Damning Interview, Shame on you Tim Sebastien!
By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
Soon after the conclusion of the UNHRC session, Sri Lanka had its first dose of shaming. British TV journalist Tim Sebastien interviewed Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage on what he termed the “worsening human rights violation climate” in Sri Lanka and if the Island nation would finally hold itself accountable. Flustered, the Foreign Secretary did not handle the interview well as he switched from being defensive to an apologist. In the process he failed to table the true facts of Sri Lanka’s story. For Sebastien’s part, he conducted the interview reprehensibly.
Sebastien’s repeated question throughout the interview with underlined emphasis, “are you ashamed to be Sri Lankan?” This kind of bias from a journalist who begins and conducts the entire interview without an open mind is the antithesis of good journalism. Admiral Colombage’s efforts to list out the post war positive steps taken to normalise life of those directly affected as well as the rehabilitation and reintegration of former terrorists into society was quickly suppressed by Sebastien. The journalist was only interested in the allegations.
The mistake Colombage made was to try and compare Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism with other global armed conflicts as the WW II. He was attempting to establish that time is needed to heal wounds.
However, Sri Lanka’s war is not comparable to other wars, especially WW II. These conflicts were essentially fights for territory and natural resources. As such, these wars resulted in a conqueror and the conquered, whereas in Sri Lanka it was a saviour and the saved.
Sri Lanka’s war was not only of territorial integrity but also a humanitarian mission to save lives and restore dignity of ordinary citizen from a brutal terrorist organisation. This was not just another terror unit but one with the capacity to strike from land, sea and air and a global network to arm, fund and operate a well oiled propaganda machinery.
The worst affected were the very people the terrorists claimed to be representing. Instead of liberation, Tamils were subjugated to absolute terror as they were extorted, intimidated and their young ones forcibly conscripted to become terrorists, suicide bombers and cannon fodder. Any sign of dissent including a voice of protest was responded with summary executions. Quite a number of parents and school principals thus lost their lives as they tried to save children from the terrorists.
Hence, this became very much a rescue operation to save Tamil civilians, especially Tamil youth whose lives were being forcefully or otherwise misled and destroyed by psychopaths. In essence, the Sri Lankan military was not the conquering force but the rescuer that painstakingly eliminated a cancerous element.
Sebastien however, did not allow Colombage to establish his weak comparison. The focus of this interview was Sri Lanka and nowhere else, stated the journalist. Yet, it is not possible to understand Sri Lanka’s experience without putting it in the context of global experience.
Terrorism is not an experience unique to Sri Lanka. In fact, it is a global menace. In contemporary history, Sri Lanka is the only country so far to have defeated terrorism. However, in the past this mantle was held by the British. The UNHRC must study the manner in which the British put down the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) that turned ‘rogue’.
During the armed conflict that began in 1948 and continued till 1960 between the British forces and the MCP, reportedly over 5,000 civilians perished. Though most of the deaths are blamed on the MCP, there is also evidence of the British culpability of killing entire villages without provocation. Evidence also includes the brutal torture inflicted by the British on any captured suspect. Some were crucified and left to die a slow death as a warning to others.
Terrorism, like a virus, is a hidden enemy. To date there is no proper definition of terrorism as it is often politically or emotionally charged. As an unconventional force, terrorists are not bound by any universal law and their success factor lies in the ability to shock. As the Indian Peace Keeping Force found to their cost a terrorist can transform identity almost in the blink of a second from civilian to terrorist and vice versa. One is considered an innocent civilian until she/he pulls out a gun or detonates a bomb. As exemplified by the reaction to the Malayan insurgency and to 9/11, extreme measures had been adapted by different countries to combat terrorism. Therefore, Sri Lanka’s own efforts can only be judged in comparison to the methods used by other forces confronting similar challenges.
Noting Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s rejection of human right violation allegations, Sebastien asked, “do you think the world is so stupid as to believe accusations of western bias?”
The short answer is, no the world is not stupid and yes they will believe in western bias. The UNHRC Resolution A/HRC/46/L.Rev.1 maybe a landmark in the Council, but Sri Lanka is not the first or only country to be bludgeoned over bogus human rights concerns. The world outside the Western Hemisphere had suffered for centuries from white supremacy. As various European nations forcibly occupied other lands, only half the battles were fought with the sword. Disinformation, blatant political interference and manipulations, dishonoured treaties, browbeating leaders to fulfil unattainable goals, sly maneuverings to control natural resources and the economy are hallmarks of western hegemony that the rest of the world is all too familiar with and thus, could relate directly with Minister Gunawardena’s words.
Sebastien was skeptical that in the face of “overwhelming, documented evidence of human rights abuse” that the world will believe Sri Lanka. He was referring to the documented allegations the UNHRC had produced. However, a seasoned journalist as he with 40 years of experience could not have missed that none of the accusers had been able to agree upon a figure. While the UNHRC guesstimated that 40,000 civilians could have perished during the war’s final phase, Amnesty International has put down the figure as 10,000. British MP Joan Ryan claimed 160,000 perished and 40,000 were terrorists. She is the first person to give such a breakdown. However, none had been able to furnish any evidence to support the accusations - not even a name list of the dead, nor a source.
The UNHRC’s documentation is indeed interesting. After the war ended in 2009, the then UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon tasked a three member panel headed by Marzuki Darusman to investigate into the final days of the war. As this was against the UN charter and policies, he claimed that this report was for his private information.
None of the three panel members were experts on warfare or had legal knowledge or understanding of laws governing warfare. As human rights activists their bread and butter were advocating human rights.
Incredibly they disregarded the reports generated by the Colombo based UN office. Instead they had apparently picked up on a diplomatic communique that reported misgivings made by the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2007 - two years before the war ended. Subsequently in 2017 British Parliamentarian Lord Naseby revealed that according to the Home Office records, the number of dead is less than 8,000 with one quarter of that number been terrorists.
The subsequent OISL report that the UNHRC eventually complied borrowed without further verification many of the allegations from the Darusman’s Report, which in the eyes of the UN is an illegal report. It is this OISL report that has been since bouncing along from Resolution to Resolution.
Despite his years in journalism, Sebastien does not seem to realise that just because something is documented, its contents do not become true, credible or authentic.
Sebastien claimed that the adaptation of the recent UNHRC Resolution against Sri Lanka with 22 for, 11 against and 14 abstained, shows that Sri Lanka is rapidly losing International support. From a body of 47 members, if UK could not garner even half the number to vote in support of the Resolution they led, then it is an indictment of UK’s stand in the international community than Sri Lanka’s.
Unlike Sri Lanka, UK has bargaining power. Sri Lanka on the other hand could only appeal to the decency of nations to refrain from bullying a small nation. In that perspective, Sri Lanka managed to get 11 votes without a single bargaining chip in its hand, where as UK could only muster 22 despite the automatic support from the other white nations and ability to twist the arms of poorer nations as Malawi.
Sebastien derided the countries that supported Sri Lanka as “a small gang of Human Rights abusers”. Foreign Secretary should have taken this opportunity to remind the journalist of the Chilcot Report. Unlike the story of Sri Lanka, UK went with USA to war with Iraq on fabricated evidence to capture the oil wells. If Sebastien names those who supported Sri Lanka as human rights violators, he must then name those who supported the Resolution as barbarians. China and Pakistan, who supported us, may have skirmishes with their neighbours over the boarders but have not bombed entire cities into smithereens as UK and US have done. None of the European countries would be economically so strong today had they not destroyed our economies over the past few centuries.
Colombage was dragged over the coals over the cremation of COVID-19 deaths. Surprisingly, the Foreign Secretary tried to play it out as a mistake that has since been rectified. However, the cremation was not a mistake that the Government took time to rectify.
First of all, it was not only the final rites of Muslim deaths that were denied, but of all victims. Sinhala Buddhists are the majority in Sri Lanka. Yet, they too have been denied paansakulaya which is just an issue for Buddhists as cremation is for Muslims or for that matter Catholics. Yet, these communities are not at this point prioritising religion when the issue is national.
It must be acknowledged that WHO was also nonplussed when COVID-19 broke out. Though the first cases were reported in December 2019 it was only on 11 March that finally WHO plucked the courage to change the warning from “a public health emergency of international concern” to ‘pandemic’. By this time, more than 118,000 people were infected in 114 countries, and 4,291 had succumbed to the virus.
WHO guidelines do not make a presumption to be all-knowing. In fact, WHO was very candid that they did not have enough information to offer concrete advise to nations. Hence the guidelines and not the regulations.
COVID-19 is a new virus and a new experience to the world. WHO is also still learning about this virus. Almost daily, our understanding of it is being challenged. Based on its past experiences with similar viral infections, WHO noted that “It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true.” However, WHO stopped short of assuring that the virus will not transmit from dead bodies. Instead, WHO simply observed that “to date there is NO EVIDENCE of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from COVID-19” and went on to state that “this is a new virus whose source and disease progression are not yet entirely clear, more precautions may be used until further information becomes available.”
In fact, WHO Regional Director for Europe Dr. Hans Henri P Kluge noted on 12 March that, “we have to humbly acknowledge that COVID-19 is a fast evolving situation. We may not always have the best evidence at hand on which to base our decisions, but we do not have the luxury of time to wait until better evidence becomes available..... if we all pull together and recognise that this is a time to put health first, above all other considerations, we can overcome this difficult and challenging moment.”
As Sebastien himself noted, as per WHO guidelines, that cremation is only possible if available resources permits it. Sri Lanka with its high water table, already contaminated leading to a high per centage of a chronic kidney disease of unknown origin, cannot be faulted for taking a firm decision to cremate the bodies infected with an unknown virus.
Even so, from the onset President Gotabaya worked very hard to find suitable burial grounds. He even checked the possibility of burying in Maldives. However, this was not well received by Sri Lankans. Today, remote islets in Sri Lankan territory are used for this purpose amidst protests from residents.
Sebastien’s entire interview could have been likewise nullified. In fact, certain phrases he used as “dog whistle”, implying Sinhala Buddhists as dogs could have been turned around to shame him as it is clearly a racist slur. In September we are to face another jolly session with the UNHRC. Simply crying “western bias” will not do. Between now and then, we must therefore face more hostile interviews as Sebastien’s but get our point across.
It would do well for the Foreign Ministry to set up a research unit to study the actual situation in the country. This research material must build up our own narrative and must be briefed to every one of our officials who goes before a microphone. They must know the circumstances that led to Sergeant Sunil Ratnayaka’s release from the death row, the strengths of the PTA, documentation by international war experts as Sir Desmond de Silva and Sir Geoffrey Nice, Lord Naseby’s statements as well as revelations made by Wikileaks. Sebastien accused Sri Lanka of hiding documents when the UK is refusing to hand over Lt Col Anton Gash’s reports. The shaming game is on and we must fast learn to play it.