By Michael Roberts –
Dr. Michael Roberts
A friend in Adelaide recently directed me towards an article in a prestigious world media outlet by Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. In this essay entitled “What Trump Should Do in Syria,” Roth contends that Donald Trump needs to pursue “a much tougher approach toward Moscow than he so far envisions” because the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad has been “targeting and indiscriminately firing upon civilians and civilian infrastructure in opposition-held areas” with Russian backing. In his reading the enormous civilian death-toll is the product of the regime’s deliberate strategy, Besides generating an outflow of refugees, he says that the consequence will also produce an escalation of Islamist extremism.
As an outsider with a limited knowledge of the extremely complex Syrian and Middle-Eastern ground situation, what strikes me about Roth’s declamation is its one-sidedness and its simplicities. It slides over the impact of US and NATO bombing runs. It implies that the extremism of ISIS, Al Qaida and other forces who are challenging the Syrian dictator is an outcome of the latter’s policies and says little about (a) the Sunni-Shia rivalries that are one aspect of the complex politics in Syria and the Middle East and (b) the repercussions flowing from the American dethronement of Saddam via invasion.
My critical evaluation of Roth’s moral fervour is guided by the role of international humanitarian agencies such as HRW, Amnesty International and ICG within the context surrounding and shaping Eelam War IV in Sri Lanka – especially during its last stages from mid-2008 to May 2009. In addressing that war since the year 2009, I have been alive to the shortcomings of my bourgeois office-room background in analyzing circumstances that call for battle theatre experience. Though continuous engagement with empirical and pictorial data has reduced that shortcoming, my “desk-cum-office perspective” remains a weakness in my investigations of fields of warfare. It is, in my surmise, a weakness shared by Roth and most HR activists, including Sri Lankans located in Colombo.
In further surmise, I hold that Roth’s assessment is compounded by his manifest moral fervour – etched as it is in his official facial image as well as his writings. While HRW’s dependence on Western democratic societies for its conduits of money and connections may conceivably weigh upon Roth’s arguments, my focus is not on those associations, but the combination of humanist goals and desk-cum-office perspective that has produced a reading of the Syrian situation from cloud cuckoo-land. Roth is nothing if not vehement. My stance is equally vehement – guided in part by the active participant-roles played by HRW and other HR agencies in the course of Eelam War IV (2006-09).
The terrain in which the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) battled the LTTE in the last stages of the war in 2008/09 was as different from that around Aleppo and in Syria as chalk is from cheese. Again, there were only two military forces in Sri Lanka during Eelam War IV (2006-09), whereas the Syrian arena contains several forces battling the regime and yet others, such as the Kurds, battling the jihadist elements. Nevertheless, the positions pursued by the international HR agencies carry enough similarities for a comparative exercise to provide critical insights.
The Last Stages of Eelam War IV, 2008-09
Those differences noted, let me stress that the Sri Lankan conflict was NOT restricted to two entities. The warring context involved other forces that were integral to the immediate circumstances surrounding and shaping the struggle: namely, the Indian government in Delhi, the “international community” with USA as its vanguard and the UN agencies at its coalface, the aforesaid international humanitarian agencies and the interlinked associations of the SL Tamil diaspora serving as the agit-prop agencies in support of the LTTE.
The power and subtlety and effectiveness of the manifold arms of the Tamil diaspora must not be underestimated. As an Indian think tank has stressed, “the terminal phase” of the war was marked by a “vicious, motivated and one-sided campaign of disinformation on the question of human rights violations” directed at the government of Sri Lanka (SATP 2013). Several Western media channels bought into this campaign and there is reason to conclude that several reporters participated actively in the misinformation and duplicity that was central to the sensationalist tales circulated in several quarters.
We need to attend to the temporal progression of Eelam War IV. By June-July 2008, once the SL Army began to make headway on the southern front of the de facto sate of Thamilīlam, it was evident to many (but apparently not to all players in the surrounding scenario) that the LTTE was in serious trouble on the military front. Though continuing to restrain the advances of the SL Army with its customary ingenuity, at this stage the LTTE deployed its tele-communication machinery and its diasporic arms to build up a picture of “an impending humanitarian disaster.” Central to this scenario was the LTTE’s ability to persuade and/or coerce its civilian populace to retreat in advance of its own retreat so that they served as fodder for this picture and could become, so to speak, sandbags amidst the bunker-and-berm defensive bulwarks that were being setup by the LTTE (Tigers) in its remaining terrain.
Initially, most of these civilians were in sympathy with this demand. but from circa January 2009 increasing numbers began to rebel against the draconian demands and the LTTE’s expectation of sacrificial devotion to cause – embodied in the witness provided by a civilian lady named Rasamalar who escaped: “the organisation said we were going to die anyway if we crossed to the army-controlled area and told us to die with them” (quoted in de Silva-Ranasinghe “Downfall,” 2010: 14). The strategic goal of the LTTE was to impose restraints on the military advances of the SL Army through human shields.
There was a time-factor built into this strategy. The Indian General Election was due in May 2009 and there was a possibility that the pro-Tiger elements in the state of Tamilnadu would mould the form of any new governing coalition in India. Any delays in the advances of the SL Army forces would contribute to the potentiality for Indian intervention arising from such an outcome.
It follows that the insistent calls for “ceasefire” by UN agencies, USA and others in late 2008 and 2009 were instruments favouring the LTTE. These solicited interventions were part of the Tiger strategic design. Arguably, but debatably, the calls for the demarcation of a “No Fire Zone” (NFZ) within the declining territory held by the LTTE could also be regarded as an instrument in aid of the Tigers.  Responding to these international pressures on 30th January 2009, GSL set out an area of 14 square miles in extent bordering the Theravilkulam to Mullaitivu road to its north and indicated that the civilians should move into that area.
However, the battle situation altered quickly in favour of the government and on the 12th February, after the SL Army captured the Tiger HQ area at Mullaitivu, GSL demarcated another area identified as the “Second NFZ” and defined by the outer sandbar of the Nandikadal lagoon, stretching over the distance of 12 miles and including the coastal hamlets of Pudumathalan, Karaiyamullaivaikkal, Valayanmadam, and Vellaimullaivaikkal. Since there was no formal agreement with the LTTE on these demarcations and since the Tigers moved men and artillery into these areas or housed operational HQ (for e. g. that of the Sea Tigers in the Second NFZ) these areas had no legality in international law. But the American ambassador, many media personnel and all the HR organisations consistently attached value to the NFZ and referred to the concept at times as “Safe Zone.”
The premise behind this usage – an absurd and unworkable idea — was that GSL should not fire into the NFZ. As Michael Newton observed subsequently in an intricate set of legal arguments, the “warning of the U.S. Ambassador that strikes should not be undertaken against clearly identified military objectives when the LTTE used the presence of civilians in the so-called NFZ to launch military strikes [was] both naive and unfounded in modern international law” (Newton 2014). This assessment was based on Newton’s recognition that (A) the LTTE’s use of civilians as human shields was a war crime; (B) and that laws/rules directed towards the safety of “involuntary human shields” should not “be fashioned or applied in order to favour oppressors.” These considerations led Newton to conclude that the actions of Sri Lanka’s armed forces had been “proportionate” to the circumstances.
However, this was a subsequent review undertaken clinically in ways that were attentive to the pragmatics of war and not hidebound by airy assessments and moral fervour. Newton’s appraisal underlines the shortcomings of the international agencies, such as HRW, AI and ICG, monitoring the Eelam War IV with the aid of ‘foot soldiers’ among the civil rights agencies in Sri Lanka.
Gareth Evans, in key figure in designing the concept of “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, had visited the island in mid-2007 to deliver the prestigious Neelan Tiruchelvam Lecture. He even had the gall to suggest that the government should not conduct any military campaigns in the northern Vanni.
Engineered by Radhika Coomaraswamy and Rama Mani (Director, ICES), Evans’ venture into the island seems to have been an initial step in a move to bind Sri Lanka with international monitors associated with the Global Centre for Responsibility to Protect. Challenges from Rajiva Wijesinha and the government’s Peace Secretariat led to the revocation of Mani’s visa. To this day neither Evans nor Alan Keenan of the ICG have answered Wijesinha’s specific challenges to specific accusations Evans had raised in his talk.
In 2008/09 one of the persistent voices of criticism levelled at GSL came from the “South Asia Analyst’ for HRW in London, Charu Lata Hogg, a young Indian functionary who was also attached to Chatham House. Whatever the merits of her intervention on behalf of arrested local journalists (e.g. Tissaveerasingham in late 2008), her presentation of self as an “expert on Sri Lanka” in public media reports on BBC and on behalf of Chatham House in May 2009 was a monstrous joke because of the inaccuracies, lies and failure to keep pace with the Tamil Tigers’ slide to defeat displayed in both public performances.
However, the weightier official HRW positon can be gathered from a memorandum presented on 19th February 2009 with the title “War on the displaced: Sri Lanka Army and LTTE abuses against Civilians in the Vanni.” This was based on reports from “independent observers” as well as “over 60 interviews with representatives of local and international nongovernmental and humanitarian organizations, UN agencies, medical personnel, religious leaders, diplomatic representatives, and ordinary civilians affected by the conflict. The interviews were conducted in Colombo and Vavuniya, in English or through a Tamil-English translator” (HRW 2009a). On this foundation HRW assumed an ostensibly impartial assessment in its own eyes: castigating both the SL armed services and the LTTE for their “perverse competition [in demonstrating] the greatest disregard for the civilian population.”
The HRW’s self-righteous eyes were oblivious to critical background facts: namely, that (a) some Tiger fighters did not wear uniforms; (b) some civilians in the remnant Thamililam territory were personnel in the peoples’ militia (makkal padai) and/or conscripts engaged in logistical work (cooking, fetching & carrying) in support of the Tiger operations; and (c) some of their data was being conveyed by Tamil NGO personnel recruited for LTTE propaganda work. Such propaganda activity was oriented to the strategic objective pronounced by a senior Tiger official: “just as in Kosovo if enough civilians died … the world would be forced to step in” (Pulidevan quoted by Frances Harrison 2012: 63).
In effect, HRW and the Western media chains became instruments and participants in Eelam War IV. They were both misled and misleading. Though critical of the LTTE for their authoritarian and warring pursuits, their overwhelming concerns for civilian safety meant interventions in favour of ceasefires and a termination of war. Though they may have considered themselves neutral observers on the sidelines, they were in fact (A) players moulding the narratives integral to the conflict; (B) players whose sources of funding, constituencies and ideological background bound them to USA and other Western states and (C) players whose ideology and office-cum-desk perspectives blinded them to the realities of the ground situation and the ways in which “ceasefire” moments and NFZ would sustain the warring side in dire straits, namely, the LTTE.
Whatever the elevated morality of such interventions, their impact on ongoing military politics was partial to the LTTE. Nay more: as indicated above, these demands catered to the Tigers’ grand design.
A fuller comprehension of these facets can be gained from my essays ‘Blackmail” (2012), “Generating Calamity” (2014) and “The Realities of Eelam War IV” (2015) — with the different dates etching the progressive improvement in my battle theatre readings. These investigations derived their weight from the grounded analysis of battlefield events by Sergei de Silva-Ranasinghe in a series of articles from February 2009 onwards and from the monumental examination undertaken by Citizen Silva aka IDAG (2009) – analytical studies which most HR agencies and foreign commentators have (studiously?) neglected.
The use of maps, cartographical reconstructions and images from the war front were (and remain) central dimensions of these studies by de Silva Ranasinghe and Citizen Silva. Such background is especially vital for civilians who lack any awareness of the spatial context and the terrain of Eelam War IV. The two maps provided here are partial and incomplete illustrations of the type of contextualization that is required. It is to the credit of ICG (and thus Alan Keenan) that the graphic map presenting the war theatre on 22-29 April assists us in understanding the remarkable commando operation of the 19-22nd April that enabled some 110,000 or so Tamil civilians and deserting fighters to walk to safety.
Such personnel as Charu Hogg were blissfully inattentive to these tools of trade. Remarkably, there seem to have been Western reporters in Colombo, such as Ravi Nessman of Associated Press and Weiss of the UN, who did not absorb the live video coverage of this mass release of civilians from 19th April absorbed by Bryson Hull and his Reuters team as well as other journalists and ambassadors at SL Air Force HQ and then presented in pictorial detail by Reuters. No review of the last phase of Eelam war can be undertaken without absorbing the type of images presented therein or in the collection marshalled in items placed in the web-site Thuppahi, viz. “Pictorial Illustrations of the Mass Exodus from the Last Redoubt, 20-22 April and mid-May 2009” and “Witnesses to “the War without Witnesses” … Voiceless? Buried Foreign Reporters?”.
In late April and early May 2009 Nessman and most other Western media chains swallowed the tales conveyed by the medical doctors and INGO/NGO functionaries corralled in Tiger terrain who had been turned into faithful conduits for LTTE propaganda. The picture they continued to present to the West, backed by Marie Colvin in London, was a tale of unceasing bombardment. Unlike the battle for PTK town in February 2009 and the assault on massed Tiger troops at Aanandapuram in early April, the SL Army operations in late April-May, I stress, involved close quarter struggle with limited use of artillery and mortars – so that the LTTE too could not use their artillery and heavy indirect weapons because they were within the safety range of their own indirect weapons once the Commandos/Special Forces penetrated their “Last Redoubt” (that is the second NFZ).
Most of these reporters (but not Marie Colvin) and the HR personnel abroad were apparently unaware that from early 2009 the Tiger leadership was angling for a sea rescue operation marshalled by KP Pathmanathan with the aid of Norway and USA which would whisk them away to Eritrea or South Africa under the covering rubric of a rescue effecting the transport of the civilian mass to Trincomalee.
Guided by their blinding moral aim of reducing civilian casualties, the Norwegian goal was directed towards halting military activity by persuading the key LTTE leaders to lay down arms. Salter’s account states that in early February “the Norwegians were confident that pressure from the US, Indian and others would bring a change of mind in the event that the LTTE accepted “an organised end to the war” (emphasis added). This certainty proved misplaced. Solheim (of Norway) is quoted on the next page thus: “Had the LTTE accepted our proposal they would today have been in a position to continue their struggle by other means like say the Kurds in Turkey” (Salter 2015: 346). In brief, the objective of the so called “international community” under the direction of USA/Norway/EU was to sustain the LTTE as a political force.
Sri Lanka to Syria
Guided by these readings of the forceful interventions pursued by the Western states and allied humanitarian agencies in Sri Lanka, my annoyance with Kenneth Roth’s contentions is not only directed towards its pro-Western partisanship. I believe that Roth underestimates (a) the degree to which ISIS and other anti-government forces have popular support in Syria, (b) the difficulty of distinguishing ISIS or Al-Nusrah Front fighters from civilians; and (c) the intractable political conditions which mean that ceasefires and truces are likely to shatter in ways that ignite further war at a greater crescendo. Because I have negligible knowledge of the Syrian situation, clearly, all these assertions are conjectures.
For this reason, I consulted David Olney from the Politics Department at Adelaide University. I sent him Roth’s article with a request for his thoughts; and then met his prompt response with a set of questions. I present his Memo of 20th December and the subsequent Q and A Note of 21st December. Olney provides us with readings that are a chilling introduction to realpolitik.
DAVID OLNEY, 20 December 2016
Joint Special Operations Command includes at least 70,000 of the most capable military personnel in the United States and it only answers to the President. They need a war to justify their existence, and they need that war to suit their strengths.
Not sure why the author did not balance Trump’s closeness to Israel with his supposed interest in Saudi and Egypt.
Trump’s policy toward Putin is to draw him out into the world, where his limitations can be made more obvious. Putin has dominated the diplomatic game and this cannot be allowed to continue. Pragmatic authoritarians can play nicely together until they realise that they don’t want to share.
OLNEY 21 December 2016, responding to my thoughts set out as four points.
A= presumably the bombing attacks by USA and NATO are more discriminating than those of Assad and Russia – -but do they not kill some civilians in the process?
B = how does anyone distinguish “civilians” from (1) ISIS personnel (b) Al Qaida and(c) other anti-Assad elements armed to fight or pro fighting?
C = Don’t “humanitarian ceasefire periods” assist the anti-Assad regime forces? and help them re-coup?
D = So in effect well-meaning humanitarian moral interventions are in cloud cuckoo-land and pursue options that could worsen the “humanitarian catastrophe” they trumpet?
Humanitarian outrage still misses the point.
Assad has no choice but to win, because the only other choice for his people at this point is total destruction.
Look at what Russia did in Chechnya: total devastation of the capital, which they then had rebuilt by former enemies who they had bought off.
Rules of war? They don’t mean a thing to Assad or Putin, so unless we are willing to take both of them on and then rebuild the remains of Syria we may as well shut up and get on with helping the refugees who flee the disaster. Supporting Syria’s neighbours who are looking after the refugees is about the only thing that can be done.
Ramesh Thakur of ANU, on ABC, 23 December 2016
I happened to hear Dr. Thakur talking about issues of nuclear armaments on ABC on the 23rd December 2016, A side-issue in his clinical exposition caught my attention. He indicated that Putin and USSR had been perturbed by (a) the dethronement of the pro-Russian government in neighbouring Ukraine and (b) increasing NATO militarization in spots bordering Russia. The latter seems to tie in with tit-bits of information about the activities of the Obama government conveyed to me by the Leftists Jean-Pierre Page and Chris Black. This is precisely the terrain which would NOT be covered by people like Kenneth Roth because — in my surmise — when push comes to shove, the leading HR outfits depend on friends and connections in Western society for their funds and activities. Weisbrot has recently indicated that individuals “who have crafted or executed U.S. foreign policy [have served] as HRW staff, advisors or board members” (2016) and chastised the organization for its double standards and “conflicts of interest” in the Latin American field.
I would be very pleased if anyone can challenge and disabuse me on this set of conjectures in support of the further contention that the HR agencies were quite partisan in their evaluation of the war scenario and political circumstances in Sri Lanka in 2008/09/ and the overarching accusation that their readings of such complex situations is as wooly as idiotic. This grounding and Olney’s comments provide reasons to raise serious questions about Kenneth Roth’s evaluations.
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Roberts, Michael 22014 “KP’s Frantic Efforts to save the Tiger Leaders in 2009 … and USA’s Pursuits,” 27 October 2014, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/kps-frantic-efforts-to-save-the-tiger-leaders-in-2009-and-usas-pursuits/
Roberts, Michael 22014 Tamil Person and State. Essays, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishers.
Roberts, Michael 2014 Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishers.
Roberts, Michael 2014 “Truth Journalism? Marie Colvin hoist on her own Petard,” 5 November 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/triuth-journalism-marie-colvin-hoist-on-her-own-petard/
Roberts, Michael 2 2014 “The War in Sri Lanka and Post-War Propaganda,” 18 November 2014, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/the-war-in-sri-lanka-and-propaganda-debates/ … being Memo sent to OISL with Hyperlinks and Images added
Roberts, Michael 2 2014 “Cartographic & Photographic Illustrations in support of the Memorandum Analysing the War in Sri Lanka and Its Propaganda Debates,” 18 November 2014, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/cartographic-photographic-illustrations-in-support-of-the-memorandum-analysing-the-war-in-sri-lanka-and-propaganda-debates/
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Roberts, Michael 2015 “Lilliputs in a World of Giants: Marga and CHA bat for Lanka in the Propaganda War, 2009-14,” 18 November 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/11/18/lilliputs-in-a-world-of-giants-marga-and-cha-bat-for-lanka-in-the-propaganda-war-2009-14/#more-18467.
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 His visage is reminiscent of that presented to the world by Gordon Weiss, the Australian journalist and author who was Media Officer for the UN in Sri Lanka in 2008/09, during his subsequent international campaigns on TV and media events. See Weiss on ABC and in The Australian, 23 April 2011 presenting his “Sri Lanka faces its ‘Srebrenica moment’.”. Note my criticisms in Roberts “People of Righteousness march on Sri Lanka,” The Island, 22 June 2011 and the subsequent puzzle – Roberts 2016. Also see Padraig Colman 2011.
 HRW prides itself on being “a nonprofit, nongovernmental human rights organization … known for its accurate fact-finding, impartial reporting, effective use of media, and targeted advocacy, often in partnership with local human rights groups” (https://www.hrw.org/about). However, note Mark Weisbrot 2016 and the debate on 11th June 2014 presented here: https://www.democracynow.org/2014/6/11/ debate_is_human_rights_watch_too
 See https://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626922360092/ as well as” Final Battle, NFZ Last Redoubt, 13-19 May 2009,” at http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626921596968/ … and the relevant images in Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, 2014,
 The central government in India pursued a two-faced policy: a public one and a private in-house modus vivendi between a troika in Delhi and a government troika in Colombo (see Balachandran 2015). The regional government in Tamilnadu and the Tamil media represented a different force in the surrounding arena.
 The rushed visits to Sri Lanka by Nambiar, Samuel, Holmes and Ban Ki-Moon during the first five months of 2009 were manifestly instruments of pressures inspired by USA and its European allies who were responding to SL Tamil agitation directed by the LTTE or pro-Tiger agencies in the West.
 For some insights into the labyrinthine world of LTTE network activity, see Amarasinghe 2014; Chalk 1999; GH Peiris 2002 and Roberts, “American Action,” 2015.
 The LTTE constructed a berm defence (viz. ditch-cum-bund) backed up with extensive minefields and booby traps (see De Silva-Ranasinghe 2009a & 2009c and Roberts, TPS. Pictorial 2014: 117-19,134-35). Note that bulldozes and other heavy equipment belonging to INGOs in their territory were among he tools used for this purpose.
 I have been guided by the evaluations of Tamil civilian thinking provided by Anoma Rajakaruna (who visited Thamililam regularly during the ceasefire period 2002-06) and the Telugu journalist Muralii Reddy who had access to the war zone and escaping civilians from late 2008. See Roberts, TPS. Essays, 2014; 152-53),
 Hardly any Western analysts or reporters have emphasized this critical dimension of the war and its context. As it turned out, the new central government in Delhi was a relatively stable coalition and the Tamilnadu MPs and southern parties had less clout than previously. But this was not known before mid-May 2009.
 In speaking to N Ram of The Hindu in mid-2009, President Rajapaksa made the amazing claim that the concept of NFZ was an outcome of GSL’s grand design (Mahinda-Hindu 2016). This seems to be an