The government will engage in a major diplomatic offensive starting this week to get its position across with regard to the plight of civilians caught up in the fighting in the north in the wake of UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s highly-damaging report which said hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured in fighting since January this year.
While Ambassador, Dayan Jayatillke, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, will meet Ms. Pillay tomorrow to get across the government’s position, the Foreign Ministry is looking at it from an overall context to canvass its position in several important capitals.
“At a time when the international position is in favour of the country, a statement of this nature coming from the Human Rights Commissioner is of great concern. We have to look at it from an overall context as we have a situation where it may find its way into various other fora,” Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama told The Sunday Times.
Ms. Pillay said in a statement on Friday that according to credible sources more than 2,800 civilians had been killed and 7,000 wounded in fighting over the past two months.
“These assessments are unfair in terms of conclusions and quite contrary to the factual position,” Minister Bogollagama said adding his Ministry would engage its missions in New York, Geneva, and European Union countries with Brussels playing a key role to counter the assessments by the Human Rights Commissioner.
The UN Human Rights High Commissioner also said that actions by the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers might amount to war crimes.
Responding to this the Foreign Ministry’s legal advisor, Rohan Perera, said if there were allegations of war crimes, the fingershould be pointed at the other side and not the government because it was the LTTE that was using civilians as human shield and forcibly detaining them.
Ms. Pillay’s statement also drew an angry response yesterday from Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who said he was both “disappointed” and “dismayed’ at the manner in which figures for civilian casualties had been put together relying heavily on so-called credible sources.
“These figure tally closely with those put out by Tamilnet and other pro-LTTE organisations which are lobbying heavily on the sidelines of the ongoing UN Human Rights Council's sessions in Geneva,” the Minister told reporters at a media briefing.
He said that between February 10 and March 6 the ICRC had transported 2,224 civilians from LTTE-controlled areas and of these, about 900 had been those who were looking after the injured in the fighting.” If in reality there were 7,000 wounded, the ICRC would have not transported people who were accompanying the patients,” he said.
He also rejected claims by Ms. Pillay that government forces had shelled no-fire zones set up to protect the civilians.
He said troops had stopped the use of heavy weapons to safe guard the civilians in the no-fire zones and as a result of this, the troops had suffered more casualties while saving civilians.
Minister Samarasinghe also said he was alarmed that when he met with the Human Rights Commissioner less than a week ago in Geneva, she had not taken up the issue of civilian causalities with him or drawn his attention to these figures. “Before the statement was released, neither was our ambassador in Geneva contacted nor did the High Commissioner’s Representative in Colombo contact us to verify the facts,” the minister charged.
He added that nowhere in the statement did the High Commissioner call on the LTTE to release civilians it was holding as human shields.
Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona said the Human Rights Commissioner’s statement was only providing ammunition to those who were trying to tarnish the image of the country and bring about a ceasefire which would help the LTTE. “UN bodies are there to help governments and not to castigate them. We hope we will be given the opportunity to rectify the damage she has caused by issuing this statement,” he added.