War and accountability in Sri Lanka: Leaked report


Posted on April 16, 2011

This week, leading Sri Lankan daily, The Island, carried excerpts from a leaked report on human rights violations in the last stages of war and post-war Sri Lanka.

Report of the UNSG’s panel of experts on accountability in SL, The Island, April 15, 2011.

The report states:

The Panel’s determination of credible allegations reveals a very different version of the final stages of the war than that maintained to this day by the Government of Sri Lanka. The Government says it pursued a “humanitarian rescue operation” with a policy of “zero civilian casualties”. In stark contrast, the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law were committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.

This is not news to those familiar with reports from war-affected areas by organizations like the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna).

Commentary so far from Colombo:

The leaked UN war crimes report: Key points and context, Groundviews.org, April 16, 2011.
DBS Jeyaraj, Report on Sri Lanka by the Ban Ki-Moon Advisory Panel, Daily Mirror, April 16, 2011.

The Politics of Making Sexual Violence an Issue

October 5, 2009


The UN Security Council mandated peacekeeping missions to secure women and girls from sexual violence. Hillary Clinton, who was in the chair, stirred a hornet’s nest when she included Sri Lanka in a list of cases where rape had been used as a weapon of war.


Hillary Clinton’s stewardship of the State Department will likely come to be associated with a vigorous advocacy of a human security agenda in international relations. The elimination of sexual violence is an important part of that agenda.

On September 30th, 2009, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution mandating UN peacekeeping missions to protect women and girls from sexual violence which assumes epidemic proportions in conflict zones. Hillary Clinton introduced the resolution saying, “We’ve seen rape used as a tactic of war before in Bosnia, Burma and Sri Lanka and elsewhere.” Predictably, this aroused a great deal of indignation in Sri Lanka: a sampling here in the comments section of a newspaper.

From one of Sri Lanka’s best-known peace activists, Jehan Perera, this measured reading: Openness to engagement as defence to accusation, October 5, 2009.

The US has responded to Sri Lanka’s protests by saying that instances of rape being used during the conflict had been recorded in the past.

Interesting, that accusations about the use of sexual violence are really found offensive, but no one wants to take sexual violence or gender violence, more broadly, seriously as a policy issue. Hillary Clinton has made it a point to talk about this and other human security issues on all her official visits; this could be her unique legacy depending on what form and what tone it takes in months to come.

This incident is a great example of what feminists mean when they say the personal is political and when they talk about the politics of identity and nationalism being played out on women’s bodies.

True or False? Can anyone know?

July 8, 2009


Multiple versions of variously experienced realities appear to characterize the political experience, not just in Sri Lanka, the subject of this post, but everywhere.


A few weeks ago, we were discussing the Sri Lankan debate about bodycounts and refugees in this blog. Now here’s a twist in the tale.

Yesterday, a group of five doctors serving in the conflict areas and charged with assisting the LTTE held a press conference and admitted to exaggerating the impact of government operations on the civilians in the area under pressure from the LTTE.

To the victor, go not just the spoils but the chance to write history on different terms. There are two parts to what the doctors are saying. First, that the LTTE forced them to lie. Second, sustained military operations for almost one and a half years had limited impact on the lives and health of area civilians. The first is not hard to believe; the second is. This brings us back to the question of numbers. What is an acceptable casualty and what is not, in these circumstances, is a political and a humanitarian issue.

The doctors’ account is also at variance with accounts from interested and disinterested parties working in the IDP camps. Chennai’s social sector is awash with anecdotes. For instance, full-term pregnant women arrive at a camp and deliver their babies, but the camps are so poorly-equipped there are no rags to clean the new-born. How do you reconcile this with what the doctors say and what is also being said in expert circles about a well-planned military operation? If the operation was so well-prepared, why were the camps so inadequate to take in the numbers they did, and why are they so poorly equipped? Indeed, if they were well-planned and executed, why was the process of demining not taking place simultaneously as the clearing operations, when it was known there would be large-scale displacement? Landmines everywhere is now the excuse for continued incarceration in camps. Every story yields more questions than answers.

In this climate of confusion and scepticism, the Hindu published an interview with the Sri Lankan president: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3. At a seminar organized by a local think-tank, the editor of the Hindu said he had visited camps on the invitation of the government and found them to be very clean and very well-provided.

Who is to say what the truth is? The problem of knowing is a practical one in such contexts, not an epistemological one. The Sri Lankan situation is like a head of hair full of tangles, where someone smooths down the top vigorously and says with confidence and vehemence, “All done!” And because no one else is allowed to approach the head, no one else can truthfully claim to be sure that is a false assertion. To be fair, all post-conflict situations are a little bit like this.

But if people could go and find out for themselves, how much more confidence we would all have in each others’ words! Darini Rajasingham Senanayake, one of Sri Lanka’s leading scholars, expresses the concern that many feel on two counts. First, it is clear that a continued and growing military presence is going to underpin the post-operation peace in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, even if elections are held. This is a point Indian military experts are also making. Second, the government has been very ruthless about curbing Sri Lanka’s independent media, quelling dissent even to the point now of arresting an astrologer who made an unfavourable prediction. This is the other security dilemma: security appears to mandate constraints on freedom that ultimately undermine security. In the presence of a continued force that can and will be seen as an occupying force and in the absence of free access to information, how can there be peace? Thus, for the Sri Lankan government, it is not merely ‘sanitation’ and rehabilitation that are immediately imperative, but a return to the truly democratic norms and the commitment to social investment that have long made Sri Lanka exceptional by any standards.

In a situation where truth and fiction are indistinguishable, who can honestly claim expertise or foresight? No one really. In the spirit of my previous post, maybe we should just wait for literatteurs and artistes to speak to us.

How many crows in Agra?

May 30, 2009


Death tolls in conflict and a postscript on the LTTE after Prabhakaran

How many people died in the Sri Lankan conflict? 65000? 35000? 20000? 120000? 200000?

The only possible answer and then, not really one, is: Depends. What is the start point? Are we counting bodies on a battlefield? Bomb blast victims? Those who died while in flight? Those who died because refugee camp conditions were dreadful? Elderly parents who died of grief? And are we counting deaths on both sides? What is the methodology of our body-count?

Some ethical questions too. The emphasis on a head-count suggests that death is the primary measure of the intensity of a conflict. By such a reckoning, life-altering injury, separation from family, displacement, loss of property and loss of citizenship do not count. There is also the suggestion that the “horrible-ness” of a conflict is in direct proportion to its death-toll. The long-term systematic systemic destruction wrought by protracted conflict is just what happens along the way.

Of course, no sane person would suggest any of these things. Nevertheless, we spend an awful lot of time debating and quoting numbers that cannot possibly be accurate, either in and of themselves or as a measure of a conflict’s horrors.

These three links are about an emerging controversy over how many died in the last campaign in Sri Lanka. Check them out:

Over 20,000 died in S.Lanka rebels’ defeat-paper, Reuters, May 29, 2009.
Sri Lanka Denies Report on Civilian Deaths, VOA, May 29, 2009.
Sutirtho Patranobis, World may never know Sri Lanka death toll: UN, May 30, 2009.

Suppose they were to pinpoint the exact number, what would we be able to do? Declare the war truly grave at a certain threshold? Restore a percentage of the dead to life? Provide everyone with compensation (but can we actually compensate them)? Will we actually prosecute those who did the killing on both sides? And how would we even begin with that? More useful to try and ascertain who died, how, to make sure their families have a way to go on. More critical, to make sure there is no reason for the conflict to be revived.

There is a story about the Emperor Akbar and his wise and witty minister Birbal that I always think of when numbers take over the human story. On a leisurely stroll, Akbar wondered aloud how many crows there must be in Agra. Birbal instantly replied: 18407 (or pick your favourite number). Akbar was startled: Really?
Birbal was confident. Birbal’s confidence annoyed the Emperor. He thundered: If you are wrong, I will have you beheaded.
Unfazed, Birbal suggested that the Emperor commission a crow census. It would prove him right. After all, he said, if there are more crows than the number I have quoted, it is because they are visiting their Agra relatives. Fewer suggest that Agra crows have left town to visit their relatives elsewhere.
What could the Emperor do but laugh at his minister’s wit, and the subtle way in which he pointed out that it was really a futile quest?

This obsession with numbers that characterizes conflict reportage is misplaced. It is not the aggregate that counts as much as the lost individuals that make up that aggregate.

A final word this Sunday morning on life after Prabhakaran.

P.K. Balachandran, Split wide open among Tigers, New Indian Express, May 30, 2009. (Unfortunately, this link will be good for only about a week.)

The LTTE has been extraordinarily good at fundraising and now after Prabhakaran, there is a predictable rivalry to control the organization’s future, its constituency and most important, its treasury. Will the LTTE’s remaining leaders destroy themselves and what is left of their dead leader’s aura among supporters by fighting over the spoils?

Will we see Oliver Goldsmith’s words play themselves out in this organization as it copes with changed—and straitened—circumstances:
“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

The Human Cost of War and Peace: Sri Lanka

May 27, 2009


A generation raised in the shadow of war is the generation which is going to have to build the peace in Sri Lanka.


Cliched reportage on the Sri Lankan conflict begins by stating that the conflict has waged for over three decades and ends with a death-toll statistic. The statistic varies from 25000 to 35000 to 65000 and we are told that the last Sri Lankan military campaign resulted in the displacement of 100,000-200,000 and the death of over 70,000. The numbers don’t add up but that is not important. Protracted conflict waged over generations is a humanitarian tragedy regardless of numbers.

Take a look at this one. It begins with young people, raised in one of the best human development environments of the 1960s, but unable to communicate beyond their community, unable to access education, unable to find jobs and witness to a history of decreasing political accommodation.

At its end, the cost-benefit analysis of the conflict must look beyond the loss of life and property. It must take into account how the lives of survivors have been irreversibly altered. Displacement, separated families, war injuries and resulting disabilities and environmental degradation are some of the better-documented costs.

A new human resources challenge now awaits Sri Lanka. Where schooling has been frequently disrupted or child soldiers recruited, society is left with a generation of young people many of whose childhoods ended abruptly, who may not be skilled and who have possibly faced considerable trauma. Even away from the war-zone, there are now two generations of young Sri Lankans whose earliest memories are not of a united Sri Lanka at peace. They have grown up in separate worlds—separated first by medium of instruction and then by the social circles of their families. These are the people to whom reconciliation must be sold as an ideal and as a feasible plan of action. These are the people whose energies are required for the physical rebuilding that is today’s priority. What skills and what attitudes will they have to bring to this moment?

Members of the ruling generation grew up in a different Ceylon/ Sri Lanka. Many hung out in each others’ homes, intermarried and found ways of communicating and connecting even during the conflict. The raw material they are left with for the task of reconciliation is poor—distrust, fear, anxiety, triumphalism, nationalism, trauma, bloodshed and too much bereavement for an island that small. And a lost generation that has had none of their advantages.