Networks of Informers 7:
Does Obama have a ‘Multiple Civilian Casualty Policy’ in dealing
The double standards endemic in international reporting of conflict
is apparent in the manner in which Sri Lankan officials are turned into
witnesses against the Sri Lankan state whenever they say things that go
against the standard view of Sri Lankan officials. We are co-opted as it
were into temporary membership of the network of informers the nastier
elements in the international community have set up, if we declare that
there were civilian casualties during the conflict.
This is never treated as a statement, but is rather almost always
described as an admission. This makes no sense except in terms of a
discourse redolent with preconceived prejudices. In itself the existence
of civilian casualties in modern warfare is not something surprising,
but what occurs in Sri Lanka has necessarily to be accompanied by finger
When it happens in other theatres of war, it is considered quite
acceptable. When American drones strike civilians in Pakistan, when NATO
bombs hit civilians in Libya, this is something quite natural, to be
accompanied by perfunctory regrets, more often than not involving
suggestions that the fault lies entirely with the enemy. There is no
suggestion whatsoever that such actions, the taking of targets even
though there might be risk to civilians, is an intrinsic part of Western
Personally I do not believe that Barack Obama would actually
subscribe to a policy of multiple civilians casualties. I would like to
think that - unlike perhaps some of this predecessors, who saw
themselves as the scourge of God in dealing either with infidels or
communists - he would even suggest that maximum care should be taken to
avoid civilian casualties and that targets should always be military
ones on pretty good if not always foolproof evidence. But the continuing
saga of civilian deaths in all theatres of conflict in which the West is
involved - in which the West indeed began conflicts for a range of
reasons that often went against United Nations policy - suggests that
there has been no policy of avoiding civilian casualties at all costs.
Not just enemies but also potential enemies
On the contrary, I would like to think that Barack Obama, unlike
obviously some of his commanders on the ground who think that not just
enemies but also potential enemies - and those who might conceivably be
offering support to enemies - are fair game, would want a policy of
never attacking civilians on their own; but it is clear that he feels no
great anguish (a little I hope he does feel) about civilians, children,
patients, killed in the course of what he must I hope insist are
primarily military operations against defined military targets - such as
the weaponry placed near a Libyan hospital that figured in one NATO
justification of /apology for - civilian deaths.
With regard to that last, no Western commentator would claim that the
incident represented a reversal of any policy of ‘zero civilian
casualties’. Indeed no Western commentator would dream of asking a
Western power what its policy was with regard to civilian casualties. On
the contrary, it is simply understood that one must avoid civilian
casualties as possible, one should not deliberately target civilians,
one should ensure even when targeting military objects that any possible
harm to civilians is proportional - but that civilian casualties will
occur is not considered an intrinsic moral problem. We are not dealing
with Dostoyevsky’s Alyosha, but equally clearly that does not make
Barack Obama the Grand Inquisitor.
International media seeking to manipulate opinion
As far as Sri Lanka is concerned however, it is open season on anyone
and everyone, whatever they say. The manner in which some elements in
the international media seek to manipulate opinion is exemplified by
reactions to the Defence Ministry report on the conflict, with stress on
acknowledgement that there had been civilian casualties.
Even an Indian newspaper took up the standard approach and claimed
that ‘For the first time Sri Lanka today admitted that civilian deaths
did occur during the final phase of the country’s three decade-long
civil war against Tamil rebels’.
This was the main point made by influential media outlets in the
West, with the Associated Press getting its version into both the New
York and the Los Angeles Times. The latter declared in a very brief note
that ‘Sri Lanka on Monday acknowledged for the first time that civilian
casualties occurred in the final phase of its 26-year war against Tamil
Tiger rebels, but called the deaths unavoidable. The Defense Ministry
statement was a reversal from its previous insistence that its troops
adhered to a “zero civilian casualty policy.”’
Estimate of civilian casualties
This is both false and illogical. I had been cited two years ago in
the Guardian in London as having ventured an estimate of civilian
casualties, in an article which had a headline dwelling on the higher
figure suggested - Sri Lanka says up to 5,000 civilians died in Tigers
battle’. And in case the Guardian - in the form of an intelligent
regular correspondent unlike Gethin Chamberlain of 11 throat cut
imaginary women fame - is not considered evidence, this statement is
cited both in the Darusman Panel report and in Gordon Weiss’ book.
Symptomatic perhaps of the schizophrenic Weiss approach to truth is
the fact that I have the distinction of occurring twice in the book,
under two different spellings. Under the wrong spelling I am merely
secretary to the Minister of Human Rights, not indeed to the Ministry,
which is an understandable error since Weiss obviously has no interest
in understanding the independent role of administrators.
Poor Mahinda Samarasinghe is one of Weiss’ bugbears, described as ‘a
single good advertisement for the straw man of Sri Lanka’s rule of law’,
along with me (with Palitha Kohona joining us in another place as
sustaining ‘the elegant conceit that a system of meaningful
accountability exists in Sri Lanka’.
However, as though to acknowledge the efforts I have made in this and
other fields, Weiss creates another identity for me elsewhere, spelling
my name correctly and describing me as ‘one of the most vocal Sri Lankan
civil servants, and now a member of parliament’. He describes the
interview in the Guardian as ‘the first such admission by the government
that the battle had exacted a terrible toll on civilians’.
Continued suppression of information
This suggests he had completely ignored everything I had written
earlier about the way the civilians were suffering and being killed.
However it is understandable that Weiss should have ignored this,
because as UN spokesman he must bear much of the responsibility for the
UN having failed from 2007 on to have highlighted the LTTE forced
recruitment of civilians and children, and its holding back of civilians
(including UN employees and their families). Sadly, given the
exaggerated respect our officials have for minor UN staff - as opposed
to the UN system in general, which should be respected, given the high
quality of most senior administrators we deal with - we have not written
to the UN asking for an inquiry into the continuing suppression of
information in this regard.
So, whereas we kept pointing out how civilians were being abused, the
strategy the LTTE initiated is now fulfilled by characters such as Weiss
and the media, which perpetuates falsehoods as well as inconsistencies.
Obviously the existence of civilian casualties is not a reversal of a
zero civilian casualty policy, otherwise it must be assumed that no
armed force has a zero civilian casualty policy. The fact that civilian
casualties occurred, contrary to its accusatory characterization as an
admission, is nothing to be surprised about, unless we had kept
insisting that there had been no civilian casualties at all.
That has been claimed, though thankfully that canard is not so common
now. It is possible that, faced with accusations that we had wilfully
killed civilians, people answered in the negative without making it
clear that they were asserting the policy, not claiming that there had
been no civilian casualties at all.
This is understandable, given the way words are twisted when one does
mention civilian casualties, as I have found on interviews when I am
told gloatingly, after I have mentioned estimates I have made (after
studying recorded figures, as with ICRC transports), ‘So you
Defence Ministry report exemplifies my point
I have answered, most recently to News X in India, in an interview I
hope will be shown in Sri Lanka too, that such a use of language is
either foolish or wicked, certainly very confusing. The recent
characterization of the Defence Ministry report exemplifies my point.
But the failure to apply the same standards to that sweet crusader for
Human Rights, Barack Obama, is evidence that the commanding heights of
moral indignation will continue to be used selectively.