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Weiss: Both sides were to blame -

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Weiss: Both sides were to blame

Broadcast: 26/04/2011

Reporter: Ali Moore

Gordon Weiss was spokesman for the United Nation's humanitarian mission in Sri Lanka during the
civil war.


ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: Joining me to discuss the United Nations' report on the civil war in Sri
Lanka is former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss.

Gordon Weiss, welcome to the program


ALI MOORE: How much of what was going on, as documented by this UN report, were you aware of when
you were there?

GORDON WEISS: I was aware of it, a lot of it, but a lot of it I learned in the process of
researching my own book in the year afterwards.

ALI MOORE: So, let's define what you did know at the time.

GORDON WEISS: Well we knew that there were people who were dying. We knew more and more as the
months passed - I'm talking about the first five months of 2009 - that the Government was using
heavy artillery and they were reassuring world leaders that they weren't using heavy weapons, and
that this was in areas of civilian concentration and that the likelihood was that large numbers of
civilians were dying.

ALI MOORE: This report criticises the UN for failing to take action, especially by not publicly
talking about casualty figures, which the report and the authors say could have strengthened the
call for the protection of civilians. You were the UN spokesman. Why didn't that happen?

GORDON WEISS: Yeah, well, I was the UN spokesman and I was making statements about numbers, but
there was obviously a decision taken not to use the specific figures that we were gathering. I was
also part of that particular cell that's mentioned inside the report who were trying to calculate
casualty figures on a daily basis. But there was a decision taken up the chain not to use those

ALI MOORE: Was that a decision you believe that was taken under pressure from the Sri Lankan
Government? Was it a calculated decision to ensure the UN could stay in the country?

GORDON WEISS: I think the broader view was that if the UN used those figures it would make the UN's
position in the country untenable, and the UN mission was not a political mission or a
peace-keeping mission or an observer mission, it was a humanitarian mission. So you had a lot of
humanitarian agencies who were there trying to deliver the basics to those who were caught up in
the siege.

ALI MOORE: So was that in essence a judgement that it was better to be there and be silent than not
be there at all?

GORDON WEISS: I think it was, yes.

ALI MOORE: Was that right, do you think, in hindsight?

GORDON WEISS: No. I didn't believe that it was right, but I didn't have the wherewithal to change

ALI MOORE: In your view, though, clearly the UN could have done more?

GORDON WEISS: Yes, but in my view the UN can always do more. I mean, I don't think the UN is ever
in situations where it just gets things right. You know, this was a very, very tough theatre. It
was the cutting edge of humanitarian action. It was always going to be tough. So that the UN got
something wrong is no surprise; the question really is the degree to which it got it wrong.

ALI MOORE: You've written that the government of Sri Lanka duped the UN. Who exactly are you
referring to there? Are you talking about you and the rest of the UN on the ground, or are you
talking more the member groups?

GORDON WEISS: I'm talking about member nations and world leaders as well as specific UN officials
who sought reassurances from the government of Sri Lanka that they were not using heavy weapons,
that they were doing their best to preserve civilian life and that civilians weren't dying in large

The government had a very good idea of what was going on inside that siege zone, particularly
because it had the use of drones, it had uninterrupted control of the airspace there. So it really
had an eye over a battlefield that was not very big at all. Towards the end of the war it was the
size of Central Park in New York City.

ALI MOORE: What was that like, being there with the UN, being the spokesman for the UN, being the
person who was in many ways the public face, but at the same time being so constrained in the face
of what you clearly already knew was horrific?

GORDON WEISS: Well, it was difficult. You know, I've worked in many difficult situations. This was
probably the most difficult because it was touch-and-go throughout these months, so it was deeply

ALI MOORE: Is that why you left?

GORDON WEISS: No, I left because I felt that the government had successfully captured the narrative
of what happened in this war and that what was missing was an alternative narrative and I set about
writing this book. That's why I left the UN to come back to Australia and do that for the last

ALI MOORE: So who do you blame for what happened? Because this report, I guess, is interesting in
that it damns both camps?

GORDON WEISS: Yes, I think they're both to blame, and I think that was why it was such a difficult

I mean, the Tamil Tigers unquestionably towards the end were holding the vast majority of people
there against their will. We're talking about 50,000 families who were making survival decisions
about where the best place was to go for them and how they could protect their children.

On the other hand, the government of Sri Lanka was trying to extract the Tamil Tiger guerrillas
from this mass of civilians. You know, I think there were very poor decisions made on both sides.
The panel report makes it clear that the majority of the people who died probably died as a result
of government shelling and they're talking about the numbers being in the tens of thousands.

ALI MOORE: And in terms of that, government responsibility, would you like to see the president in
court? Does it go to the very top?

GORDON WEISS: Well I think that the decisions over the war and the execution of the war come down
to a very narrow circle of people that surround the Rajapaksa family. The Defence minister was a
Rajapaksa, the president was as a Rajapaksa, there was a range of Rajapaksas in the administration,
but also people like Palitha Kohona, who was the secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

ALI MOORE: Who also has Australian citizenship.

GORDON WEISS: Who has also Australian citizenship. And these were the people who were busy
pedalling the notion to the rest of the world that there was nothing very untoward happening at
all, that the war was going along merrily and ultimately that the war was won without a drop of
civilian blood being spilt, which the Government maintains to this day, despite all this evidence
to the contrary.

ALI MOORE: And indeed, the UNHCR presented that evidence back in 2009 to many of the member states,
so I wonder now that we have this call for an international, independent inquiry. Will we get one,
do you think?

GORDON WEISS: Well I think the striking thing about this report, and I think it took everyone by
surprise, even people who were closely watching this for the last couple of years, is the absolute
clarity of the report. It's unambiguous. It says these things happened. It's reasonable to suppose
that tens of thousands of civilians were killed. And it allocates squarely the blame for that, the
majority of the deaths, in the government's lap, and it also singles out the Tamil Tigers for their
part in this atrocity.

ALI MOORE: At the same time though, the UN Secretary-General has already said that he doesn't have
the power to call for such an inquiry unless one of two things happen: either the Sri Lankan
Government agrees with it, and of course that's highly unlikely, or the member states call for it.

For that to happen, it would have to go through one of the various organisations, the security
council or the human rights council or the general assembly, and that would involve the agreement
of China. And is it not right to say that China throughout this has sided with Sri Lanka?

GORDON WEISS: It has, but China also has a history of shift. It did so in Sudan. It gave way in
Libya. There is a large reputational cost for these countries when they're presented with such
clear evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of a member nation, and they stand in the way of a proper
investigation, which is after all what is being called for: just an investigation, an investigation
of the full facts.

ALI MOORE: That said, of course, though, China objected to this panel itself being set up just last
year. It said that the Sri Lankan government was capable of looking after its own problems.

GORDON WEISS: Well that's China's default position. But as I say, I mean, I see that China is
changing. I don't see it as the sort of monstrous hegemon that people like to think of it. I think
that it shows that it will - it will shift, it will take a position on things that is not
necessarily the one that it's abided by for a long time. It did so in Sudan, as I say, and I think
there's a good chance that we will see a war crimes tribunal in Sri Lanka.

ALI MOORE: At the same time, of course, China also has very large financial interests now; it's
also the biggest aid donor to Sri Lanka. You feel confident that China would be able to shift its
position. At the same time do you think Sri Lanka is perhaps relying on China, and indeed Russia,
to forestall any action the UN might take?

GORDON WEISS: Well I feel a lot more confident today than I did two days ago, having read the full
report and having seen the lack of ambiguity about it. I think it's very difficult for the
co-operative community of nations to say, "Well, we're just going to take this incredibly powerful
report and put it to one side and pretend it didn't happen."

International relations is about the rule of law and treaties and member nations abiding by those
treaties. Sri Lanka reassured people it was fighting a lawful war. This report says absolutely the

ALI MOORE: Indeed, you call it Sri Lanka's Srebrenica moment. Did you think that at the time?

GORDON WEISS: Did I think it was a Srebrenica moment at the time ... ?

ALI MOORE: In the sense no-one was being held to account? Or is that something you've come to

GORDON WEISS: Oh, I think that the - I think that that particular paradigm was one I've arrived at
later. But I think it's the Srebrenica moment for two reasons.

One, it was a war that was conducted behind closed doors. It was a sealed war. That explains why it
took so long to get to this point. There were no journalists, no independent humanitarian workers,
no-one was twittering the way they are in Libya or taking photographs or recording it in any way,
or in a very minor way.

So it was a Srebrenica moment in the sense that it was a crime that happened behind closed doors
and it takes time for something like that come out, for the evidence to fall in place.

The second thing is that it's a Srebrenica moment for the rest of the world. When you are presented
with such overwhelming facts, what are you going to do with it? You can't ignore them. This is not
a problem that can be ignored. I mean, everything in the post-Second World War state of play
between nations is about trying to get people to abide by the rule of law. And as the panel says,
in their view, the sheer proportion of what happened in Sri Lanka represents a grave assault on the
entire regime of international law.

ALI MOORE: So how should Australia respond to this report?

GORDON WEISS: Australia should stand for the rule of law. We should always stand for the rule of
law. We are an incredibly fortunate country. Sri Lanka, you know, went through an experience that
Australians should hope they would never have to go through.

One way of supporting Sri Lanka is to support the rule of law. There are many, many Sri Lankans who
disagreed with the way - of all stripes and of all ethnicities - who disagreed with the way that
their government fought this war and feel a great deal of shame.

ALI MOORE: At the same time of course, Australia regularly involuntarily repatriates failed asylum
seekers to Sri Lanka, and that's something that's come after the UNHCR said conditions had improved
in that country.

Doesn't that sit very uncomfortably with the ongoing environment as it's described by this report.
To quote: "The root causes of ethno-nationalist conflict remain largely unaddressed and human
rights violations continue," and it goes on to detail them: arbitrary detention, abductions,
disappearances, killings, attacks on the media.

GORDON WEISS: Yeah. Well, without knowing the precise profile of the people that we do send back
there, and I know that it's mixed; it's not just Tamils, it is for example Sinhalese Christians.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees says that people still have the grounds to fear
persecution in Sri Lanka and they're of course talking about the Tamils, that the system has
essentially not changed. And I think that's one of the reasons why we're seeing the report coming
out really towards the second anniversary of the end of the war is because people were waiting to
see if there would be any substantive change in Sri Lanka. If there was going to be a move for
political reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and people really aren't seeing it.

And certainly in the domestic war crimes process that the Government has set up, as the panel
report panel points out, it shows very little sign of bearing any real fruit that's going to
contribute to the long-term stability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

ALI MOORE: Indeed, the lessons learnt and reconciliation commission, the report dismisses it, also
pretty much dismisses the domestic legal system in Sri Lanka. So, would a war crimes tribunal bring
the change that clearly needs to happen, in your view, for things to improve, for reconciliation to

GORDON WEISS: Well, this is, I'm afraid, a moot point. I mean, the demands of justice in some sense
do conflict with the demands of peace. I mean, the argument being put forward by the Government of
Sri Lanka is, "Look, everything's fine, we're peaceful, people are enjoying themselves,
reconciliation is taking place." That's true to some extent.

But my argument is - and it's what I regard as a sort of failure of imagination which was really
the problem with much of the approach that was taken to Sri Lanka - was that Sri Lanka has a very
long history of state violence committed against all communities.

We're talking about in the '70s and in the '80s tens of thousands of Sinhalese youths having been
killed by the state during those years. So I think that the sorts of truth and reconciliation
process that the panel has indicated is terribly important for all communities in Sri Lanka. It's
not just about the Tamils, it's about everybody there.

ALI MOORE: It's going to be interesting to see if the world's nations can rise to the occasion.
Gordon Weiss, many thanks for joining us.

GORDON WEISS: Thank you.