The US embassy website’s controversial Twitter post on Thursday showing a photograph of what it called a place where hundreds of families were killed by army shelling during the war, is a cause for serious concern in Sri Lanka for many reasons. The picture was taken during a tour of the North by Stephen Rapp, [...]


Taking the rap for crimes not committed?


The US embassy website’s controversial Twitter post on Thursday showing a photograph of what it called a place where hundreds of families were killed by army shelling during the war, is a cause for serious concern in Sri Lanka for many reasons. The picture was taken during a tour of the North by Stephen Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large for war crimes who heads the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the U.S. State Department, with US ambassador Michelle Sison. It shows them at an abandoned playground with a fallen signboard in the foreground of the photo that reads ‘Anthany’s Ground.’ The caption says “St. Anthany’s Ground – site of Jan 2009 killing of hundreds of families by army shelling.”

While several news organisations inquired from the diplomatic mission about the Twitter post and the basis on which their claim was made, the embassy’s various responses seem to raise more questions than they answer. None of the reports cite any specific source. ‘Hiru TV’ translated a voice clip by the embassy’s Juliana Spaven as saying the sources cannot be revealed. ‘Derana’ quoted the same officer confirming that the tweet was official but reported her saying that ‘there is no new additional evidence to back the claim.’ A senior official at the embassy is reported having told ‘Reuters’ that “these are among the reports we heard.” An embassy spokesman has told ‘Daily FT’ that “these are the accounts of civilians and survivors.”

A question that arises is whether statements made by unidentified persons and selectively gathered by touring diplomats are to be the basis of allegations that the US will use to back up its call for an international war crimes investigation, as we know it plans to do, at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva in March. The contents of this tweet and the embassy’s manner of responding to media queries call into question the trustworthiness of information on the embassy website, and the bona fides of the mission itself. That’s because it makes unsourced and unauthenticated assertions about mass killings without even bothering to qualify them as being ‘alleged.’ It appears that the judgment has already been made that the allegations are true. This is shocking to say the least, considering the gravity of the issue in question, and the possible consequences for the government, the armed forces and the people of Sri Lanka.

Gathering evidence
One must also ask why the US embassy when it posted this material never bothered to consider the possibility that the ‘reports they heard’ may be lies, uttered or prompted by lobbies with vested interests in the outcome of this highly sensitive — and now internationalised and politicised — issue. Is it fanciful to consider that pro-LTTE separatist elements might ‘set up’ testimonies for the benefit of visiting VIPs? Is it unthinkable that the LTTE would deploy its finances and leverage abroad to circulate the same lie about a particular incident to different international players in order to create the appearance of consistency? Unwillingness to consider these possibilities on the part of the US and its allies gathering ‘evidence’ against Sri Lanka, calls into question their motives.

The UN Secretary General’s Advisory Panel of 2010 thought nothing of imposing a 20-year ban on revealing the sources of its controversial report. The present push for an international inquiry, which may be seen as an extension of the UNSG panel’s project, could involve similar methods to secure the desired mandate.
The Government’s response to this situation, or lack of it, is difficult to comprehend. There is a looming crisis that threatens to reverse the war victory, to replace Sri Lanka’s lived experience of an unavoidable war against a fascist-terrorist enemy, with a manufactured narrative of ‘genocide.’ It’s relevant to note that ‘genocide’ became the main motif of LTTE propaganda overseas no sooner the war ended.

Front organisations of the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation began to project themselves as ‘human rights crusaders’ practically overnight. The irony of this stunning reversal seems to be lost on governments of their host countries. The rhetoric of ‘genocide’ has suddenly cropped up in local Tamil politics as well, with Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran in his council’s first budget speech alleging that “activities of successive governments in this country have bordered on genocide if not genocide…” The TNA gained control of the NPC through a sweeping electoral victory. It may be pertinent to ask now whether the party’s representatives take their instructions from the Tamils of the North, who elected them, or from those of the Diaspora, who did not.

Credible investigations
Sri Lanka’s military spokesman has refuted the US embassy’s Twitter story, just as he has rebutted other allegations previously. But the problem Sri Lanka faces is one of external credibility, and it’s hardly convincing to have the military plead its own case. Aren’t there more credible third party testimonials the GoSL can draw on, to counter unjust blanket criticisms? For instance the rehabilitation programme for ex-combatants has been widely commended, with even the TNA having described it as ‘excellent.’ An American researcher, Prof. Arie Kruglanski, described it as “truly an example of how military victory needs to be followed up by forgiveness and peacemaking.” The accusation that food and medical supplies were withheld from the war zone would hardly withstand scrutiny if the GoSL showed how the World Food Program and ICRC collaborated in that operation.

Above all the Government needs to address the country’s unenviable human rights record. Not just because it is imperative to neutralise the external threat faced by the state, but because it owes it to the people of Sri Lanka. Credible investigations into Welikada prison deaths, Weliweriya, attacks on media and war-related incidents flagged by the LLRC have been delayed for too long. There seems to be a failure on the part of the Government to leverage the existing possibilities for pre-empting the gloomy scenario that looms ahead in March.

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