Facts Versus False Allegations Regarding Targeting of Civilians - 4th April 2008

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The Sri Lankan government recognizes that in some areas protection of Human Rights needs to be strengthened, and it has sought assistance in such areas. Unfortunately such requests have often been ignored, whilst the whole debate has turned into a no holds barred attack in which every possible allegation is flung at the government and its agencies. This confrontational attitude does not help to ensure improvement where this is necessary.


In a range of falsehoods and exaggerations, perhaps the most insidious is the claim that the Sri Lankan armed forces deliberately target civilians. It would seem however from the summary of allegations against Sri Lanka submitted by the usual NGOs that only two submissions made this claim. One of these is the notoriously selective Human Rights Watch, which has failed to respond to detailed refutation of allegations in this respect.


The press release issued by this Secretariat last year when HRW first floated this canard is appended to this release. Objective observers will notice how HRW began by personalizing the conflict with a gratuitous attack on the President and the Secretary of Defence, and how the main body of their report included only one example of the ‘indiscriminate attacks’ they allege. It will also be noticed that, as was borne out by the regular reports of the Scandinavian Monitoring Mission throughout military operations in the East, no other instances of civilian casualties were reported.


This time round HRW talks of ‘indiscriminate bombing and shelling resulting in civilian casualties’. They are joined in their assault by a collection of NGOs and individuals who contributed to a Joint Civil Society Report which claims that there were ‘flagrant violations of international humanitarian law including targeting of civilians, attacks on places of worship, hospitals and schools’. Interestingly ten of the earlier thirty nine signatories have disappeared from the list the UN cites, with the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya being the most conspicuous of those missing. One hesitates to assume that this organization, which assisted in this particular compilation of material to attack the government, is that very same JSS which was led for many years by Cyril Mathew, the Minister who was the scourge of the Tamils during the Jayewardene government, and which was notorious in the eighties for attacks on striking workers as well as Tamils.


No actual examples are given in the statement of the 39, now 29, of any such targeting. But, since careful concern about the safety of civilians has been one of the most impressive feature of military operations during this period, it may be useful to consider exactly what civilian casualties there have been since the forces began to respond vigorously, with the determination to stop such threats for the future, to the massive attacks the LTTE launched in August 2006.


As noted above, there have been no allegations at all of civilian casualties during army operations over the last eighteen months, except in the Kathiravelli incident which occurred on November 8th 2006 and which is dealt with below, and in an incident of 24 September 2007 when a civilian died due to shrapnel, though whether this was caused by LTTE or army fire in not known. Whilst it cannot be conclusively stated that there have been no other casualties at all in such operations, there is no doubt that the LTTE would have managed, with the assistance of its sympathizers worldwide, to say nothing of gullible idealists, to ensure massive publicity for any such incidents.


Where there have been reports of civilian casualties is with regard to airstrikes, and also with regard to claymore mines exploded inside LTTE controlled territory. To deal with air strikes first, in the period from June 1 2006 to March 25 2008, there appear to have been 168 missions. There is no doubt that, had there been harm to civilians, there would have been much publicity about this. However, a collation of all accessible criticism, including Tamil websites, indicates that in only five incidents are there allegations of civilian deaths.


The first of these occurred on January 2nd 2007, when seven children are reported to have been killed. There were conflicting reports in the newspapers at the time, and the airforce has maintained that that incident in Pudahathurai, though only a few kilometers away, had nothing to do with what had been a successful strike on a known Sea Tiger base at Illuppaikadavai. Another incident on July 11th in which two people died was also in connection with an attack on a Sea Tiger base, while a third on 18 January 2008, in which one person died, was in connection with an LTTE military and arms storage complex. Thus the only claims as to collateral deaths from airstrikes are with regard to three incidents.


The other two incidents in which the deaths of civilians are alleged relate to attacks on broadcasting facilities, and the airforce makes no bones about the fact that, as has been normal practice in hostilities, such unauthorized propaganda outfits are appropriate targets. The same goes for incidents such as the incident at Kiranchi on 22nd February 2008 when three female LTTE cadres died. This is also true of the incident at Sencholai, where it was initially claimed that an orphanage had been bombed. When it was proved that the orphanage had been moved away years ago, it was alleged that this was a training centre. However, photographs indicated that the training was of conscripted young girls who were forced into military fatigues, and this has been borne out in reports from the two girls who survived.


Apart from the incidents noted above, which reduce to just three of allegations of civilian deaths, there are seven allegations of aerial bombing leading to civilians being injured, and eight allegations of aerial bombing doing damage to civilian settlements though without injuries or deaths. In all cases the airforce maintains that targets were carefully chosen, and the paucity of damage suggests that what was targeted was certainly not ordinary civilian settlements. This record compares very favourably with that of any other nation engaged in combating terrorism. Failure to recognize this on the part of organizations with their own agendas is understandable, but it is extremely regrettable that even governments that should know better repeat unfair allegations.


With regard to collateral incidents attributed to ground forces, apart from the one at Kathiravelli and the shrapnel incident noted above, there have been only eight reported since the beginning of October 2006. Three of them led to the deaths of single individuals, due to the explosion of a mortar bomb when some children were playing with it, a land mine, and a shell attack. Another incident involved the explosion of a van that had been released by court, which led to the deaths of three civilians. In none of these incidents is there any trace of deliberate targeting, and at least two of them are almost certain to have resulted from LTTE materials.


In the last six months however there have been four instances of claymore mines used in areas under the control of the LTTE. It is alleged that these are the work of what are termed Deep Penetration Units of the armed forces. In two cases several children were killed, and in the other two a priest and an MP along with his driver. Governmental involvement of any sort in such incidents would be totally unacceptable, but it should be noted that, with regard to the first incident involving children the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights, which has never hesitated to be critical of the government or the LTTE, attributed the action to civilians in the area who were opposed to the LTTE. Even if they had been equipped by military forces, as was suggested, the military cannot be held responsible for inappropriate or inaccurate targeting.


Comparisons would be odious, but it cannot but be noticed that much more damage to civilians has occurred in other theatres of warfare. It seems that there are a few countries which benefit from total impunity, as far as criticism from what is termed the international community goes, with regard to aerial and terrestrial attacks that lead to civilian deaths. Sadly the fact that life is unfair has to be recognized. But it is also counter-productive, in the common aim of the civilized world to combat terror whilst preserving human values, that there is hardly any recognition of the tremendous care the Sri Lankan armed forces have evinced about their own citizens whilst fighting against terror.


Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

Secretary General

Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process