HRW’s Dirty War and the Clean Record of the Sri Lankan Army - 8th August 2007
Amongst the more outrageous statements of the Human Rights Watch in its recent statement headlined ‘Sri Lanka: Government Abuses Intensify’ was the claim that “The Sri Lankan government has apparently given its security forces a green light to use 'dirty war' tactics". This was said by Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. The release claims that ‘President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa, have pursued military operations in the country’s north and east , with little regard for the security of the civilian population... Security forces have subjected civilians to indiscriminate attacks'.
Astonishingly, the body of the report carries hardly any substantiation of the latter claim. There is just over a page (along with an illustration of an IDP) in the Summary subtitled ‘Abuses during armed conflict’ which begins ‘Some of the most serious international law violations have taken place during armed hostilities, when civilians have died in unlawful attacks and others were displaced. Both the government and the LTTE have shown a brazen disregard for the well-being of non-combatants’.
There is then a paragraph regarding the attack on the Kathiravelli School which was an IDP camp. The rest of the section is about IDPs, including the statement ‘The LTTE has at times blocked civilians from leaving areas of conflict’. No other instance is given of ‘indiscriminate attacks’ in the course of ‘military operations’.
Whilst the Kathiravelli incident needs to be considered further, what HRW has failed to register, and what is almost unique in the history of this type of military operation, is the paucity of civilian casualties. Western nations involved in what they characterize as anti-terror operations all over the world seem to have been less cautious in their approach to civilians, judging from the number of casualties reported over the last year in say Afghanistan or Iraq or Israel. Whether HRW has engaged in crude denunciations of the leaders of the countries involved may perhaps be of interest to those governments who may be influenced by the HRW recommendations.
What they should also be interested in is the manner in which the Sri Lankan armed forces conducted themselves throughout the operation in the east. There were hardly any civilians casualties, as is borne out by the reports of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission. Furthermore, there have been no allegations whatsoever of rape which, as Mr Adams will know from even the recent sentencing by the US army, is difficult to avoid even for armies he will doubtless consider disciplined and discriminating in their attacks on civilians.
With regard to Kathiravelli, which is the only actual incident cited in the whole HRW report about civilian casualties during the military operations in the east, the death of so many civilians must be deplored. It is necessary however to examine all the facts, even as cited in the HRW Report, before responsibility is decided upon.
On the morning of November 8th the LTTE had fired at the Sri Lankan army from the Kathiravelli area, and, according to D B S Jeyaraj, five soldiers and a civilian were wounded and one soldier killed. The army fired back in the late morning, hitting the school though under the impression, because of ‘mortar locating radar’ that it was hitting LTTE gun positions.
HRW claims that, according to its eyewitness accounts, ‘while the LTTE was frequently milling about the area, no LTTE fighters were located in or adjacent to the IDP camp at the time of the attack or directly before’.
However, HRW also notes that ‘The LTTE had sentries in the area of the camp, ostensibly to monitor the movement of displaced persons’. A man in the camp added that ‘In the daytime, the LTTE didn’t carry weapons….When the LTTE has heavy weapons, they don’t show them because they’re afraid someone will inform.’ Another woman added ‘that about 15 LTTE fighters stayed in some huts about 6000 metres from the school. “They had rifles but no heavy guns,” she said.’ The report also notes the many bunkers in the school grounds but says that the displaced persons dug bunkers so as to ‘protect their families from government shelling’.
Whilst this last phenomenon may seem only strange, the conclusion is inescapable that there were at least at some times LTTE members with heavy weapons in the camp. This does not in any way justify the killing of civilians but, combined with the initiation of an artillery attack, and what would probably have been the radar discovery of weapons, the shelling of the camp is understandable.
The consequent deaths of civilians was a tragedy that every Sri Lankan should mourn. It should also be noted however that no similar incident has occurred after that. Recently, the Peace Secretariat looked into what the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization alleged were several violations of the CFA, and requested the SLMM too to provide reports. The TRO reported an incident of 11 July 2007 and then listed five other incidents over the preceding fifteen months in only two of which was loss of life reported. One of these was Kathiravelli, where the figure of deaths given is less than that alleged by HRW.
All lost of life is to be deplored, civilian or military, and it is for that reason that SCOPP hopes that the LTTE will return to negotiations. But statistics indicate that the Sri Lankan forces have been far more careful about civilians than many governments which HRW does not seem inclined to criticize with the same personal intensity. The fact that it is only the Kathiravelli incident that HRW can cite in its blanket personal attack on the conduct of military operations seems a tribute to the Sri Lankan forces. Though the record of the government in the eighties was unsatisfactory, and contributed much to the anguish of minorities, the increasing concern of both government and forces for the civilians of all communities they are meant to protect has been increasing apace in recent years. This must continue, but perhaps HRW should suggest that the training programmes conducted by the forces in this respect, which have produced such remarkable improvement, be shared with countries with much worse records – assuming HRW has the guts to identify them.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process