerous senior assignments back with the UN, the last just two weeks ago. The time’s not quite right, but I will eventually return to serve the organization I worked for, in full belief that while UN systems are imperfect, the heart of the organization and its servants remain true.

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Israel’s special responsibility

A trite and misleading characterization of Israel’s immoral occupation and cleansing of Palestinian lands is that it is akin to the crimes of the Nazis. I bristle whenever I hear this, particularly when it springs from the mouths of European babes, younger generations now outwardly unmarked by the dyed-in anti-Semitism of their forefathers, but somehow still unconsciously stained by it.

My father’s father died on the march from Auschwitz, and most of his family were swallowed by the Holocaust. There are very few European people who have any cause to be proud of the treatment of the substantial minorities that have lived among them for millennia (the Jews and Gypsies), let alone the treatment periodically meted out to each other.

Though true that the death or suffering of a single human being is relative, and a mirror to all human suffering, that mirror shattered when it came to the Holocaust. True enough again, there is no shortage of examples of the state turning its privileged monopoly of power to evil ends – China under Mao, the U.S.S.R. under Stalin, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and so on to less competent or complete examples.

But The Nazi regime outstripped them all and anyway, Israel doesn’t even begin to compete in that league. Researchers have only just now totted up the real figure of Nazi concentration, extermination, and slave labour camps.

For all the reasons laid down by Hannah Arendt, and illustrated so perfectly in the 2001 film conspiracy, which starred Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, it took high German civilization – careful, polite, superficially and anally lawful, solicitous of equals, deferential to power – to give us bureaucratized, total genocide. After all, there was a lot to clean up. Jazz, modernism, blacks, Brecht, lesbianism, and quotidien living – they went for all that good stuff generated by the Weimar government’s European Renaissance, an unsteady financial system, and a society deformed by war.

The Nasties went for Germans first: the physically deformed, the mentally ill, the abnormal, the anti-social, the oppositionists, the alternative and the queers before they moved on to the Jews, the Gypsies, and eventually the Slavs. And then just when things were going so well, it all came crashing down.

“Conspiracy” uses transcripts that were meant to be destroyed, but which some careless indisciplined Nazi office worm failed to consign to fire. As a result of this oversight, I spent a warm afternoon in 2011 with my old German girlfriend Susi Begemann wandering around the rooms of the Wannsee villa in Potsdam in which the plot to exterminate Europe’s Jews was arranged, and minuted.

Those present included the concert pianist and mass murderer, Heinrich Heydrich, and his side-kich Adolf Eichmann who would later swing from an Israeli rope. If you ever wanted ‘intent,’ Wannsee had it in bunches. I got a special pleasure in running my hands over the polished woodwork, and my covetous eyes over the statues of naked women. Heydrich had planned to live in the villa after the war, until the war’s bravest Czechs spoiled it for him with Sten guns and grenades.

Susi’s grandfather would have been present at the conference too if he had been important enough, because he was a dedicated Nazi and a bitter apologist until his last ripe-old-age breath. In my dear Susi, a medical doctor and an art therapist living in Berlin, there is of course no trace of anything except incomprehension about the crimes of her forebears and a total Beidermeer-ish sensitivity to any human suffering.

So, there simply is no equivalent to the German and Jewish experience, wherein high civilization turned itself inside out, butchering the children of others – Jews, the Roma, Slavs and so on – before consuming its own. But, but, but, here is the glottal stop, the great sigh, the shudder, the sadness, and the knowingness…

As one reads about Israel over the past 40 years, a both downward and upward trajectory since the 1967 war in which the armies of five Arab states sought to annihilate the Jewish state, one cannot but feel a darkening presence. And for me the darkest has been a news report that has been circulating for some months, about a possible state-managed programme of – dare one say it? – genocide, directed not at Arabs, but at Israel’s black Jews, the Falasha of Ethiopia, also known as the Beta.

In 1975 the Israeli government accepted rabbinical determinations, in part based on a 16th century rabbinical ruling, that the Falasha were one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Although small numbers of Falasha had been making aliyah (the return to the Biblical promised land) since the 1960′s, it was war and famine that finally uprooted them almost entirely from their ancient Ethiopian homes. From the mid-1980′s Israel mobilized it’s military to rescue the Falasha en masse in airlifts bearing sonorous titles like operations Solomon and Moses. The Falasha community in Israel is now around 120,000 strong.

In December, sparked by a precipitous fall in Falasha birth rates and an investigative TV report, Israeli newspapers began reporting that the anti-fertility drug Depo-Provera had been widely administered by Israel’s Ministry of Health to Falasha women. The programme had run both in Ethiopian camps as Falasha awaited emigration to Israel, and as part of ongoing programmes once they had settled in Israel.

In one of four Israeli health maintenance organizations, for instance, 60% of Depo-Provera injections were given to Falasha women. Other high-use groups included those in mental institutions. Unfortunately, many of the women were unaware of what they were being dosed with. Birthrates among Falasha women have halved in ten years. The Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Health Professor Ron Gamzu issued an order to Israel’s four health maintenance organizations to stop routinely administering Depo-Provera to Ethiopian Jews.

This deeply disturbing example of “coercive administration” ought remind Israeli’s of their special responsibility, and enrage them that a government, or bureaucracy, has undertaken a policy such as this on their behalf, using their taxes. If this is what can be done to Jews, presumably based on that most primitive of forms of discrimination, that of colour, what the hell do they think is being done to the Palestinians on their behalf?

The reporting of this incident seems to be at best muted. An investigation is underway, and if this policy, with its overtones of genocide, cannot be adequately justified, then there ought to be a full judicial investigation, and vigorous prosecution of the architects.

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Drone justice

Flying from Beijing last week, I noticed the Reuters China story below. Two things of note. Firstly the public backlash against the public execution of four murderers, suggesting that the authorities are out of touch with some segments of the Chinese public. And secondly, before apprehending them the Chinese considered a drone strike to kill these Burmese fugitives, suggesting an interesting and dangerous extension of the U.S. doctrines governing targeted assassinations, dangerous enough already.

(Reuters) – An “execution parade” on China’s state television of four foreign men sentenced to death for killing 13 sailors on the Mekong River caused anger in China on Friday, with many people saying it was an unnecessary display of vengeance.

The 2011 murder of the Chinese sailors was one of the deadliest assaults on Chinese nationals overseas in modern times and prompted the government to send gunboat patrols to the region downstream from its border.

Chief suspect Naw Kham, extradited to China by Lao officials in May, was found guilty of the killings of the sailors last year in the “Golden Triangle” region known for drug smuggling, where the borders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet.

Naw Kham, from Myanmar, and the three others were executed by lethal injection in the Chinese city of Kunming, but not before being paraded live on state television, trussed with ropes and shackled in chains, as police led them from the jail to a bus taking them to the place of execution.

The actual execution was not shown.

“Using two hours to broadcast live the process for these criminals facing the death penalty is a violation of Article 252 of the Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China,” said prominent human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan.

“This provision says that criminals facing the death penalty cannot be put on public display.”

The broadcast by China Central Television also violated a law by the Supreme People’s Court that a “person’s dignity should never be insulted”, Liu said.

Chinese television used to show such scenes regularly but largely stopped almost two decades ago, though they still crop up occasionally on provincial channels.


The return to this practice sparked outrage from many on social media sites.

“They tied him in ropes and paraded him in front of 1.3 billion Chinese — is this what the human rights the government always stresses is really all about?” wrote on user on China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo microblog.

“I know they killed 13 Chinese people and it was a terrible thing, but it’s really not appropriate to live broadcast the execution process like this and it goes against Supreme Court rules,” wrote another.

The hunt for Naw Kham got heavy play in Chinese media, with some newspapers trumpeting his capture as akin to the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces.

The widely read tabloid the Global Times said that China had even considered conducting its first drone strikes to kill Naw Kham, but authorities decided they wanted to take him alive and put him on trial.

One of the other three executed men was Thai, one was Lao and the other was stateless, Chinese media said.

China is believed to execute thousands of people annually – the exact number is a state secret – and there is widespread support for the death penalty, though the number of crimes that carry it has been reduced in recent years.

But the parading of the for convicted of the Mekong murders would raise questions for Chinese people about the use of executions, said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.

“It’s predatory, voyeuristic and exploitative and that defeats the very purpose of having a legal system,” he said.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Westminster Hall address to Global Tamil Forum meeting

In the past few years, I’ve largely avoided junkets from Sri Lankan diaspora groups, for fear of being tarred with various brushes. The two exceptions (not junkets of course) were from Toronto’s Sri Lankans Without Borders , a group dedicated to building common ground between all of Lanka’s communities, and now the Global Tamil Forum, who persuaded me to travel to London for their third annual conference. Sunday I was laying in the sun in Australia, trying to heal a herniated disk in my back. That evening, I decided to catch a plane the next morning.

I was convinced by the line-up of speakers: the UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg; current and former UK foreign secretaries Douglas Alexander and David Milliband; current opposition leader Ed Milliband; Conservative leader in the Lords, Baroness Warsi; former Norwegian government minister Erik Solheim; leading international lawyer and academic, Professor Bill Schabas; the redoubtable Judge Yasmin Sooka, one of the three panellists on the UN’s Panel of Experts report, and Commissioner on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Callum Macrae, the producer and director of all three Channel 4 films, including his latest No Fire Zone which will be shown for the first time this Friday at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva; and representatives from the African National Congress; International Crisis group, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and Civicus.

This is quite apart from the other remarkable people I’ve met while here. Sri Lankan academic and writer, the wry Kumar David; the courageous M.M. Rajani Iqbal who, along with her husband, has done so much to document disappearances; the eloquent M.A. Sumanthiran, MP in the Sri Lankan parliament, and reputedly one of the best practising lawyers on the island; the doughty and irrepressible MP Rajavarothiam Sampanthan; and Father Emmanuelle, a theologian and scholar much disliked by the island’s regime.

This is the gist of what I had to say in the ten minutes I was given… Incidentally, my journey was funded by a European government.

“Thanks to the Tamil Global Forum for persuading me to be here. I’m grateful, considering the very persuasive group of Britain’s leading decision-makers who have fronted up today to lend their heft to this subject, turning their minds to reconciliation in Sri Lanka, supporting an end to the string of violent conflicts that has dominated this beautiful country’s last four decades.

I have said elsewhere that in the war in Sri Lanka, I had no dog in the fight. No Tamil wife, or cousin, no Sinhalese brother-in-law, or best friend. So I have always fancied that I am very much an outsider, an ordinary man if you will, with ordinary responses, and an impartial observer.

On Sunday I was lounging on the beach in Australia, trying to recover from a herniated disk, and it was very much a last minute decision to be here. I drove from my home to the airport on Monday, and flew via Beijing, thinking once again of my daughters…

I am not a human rights professional, and I have emphasized before that my response to the final page of Sri Lanka’s war was very much that of an ordinary person, despite my professional role and responsibilities as the UN’s spokesperson in Colombo at that time.

When I set out to write my book, The Cage, it was because as an ordinary man I simply felt the unfairness, the indecency of what had happened.

When in 2009, during the war, I returned from work at night time in Colombo to see my daughters comfortably sleeping, I would think of the thousands of children in the north, living through the terror of a siege, and of their parents who were unable to medicate them when they were suffering from from common illnesses, or to save then when they were injured by shrapnel, or when their limbs were torn by high-powered bullets.

I have repeated many times that I went to Sri Lanka as a supporter of the government’s right to reclaim its sovereign territory. The LTTE, a revolutionary organization whose brand of ruthless ultra-violence had effectively subverted the justice of its cause, had to be taken on. The government military campaign was a relatively disciplined fight, up until the end. And it is that end with which I have taken exception, and for which I have worked to explain. In dealing with extra-state groups, sovereign states have a standard of responsibility that must be adhered to. As we have learned from the years of emerging evidence of war crimes, the so-called “Sri Lanka model” is no model at all to be followed.

The understanding, or full comprehension of what happened in Sri Lanka has come a long way since 2009. I ought to say that British leaders such as David Milliband, then Foreign Secretary and who has spoken today, already knew full well that the version propagated by the government of Sri Lanka was not the truth. But for the broader public, the lines of the Sri Lankan government, things such as “not a drop of civilian blood was spilled,” rang somehow true.

There had been no bombing of hospitals or schools. No bombardment of civilian concentrations and bread lines. No withholding of precious medicines and food. No battlefield executions, and no rape and killing of captured Tamil Tiger female fighters, or of children.

The commonly accepted coin was that India would never shift from the rock-solid support that it had shown for Sri Lanka, so obvious in the Human Rights Council resolution of 2009. So too it has always been the common coin that China will never shift its support from Sri Lanka, an analysis that I dispute.

At the time, there had been no International Crisis group report of the final stages of the war, there was no UN Panel of Experts report, no Channel 4 documentaries, and nor was there the flurry of news reports wherein it is now accepted that a great many people died while the world’s press was so successfully excluded from the battlefield by the government of Sri Lanka.

Today it is generally accepted, as irrefutable evidence has gradually emerged and accumulated, that a great many civilians died, that their deaths were probably needless and egregious even given the circumstances of this terrible final chapter, and that war crimes were committed by both sides.

So here, while we sit in the Gladstone room, off the ancient Westminster Hall, we are surrounded by the portraits and statues of the great, those who constructed and presided over the Courts of Justice for 500 years. But I also find a neat metaphor in the marks of the stonemasons who built this great hall, ordinary men who left their marks in the chips and scrapes on these walls.

For fairness, and a sense of common decency, is an ordinary quality common to all people. It is this innate sense of fairness that builds systems of justice, and which inspires just outcomes. It is this decency that was once written about by Vaclav Havel, the former dissident and President of the Czech Republic, a sense of decency that is ultimately, I believe, bound to prevail over those who would shroud the truth, compel us to forget, and whose interests do not lie with justice for all. It is this sense of decency which results in organizations like the ANC or CIVICUS, and which I believe will result in a truth process in Sri Lanka that will support reconciliation and a lasting peace.

I’d like to refer to three words raised by Father Emmanuelle:

The first is sincerity. The Tamil community needs to work to actively dispel the murky past that characterized the Tamil struggle for equal rights. That is not to say that it didn’t have its place, or that it was not part of a legitimate struggle. It was. When faced with an unbending violence, sometimes the answer will be violence. But at some stage, that answer became an anachronism, and no longer suited to a post-9/11 world.

The second is consistency. Tamils need to build a common platform, based on shared political and social aims, to replace the confusing proliferation of Tamil groups that have flourished since the demise of the LTTE. Tamils need to have unity of purpose expressed in a common voice, if policy-makers are to be able to act on their behalf.

Thirdly, Tamils need to understand what will work and what won’t today, in 2013, and to recognize what will achieve a listening from political leaders and broader publics throughout the world.

Finally, Father Emmanuelle mentioned “freedom based on truth and justice,” and it is here that I want to raise the prospect of an historic opportunity for the Tamil diaspora.

The Tamil diaspora, linked with the leadership of Tamils who live in Sri Lanka today, and who must find an accommodation with the current government, have an historic opportunity. You must recognize and seize this chance. To resort to some Australian-isms for a moment: the cloth-eared, kack-handed, woolly-headed approach of the current Sri Lankan government has presented the Tamil community with a golden opportunity. The government of Sri Lanka has squandered so much goodwill, and has proven itself so untrustworthy, that they have opened a wide void for an opposition, which is not being effectively occupied.

But the Tamil diaspora, this incredibly well-organized group – professional, well-educated, and well-connected in politics and finance – has the opportunity to speak not only on behalf of Tamils, but also on behalf of all those who are excluded from meaningful participation in Sri Lankan political life today. That includes the Muslims, Sinhalese oppositionists, the media, lawyers, Budddhist priests who do not share the extremities of their brethren, and dare I say other minorities such as homosexuals.

In the words of a famous Czech artist whose name I have forgotten but whose words have stayed with me, “In supporting the freedom of others, I find my own.” At a time of growing oppression in Sri Lanka, there has perhaps never been a better moment for the Tamil Diaspora to support the freedom of others, thereby finding their own.

Thank you for your kind attention.”

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The Australian op-ed 22nd February

The headline was not mine…

Only upheaval can stem flow from Sri Lanka
BY:GORDON WEISS From:The Australian February 22, 2013 12:00AM

THE federal Coalition’s account of its recent mission to Sri Lanka is jarring when contrasted with a new report from the International Crisis Group, and with recent UN reports. With the boatpeople bogeyman running amok over Australia’s electoral landscape, and Australia due to scrutinise Sri Lanka’s record on postwar reconciliation and allegations of war crimes next month at the UN Human Rights Council, a fuller account is necessary.
Where the Coalition saw orderly transition from war, yesterday’s ICG report, Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action, describes a country where the dismantling of the rule of law threatens peace. While the Coalition thought a boat voyage a greater danger to life than any factor in Sri Lanka, the ICG confirms a steady drumbeat of extrajudicial killings, abductions and enforced disappearances.
The Coalition group concluded that Sri Lankan refugees were overwhelmingly economic migrants. Yet just two months ago the UN Refugee Agency, which sets the bar for refugee status, listed those who might qualify. These include those connected with former Tamil Tiger fighters, opposition politicians and supporters, journalists, human rights activists, witnesses to crimes, those seeking legal redress or, possibly, women, children and gays.

So what is going on in Sri Lanka?
Most observers thought the Tamil Tigers, an ultra-violent guerilla organisation, were indestructible. When crushed in May 2009 after almost three decades of fighting, the world applauded. The popularly-elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils.
After all, according to the UN, perhaps 40,000 Tamil civilians had been killed in the final few months, mostly by government forces, and overwhelming evidence of war crimes has since emerged. Reconciliation in the form of a political settlement was urgent to cement a lasting peace.
But the contrary has happened. ICG says that the concentration of power in the hands of the President’s family and the military, and the obstruction of a political deal for minorities, could destabilise Sri Lanka again. So were opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop and immigration spokesman Scott Morrison prudently pursuing Australia’s core interests when they reported being heartened by what they saw?
The detailed picture painted by the ICG and reflected in a report two weeks ago from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is relentlessly grim.
Sri Lanka is gripped by creeping despotism. The ruling family franchises out economic spoils. The island is imbued with an ethno-nationalist ideology that repudiates the place of Tamils and Muslims, who comprise a quarter of all Sri Lankans, and intimidates the many Sinhalese who oppose an authoritarian security state.
Police and proxy thugs bust up and fire on student and citizen demonstrations, and ransack opposition offices. Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya controls the army and police (and analysts contend he controls the flow of refugee boats too).
Anti-government websites are blocked, China-style. The targeting of journalists has cowed the press into submission. According to former regime stalwart and now dissenter, the diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka, the army is effectively an occupation force. Equipped with police powers, the huge Sri Lankan military has despoiled its legitimate security role. It squats on Tamil land, stifles their participation in their local economy, and menaces the population.
Meanwhile, according to the ICG, the Rajapaksa government is systematically dismantling Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions. A 2010 constitutional amendment, ushered through a supine parliament presided over by another Rajapaksa brother, neutered independent oversight bodies. The President now manages the checks and balances himself.
Last month, in a ploy he characterised as “devolutionary”, the President signalled his intention to weaken local government, the one forum where minorities have a measure of say over daily regional life. When Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice brought down a ruling this year that impeded headlong regime efforts to centralise control the President replaced her.
Empowered by the overt ethno-nationalism of the Rajapaksa clan, attacks on churches, mosques and minority businesses have spiked. Last month a group called the Buddhist Power Force burned effigies of Allah.
Sri Lanka’s treatment of minorities enrages India’s 60 million Tamils. Exasperated by the Rajapaksa government, India will almost certainly vote against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council this March.
Boatpeople flee from adversity. Sri Lanka has endured three deadly 20th-century revolts – two of them undertaken by Sinhalese, one by the Tamils – that probably killed well over 200,000 citizens since 1971. These revolts arose from precisely the same anti-democratic, bloody and unjust policies now being rolled out in Sri Lanka. On this Morrison was right: Only a change of government will stop Sri Lankan boat arrivals. To protect our long-term interests, as well as stability, Australia should support a Sri Lankan government intent on restoring Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions. For if another bloody civil conflict erupts – the fourth in 40 years — how will Australians handle the boatpeople who will surely follow?

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A book can make a difference, it seems

“When I was commissioned to do this report, the first thing I was handed was a copy of ‘The Cage.’ Weiss’s scrupulously balanced account should serve as a guidepost for decision-makers and scholars of international affairs. A book can change the world.”

Charles Petrie, diplomat and author of the UN’s “Petrie Report” into the UN’s role and responsibilities during the Sri Lankan conflict.

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UN has second chance on Sri Lanka

UN has a second chance to right wrongs on Sri Lanka
BY: GORDON WEISS From: The Australian November 16, 2012 12:00AM

THERE is little doubt that in 2009 the government of Sri Lanka pulled off one of the nastiest episodes of mass killing since the Rwandan genocide – and got away with it. Tens of thousands of civilians were massacred, with barely a trickle of Syria-like imagery emerging from the battle zone.

In a new report released in New York, the UN has shouldered its portion of responsibility for this bloody catastrophe. It is a heavy burden indeed.

The Petrie Report predicates its scouring of the UN’s role on a vast and intricate web of evidence pointing to crimes committed by both government and Tamil Tiger forces. Of the two, government forces bear the greater culpability.

Despite a clear advantage over the near-vanquished rebels, the army bombed packed hospitals, used starvation tactics, executed civilian captives, raped and killed female guerillas and corralled women and children into “safe zones” before shelling them. When that was done, it interrogated and then killed the Tamil Tiger political and military leadership, along with their families.

The UN’s investigators conclude that the UN system faltered just when it was most needed, from the field level up to the powerful Security Council, where Australia is now taking a seat.

While many UN staff acted bravely and dutifully, other key staff forgot their first responsibility, the protection of life. Instead, according to the report, they favoured bureaucratic stratagems, trading off civilian lives against misconceived priorities. While the Sri Lankan government successfully shrouded the kill zone from the prying eyes of the international press, UN dissembling obscured it further.

For its part, the UN Security Council studiously ignored the warning signs so obvious in a civil war. Syria, now in the glare of international scrutiny as a result of media coverage, is a useful direct comparison.

In Sri Lanka in 2009, with a battlefield blacked out by the government, the gathering massacres were out of sight, and thus more easily kept out of mind. While the council has met dozens of times over the Syria crisis, and has sent in observers, in 2009 it failed to officially meet even once on Sri Lanka. It refused to consider the issue despite solid indications from UN personnel, diplomatic missions, satellite images and individual member states that something awful was unfolding. Did Sri Lanka read this as a nod to go ahead, whatever the cost?

For its part, the UN Secretariat failed on two fronts. First, as the Petrie report tells it, the Secretary-General’s team recoiled from telling the Security Council in stark terms what it didn’t want to hear. Then, as UN staff buckled under intimidation and threats from Sri Lanka’s government, the UN Secretariat withheld the kind of support its staff needed to push back.

When Australian UN humanitarian worker James Elder warned that children were being killed, a government official accused him of supporting terrorists. The government expelled Elder. That government official, Palitha Kohona, is now Sri Lanka’s representative at the UN. His deputy is a former general accused of mass killing.

For UN loyalists, the report pulls no punches, and is uncomfortable reading. It will almost certainly lead to reform, despite the cynics who believe that the UN is merely a talk-fest.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is making good on his commitment to full accountability in his realm. The fact that the report was written by insiders (Charles Petrie, a former UN diplomat, was supported by a team of brilliant UN staff), means its criticisms and recommendations are founded on a solid and largely disinterested familiarity with how the UN functions in a crisis, and how it ought to function better next time.

“Never again” might seem cynical, if it were not for the many who continue to work for the UN and who believe in that phrase, despite Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Sri Lanka.

But it is vital to remember that the UN’s mea culpa moment pales alongside the culpability of the government of Sri Lanka, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers. Theirs is a sovereign government, democratically elected, which chose a deliberate path that led to the commissioning of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In a post-9/11 world, the mere mention of the word “terrorist” apparently provided a licence to kill large numbers of Sri Lanka’s citizens. Given that the current government controls the crime scene, and has excluded all outsiders, the dead will remain uncounted for many years.

Yet the government of Sri Lanka gave a written guarantee to the Secretary-General that it would provide a true account of what happened at the end of the war. Indeed, next March, Sri Lanka is due to front the Human Rights Council in Geneva. There, the government will describe just how it has complied (or not) with its guarantee. And here, oddly, Australia has an additional if little-known role.

Some years ago, under the auspices of the Australian chapter of the International Commission of Jurists, Australian lawyers began listening to the stories of Tamil refugees arriving on our shores.

They deposed witnesses to the war and opened files. In time, these efforts morphed into the International Crimes Evidence Project, which is now led by the Sydney-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre. ICEP is probably now the single largest repository of evidence related to war crimes in Sri Lanka in the world. ICEP’s personnel includes veterans from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

Next month, ICEP will hand a brief of evidence to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with evidence gathered and attested using the highest standards of international criminal law. While Sri Lanka is certain to argue next March that it has given a true account of the end of the war, ICEP’s brief will demonstrate otherwise.

The UN has a second chance at righting the wrongs committed in Sri Lanka, and Australia has a role, both through ICEP and our presence in the UN Security Council chamber.

Gordon Weiss was the UN’s spokesman in Sri Lanka. He is the author of The Cage and a founding adviser to ICEP.

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Gareth Evans writes on Sri Lanka’s war crimes

In today’s The Australian, former foreign minister Gareth Evans writes an op-ed on accountability for war crimes in Sri Lanka, on my book, on the forthcoming UN Petrie Report on the UN’s response to the Sri Lanka crisis, and on the Sydney-based International Crimes Evidence Project, of which I am a founding member.


Remembering Sri Lanka ’s Killing Fields

- Gareth Evans
Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia (1988-96) and former President of the International Crisis Group (2000-2009), co-chairs the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.

NEW YORK – One of the worst atrocity crime stories of recent decades has barely registered in the world’s collective conscience. We remember and acknowledge the shame of Cambodia , Rwanda , Bosnia , and Darfur . We agonize about the failure to halt the atrocities being committed almost daily in Syria . But, at least until now, the world has paid almost no attention to war crimes and crimes against humanity comparable in their savagery to any of these: the killing fields of Sri Lanka in 2009.

Three years ago, in the bloody endgame of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some 300,000 civilians became trapped between the advancing army and the last LTTE fighters in what has been called “the cage” – a tiny strip of land, not much larger than New York City’s Central Park, between sea and lagoon in the northeast of the country.

With both sides showing neither restraint nor compassion, at least 10,000 civilians – possibly as many as 40,000 – died in the carnage that followed, as a result of indiscriminate army shelling, rebel gunfire, and denial of food and medical supplies.

The lack of outrage mainly reflects the Sri Lankan government’s success in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative that had extraordinary worldwide resonance in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. What occurred in the cage, according to this narrative, was the long-overdue defeat, by wholly necessary and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection that had threatened the country’s very existence.

The other key reason behind the world’s silence is that the Sri Lankan government was relentless in banning independent observers – media, NGOs, or diplomats – from witnessing or reporting on its actions. And this problem was compounded by the timidity of in-country United Nations officials in communicating such information as they had.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government claimed throughout, and still does, that it maintained a “zero civilian casualties” policy. Officials argued that no heavy artillery fire was ever directed at civilians or hospitals, that any collateral injury to civilians was minimal, and that they fully respected international law, including the proscription against execution of captured prisoners.

But that narrative is now being picked apart in a series of recent publications, notably the report last year of a UN Panel of Experts, and in two new books: UN official Gordon Weiss’s relentlessly analytical The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, and BBC journalist Frances Harrison’s harrowingly anecdotal Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War.

Nobody underplays the LTTE’s contribution to the 2009 savagery; but, with the Tigers’ leaders all dead, international attention should now be focused overwhelmingly on holding the government accountable for its failure to accept its responsibility to protect its own people. For far too long, Rajapaska’s government has been evading accountability with an endless stream of diversionary maneuvers (usually involving committees of inquiry intended to lead nowhere, and duly complying), denial of physical access, outright dissimulation, and relentless verbal intimidation of anyone daring to question it.

Real international pressure is at last being placed on the government to explain its actions, most significantly by the much-maligned UN Human Rights Council in Geneva , which will consider Sri Lanka ’s response in March 2013. In doing so, it is likely to be armed with a full brief of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity now being compiled from eyewitness accounts by the Australian-basedInternational Crimes Evidence Project.

One of the most tragic aspects of the whole story, just now emerging, is the failure of UN officials on the ground to publicize at the time, when it really mattered, credible information that would have undercut the government’s narrative.

Specific estimates of casualties in the combat area were compiled by a UN team in Colombo from early 2009, based on regular radiophone contact with a handful of reliable sources – NGO, medical, and local UN Tamil staff – still on the ground. The information was incomplete, but it was solid – and alarming. But an institutional decision was taken not to use this information on the grounds that it could not be “verified.”

The real reasons are now emerging. In part, the UN team wanted to keep humanitarian assistance lines open. The team was also subjected to shameless verbal bullying by Sri Lankan officials (a deeply unpleasant experience to which I, too, have been subjected). The team’s members also knew that Sri Lanka ’s government had wide support among UN member states, and that the LTTE had none at all.

But, as the Lakhdar Brahimi Panel concluded a decade ago, after reviewing some of the catastrophic failures of peace processes in the 1990’s, the responsibility of the UN Secretariat must be to tell the UN Security Council what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear.

An internal review panel studying what went wrong in the UN system’s response to Sri Lanka , commissioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and headed by the distinguished diplomat Charles Petrie, is due to report to Ban next month. All indications are that it will not be a pretty story. It is crucial that its findings be made public and acted upon.

Selective memory is a defense mechanism with which we are all familiar. For governments and international organizations, as with individuals, moral failure is easier to live with if we can pretend that it never happened. But mass atrocity crimes did happen in Sri Lanka , there was moral default all around, and if we do not learn from this past, we will indeed be condemned to repeat it.

Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia (1988-96) and former President of the International Crisis Group (2000-2009), co-chairs the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.


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Gareth Evans launches The Cage in New York


New York, 17 October 2012

Speech by Gareth Evans flags the forthcoming UN “Petrie Report” which is expected to criticize the UN’s role in Sri Lanka.*



President Obama, in a speech at the Holocaust Museum in April this year launching the new Atrocities Prevention Board – a hugely welcome whole-of-government mechanism designed to ensure that the US government is never again caught flat-footed in the face of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes – recalled, as you would have expected him to, ‘the killings in Cambodia, the killings in Rwanda, the killings in Bosnia, the killings in Darfur’ as all of them shocking our conscience and demanding never to be repeated.

What he didn’t mention was the killings in Sri Lanka in 2009, when certainly more than 10,000 and as many as 40,000 civilians died of shellfire, gunfire, and lack of medicine and food when caught up in the bloody endgame of the government’s war with the Tamil Tigers, squeezed between the advancing army and the last Tiger fighters into what Gordon Weiss calls ‘the cage’ – a tiny strip of land in the north-east of the country, between sea and lagoon, not much bigger than Central Park. It’s unquestionably one of the very worst atrocity stories to have occurred anywhere in the world this century – and it’s told as lucidly and compellingly as it ever could be in this admirable book.  But somehow it just hasn’t registered in the world’s collective conscience in the same way as the other horror stories on President Obama’s list.

The most obvious reason for that is that the Sri Lankan government has so far largely succeeded in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative: that what occurred was the long overdue defeat, by wholly necessary and defensible means, of a murderous terrorist insurrection threatening the country’s very existence – a narrative that had extraordinary worldwide resonance in the aftermath of 9/11. The government claimed throughout, and still does, that it maintained a Zero Civilian Casualties policy, that no heavy artillery fire was ever directed at civilians or hospitals, that any collateral or cross-fire injury to civilians was minimal, and that it fully respected throughout international law, including in its treatment of captured prisoners.

It is the great virtue of this book that it picks apart that narrative, meticulously and systematically so as to make it clear that the government failed utterly in its responsibility to protect its own citizens, and that ‘it was the SLA that wrought the bulk of deaths upon the captive population’. But the writing is scrupulously even-handed. Anyone who might think this book is an apologia for Prabhakaran and the LTTE should read Chapter 4, on the appalling carnage perpetrated by the movement, whatever the wrongs it was seeking to right – and maybe just this passage on p141, describing their behaviour during those last terrible months:

…the Tamil Tigers were indeed  exercising a brand of  ruthless terror on their own people that defies imagination. As the combat area shrank and their desperation increased, their brutality increased exponentially. They would shoot, execute and beat to death many hundreds of people, ensure the deaths of thousands of teenagers by press-ganging them into the front-lines and kill those children and their parents who resisted.

But none of this can excuse what happened on the other side, as  Gordon Weiss makes clear, citing an abundance of wholly credible evidence, not least the graphic eye-witness account in Chapter 5 of the highly experience UN officer, Ret Col Harun Khan, leading a convoy trapped at the edge of a so-called No Fire Zone in January 2009, which cut through for the first time what had been until then, as the author puts it, ‘shrouded in a blanket of propaganda and censorship’, with no international officials, NGOs or media allowed to go anywhere near the military action; Khan’s description of the indiscriminate shelling from the government side and its horrifying aftermath makes deeply harrowing reading.

One of the most distressing aspects of the story is that how little of this kind of information got into international circulation at the time, when it needed to. A big part of the problem was the timidity of the relevant senior UN officials, with the honourable exception of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, and to some extent the Secretary General himself, who at least tried on multiple occasions – albeit only through quiet diplomacy, which proved manifestly ineffectual – to get President Rajapaksa to commit to restraint.

Partly because they wanted to keep humanitarian assistance lines open, partly because they knew that the government had very wide member state support in New York and the Tamil Tigers none at all, and partly because they were bullied into submission by Sri Lankan officials – lacking the confidence or experience on the ground to stand up to them – key officials on the ground just did not state publicly, or even put effectively into the internal UN system, such information as they had about the nature and scale of misbehavior on the government side.

Very specific cumulative estimates of casualties were compiled by a UN team in Colombo from early February on, based on regular radiophone contact with a handful of reliable sources still in the area, NGO, medical and local UN Tamil staff, which would have given solid chapter and verse to back up the growing concern about an impending catastrophe. But an institutional decision was taken not to use this information on the basis that it could not be ‘verified’, and the UN simply refrained at any level from, as Gordon puts it, ‘wielding its moral authority to publicly denounce the tabulated killing of civilians’ (p 145)

But, as he says, ‘if not the UN, then who?’ He quotes (p145) my successor as head of the International Crisis Group, Louise Arbour, on the evidentiary question:’…the standard should be reasonably credible information, or reasonable grounds to believe…It’s not unreasonable to speculate because you don’t have access…you cannot let the desire to maintain humanitarian access trump any other consideration’.

One answer to all of this, with which I – and I think the author – have some sympathy, is that ultimately (and especially on peace and security issues) the UN is no more and no less than its member states, that if those states have taken a position making clear they don’t want to act (as they essentially did here because of their characterization of the situation as a legitimate sovereign state response to terrorism) they can’t be made to, and officials cannot be held to a higher standard than those whom they serve. As Richard Holbrooke once put it, ‘Blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly.’

And yet. As the Brahimi panel put it, it is the responsibility of the UN Secretariat to tell the UN Security Council what it needs to hear, not what it wants to hear. And maybe, as more and more evidence emerges of the scale of the international community’s default in Sri Lanka, that message is at last getting through.

The Secretary General’s Panel of Experts to advise him on how best to ensure accountability of the government and LTTE for alleged violations told him last year that UN action in Sri Lanka had been a low point for the organization, which led him to establish a further ‘Internal Review Panel on UN Action in Sri Lanka’, headed by Charles Petrie, which is due to report this month. The indications are that this report will be quite hard-hitting: one only hopes that if it is, its recommendations will see the light of day, and be taken seriously.

But of course, of all the searchlights that now need to shine, none is more important than that focused on the Sri Lankan government itself.  With the LTTE leadership all now dead, it is on the failure of the Rajapaksa government to accept its own responsibility, and be made accountable, that international attention should now be overwhelmingly focused.  For far too long the government has simply been totally evading that responsibility, with an endless stream of diversionary manoeuvres (usually involving committees of enquiry intended to go nowhere, and duly complying), denials of physical access, outright dissimulation, and relentless verbal bullying of anyone daring to question it.

I have had direct personal experience of most of these tactics, especially the last, in my previous incarnation as President of the International Crisis Group, most memorably in the context of a speech I gave in Colombo in 2007 on the subject of the responsibility to protect, and its implications for the then rapidly deterioriating situation between the government and LTTE, which was quite pointed but deliberately non-confrontational in its observations.  This prompted a drumbeat of verbal assaults on me from senior government and national media figures which continued for months afterward, which I can only describe as the most crude and shameless I have ever experienced – which I guess as a member of the Australian Parliament for 21 years is really saying something.

The good news is that with the passage of time the pressure on the Sri Lankan government for genuine, not sham, accountability is now growing, not diminishing, and coming at the government from a number of different directions. The report of the Secretary General’s Panel in 2011, which I have already mentioned, and was published just after this book went to press, was itself a strong indictment of the Colombo government’s callous irresponsibility in the conduct of its final military operation against the LTTE.  The US Congress has maintained an intense interest in the issue, with members putting continued pressure on the Secretary of State to monitor progress on reconciliation and accountability.

But the most significant move may be that taken by the Human Rights Council in Geneva last year when, manifestly dissatisfied by the governments initial effort to divert criticism with its ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC),  resolved that Sri Lanka ‘address alleged violations of international law’ and prepare a ‘comprehensive action plan detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations’ of its own Commission – with the government’s response due to be considered by the Council in March 2013.

That deadline – and focal point – has has also promoted a flurry of other international activity including, perhaps most interestingly, the recent establishment of an Australian-based evidence-gathering project aimed at preparing a fully professional-standard brief of evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity which could ultimately support formal international prosecutions, but is proposed in the first instance to be tabled at the Geneva Human Rights Council meeting next year to inform the debate there. This International Crimes Evidence Project (ICEP), with which Gordon Weiss is closely involved as a founding adviser, is liaising with other NGOs around the world working on this issue, and is rapidly establishing itself as the central repository for Sri Lankan war crimes evidence

So the issue of the 2009 Sri Lankan atrocity crimes is not going to go away, and nor must it ever be allowed to. A country with so rich a history and culture and so many decent people deserves much more than to be, as Gordon says in his devastating final line, ‘a society sliding into tyranny where myth-making, identity whitewashing and political opportunism have defeated justice and individual dignity’.

There are now quite a few publications which have contributed in their various ways to keeping these issues alive, to putting pressure on Sri Lanka to become again the decent country it deserves to be, and to making clear just how badly the international community failed in its responsibilities three years ago.  But none has been as important, or as influential already, as this book, whose US edition we launch today. I congratulate the author and the publishers, and everyone associated with its appearance and distribution, and hope that it gets in this country the audience it so manifestly deserves.


*Gareth Evans, now Chancellor of The Australian National University, was Foreign Minister of Australia 1998-96 and President of the International Crisis Group 2000-09. He co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (2001), co-chairs the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, and is the author of The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008, 2009)



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