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… UNHRC avoids query whether new probe unit can seek those dispatches from Colombo

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Following the UK’s refusal to accede to Sri Lanka’s recent request for disclosing British wartime defence attaché Lt. Col. Gash’s dispatches from Colombo, Conservative member Lord Naseby has sought an explanation as regards the procedures followed by the Defence attachés in gathering and submitting information to Her Majesty’s Government.

Authoritative Sri Lankan government sources told The Island that the UK in spite of being a member of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had taken extraordinary steps to keep Gash dispatches under wraps.

Sources appreciated Lord Naseby’s efforts to unravel the truth in the face of a new high-profile inquiry initiated by the UNHRC.

In response to Sri Lanka’s request made in early March, the UK faulted Gash for not obtaining independent confirmation of reports he had sent to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) during the final phase of the Vanni offensive, only after Sri Lanka sought their release!

Sri Lankan government sources pointed out that the UK never questioned the legitimacy of its defence attaché during the conflict till over a decade after the end of the war.

The following are the questions tabled by Lord Naseby at House of Lords recently: (i) To ask Her Majesty’s Government what criteria they used to assess the credibility of evidence reports they have received which related to the situation in Sri Lanka during the civil war in that country between 1 January and 18 May 2009; and whether it has ever been their practice to accept reports from unnamed sources (ii) To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the information contained in dispatches written by UK defence attachés must be independently verified before submission; if so, whether it is standard practice to ensure that such attachés are briefed to that effect; and if so, what record, if any, they hold of Lieutenant Colonel Gash, being so briefed (iii) To ask Her Majesty’s Government what sources they used to inform their assessment of the situation in Sri Lanka during the civil war in that country between 1 January and 18 May 2009 and finally (iv) To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the dispatches written by Lieutenant Colonel Gash, the former defence attaché of the British High Commission in Sri Lanka about events in that country between 1 January and 18 May 2009 relating to the civil war, whether they consider all reports by UK military attachés and diplomats to be evidence based-assessments.

At the recently concluded 46th session of the UNHRC, the UK in its capacity as Sri Lanka Co-Chair led the offensive for the setting up of special unit at a cost of USD 2.8 mn to probe Sri Lanka accountability issues.

Sri Lanka requested the UK to handover Gash dispatches to the UNHRC in the wake of the proposal to set up a special unit to ‘collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence’ in respect of Sri Lanka. The unit is also meant for the development of required strategies to deal with the country in case of gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Meanwhile, The Island on April 06, 2021, having obtained prior sanction submitted the following question in respect of the ‘Oral statement of programme budget implications arising from draft resolution A/HRC/46/L.1/Rev.1 of the Human Rights Council,’: (i) Is there provision for the proposed unit set up to gather evidence, information et al to ask for British HC dispatches from Colombo (January-May 2009) or diplomatic cables from any other UN member state? (ii) What remedial measures Geneva can resort to in case governments decline to cooperate?”

In spite of repeated reminders Geneva didn’t respond to The Island query.

The month-long Geneva sessions ended on March 23, with the 47-member council adopting a fresh accountability resolution with 22 countries voting for, 11 against and 14 abstaining.

 “We strongly believe those dispatches from Gash can facilitate Geneva investigations. However, the British, despite repeatedly assuring us of longstanding friendship denied credible information in their possession,” a government source familiar with accountability matters, said.

After Gash’s departure from Colombo, the UK discontinued having a resident Defence Advisor here. Instead, New Delhi-based Defence Advisor looked after matters pertaining to Sri Lanka for nearly a decade. However, in January 2019, the UK re-appointed Colonel David Ashman as their resident Defence Advisor in Colombo.

Sources pointed out that despite Lord Naseby’s disclosure of a section of the Gash reports in Oct 2017, Sri Lanka refrained from requesting examination of the dispatches till March 2021.

Gash countered the primary UN allegation (Panel of Experts’ report issued in March 2011 that the Sri Lankan military massacred 40,000 civilians. Gash estimated the number of deaths at 7,000 to 8,000, including LTTE combatants. His assessment largely tallied with a confidential UN survey (Aug 2008-May 13, 2009) that placed the number of dead at 7,721.

Sources said that the UK had taken contradictory positions as regards Gash dispatches at the hearings at the UK Information Commission following Lord Naseby’s initial bid compel disclosure and when Sri Lanka recently requested for the full disclosure of relevant dispatches. The UK owed an explanation whether those dispatches weren’t made available to POE and the Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL) also on the grounds they weren’t credible.