Sunday, October 09, 2011

'No one knew the extent of civilian casualties' says Ex-UN Spokesperson in SL

Interviewed by Charles Devasagayam | Tamil Mirror

Gordon Weiss was the United Nations spokesperson in Sri Lanka for two years during the recent civil war. He participated in a panel discussion of ‘Post War Opportunities and Challenges in Sri Lanka’ held at Ryerson University, Toronto on September 15, 2011, organized by Sri Lankans Without Borders. Immediately after the discussion, Charles Devasagayam interviewed him for the Tamil Mirror readers.

Charles Devasagayam: What was the purpose of publishing the book called ‘The Cage’? What does the book convey or what do you want to convey through this book?

Gordon Weiss: The book was supposed to provide a credible account of what happened in the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka and posit that account in the larger context of the Sri Lankan history.

CD: High level politicians in Sri Lanka have said that Sri Lanka waged India’s war during the Eelam War IV. Do you have any coverage about this in your book?

GW: Yes, one of the things I discussed a lot was the role of India in the regional politics and specially in Sri Lanka. I argued, it was an ambivalent role in Sri Lanka.

CD: Wikileaks has revealed recently that the Co-Chairs knew about the civilian casualties. So, why didn’t they take any action, in your opinion?

GW: I think that every body knew that there were civilian casualties. What people did not really know was the true extent of it, perhaps. The reason why the Co-Chairs didn’t take action was because they had very limited leverage.

At the time, you remember China was protecting Sri Lanka at the Security council and so, Sri Lanka had a great deal of latitude when it came to manoeuvring in 2008 and 2009. I don’t think that the Co-Chairs could have done anything, really.

CD: Are you pro Tamil or Pro Tamil Tigers as some people like to argue? Are you being dragged in to the propaganda war as someone alleged today at the conference?

GW: I don’t think it’s a reasonable assessment of what I have written. You can only judge by what I have been saying and what I have written.

No, I am not a supporter of the LTTE. I am not a supporter of any particular camp. I think I have written a book that is a reflection on all, basically. Its not about taking sides in Sri Lanka. It’s a reflection on war and what happened in the war in Sri Lanka in 2009.

CD: Refresh my memory, that during the last phase of the war, did you make any comments and how the Sri Lankan government reacted to them?

GW: Yes, I made quite a number of comments regarding the civilian casualties and the news papers and the government of Sri Lanka reacted strongly. My name was excoriated in the local press and at least in one press conference, I was talked about by the government ministers. There were protests, street protests with my name on placards and things like that. So, Yes, there were reactions to what I said at that time.

CD: Do you think that the U.N. will really act on the Human Rights Violations and War Crimes in Sri Lanka as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) are alleging?

GW: I think its up to the U.N. member states and I think there is evolution in the position of U.N. member states, including India. That’s ultimately what’s going to lead to an accountability mechanism of some sort that looks at and try to understand what happened during the final phase of the war.

CD: Why do you think the U.N. was unable to prevent the blood bath in the final phase of the war?

GW: Well, first, the U.N had no military forces on the ground. Secondly, U.N. only had the humanitarian presence in Sri Lanka. So, I am sure that anything could have really stopped the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka, except the Sri Lankans themselves.

CD: What is your opinion about the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC))? Is it a good alternative to the Independent International Inquiry?

GW: I think the way the LLRC has been constituted, as well as the mandate that has been given and the recent comments by Rajiva Wijesinghe suggest that the LLRC is going to be a fig leaf covering or sparing any real considerations over allegations of war crimes.

CD: Why was the International media, specially the western media did not show any interest to the happenings in early 2009, granted there was a ban on media persons by the Sri Lankan Government? Still, there were many other conflicts going on in the world but CBC, CNN nor BBC really did not give any prominence to the crisis in Sri Lanka at that time?

GW: Charles, I have a good answer for that. Certainly, the government of Sri Lanka made it very difficult for the journalists to go and report on the war. That’s one big reason, because it was too expensive for news organizations to send a journalist in to Sri Lanka for a cover story they could not cover. So, I think it’s a very difficult story to report, a very obscure story and not many people really understood what it was all about or cared.

CD: Yes, but when thousands of Diaspora Tamils lined up on the streets and in front of Legislative and Parliament buildings, the local media could have interviewed and or given prominence on the crisis as to why they are on the streets!?

GW: I have no explanation, sorry.

CD: As you said at the conference, the International community wanted the demise of LTTE. Does that mean that Norway’s Peace Talks, backed by the International community was a farce?

GW: No, I don’t think it was a farce. Its not that people were trying to hurry the demise of the LTTE necessarily. But, they were not prepared to intervene. Its as simple as that. They were not prepared to intervene to prevent the destruction of the LTTE.

CD: So, they had the opinion all along that LTTE has to go? Was that their position ?

GW: I think that there was the commonly accepted position that the LTTE was more of a menace than a help for an ultimate solution in Sri Lanka.

CD: I know violence is not the way to solve any crisis. However, you have witnessed the carnage in Mullivaikaal and now have written a book as to what happened there, including the killing of civilians. AI and HRW are calling for an International Independent inquiry. TNA has been complaining that two years have passed and no sign of political solution to the Tamil issue. If the LTTE is still functional it would have said, look now, the Sri Lankan Government is the one who is intransigent, and it’s the killing machine, this is why we resorted to the arms struggle?

GW: Charles, I am not defending it. What I am saying is, it is clear from the dynamics, that you can see that most countries were prepared to see the Tamil Tigers go.

CD: I spoke to a friend of mine yesterday, who just returned from holidays in Sri Lanka. He said that the Rajapaksa regime is unchallenged in the southern part of Sri Lanka. So, they feel that nothing good is going to come out because President Rajapaksa portrays himself as a strong leader among the Sinhalese. In this situation do you think he will listen to the western countries?

GW: No, I don’t think that the Sri Lankan government is listening to the western governments on the Tamil issue at the moment. They are obviously very strong. I also think, things have changed.

CD: What is really the solution then for the ethnic question? Do you think this Independent International Inquiry will be upheld by the U.N.? Will there be any remedy or accountability as the human rights organizations are calling for?

GW: I think that there will be an accountability mechanism. I just don’t know what form it will take. I think we just have to wait and see. What is important at the moment is the evolution of Individual countries regarding accountability in Sri Lanka.

CD: Are you satisfied with the reception to your book? Do you think it will make any difference in finding the truth about what happened during the Eelam War IV?

GW: Yes, I am very satisfied with the reception of the book. I mean, it has been very well received by the International press. It has gone in to second print in U.K. It is being translated in to Tamil now in Tamil Nadu. So, there will be a Tamil edition by this Christmas. And I am very happy with the fact that it did achieve my aims, which was to provide a credible narrative of what happened during the war in Sri Lanka.

CD: Thank you for spending some time and sharing your thoughts with the Tamil Mirror readers.

GW: You are very welcome.

© Tamil Canadian

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