The Sri Lanka army has set up a “Directorate of Overseas Operations” dedicated to preparing material to defend itself against war crimes charges made in the international arena. This was stated by the Army Commander, Lt.Gen.Mahesh Senanayake, at a meeting with the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka here on Thursday.
The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had passed several resolutions accusing the Lankan Army of breaching International Humanitarian Law which could be deemed “war crimes.”
The UNHRC and the West-based human rights lobby have called for an international judicial mechanism to investigate and bring the guilty to book. The former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Prince Zeid had even suggested the extension of Universal Jurisdiction to Sri Lanka.
Gen.Senanayake said that in the absence of adequate support from those outside the army, the Army considers it necessary to have an organization or a think tank of its own, to defend the institution in the context of the grave charges. And the defense has to be carried out with facts and figures.
The General said that the Directorate of Overseas Operations was set up in April and is already engaged in the collection of the relevant material.
The other important task that has been given to it is the whetting of Army personnel wanting to serve in UN Peace Keeping Mission overseas.
War Crimes Charges
The General said that he is not against any inquiry about alleged war crimes and that he and the Army are keen to clear the institution’s name. He felt that there is no need to fear an inquiry if the Army had not committed any violations wantonly as alleged by people overseas. He believes that there was no wanton violation of the laws of war on an significant scale.
“A few personnel may have committed crimes, but the whole Army cannot be blamed for that. At any rate 14 personnel who had committed objectionable act had been punished,” he said, mentioning those who are now serving sentences.
“The Army has not told its side of the story, which is what the new think tank will do,” Gen.Senanayake said.
There is still no clarity about many war time issues, including casualty figures. Some say that 100,000 civilians were killed with 40, 000 dying in the last phase of the war. The government puts the figure at 7000 to 8000, the General pointed out.
The army too had lost men. The 30 year war had claimed 20,000 soldiers’ lives. 37, 000 were wounded and 3488 were Missing in Action and are yet to be traced.
Allegations Based on Hearsay
As regards accusations of abductions or physical elimination he said that most of them were made by non-residents of Sri Lanka and were based in hearsay. Only a proper inquiry would reveal the truth, he said.
The General said that the Army welcomes the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) to trace the missing.
The peace time Sri Lankan Army is keen on educating its personnel on human rights and international humanitarian law and has made these a part of its training manual.
About 500 personnel of the Sri Lankan Army are serving in UN peace keeping missions in Mali, Lebanon. Congo and Sudan. The Army is ready to send up to 3500 well trained personnel abroad on such missions, Gen.Senanayake said.
Since the end of the war on May 19, 2009, the Sri Lankan Army has transformed itself into a peace time army contributing to national development and reconciliation.
“The Army is the only institution which has the capacity to help the civilian administration in the former war zone in the North and East of the island. It is involved in rehabilitation and re-settlement. 77% of the lands held by the Army during the war in the North and East has been returned .The majority of these were private lands,” Gen.Senanayake said.
On April 13, this year, 315 of the 640 families living in refugee camps in Jaffna, were given back their lands.
“Only those lands which are necessary for security would be kept, such as the lands around the airbase in Palaly in Jaffna. This is because national security cannot be compromised,” the General said.
In Trincomalee district, the Army has rehabilitated 570 tanks or reservoirs. In Polonaruwa district, 214 tanks were rehabilitated. The army provides workers and expertise for house building in the war zone. By year end, 300 houses would have been built in the North.
On the complaint that the army is building recreation facilities for its staff in the North, Gen.Senanayake said that Rest and Recreational (R and R) facilities are needed for any army.
Northern Provincial Council Not Helpful
Asked whether he is getting support from the Northern Provincial Council and Chief Minister C.V.Wigneswaran, the General said that while the Chief Minister is his “best friend” the Council has done little.
“It has passed 387 resolutions since it came into being in 2013. But none of these has been implemented. Some are not implementable, for example the demand for the total withdrawal of the army from the North,” Gen.Senanayake said.
The General however added that the Government Agents in the North are fully cooperating with the Army in carrying out developmental tasks.
On de-mining he said that 27 million sq. meters are yet to be de-mined in the island, as per the norms of humanitarian de-mining. Out of these, 1.9 million sq.meters are in Jaffna peninsula. 75% of the de-mining is being done by the Army, he added.
The problem of de-mining in Sri Lanka is that there are no maps of mines laid by the Tamil Tiger rebels and the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).
“Right Sizing” the Army
Although the Army has been downsized by about 25% from the war time strength of 236,000, and some equipment like battle tanks and ammunition will be disposed off, the idea is to “right size” the army rather than “down size” it.
As a peace time army, personnel are being trained for civilian tasks and as part of this process, batches of personnel at the lower levels are being sent for training in a variety of trades which will not only help them participate in development assistance, but have a gainful vocation after retirement.
Gen.Senanayake himself is a professional civil engineer with a degree from the College of Military Engineering in Pune, India ,affiliated to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
As for the training of combat units, Gen.Senanayake said that since wars of the future will be fought at the small scale unit level, Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) are being trained to lead men and take decisions.
Indian Army Chief to visit Lanka
General Senanayake said that the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, Gen.Bipin Rawat, will be on a seven-day visit to Sri Lanka from the coming weekend onwards. He will call on the armed forces chiefs, the President and the Prime Minister, and visit military establishments in Trincomalee and Diyatalawa.