Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

The Channel 4 independent witnesses

Watching the Channel 4 film that is now doing the rounds, I was struck by its essential predictability. It relied very heavily on three individuals whom it suggested were independent witnesses, though in all three cases their reliability is in grave doubt. I had in fact drawn attention previously to the potential dangers posed by these individuals.


The failure to have taken action in this respect is I believe another indictment on the lack of professionalism within our government departments, a lack of professionalism which I fear will continue in the absence of intelligent, high-powered groups to monitor and anticipate and deal with problems. I have been suggesting such bodies for months now, only to be told endlessly about the difficulties of setting them up. We thus tend to react to attacks on us, often without consistency, which often contributes to further attacks.


Three star witnesses

An example of what we failed to do is provided by Benjamin Dix, who was trotted out after two years to be one of the three star witnesses in the case against the Sri Lankan state. There had previously been a dress rehearsal for this, when he had popped up in Geneva to attack us, way back in 2008. We got the UN to put a stop to this, but we failed to get from them, despite my suggesting this at the time, something in writing that specifically repudiated Dix and what he was doing.


I can do no better now than republishing something I wrote a year ago, in which I noted that doubtless Dix 'will be recycled elsewhere at some stage'. Sadly, though it is always heartening when one's foresight is proved correct, the continuing failure of our system to develop such foresight in general will continue to create problems for us.


The article as a whole also suggests other reasons for us facing so much criticism now. I regret too therefore that I never got answers to the questions I raised in 2009 with our Ministry of External Affairs about Holdsworth, and indeed the intervention of one of its officials who tried to persuade us to reverse our decision.


Emotional and Other Excesses of UN Staff Within the UN system

In considering the individuals within the UN system who have tried to undermine the Sri Lankan government, and in the process also contributed to undermining the good work that the UN in general tries to do, we should look carefully at the various examples of what might be termed pernicious excess.


Most obviously we have those who have gone out on a limb, and been found out, so that even the usually complacent UN system had to deal with them with relative if still inadequate firmness. Prominent amongst these in the last couple of years were John Campbell and Benjamin Dix. The latter in fact behaved badly openly only after he had left the services of the UN in Colombo, but then he turned up in Geneva where he was escorted round to various missions by Amnesty International. He did a sort of magic lantern show with slides, which were obviously not very revealing since we did not hear of them later. What gave them, and his critical narrative, substance was his status as an employee of the United Nations, which most regrettably Amnesty was selling for all it was worth.


I told the normally scrupulous Peter Splinter, head of Amnesty in Geneva, that it was really very naughty of him to make use of an emotionally overwrought individual who was in breach of his contract. Peter however seemed to think such conduct was not reprehensible. Fortunately the UN system disagreed, and the UN head in Colombo made sure that Mr Dix stopped using his position to advance criticisms that were fraudulent and proving an embarrassment to the UN as well as to Sri Lanka. Sadly the UN did not see fit on this occasion to issue a statement making its position public, but the system seems to have worked, for that was the last we heard about Mr Dix and his tale of woe. Doubtless he will be recycled elsewhere at some stage, not least because he had been taken into the UN system after a stint with Solidar, which was at the height of its influence at the time.


Another example of emotional excess was John Campbell, who had finally to be sent away from Sri Lanka by the UN, which admitted that he was immature. I suspect however that his performance was not quite so straightforward. He first came to our notice when he was cited by the BBC as claiming that the situation in Sri Lanka was as bad as the one in Somalia. The BBC naturally presented him as speaking on behalf of the UN, and later he was confidently cited by a British journalist, Peter Foster, as evidence for the assertion that ‘relations between the Sri Lankan government and the United Nations are strained on the ground’.


Foster’s diatribe was peculiar, in that he claimed it was based on information supplied by a ‘veteran international aid worker’. It is almost certain that this was a UN official, since much of the material is about UN activities. Thus we find horror that UN vehicles were searched, with the assertion that even the Serbs in Kosovo were not as disrespectful of UN staff. This is a telling comparison, given what we now know about the agenda of at least some elements pretending to do humanitarian work in Kosovo in 1998.


This wondrous veteran complains again later of a search ‘by soldiers with a pompous attitude which would not have been tolerated by those being searched on Belfast Streets years ago’. This comparison is equally telling, since it suggests that the writer is not only British, but also one of those amnesiac Britishers who has no idea what the people of Belfast suffered. Obviously he would not dream of reading the report on the subject of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman, for which British officers refused to answer questions.


The assumption that this veteran was British is confirmed by a typically British description of Sri Lankan soldiers ‘splashing around almost naked in the river’. The description is sublimated in the gleeful rhetorical question, with a very Anglo Saxon use of the subjunctive, ‘Is it much surprise that the army take such heavy casualties?’ Only a Britisher could have thought death, admittedly at a subjunctive remove, a suitable punishment for nudity. Certainly only a Britisher could have believed that wearing discreet bathing trunks might save Sri Lankan soldiers from Tiger bullets.


My own view was that this veteran, who later cites Campbell, was in fact Campbell himself, since it is unlikely that there were two emotionally underdeveloped experienced British aid workers with military backgrounds running around the Wanni at the same time. Campbell we know served in the British army, and then worked for the UN in Somalia. That I suspect explains why the UN got rid of him quietly, without a public repudiation of his outburst. If he was being financed by the British, it was obviously necessary to be discreet.


It was my experience of these characters that made me wary when I came across others of that ilk in applications for visas we received over the last few months. The most bizarre came shortly after the conclusion of the conflict, when OCHA requested a visa for a coordinating position, for what seemed a perfectly innocuous candidate. Subsequently the candidate was changed and, without indicating the need for someone with a very different background, replaced by someone with a British military background, Brian Holdsworth.


This was the period at which we were being told that countries that continued to protest their friendship for us had satellite imagery which confirmed that our forces had behaved very badly. I rather suspect that this intelligence was of the Weapons of Mass Destruction sort, where as it turned out military intelligence had not overstepped the mark but been subject to misinterpretation by the British government for its own reasons. In this context I should reiterate that what I would term British professionals, such as the last admirable British Defence Adviser, have seemed to me very sensible about a country doing its best to deal with terrorism under difficult circumstances. Now that the political compulsions of a few individuals will not complicate matters (and the British electors have turned their backs conclusively on the more extreme), I hope we can go back to a productive relationship with a country that will look positively to the future.


Sadly however, in the past, with both sanctimoniousness and deceit being standard practice for some politicians, it struck me that the sudden decision to send a senior soldier to look after humanitarian operations was extremely suspicious. I thought it best therefore to tell OCHA that I did not think I should recommend a visa for him. Not surprisingly, they took the rejection very well. We will doubtless find out fairly soon whether whoever had proposed funding the position has now found a substitute equally skillled in extrapolating information from any data that can be summoned up.


My recollection is that one reason for the change in personnel was that the British had decided to fund the position, but I may be confusing this position with others which British DFID had initiated. In all such cases I believe it is vital that the UN first discuss the need for any official position with the relevant Sri Lankan authorities, but this is not a principle that is generally followed. Given however the sad experiences we have had with so many vociferous critics, who claim and are granted by generally British journalists the status of UN officials, it is essential that for the future basic principles of responsibility and accountability be laid down and scrupulously observed.

Daily News 25 July 2011



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