In March 2009 Sri Lanka had come to the attention of the UN’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Francis Deng, but despite his disquiet he did not take further steps as Sri Lanka had assured him the United States and India supported its military campaign, according to a leaked US cable. The account of the meeting on March 16, 2009 between Mr. Deng and the US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, as well as other US cables, shows how international inaction and silence, rather than ignorance, made it possible for Sri Lanka to continue and escalate its mass killings of Tamil civilians.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan RiceFrancis Deng, Special Adviser for the Prevention of GenocideRobert O'Blake, Former Ambassador to Sri LankaThe cable from the US mission to the UN in New Yorkdetails the discussion between Mr. Deng and Ambassador Rice on genocide-related issues, including the cases of Sudan and Sri Lanka.
The discussion on Sri Lanka is summarised thus:
“Deng spoke of conversations that he had with that [Sri Lanka’s] permanent representative to the United Nations. The Sri Lankan perm rep told Deng that his country's actions in mounting an offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elan (LTTE) in the north of Sri Lanka were known to its friends the United States and India.
“The Sri Lankan representative left the impression that his government's measures against the LTTE are supported by the US and India.
“A visit to Sri Lanka left Deng impressed with the great cleavages between the Sinhalese and Tamils that would not be solved by the government's victory on the battlefield.”
US knowledge and silence
There is no indication in the cable that Ambassador Rice had either contradicted Sri Lanka’s assertion, or raised the issue of mass casualties amongst civilians being inflicted by the ongoing attacks and humanitarian blockade by the Colombo government – though these were discussed in relation to Sudan.
This is despite, just two days before the Deng-Rice meeting, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton having called Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa over the mass killings of civilians by government forces.
For at least two months earlier, international rights organisations like Human Rights Watch were highlighting the shelling of hospitals and other civilian targets.
Just two days after the Deng –Rice meeting, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert Blake met Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Bogollogama to discuss the large numbers of civilians being killed, another US cable shows.
Ambassador Blake told Mr. Bogollogama Sri Lanka’s denials of civilians being shelled by government forces “was simply not credible, given multiple, credible, independent sources on the ground in the safe zone.”
Calling Sri Lanka’s blocking of medical supplies into the Tamil areas “unconscionable”, Mr. Blake warned Mr. Bogollogama that if government forces took the safe zone by force thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, could be killed and that if such casualties occurred, the government would be accused of war crimes.
‘Push back’ on genocide
None of these US concerns were however expressed in public, enabling Sri Lanka to continue its murderous onslaught against the Tamil population untrammelled by any international pressure.
The only voices protesting vehemently against Sri Lanka’s mass killings were some international human rights organisations and the Tamil Diaspora, who staged mass demonstrations in western capitals. And they were largely ignored.
Another US cable sent on March 4, for example, notes that embassy staff were receiving a daily “flood of emails” from concerned Diaspora Tamils calling for a ceasefire and focusing on conditions of civilians in the safe zone and internment camps.
In response, the cable says, US officials were “pushing back” against allegations of genocide, “calling it an overstatement.”
Yet barely a month later, on April 18, 2009 , Ambassador Blake - again privately - told Sri Lankan officials that “comparisons are already being made to what transpired in Rwanda” and international action on Sri Lanka’s actions.
Separately, also in early April, senior UN officials told representatives of Tamil groups including the US-based TAG (Tamils Against Genocide), that there was a “divided opinion” within the UN as to whether what was unfolding in Vanni was genocide or not.
But in public the UN not only maintained a total silence on the mass killings, but even sought to play down the numbers of civilian casualties.
Little wonder, then, that Sri Lanka could confidently assert to the international community, as it had to Mr. Deng, that the US and India were supportive of its military offensive.
In April 2011, the report by a panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon not only said it found credible that 40,000 civilians had been killed in five bloody months, adding that “most civilian casualties in the final phase of the war were caused by government shelling”
Amongst their recommendations was that the UN’s own actions in the period be looked at. Last week Mr. Ban appointed former UN Population Fund chief Thoraya Obaid to conduct a review.
Citing judgments of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and other precedents, TAG argues that the UN panel of experts’ 2011 report supports the case for genocide in Sri Lanka.
Contrast to Sudan
The account of the Deng-Rice meeting puts in further focus the case of Sri Lanka.
The cable describes at some length their discussion on the situation in Sudan – Mr. Deng’s home country.
Ambassador Rice challenged Deng on the dismal response of African leaders to the crisis in Sudan, described many African leaders as “being more interested in their narrow self-interests rather than the good of the people of Sudan.”
She also criticised the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) for “not play[ing] a constructive role in seeking security and justice for the people of Darfur”, and for “remain[ing] conspicuously silent when the government of Sudan announced the expulsion of international humanitarian NGOs from the country.”
Ambassador Rice also noted that she had gone on record as labeling the Sudanese expulsion of humanitarian agencies and the resulting closure of aid programs as “genocide by other means.”
However, just a few months earlier (September 2008), the Sri Lankan government had also expelled humanitarian agencies from the Vanni.
In response there was no protest, let alone action, from the US or any other international actor.
Instead, in an accompanying blaze of publicity, the humanitarian community drove out of the Vanni in a single convoy, abandoning hundreds of thousands of people to their fate.
Interestingly, this is what the cable quotes Mr. Deng as saying regarding Sudan’s humanitarian blockade:
“he had drafted a mild statement in response to the Sudanese government's action to expel aid agencies, but that it was stuck in the office of the Secretary General where a quiet, low-key approach is favored when dealing with this matter.”
Mr. Deng had opened the meeting by stating that his mandate as the Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG) “is impossible, but must be made possible”.
He saw the work of his office as the catalyst for a larger process within the UN to prevent genocide from occurring, but admitted that “at the moment, he does not push to be allowed to brief the UN Security Council unless he knows that he will get a positive response.”
He also noted how NGOs were pushing his office “to adopt a strategy of ‘name and shame’” in the prevention of genocide.