The Sunday Leader

Sri Lanka’s ‘Srebrenica’ Moment

  • “The Satellite Analysis Alone Is Worth Looking At”
  • “Yes” there is a case for serious war crimes having been committed – Gordon Weiss

By Janith Aranze

Gordon Weiss

The UN has been stubbornly quiet since it made the UN Advisory Panel’s report public this week. With people searching for answers and speculating what is coming next for Sri Lanka, The Sunday Leader spoke to Former UN Spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, about the Panel’s report, mistakes made during the war and what the future holds for Sri Lanka.

Q: You have gone on record saying you share part of the blame and take responsibility for the UN having failed in Sri Lanka.  Why did you fail?
A:
The comment needs to be read in context. I don’t think that such a large-scale loss of life can be regarded as a ‘success’. Nor would any UN person claim as such. As for the failure, any failure rests with the warring sides. I take my share of the blame as an official who served with the UN.

Q: What, if you could, would you have done different?
A:
Some things. But as I say in my book, I went to Sri Lanka as a supporter of the state’s right to reclaim its sovereign territory, and I left with that view intact. The ‘beef’ is with the tail end of the conduct of the war. Perhaps if the government had better understood the position of most of the international community, it would have in turn made better choices.

Q: During the final stages of the war why didn’t you use the figures you had in terms of those civilians killed as leverage to stop a full on frontal assault against unarmed civilians as claimed in the report?
A:
Quite simple. I was not given leave to do so. The rights and wrongs of that decision rested with my superiors at the time. And I think that it is a moot point as to whether there would have been a benefit in doing so, much as I advocated for the release of those figures. The choice not to use the figures was a reasonable choice, one with which I personally disagreed. The UN Panel ultimately supported my view.

Q: In your view how credible are the allegations made against the Government of Sri Lanka in the UN Advisory Report?
A:
One only needs to see the credentials of the panelists, and to read the report, which is unambiguous. Accused persons always begin with denial – is that really a surprise to any objective Sri Lankan citizen? The greater question for Sri Lankans, and this goes to the heart of Buddhism in fact, is to ask what is the place that justice and fairness will be given in the modern polity. Or what room is there now in the state for justice and fairness, was the way in which the war was concluded a good basis for reconciliation, and does the government’s stance promise long-term security for Sri Lanka?
Q: Do you believe there is a case to be made for serious war crimes having been committed in Sri Lanka?
A:
Yes

Q: But how authentic is the evidence and information handed over to the panel given that the UN had no independent or foreign observers in areas where the war was being fought?
A:
But there were independent international observers! One should read the report. Some of the information came from Sri Lankan military officers. Much from the Tamil diaspora was discounted, as the report indicates. The most substantial material was witness testimony from ordinary Tamils who testified that both the government and the LTTE were responsible for crimes. Hardly the conclusions of an LTTE/diaspora conspiracy.

Q: Where and how exactly do you believe government forces broke humanitarian laws when fighting the war?
A:
I think that if anybody is seriously interested, they should read the panel report. They are the experts in humanitarian law, and they assessed the credibility of the available evidence. The satellite analysis alone is worth looking at – another ‘Srebrenica moment’ I would say.

Q: In your view is the former army commander Sarath Fonseka also seriously implicated as are President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers in the panel report?
A:
Yes, but to what extent I couldn’t say. The Wikileaks cables are revealing about where culpability may ultimately rest. It’s a great pity, because the Rajapaksas had an opportunity to bring real, lasting peace to Sri Lanka and all Sri Lankans, after so much suffering for all her people. Nobody believed that Sri Lanka could beat the LTTE, and they did it! But I’m afraid that the way you fight a war, in the modern world, does matter. That applies equally to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, perhaps not equally, but it should. The utilitarian argument is the kind of thing that leads to justifying Hiroshima.

Q: What now would be the next step as far as the report is concerned?
A:
People have been very quick to say that the report is dead in the water. That’s wishful thinking. Unlike the government’s rather arbitrary use of justice mechanisms in Sri Lanka, international justice mechanisms are slow, but methodical, and with a long view. Certainly, politics are involved, and this will continue for many years to come. Ignore the short-term jostling.

Q: Do you believe China and Russia will play a significant role in blocking any actions to be taken against Sri Lanka by the UN Security Council?
A:
They both play a vital role, based on their perceived interests. As I have said elsewhere, I don’t regard China as a mindless hegemon at all. China has shown a considerable subtlety in its foreign policy, with rapid shifts. China is now a leader amongst nations, and it will lead, conscious of it reputation. In what direction we will have to wait and see. But China also supports the rule-of-law and the international treaty regime, because that’s a vital part of modern international security.

Q: What do you think will be India’s position in the current context of the report?
A:
I think India will identify and protect her full range of vital interests. That includes her long-term relationship with Sri Lanka, no matter which government is in power. But it also includes her strategic interests, her reputation, her domestic stability, and her core governmental characteristics which revolve around democratic institutions and the rule-of-law.

Q: The UN has distanced itself from your comments regarding the use of civilian figures during the war, saying your comments do not reflect their views. How would you respond to this?
A:
The UN quite rightly regards me as an independent person entitled to my views. Any characterisation of the UN ‘distancing’ themselves from me, with the inference they oppose what I have said, is again, a wishful and misleading interpretation peddled exclusively by some Sri Lankan commentators.

Q: You are currently writing a book on Sri Lanka, what is the content of the book and what does it conclude?
A:
It concludes that the destruction of the Tamil Tigers was on balance a good thing. But, as The Economist, which has seen the book, noted this week, it is a lament for Sri Lanka. After all, what’s the difference between a state that massacres Tamils, and a state that massacres Sinhalese? Has the leopard changed its spots?

Q: How exactly are you professionally engaged now?
A:
Preparing for the launch of The Cage on May 18, and commissioning a Sinhalese translation. It’s important that people be able to read this book without it being creatively re-interpreted by middlemen. The wonderful thing today is that e-books are easily distributed, and affordable.

Khan To Stay Mum
The Sunday Leader tried to speak to the Acting Country Director in Sri Lanka, Adnan Khan, for his comments regarding the UN in Sri Lanka.  After Khan requested to the see questions beforehand, we had a meeting confirmed.  However, just three hours before the meeting was scheduled to take place, Khan duly cancelled saying that he had ‘other important engagements’.  When speaking to the UN Spokesperson in Sri Lanka, Tom Hockley, he indicated that the UN will not publicly talk about the report until the new Country Director has been installed, which will be some time next month.

9 Comments for “Sri Lanka’s ‘Srebrenica’ Moment”

  1. JG

    Gordon Weiss’s own words

    “Nobody believed that Sri Lanka could beat the LTTE, and they did it! But I’m afraid that the way you fight a war, in the modern world, does matter. That applies equally to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Well, perhaps not equally, but it should. The utilitarian argument is the kind of thing that leads to justifying Hiroshima”

    If it took Hiroshima to change Japanese thinking on war, then the last fewdays of the LTTE war could be termed “Collateral Damage” as the US call it

    As I’m blogging this article I heard that Bin Laden has been killed and they have his body hopefully the end of another era of global terrorism

  2. Paul

    A foreigner’s views on Sri Lanka are, probably more credible and somewhat acceptable than a Sri Lankan’s whether he is Tamil or Sinhalese.Although Mr Weiss too can be biased , you have to leave an allowance for him at least for telling ‘something’ ,especially at a time when no Sri Lankan says ‘nothing’ worthwhile for or against the “Darusmaan” report for obvious reasons.

  3. Ma-Rout-Ti

    Sri Lanka is proving to be the ultimate Wage-Earner for Weiss.. He will milk this for all it’s worth !!

    Look for more interesting sound bites from this cynical, supremely self-interested operator in the future.. “Srebrenica”…. Maybe “My-Lai”… perhaps “Dresden”.. perhaps “Congo”..

  4. Shiva

    If the International Community is genuine, they should investigate the Rajapakse regime and its cronies, Ban Ki-moon, Vijay Nambiar, Satish Nambiar, MK Narayanan and Shiv Shankar Menon for their roles, responsibilities and accountability on the genocide of Tamils without further delay.

    Victims are demanding for Justice and accountability!!!

    Hundreds of Thousands of Tamils have been brutally tortured, bombed, raped, murdered and simply disappeared. Channel 4 TV of UK broadcasted several fiottages and clips of brutal war crimes and crimes against humanity. Thanks to those progressive Sinhala people who have provided such horror evidences of war crimes and crimes aginst humanity.

    Those progessive Sinhala people may provide evidence to the War Cirimes investigation and trial in the future.

    Gordon Weiss will go down in history as the bold, brave, courageous and an honest UN spokesperson to bring the criminal activities against a minority community to the eyes of the world.

    UN requires people like Gordon Weiss who is independent, honest and responsible.

  5. Colombo Intelligentsia

    I particularly like Gordon Weiss’s answer to this question:

    Q: You are currently writing a book on Sri Lanka, what is the content of the book and what does it conclude?

    A: It concludes that the destruction of the Tamil Tigers was on balance a good thing. But, as The Economist, which has seen the book, noted this week, it is a lament for Sri Lanka. After all, what’s the difference between a state that massacres Tamils, and a state that massacres Sinhalese? Has the leopard changed its spots?

    While the Sri Lankan government appears to have almost no idea of how to deal with the media, the Tamil diaspora succeeded in getting the West on side by blatantly exaggerating casualties and lobbying using bleeding heart Liberals like Gordon Weiss.

    Gordon Weiss’s commentary has some good points, but it also has a number of critical flaws.

    Are we to really believe that it is ‘lamentable’ that the LTTE is defeated. I doubt it Gordon! If the West and the UN were not so hostile to the defeat of the LTTE then perhaps the Sri Lanka could have taken its time to defeat them, but political considerations obviously forced the pace of the military, especially if the survival of the LTTE was ensured as a result of international intervention. If that happened, the civil war would still be going on today, and people would still be dying in large numbers and Sri Lanka would still remain politically unstable.

    Perhaps Gordon Weiss could tell the Sri Lankan public how he came to the figure of 40,000 civilian deaths which HE was the first person to announce in the media. He claimed it was from the ‘no fire zone’. I wonder who told him that? An LTTE doctor perhaps! Gordon and the UN do not prove how they came to the statistic. Where is the hard evidence? The fact that there was no methodology should speak volumes of the reports credibility on a number of issues.

    Gordon should front up, he never came to Sri Lanka supporting Sri Lanka’s unitary statehood, everyone who met him knows that, but he cunningly tries to hide it, including his affiliation with the pro-LTTE lobby.

    So Gordon, given that you say “After all, what’s the difference between a state that massacres Tamils, and a state that massacres Sinhalese? Has the leopard changed its spots?”

    Are you suggesting that the LTTE did not massacre thousands upon thousands of Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese? Hardly a balanced arguement giuven that you claim to be an expert on Sri Lanka. Or maybe your Freudian slip indicates your true position and alignment. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say ‘Has the Tiger changed its stripes?’

  6. Mewan

    Oh he as written a book. No wonder he is seeking some publicity for it using this forum

  7. Mahinda

    This person is undoubtedly a clever man to make money using his power of words and position. They say, “there are opportunities amongst issues and they are out there for you to grab”.

    We Sri Lankans must be ever so grateful to Rajapakse family for getting rid of the murderous LTTE and its leadership for ever.

  8. sumudu priyantha

    This guy was a great womaniser

  9. gamarala

    Paul,
    I agree with you.
    Now, according to popular sentiment, those who beleive the UN Panel’s Report are ‘traitors’. Those who oppose, are ‘patriots’.
    The world and the UN are awaiting the official response of Sri Lanka, to the Report.
    Maybe, this will happen during the UN Human Rights Council session beginning May 30th.

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