– Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, Honorary Professor at General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) accuses Sri Lanka of being in a ‘state of denial about the past’, details how the failure of domestic mechanisms has further entrenched impunity, exacerbating victims’ distrust in the system. Among a litany of failures, the report addresses the rollback of 2015 reforms that offered more checks and balances on executive power, the erosion of judicial and institutional independence, and the failure to reform the security sector and remove and hold to account those responsible for alleged grave crimes and human rights violations. The Government has decided to reject the report submitted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka.
In an interview with the Daily News, Dr. Rohan Gunaratna who is an Honorary Professor at the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University and Senior Advisor to its Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Sri Lanka, discussed aspects of the UN report and Sri Lanka’s stand and course of action required to be taken.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Q. As an international expert, how do you view the latest UN report on Sri Lanka?
A. The UN report on Sri Lanka reflects that successive governments have not handled the human rights challenges prudently. It is still not too late for the Sri Lankan Government to create a team of specialists to provide guidance and direction as well as engage the UN system, especially the UNHRC. Unless the Government develops a professional approach, the existing situation will be mishandled and will lead to the loss of valuable time, opportunities and resources. The Government needs not only a whole of Government but a whole of society approach. The Sri Lankan conflict was meticulously documented and the data can be used to verify and validate the allegations made and implied in the report. Without further loss of time, the Government should create a proactive interagency mechanism with specialists from the Foreign Ministry, Defence Ministry, intelligence community, NGOs and the media to address the very issues raised in the report. After establishing a secretariat with competent and dedicated staff, the Government should create a 24/7 monitoring and response capability.
Sri Lanka was the first country to defeat an insurgent and terrorist group in the early 21st century. As a modern war, the Sri Lankan Security Forces – LTTE conflict was meticulously documented by several parties. The Sri Lankan Government should share the above documentation with the UN and also release significant information through a portal run by the Security Forces. The reports should include the United Nations Country Team Assessment of Casualty Figures that was never released publicly. According to this vital report, a total of 7,721 were killed and 18,479 were injured from August 2008 to May 13, 2009. This includes both civilians and LTTE terrorists. Furthermore, the UNICEF Supported Family Tracing and Reunification Unit issued a report that stated, as of June 2011, 2,564 tracing applications have been recorded out of which 676 are related to children and 1,888 to adults. The UNICEF stated that 64 percent tracing requests were reported by parents as having been recruited by the LTTE.
The LTTE international network provided a fictitious figure of 40,000 that the UN report has reproduced several times without authentication. The report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, referred to by some as the Darusman Report, lost credibility in Sri Lanka after it reproduced the fictitious figure 40,000. An indelible lesson learnt from Sri Lanka’s experience is that international organizations, especially the UN, should not reference a death toll without verification and validation. It is within the capability of the UN to build a database of the dead that is transparent and open to scrutiny. The Sri Lankan Government should counter any individual or organisation repeating the fictitious numbers generated by the LTTE notorious for using its front, cover or sympathetic organisations to influence the human rights lobby. In response to the LTTE propaganda campaign, the Sri Lankan Government should create strategic communication capabilities within Army, Navy, Air Force, Police, Intelligence Services, and the Foreign Office. Unfortunately, neither the Foreign Office nor the Security Forces have understood the national imperative to raise the specialist capabilities to rebut the false information produced by the LTTE international network.
Q. As an expert on terrorism with vast experience on this topic, do you agree with these allegations against the Sri Lankan Security Forces accusing them of human rights violations?
A. The focus of the UN report is on accountability, the cornerstone of the human rights framework. Accountability is responsibility, answerability and enforceability. Accountability is the obligation of the Government to take responsibility for their actions, answer to those affected, and put in place a mechanism to monitor and take measures if the established standards are not complied. In the Sri Lankan context, the Government had a robust mechanism where several departments worked closely with UN agencies including the UNICEF, ICRC, diplomatic missions, international and domestic NGOs, and the media. There is sufficient documentation appreciating the Government’s commitment of sending food, medicine and other essential supplies to 399,785 civilians held hostage by the LTTE. The LTTE used the civilians as a cover to fire at the Sri Lankan military, a practice the LTTE is notorious for, including when it fought against the Indian Peace Keeping Force. There is also an abundance of documentation that the civilians ran away from the LTTE in the direction of the Security Forces. This includes testimony that the LTTE fired at the civilians breaking away from the LTTE human shield and fleeing in the direction of the Security Forces. The Security Forces provided water, food and medicine before transporting the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to welfare centres because the LTTE had mined large areas of land and also each person had to be screened.
A total of 12,735 LTTE leaders and members surrendered or were identified by Tamil civilians or government investigators/intelligence. The former terrorists were given an amnesty, rehabilitated, and, reintegrated. As it prevented the revival of the LTTE, the rehabilitation programme of Sri Lanka is considered one of the three top programmes in the world. The then Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave full access for a period of five years to a team of psychologists led by distinguished professors Arie W. Kruglanski and Michele J. Gelfand to interview the entire detainee population. In addition to the meticulous records maintained by the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation (BCGR), debriefing of the former terrorists are with the Police Special Branch, Criminal Investigations Department, Terrorism Investigations Division, Military Intelligence Directorate and the State Intelligence Service. The records provide the most comprehensive account of LTTE atrocities, the ethnic cleansing of Sinhalese and Muslims from the North and the East, the attacks on the Sinhala and Tamil villages, the massacres and bombings of civilians in the South, the assassination of civilian and military leaders including two world leaders, and the international network of the LTTE that supported and enabled three decades of terrorism in Sri Lanka. The Government should not share publicly the names of the rehabilitated and reintegrated LTTE terrorists as they are living happily with their families. However, they will be of exceptional value in bringing to justice those who supported, especially funded the LTTE in Sri Lanka.
Any investigation should focus on the sources of allegations and counter allegations. The key question that should be posed is who has brought these allegations? Although the LTTE domestic organisation was dismantled, the LTTE international network survived. The LTTE international network that engaged in propaganda and lobbying, extortion and fundraising, procurement of arms and dual-use technologies, and clandestine shipping of arms from North Korea to Sri Lanka transformed. The LTTE international network today masquerade as human rights champions in Western capitals and in Geneva. Similarly, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that espoused separatism, works in Geneva with key LTTE fronts. The Yahapalanaya regime delisted eight of 16 LTTE front organisations overseas and 269 terrorist activists from 424 listed under the UNHCR 1373. With the recovery of the LTTE database, its financiers overseas were listed based on evidence that has never been disputed. The terrorist fronts delisted by the Yahapalanaya regime were the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), British Tamil Forum (BTF), National Council of Canadian Tamils (NCCT), Tamil Youth Organisation (TYO), World Tamil Coordinating Committee (WTCC), Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC), Australian Tamil Congress (ATC), and Tamil National Council (TNC). The delisting of the fronts led to the revival of the LTTE at home and LTTE resurgence in the West. The time is right to relist the delisted fronts and to investigate, charge, and prosecute LTTE functionaries including propagandists, financiers, procurement and logistics officers living overseas.
Q. Successive governments in Sri Lanka gave assurances to repel the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and introduce new anti-terrorism laws. Why has this not happened?
A. The PTA was developed in 1979 by the then President J.R. Jayawardena’s administration as a response to terrorism which was prevailing at that time in the Jaffna Peninsula.
Its offences reflect the nature of terrorist activities which were taking place in that part of Sri Lanka at that time.
It is reliably known that State legal advisors were briefed of the type of criminal activities which were being unleashed at that time by a comparatively young group of terror organisations including the LTTE.
Based on the threat at that time a legal and policy framework was crafted to deal with the assassination of Tamil politicians, government officials, informants, bank robberies, explosions and making speeches resulting in racial hatred. At that time, there were no attacks on civilians. In addition to examining the counter terrorism legislation of the UK, India and Pakistan, they reviewed emergency regulations to deal with the 1971 insurrection, the 1962 military coup, and the Criminal Justice Commissions Act. The PTA was enacted for a year as he believed that the terrorist threat could be eliminated by the end of the year. The PTA of 1979 law repealed the proscription of the LTTE and other terrorist groups in 1978. During that year, the threat grew and the Parliament gave the PTA another three years. As the threat persisted, the Parliament made it a perpetual law.
Today, the threat landscape has changed. The PTA does not capture the killing of civilians except witnesses. The PTA covers only specified persons: public servants, policemen and politicians. The PTA is not potent to deal with the Easter Sunday attack, the type of attacks the world including Sri Lanka is likely to suffer if national security is neglected. If the Counter Terrorism Act (CTA) had been enacted in a timely manner during the Yahapalanaya regime, the Easter massacre could have been prevented. If not prevented, the State could have used the CTA to deal with those involved in the Easter attack. Unfortunately, the Yahapalanaya Government was weak and the then Opposition onslaught prevented the bill from becoming a law. In the Sri Lankan culture of confrontational politics, there was no bipartisanship on national security and foreign policy. The Opposition wrongly said the CTA was a US and European draft when 22 top-level Sri Lankan Government officials and one private human rights lawyer had worked on it. The legislative draft reflected the unanimous view of all 22.
The bill was drafted by a group of Sri Lankan legal, military, police, intelligence and administrative personnel of whom except one, all were public officials. Their final report which was presented to the then Prime Minister had been unanimous. They had twin objectives. One was to develop a modern counter terrorism law which could be effectively used to deal with all contemporary forms and manifestations of terrorism. The other was to ensure compatibility with human rights norms and to prevent abuse. After the Easter attack, it is apparent that the PTA is not the most efficacious in dealing with all forms and manifestations of terrorism. What is conspicuously absent in the PTA is an offence called terrorism and acts. As religious extremism is the backdrop for the unleashing of violence, that is per se terrorism. Furthermore, with terrorism emerging as a global play, if anyone is planning attacks against Sri Lanka from overseas or its nationals in Sri Lanka are planning to mount attacks overseas, the State can act. The CTA is a contribution towards the global effort on terrorism. The CTA is also efficacious against LTTE networks, cells and individuals overseas planning abetting and instigating terrorism in Sri Lanka. The CTA gave universal jurisdiction to Sri Lankan law enforcement and courts to deal with terrorism both from a national and global perspective.
Q. “The UN High Commissioner urges the authorities to immediately end all forms of surveillance…” What is your opinion?
A. A government with no capacity to surveil terrorist and criminal suspects will suffer from terrorism and crime. Sri Lanka suffered from the Easter Sunday massacre as a direct result of the Yahapalanaya Government leaders instructing the Directorate of Military Intelligence to call off its surveillance operations. The result was the loss of 264 lives, both Sri Lankans and foreigners, and another 592 maimed and injured. The Easter Sunday massacre was the worst terrorist attack Sri Lanka suffered since 2009. It will be fatal for Sri Lanka if its security and intelligence services stop its surveillance operations. In the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK and in continental Europe, there are over 100,000 terrorist suspects under watch.
Sri Lanka’s security was compromised by its leaders during the Yahapalanaya regime. Rather than curbing Islamization and Arabization, Wickremesinghe advocated a reconciliation model of governance to enlist the Muslim vote. Similarly, instead of countering separatism, Mangala Samaraweera delisted LTTE entities enlisting the Tamil vote. As Prime Minister of the Yahapalanaya regime, Wickremesinghe instructed the Directorate of Military Intelligence to dismantle the operational capabilities designed and developed to detect terrorists and disrupt attacks. Instead of securing Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe took guidance from the UNHRC, human rights bodies, Western capitals and Western diplomats in Colombo lobbied by the LTTE and TNA to investigate the Security Forces. With the restrictions placed on the Security Forces, the lack of direction and guidance by both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena, the birth, growth and attacks by the Islamic State was inevitable and imminent.
In addition to expanding its security and intelligence capabilities both in Sri Lanka and overseas in the coming decade, the Sri Lankan Government should respond to the current and emerging threats by introducing a national service. Furthermore, the Government should propose an intelligence and a National Security bill.
Q. The US Justice Department has charged three Sri Lankans with supporting terrorism for their participation in the Islamic State-claimed Easter attacks on churches and hotels in 2019. Sri Lanka is still to charge anyone despite numerous investigations. What is your opinion?
A. The Easter Sunday massacre is an act of international terrorism. It was a complex terrorist attack involving multiple targets. The Criminal Investigations Department, Terrorism Investigations Division and other entities have worked with the Attorney General’s Department to investigate and indict the Islamic State detainees. The AG will review the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Attacks. The Presidential Commission concluded their proceedings only in January 2021. While the focus of the police investigation was on bringing the perpetrators and the support network that enabled the terrorist attack to justice, the Presidential Commission will propose far-reaching changes to prevent the next attack.
The far-reaching changes should include reforming the mosque and Madrasa, where Muslims learn about other faiths, and, learn to respect them. Even after the Easter Sunday massacre, the continuing spread of Salafism especially its Saudi version Wahhabism was highlighted at the Presidential Commission on the Easter Sunday attacks. The Government should put in place a system to screen foreign preachers and also accredit local preachers practicing in Sri Lanka. As long as foreign ideologies supplant local and traditional Islam, exclusivism, extremism and terrorism will persist. With the second commemoration of Easter Sunday massacre coming up, the Muslim leadership should move to reform the religious space. Although the ideology of Salafism/Wahhabism known as Tawheed in South India and Sri Lanka originated from Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf countries have been smart. They have regularised the management of mosques, Madrasas and all Islamic organisations. Today, no sermons without the approval of the religious authority appointed by the Government could be delivered. The sermons should be devoid of political subjects. There should be no anti-government propaganda in religious institutions.
The madrasas should be brought under the Education Ministry. Similarly, there should be a common syllabus. The Gulf countries have been able to modernise their Madrasas with a regulated curriculum. Until Easter Sunday, successive governments in Sri Lanka left it to the Muslim leaders to take tough decisions on religious reform due to political considerations. Sadly, the situation has deteriorated from bad to worse. A segment of the Sri Lankan Muslims continues to take inspiration from Saudi Arabia but behave more regressively. Muslim political and clerical leadership should develop a zero-tolerance approach to exclusivism and extremism. They should stop the political, religious and cultural radicalisation by reforming the Madrasa and the mosque sermons to produce a new generation of Muslims. They should reject the Middle Eastern ideologies and fashion that is supplanting the Sri Lankan Muslim heritage.
Q. In your view what steps could and should the Government take in order to encourage reconciliation between the various communities in the country?
A. National unity is national security. If the bridges between communities are not restored, exclusivism will lead to extremism and extremism to terrorism and violence. The way forward is to replace the segregated education system with national schools, introduce religious knowledge to all schools, delist ethnicity and religion-based political parties, and integrate communities. To deter anyone from insulting another person’s ethnicity and religion, formulate a maintenance of ethnic and religious harmony act, and also an online falsehoods and manipulations act.
Sri Lankan politicians have exploited ethnicity and religion for their personal and political agendas. They have created disharmony between communities and compromised national security. The most notorious was the TULF that created the separatist ideology that some elements of the TNA continue to espouse by igniting racial passions. The Government has to take firm action on anyone trying to glorify Prabhakaran, the LTTE and the dead terrorists. The Government should reach out to the Tamil communities overseas and engage them to join in the socioeconomic development programmes of Sri Lanka.