Kath Noble

Making white people feel better

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 21, 2012

On the inadequacy of the UN’s evaluation of its attempts to save lives in the final stages of the war

Last week I felt like I had been transported back in time. We were back in those awful first six months of 2009, when I was by turns horrified at the plight of the people caught up in the fighting in the Vanni and disgusted with the way in which the international community was responding.

Of course we all wanted to stop the war. I hate violence. But as I argued then and continue to believe, at that point, the only way the war was going to stop was with the defeat of the LTTE. Prabhakaran would not give up on Eelam. He was going to continue his vicious campaign against the Sri Lankan state and all its communities until he was caught or killed. Our task, therefore, was to minimise the damage. We had to try to ensure that it was done with as little death and destruction as possible.

The UN has inadvertently confirmed this hypothesis. In the report of the Internal Review Panel into its actions in Sri Lanka in the final stages of the war, which was released by Ban Ki-Moon last week, it says that it had realised by the end of January that the LTTE was going to lose. And it did the right thing. It worked out a plan for a surrender.

This could have saved a lot of lives.

Some people are very keen to find out how many. The UN count, according to the quite reasonable criteria that they employed in what were very difficult circumstances, is 7,737. I think that even a tiny fraction of that number would have been too many.

The surrender plan was put to the LTTE at the beginning of February, but it was rejected. The LTTE had lost both Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu by then, but Prabhakaran would not relent. He rejected it again in April, even after having lost most of his senior commanders at the Battle of Anandapuram. He was trapped inside the No Fire Zone, but still he would not accept the inevitable.

Some people no doubt consider that heroic. But it was the biggest crime in the history of the conflict.

Prabhakaran wanted a massacre.

His strategy was to create a humanitarian disaster so extraordinary that the international community would feel compelled to intervene. He must have known long before it dawned on the UN that he would not be able to hold out against the Sri Lankan forces. He was no idiot when it came to war.

He wasn’t so stupid when it came to international politics either.

I said at the time that the international community was not going to get involved in Sri Lanka. But many people thought otherwise.

The West had by then established a pattern of ‘humanitarian wars’. It had dropped enough bombs on Serbia in 1999 to make Slobodan Milosevic withdraw from Kosovo. Then in 2001 it had set about trying to wipe out the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in 2003 it had invaded Iraq and finished off Saddam Hussein. The attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the post-9/11 War on Terror, but they were sold to the Western public as struggles against governments that not only posed a danger to the rest of the world but also suppressed their own people. Those wars were still going on when Prabhakaran was holed up in the No Fire Zone, but they had already achieved regime change. And Kosovo was his dream come true. In 2008, it was declared an independent nation.

Western politicians had other motives for intervening, but they always talked about fighting to save the world from a repeat of Rwanda. Prabhakaran thought that Western forces might be persuaded to come to Sri Lanka too.

For this, somebody somewhere certainly deserves blame.

The UN contributed to the misconception, but the really guilty parties are of course those in the West who started these ‘humanitarian wars’.

It would be comforting to believe that we can always prevent killings if only we try hard enough. Nobody likes to feel powerless. However, in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Kosovo, ‘humanitarian wars’ killed more people than they saved. If Western forces had set foot in Sri Lanka, the result would have been exactly the same.

That is why when I said that the West would not intervene in Sri Lanka, I said it with relief. Rwanda was a very special case.

If the West had not abused the memory of Rwanda so often, Prabhakaran might have chosen a different tactic. He might have abandoned the idea of holding onto territory. Instead of retreating into ever smaller areas of land, dragging with him at gunpoint those 300,000 plus civilians, conscripting more and more of them with every passing day and sending them to the frontlines to die, while compelling the rest to cower in bunkers with too little to eat and limited medial supplies as his cadres fired from among them at the Sri Lankan forces, bringing down on their heads such a devastating rain of bullets and bombs, he might have gone back to the jungles and waged a guerilla war. (Of course, he might still have done exactly the same thing, on the basis that there’s nothing like a massacre to mobilise future generations. He clearly didn’t care as much about human life as the rest of us do.)

The Internal Review Panel report criticises the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka for his lack of political understanding in dealing with the Sri Lankan state, but it fails to recognise that it still hasn’t answered the question of how to deal with Prabhakaran. Yet this was the million dollar question!

The UN knew that the LTTE was going to use civilians as a human shield in 2008. The report admits that the LTTE repeatedly tried to use the UN’s presence in Kilinochchi as protection for its activities, positioning its facilities next to UN offices despite agreements to the contrary. It also acknowledges that the UN had to leave behind its 17 national staff when it officially withdrew from the Vanni in September because the LTTE was holding their 86 dependants hostage. In 2008, the UN knew what an impossible situation the Sri Lankan forces were facing.

What could it have done better, then, in 2009?

How about persuading David Miliband and all the other Western politicians who stuck their noses into Sri Lanka that the responsible course of action was to tell Prabhakaran that he had no option but to surrender?

No, that isn’t even mentioned as a possibility.

The ‘master plan’ that the UN’s experts have come up with after six months of work makes exactly the same mistakes the international community did at the time. It ignores the LTTE.

Instead of making it clear to Prabhakaran that he was on his own, which at least might have encouraged him to think again, the Internal Review Panel report proposes that the UN should have increased its pressure on the Sri Lankan forces.

It argues that the UN should have publicised the casualty figures that it was gathering via sms and highlighted its belief that most of the deaths were occurring in shelling by the Sri Lankan forces. It says that the UN should have been more forceful in warning the Sri Lankan state against committing war crimes. This would have saved lives, the report claims. But how? No doubt people like Gordon Weiss would have felt better if they had done so. But what would it actually have changed? At the beginning of February, the UN was sure that about 1,000 civilians had been killed in a period of three weeks. This had increased by a little more than 1,500 in another four weeks to the beginning of March.

By this stage, as we surely all remember, there was already tremendous pressure on the Sri Lankan forces. The LTTE’s propaganda machine had its genocide bumper stickers out, and it was stage managing protests around the Western world.

In the next six weeks to late April, the UN’s body count had gone up by another 5,000.

Of course I agree that this is appalling. But stopping people getting killed is not just a matter of being very upset about it.

Pressure is only a good thing if it is pushing in the right direction. What the international community did was to give the Sri Lankan forces every reason to think that the West was about to try to stop them ending a generation long conflict. I simply don’t see how intensifying this effort could possibly have encouraged them to adopt a more careful approach. Logically, it could only have made them think that they had better hurry up and find Prabhakaran before he could be offered yet another chance to escape.

If we have to relive those miserable days, let us at least come up with some genuinely useful insights.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on 21st November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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A bloody riot

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 14, 2012

Reflections on twenty-seven extraordinary deaths 

There was one thing that everybody was sure of on Friday afternoon as news of the riot at Welikada prison broke – there would be a lot of bodies.

And so it happened. Twenty-seven deaths had been announced by Saturday morning. The stand-off lasted for an hour, as inmates somehow managed to get the better of not just their regular guards but 200 fully-armed members of the STF. They battled their way through clouds of tear gas to break into the armoury, then made their way up to the roof with a haul of more than 80 guns, from where they proceeded to shoot at passers-by. Some escaped, somehow.

This story is in itself fairly extraordinary.

But so too was our reaction. We knew very well that a lot of people would end up dead.

Some said it approvingly. Prisoners may be human beings, as the sign on the wall declares, but human beings can behave worse than animals. Welikada houses convicted rapists and murderers, amongst others, and some people wouldn’t mind seeing them knocked off, legally or otherwise.

This constituency is behind the intermittent attempts to revive the death penalty, which they regard as cheaper and easier than keeping criminals in prison. And cheap and easy is all the rage these days.

It doesn’t matter to the Government whether restarting executions really does reduce the crime rate, since the objective is not to achieve anything but just to look like it is trying. That is, when it can’t persuade us that it is only media coverage of crime that needs to be reduced! Its representatives say the funniest things. Like when a minister explained how criminals are needed for election campaigns. Well, then we’ll just have to put up with crime!

Even cheaper and easier than executing prisoners is shooting them in a riot, of course.

This group argued that we need not worry about how a simple search got so out of control since the deaths are to be welcomed. They aren’t interested in investigating what happened.

I fear that after three decades of war, there are rather more people in this camp than ‘normal’.

The question for Sri Lanka is how to ‘normalise’ – how to get back to being a society that in general abhors killing in all its forms. (Before picking up their pens to complain that Western nations kill people all the time, readers might consider checking on how many occasions I have said exactly that in these pages. Such knee jerk reactions are another element of the war mentality that has to go – we need more thoughtfulness and less shouting at each other.)

The other reaction to the riot was even less encouraging. These were the people arguing that the incident was the result of a plot by the Defence Ministry, either to create an excuse to bring prisons under its purview, or even more disturbingly to get rid of a few inconvenient underworld leaders. Excessive violence was thus part of the plan. For them, it was never supposed to be a simple search.

They won’t believe the findings of any investigation, since they are already convinced that it won’t be conducted properly.

Part of ‘normalcy’ is citizens generally having confidence in the Government, or rather in the checks and balances to which it is subject. They should believe that elections are free, that the police can be trusted to maintain law and order, that courts give people a fair trial and that officials and politicians do their duty, and that when this isn’t the case, there are mechanisms that can be used to put things right. They should trust that they can effect change when it is needed.

But rather than moving towards this ideal, now that it is free of the pressures of war, Sri Lanka seems to be gradually slipping away in the opposite direction.

It is not a matter of popularity. Mahinda Rajapaksa would still win a re-run of either presidential poll, whether against Sarath Fonseka or Ranil Wickremasinghe. A lot of people like him, or at least prefer him to the alternatives on offer. The problem is power.

Even his own voters can see that he has too much of it.

I would like to think that the impeachment of the Chief Justice will be a turning point – that it will prove to be an outrage too far. The charges against Shirani Bandaranayake, which finally emerged last week, certainly encourage such an outcome, especially in combination with her letter of refutation that was sent to media outlets who published them. If it proves accurate, they boil down to being married to somebody who has been named in a complaint to the Bribery Commission – a case that is being pursued primarily to be able to argue that Shirani Bandaranayake must be impeached!

(Of course her husband shouldn’t have been holding the position that has got him into trouble in the first place, but that’s another matter. Let’s drop it – her predecessors haven’t had husbands.)

However, there is probably still a long way to go. The Government won’t really mind how it looks so long as the Opposition remains in disarray.

While they recover, the only thing the rest of us can do is continue to apply pressure.

The Chief Justice must argue her case, and the media should ensure that the public hears as much about her defence as it does from the Government.

And the Government must be pushed to investigate what happened at Welikada.

Killing twenty-seven inmates in a prison riot cannot be practically unavoidable, and it should not be allowed to pass as either morally acceptable or sadly inevitable. The Government will no doubt try to put the blame on the guards, who are already being accused of having incited or assisted their wards. The rumours may even be true, since we know that some of them are doing very good business in contraband, most disturbingly phones via which some underworld leaders are said to be continuing to run their criminal networks from their cells.

But even if the guards helped, the inmates were stuck inside four walls that were quickly surrounded with armoured vehicles, and they had limited ammunition.

There is certainly a need to clean up prisons, but this incident cannot justify giving more power to another person who already has plenty. That is, the Defence Secretary.

In the end, this would bring more problems than it solved.

Regular guards can do only limited damage. They can take money in exchange for allowing contraband to get into prisons, but at least they cannot let the inmates out!

I am reminded of an expose about goings-on in prisons in India that appeared in the press there a few months ago. A journalist filmed a well-known gangster politician from Uttar Pradesh (where Mervyn Silva wouldn’t last long!), who had finally been convicted of the murder of his mistress after dozens of cases had been dropped due to the curious disappearance of evidence and witnesses, walking out of the jail in which he was supposedly being held for what turned out to be his daily turn around town. Assembly elections had thrown out the administration that had locked him up, and he was to all intents and purposes a free man, albeit keeping up appearances by returning to the jail to sleep. His luxury car, complete with driver and personal assistant, not to mention his laptop and mobile phone, picked him up in time for a hearty lunch. And having eaten, he proceeded to his meetings. More than 100 people came to see him in what was essentially his office on each and every afternoon, to submit petitions as if to their MP, to make deals and – allegedly – to organise crime.

The same piece listed a most impressive array of criminals the new administration had in its ranks, having unofficially helped them to get out of prison, one way or another.

This is ‘normal’ for Uttar Pradesh.

Sri Lanka must do better. And we should help the country to get back on the right track by trying to understand why we all knew in advance that the Welikada prison riot would end so bloodily.

This article was published on the editorial page of The Island on 14th November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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The good news and the bad news

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on November 7, 2012

On the attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice and the calls for the repeal of the 13th Amendment

The good news is that there is nothing illegal about impeaching the Chief Justice. If one third of MPs sign a petition requesting it and one half approve the petition once it is presented in Parliament, the Constitution says that she has to go.

That’s reassuring isn’t it?

It is what the Government has been claiming, in any case.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that if Mahinda Rajapaksa can remove the Chief Justice for doing nothing more than failing to support him wholeheartedly, tomorrow it may actually be illegal to fail to support him wholeheartedly. For who is to stop him passing a bill to that effect? It won’t be MPs, that’s for sure. They are firmly stuck under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s thumb. And the Chief Justice would by then know better than to rule the legislation in violation of the Constitution, since to do so would be to guarantee early retirement.

The matter of proving ‘misbehaviour’ or ‘incapacity’ is totally insignificant in the circumstances, as the administration has demonstrated that it has absolutely no shame.

International scrutiny is laughably ineffective – the Government was perfectly happy to announce the impeachment attempt as its representatives were preparing to defend its record at the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, where it was bound to attract condemnation.

Indeed, it seemed determined to antagonise its critics, as just days before Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had once again raised the prospect of repealing the 13th Amendment.

Let this be a warning to those who look overseas for solutions to Sri Lanka’s problems.

The only opinions that matter are those of voters.

This is good news for the judiciary, since people can relatively easily be persuaded of the importance of the law and judges who apply it judiciously. The attempted impeachment of the Chief Justice has already drawn a forthright and near universal response in the media. Public opinion will eventually follow, and we will soon find out whether or not this will happen in time to save the current incumbent. Let us hope so, whatever we think of Shirani Bandaranayake.

Although the Government hasn’t deigned to explain what she has done to attract its ire, we can assume that it has to do with the Divi Neguma Bill, which I discussed in these columns some months ago.

Curiously enough, the same dispute has also been used to justify the repeal of the 13th Amendment.

The Chief Justice delayed the Divi Neguma Bill by insisting that it first be approved by the provincial councils, since its subject falls in the concurrent list. Hence both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice must go? It is ridiculous. Even supporters of the Divi Neguma Bill must admit that it is not more important than the Constitution.

The bad news for minorities is that it is very difficult to persuade the majority in Sri Lanka of the importance of devolution.

This is ironic, since both the provincial councils and the Chief Justice are means of distributing power away from the President. Everybody accepts that it is dangerous to make one person all powerful. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the now often quoted saying goes. Thus a little power is entrusted to the Chief Justice, and much less is given to the provincial councils. I stress, we are not talking about a lot of power. That still remains with the President.

But the 13th Amendment was a response to war, and people struggle to separate it from the suffering Sri Lanka has undergone in the last three decades.

I have argued for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment on too many occasions already, and I struggle to summon up the enthusiasm to do so again, since the level of debate is frankly pathetic. The argument that India foisted it on Sri Lanka so it must be rejected is totally unconvincing. That was then and this is now. Sri Lanka can very well judge the 13th Amendment on its own merits. Just as it can very well re-demarcate its provinces if it wants, rather than complaining that the ones that it has were defined by the British. This is simply a distraction.

The same goes for the alleged waste of money. I am quite sure that everybody reading this article can write a list of at least ten things that cost the Government more than the provincial councils that are definitely more wasteful. Let them first save that money before they start getting rid of institutions that minorities want.

This is what matters. As Mano Ganesan reminded us the other day, all Tamil parties want the 13th Amendment, whether they are in the Government or with the Opposition. The only group that didn’t want it was the undemocratic one that perished with Prabhakaran in Nanthi Kadal. And why did the LTTE not want it? Because Prabhakaran realised that it wasn’t going to bring him a separate state, now or later, and that’s what he was committed to achieving, extremist that he was. The most vociferous in calling for the repeal of the 13th Amendment, ignoring the views of minorities, used to argue that Prabhakaran did not represent them and that people should pay attention to those who were willing to use the ballot box rather than bullets and bombs. It seems that they prefer terrorists after all.

I do not say that the 13th Amendment is the best solution to any problem, just that it must not be abandoned unless the minorities can be persuaded that something else would be an improvement.

But unusually for a post-conflict nation, Sri Lanka has not a reconciliation policy but a policy of antagonism.

The only people with whom the Government is keen on reconciling are those who can help it to remain in power.

Hence the ‘release’ of KP. It is of course highly unusual that official spokesmen cannot agree on whether or not the man the Government abducted from Malaysia is still in custody or not. But the fact is that he is definitely not in jail, as are hundreds of people who participated in a much smaller way in the LTTE’s terror campaign. He is back in Kilinochchi, running an NGO.

Justice does not require his prosecution, but surely it demands an even-handed approach?

(The Government is now promising to bring cases against members of the Security Forces accused of excesses. Why on earth should they suffer more than KP?)

Perhaps this is Plan B.

If Plan A of repealing the 13th Amendment cannot for some reason be implemented, the Government will want to do everything possible to keep control of the provincial councils. It has managed to delay elections in the North for a very impressive three years already, but it may eventually have to call them. It is currently talking about September 2013. Plan B may be to use KP to collect votes for the Government, to supplement the support enjoyed by Douglas Devananda.

This may not be illegal either. But it is probably more bad news than good.

This article was published in the Midweek Review of 7th November 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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