Ilankai Tamil Sangam

28th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Speeches at the Sangam's 2009 AGM

I was the operations officer for the US Coordinator for Nigeria-Biafra Relief during and following the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. Despite all the horrible scores that begged settling after this war ended, Nigeria’s victorious leader, General Gowan, saw the peril of resting on peace rhetoric alone. He knew he could not stop at just calling the Ibo rebels his brothers. He knew such talk was cheap. He knew he had to act decisively to show that both friends and former foes were full and equal participants in building a new Nigeria. He set the stage for national recovery when the rebel commander, Major General Philip Effiong, reported to his office in Lagos after the Biafran surrender. Effiong had been a lieutenant colonel colleague of Gowans in the Nigerian army before the war. Snapping to attention, Effiong saluted, and announced, “Leftenant Colonel Effiong reporting for duty, sir”. Gowan never even returned his salute. He simply opened wide his arms and swepped his once mortal enemy into an enormous embrace. That act, and that photo in all of Nigeria’s newspapers, went far beyond symbolism, and set the stage for what has been a sustained reconciliation and re-building after one of Africa’s most terrible wars.

Speech #1

Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Monmouth Junction

14 Nov 2009

Arthur E (Gene) Dewey

Former Member, International Independent Group

of Eminent Persons on Sri Lankan Human Rights


It’s a great pleasure to meet tonight with so many people who share the concerns for the future of a great country, where I spent so much of my time on human rights issues in 2007 and 2008. Although I was the American member of the so-called International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, I served in my personal capacity, not in an official government capacity. I am meeting with you tonight in that same unofficial capacity. What I will say is drawn from my own experience and from sources I trust, and should not be interpreted as official

Ambassador Arthur Gene Dewey at the 2009 Sangam AGM
Ambassador Arthur 'Gene' Dewey

positions of the United States.

The Work with the IIGEP - Most of you, I am sure, are familiar with the work of the group of which I was a member – the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons – hereafter referred to as the IIGEP. Starting in February 2007 and extending to March 2008,the IIGEP worked alongside the Sri Lankan Government’s Commission of Inquiry that had been set up to investigate and review sixteen serious human rights crimes in Sri Lanka. Although only five of those cases were ever concluded, you are probably familiar with two of the most famous. They were the murder in Muttur of 17 relief workers from the French nongovernmental organization “Action Against Hunger”. And the other was the killing of five Tamil young men on the beach at Trincomalee.

Our mandate from the Sri Lankan President was to observe the COI proceedings and comment on the transparency and the conformity with international norms and procedures, and to make recommendations for improvement.

Most of the IIGEP members started with the optimism that we could help the government and people of Sri Lanka to achieve closure and justice for these crimes. And a few of us worked hard to leave a legacy of human rights monitoring, and redress for injustice, that could deal a significant blow to Sri Lanka’s deadly culture of fear and impunity. But before the first year was finished, it was clear to nearly all of the eleven members of our group that the Sri Lankan government lacked the political will, and the interest, to find, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators of these crimes.

Let me briefly summarize the specific reasons that all eleven of us simultaneously submitted our resignations to President Rajapakse. (We communicated these reasons to the president in our quarterly reports, and cited them in our public statements):

  • First, the Attorney General and his office dominated the proceedings of the Commission of Inquiry, creating a flagrant conflict of interest. (Because of its directives to the original investigators of these crimes, the Attorney General’s Office was, itself, a candidate for investigation.)
  • Next, without any credible victim and witness protection law or practice existing in Sri Lanka, no witness dared come forward with testimony needed to indict and convict. (We learned, and later demonstrated, that the only effective victim and witness protection Sri Lanka is to provide asylum for witnesses outside the country.)
  • Third, irrelevant questioning, dominated by the Attorney General’s influence in the hearings, led to interminable delays and detours from getting at the truth.
  • Fourth, funding to hire private, independent counsel to replace the offending Attorney General counsel, and for other COI requirements, was grossly inadequate
  • And finally, despite a Presidential order directing full cooperation and disclosure, state bodies refused to give evidence relevant to the 16 cases, citing national security grounds, but refusing in every case to explain how national security was affected.

We added all this up. We concluded there was no political will to support either the COI or IIGEP mandate. We were just wasting our time. So we told the President that we would have to leave.

The Greatest Frustration - If asked to describe my greatest frustration in serving on the IIGEP, I would have to say that it was not the ruses, the deceptions, the attempts to make the IIGEP a fig leaf or a substitute for serious self-accountability. It was not even the manipulations of the government to avoid getting at the truth concerning the 16 serious crimes under our consideration. The greatest mystery and frustration for me was the government’s obsession with shooting itself in the foot. Why couldn’t they see how transparent were their cover-ups, how petty their rejection of any outside suggestions or help? Why did they put themselves on a self-destruct course, not seeing that their own self-interest was directly linked to aligning their security and judicial practices with international human rights and humanitarian norms? Why did they not see the long and short term advantages of being included in the respectable and accountable community of nations?

The IIGEP had forged a correct, but constructive, partnership with the COI. This partnership could have helped Sri Lanka turn the corner and start building a base for trust and sustainable peace when the war was over. Instead, the Sri Lankan Government chose to undermine this partnership and watch it fail, as some nine previous COIs had failed since the Commission of Inquiry Act of 1948. This failure did more than just scuttle the work of the Commission of Inquiry. It also dashed one of Sri Lanka’s best opportunities to dismantle its twin cultures of fear and impunity. In missing this opportunity, Sri Lanka’s leaders were ignoring the basic tenets of how to build trust and win a peace – not just a war. They have now placed themselves in the precarious position of appearing to snatch a long term defeat, from the jaws of a short term victory.

How Conflicts End - I have difficulty understanding it. In 43 years of public service I’ve had political/military/humanitarian roles in both the arena, and at ring-side, at a lot of civil conflicts. I’ve seen the ending of many of these fights. Most of them were bad endings. But in my experience, none have been as problematical as this one in Sri Lanka.

Most previous victorious authorities have shown at least some sense of the value of shaping up their image, of giving some attention to the relief and rebuilding needs of the vanquished, of the imperative to garner at least some respect and resonance from donors and others in the outside community of nations. Let me cite a couple of examples of unlikely victorious leaders who did just that.  

I was the operations officer for the US Coordinator for Nigeria-Biafra Relief during and following the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70. Despite all the horrible scores that begged settling after this war ended, Nigeria’s victorious leader, General Gowan, saw the peril of resting on peace rhetoric alone. He knew he could not stop at just calling the Ibo rebels his brothers. He knew such talk was cheap. He knew he had to act decisively to show that both friends and former foes were full and equal participants in building a new Nigeria. He set the stage for national recovery when the rebel commander, Major General Philip Effiong, reported to his office in Lagos after the Biafran surrender. Effiong had been a lieutenant colonel colleague of Gowans in the Nigerian army before the war. Snapping to attention, Effiong saluted, and announced, “Leftenant Colonel Effiong reporting for duty, sir”. Gowan never even returned his salute. He simply opened wide his arms and swepped his once mortal enemy into an enormous embrace. That act, and that photo in all of Nigeria’s newspapers, went far beyond symbolism, and set the stage for what has been a sustained reconciliation and re-building after one of Africa’s most terrible wars.

And some of the most arrogant of victors have tended to see some self-interest in relying on experienced specialized agencies of the United Nations, and other parts of the international system, to help them put their countries and their shattered societies back together. Take the Tutsi-led government of Paul Kagame in post-genocide Rwanda in 1994. Despite the lust of some of his ethnic cohorts to launch a counter-genocide against the Hutus that had slaughtered nearly a million innocent Rwandans, Kagame countered by inviting the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a country-wide human rights monitoring and education program in Rwanda. It was this impartial and international human rights presence that arguably prevented a counter-genocide, encouraged the support of other international agencies and donor countries, and started a remarkable recovery in what had been one of the most hellish places on earth.

These, and many other better-than-expected endings to bitter civil conflicts, beg this single question: If America’s Lincoln could do it; and Nigeria’s Gowan; and Rwanda’s Kagame; and South Africa’s Mandela – if these and many other, some unlikely converts, could do it, then what will it take to get Sri Lanka’s Rajapakse to do it? And to be fair, since it takes two to tango, what will it take to get the Tamil leadership that emerges from this struggle to engage in the process?

The Current Humanitarian Crisis - Where should this tango begin? The logical focus for action now is to protect and assist the masses (over 250,000) of internally displaced persons in camps such as the one at Manek Farm in Vavuniya. People and leaders from nearly every serious, civilized state in the world can identify with the thousands of innocent victims among them, and with their urgent need for food and medical care, and with the imperative for their early departure from the barbed wire that detains them. These concerned national leaders, while maintaining impartiality towards the parties in the long Sri Lankan struggle, should find it impossible to be neutral towards the innocent victims on both sides of that ugly conflict. During the war, many of these leaders took sides with the good guys – the innocent Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims and Christians – who faced persecution and death from the bad guys in the government on the one hand, and the bad guys in the Tamil Tiger resistance on the other. Now is the time for a major mobilization of those leaders and their people on behalf of the Sri Lankan IDPs in such desperate need today.

I once asked Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lankan Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management, why these sectors were combined in his portfolio. He said he saw a logical relationship between them in the Sri Lankan context. I would remind him today that at no time in Sri Lanka’s history has there been a more logical connection between the two. The beginning of wisdom for effective human rights action is, indeed, through taking care of the protection and emergency needs of disaster victims – particularly victims of man-made disasters. Every ambassador in Colombo that cares about human protection and suffering should remind both President Rajapakse, and Minister Samarasinghe on an urgent and frequent basis of this fundamental truth.

It is also time to remind them of another truth with which I was intimately familiar in my work with Afghanistan relief and reconstruction in 2002-2005. That is the truth uttered by then Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah in defending his calls for early return and reintegration of some four million Afghan refugees into society after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. He said, “Return of refugees is not an inconvenient impediment to reconstruction; such return and reintegration are reconstruction.” Wouldn’t it be great to have these words written on a plaque on Rajapakse’s office wall at Temple Trees, and on the wall in Samarasinghe’s office, with the words “internally displaced person” substituted for the word “refugees”?

Eric Schwartz, one of my successors as Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, visited Sri Lanka in July of this year on his first overseas visit shortly after being sworn into office. This early visit underlined the importance both Secretary Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary Schwartz placed on the current situation in Sri Lanka. Schwartz not only pressed for early release from the barbed wire for the then some 280,000 people detained behind the barbed wire walls; he called for immediate augmentation of relief access by experienced NGOs and international humanitarian organizations. When asked about specific nutritional and epidemiological needs, Schwartz stressed that this vital information is sketchy, that such assessments need to be far more thorough and frequent to protect against and treat the killer diseases always present when masses of humanity – including thousands of young children - are herded together like this – dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, chicken pox, and measles. Even though we are blocked from getting specific information, we know, for example, that when such masses of humanity are huddled together in such dreadful conditions, that children catch measles, and that measles epidemics spread like wildfire and kill children by the hundreds and thousands. How can the concerned, civilized world not do everything possible to stop this? (Four UN envoys have visited Sri Lanka to discuss humanitarian needs; status of IDPs; and political solution. But no UN humanitarian assessment teams have been admitted.)

Given the brutal realities of world politics, such blows for humanity often take far too long. But take note:  sustained international pressure induced even the brutal government of Sudan to allow some humanitarian assessments in Darfur. Now the desperate need is for high profile, dramatic action now to get humanitarian assessments and relief for Sri Lanka. Where are the humanitarian giants, like Ronald Reagan, that should cry out today, “Mr. Rajapakse, tear down that barbed wire!”

Mr. Gorbachev answered that earlier call by allowing the Berlin Wall to come down. Sri Lanka’s answer today seems to say that the barbed wire can come down for most of the people when the security screening for Tamil Tiger rebels is finished, and when de-mining back in the DP’s home areas is complete. Originally, the Sri Lankan Government declared 80% of those behind the barbed wire would be re-settled by January 1, 2020. Now the Media Minister says it will be July 2010

The first excuse for such long delays, the national security excuse, was a familiar one for us in the IIGEP and for the Commission of Inquiry that we worked with. One can appreciate the national security concerns of any sovereign state, but international practice also requires prompt descriptions of the national security context associated with withholding information, or in the current case, prolonged detainment of persons.

As for de-mining, we all know how that can turn into years, and even decades, of steady work. Many people are being welcomed back with relatives or to interim safe places while waiting on the de-mining. Such alternative return arrangements must be implemented immediately.

While we wait and pray for the world leader, or the circumstances, that will finally get Mr. Rajapakse’s attention, let’s look at some of the specific ingredients of post-conflict relief and reconstruction that can help, once that change of heart occurs at the top.

The first consideration is also an impediment that must immediately be dispelled. That is the myth that Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans are so different from America and Nigeria and Rwanda and South Africa, that what worked at the end of their conflicts would be out of the question here. Nonsense! What worked in those other places worked because, in the calculus of a Lincoln, a Gowan, a Kagame, and a Mandela, statesmanship and humanity trumped political survival. Political will to do the harder right trumped the temptation to do the easier wrong.

Statesmanship and Political Will - Statesmanship to bind up the nation’s wounds, and political will to assure equality and protection for all, I would argue, are the keys to the future of Sri Lanka. Leaders of states emerging from conflict willing to take these risks of statesmanship attract not only external political and financial support from a wide variety of donors and international organizations; for Sri Lanka, I am convinced that they also hold the key to mobilizing the country’s enormous internal talents and energies. I look to the day when these qualities of Sri Lanka’s diverse peoples working together will make the Sri Lankan whole far greater than the sum of its individual parts.      

International Players that can Help - Let’s take a look at some of these international players that can help put these home-grown energies to work. Some such agencies are already playing limited roles, but it would appear to be in Sri Lanka’s enlightened self-interest to open the doors of suspicion, welcome them in, and benefit greatly from their operational and financial multiplier affects.

1. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – Instruction and monitoring of security forces practices with respect to international humanitarian law. Could provide an enormous boost to the government’s credibility by having a role in the government vetting process to identify rebel criminals. Most Tamils, and much of the international community, will forever hold suspect any such vetting process that excludes the ICRC. Expertise in tracing persons and relaying messages among the IDP population would also assist enormously in the healing and reconciliation process. Eric Schwartz noted that the vacuum of information in and around the IDP camps can be the most dangerous and demoralizing plague of all. IICRC access must also be granted immediately to the now closed camps where political detainees appear to be held.

2. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – Though greatly constrained in providing legal protection for IDPs during the fighting, there is no reason now not to give UNHCR a freer protection role. The GSL says it looks to UNHCR to advise when it is safe for IDPs to return to de-mined areas, UNHCR should also be given latitude to settle persons in temporary offers of shelter while the long de-mining process continues. UNHCR food and medical access should now extend  unimpeded to all of the IDP locations.

3. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) –

During the fighting, the GSL adamantly resisted a UNHCHR role, except for workshop facilitation in such subjects as victim and witness protection. The GSL needs to recognize its self-interest in expanding UNHCHR’s role to that of training and mentoring a robust indigenous Human Rights Council, with an eventual home-grown human rights monitoring capability and dissemination capability in human rights law.

4. International Organization for Migration (IOM) -  Should partner with UNHCR in medical screening and transport support for IDPs leaving the camps and settling in either permanent or temporary locations. Should expand its role as the implementing partner for such donor projects as in its current role in the U.S. Former Fighter Re-integration Project in the Trincomallee, Batticaloa, and Ampara Districts of the East.

5. International De-Mining Organizations – Needed to liaise with the Sri Lankan Army on de-mining, and harmonize the de-mining efforts sponsored by individual donors such as the US $6.6 million project funding four commercial de-mining companies.

6. The UN Secretary-General – Should name a Special Representative for Relief and Reconstruction to supervise the UN Country Team in Sri Lanka, coordinate the efforts on Sri Lanka’s behalf of other UN agencies, liaise with the appropriate agencies of the GSL, and coordinate the efforts of donor countries to minimize gaps, overlaps, and inefficiencies. The Secretary General should work hard to get GSL agreement to complete and updated UN relief and reconstruction needs assessments, followed by estimates of UN and other international agencies of relief and reconstruction requirements and costs in their particular sectors. This would constitute the basis for issuing a UN Consolidated Appeal for international financial support. Next, there should be a donor pledging conference on Sri Lanka. The purpose of this conference would be to get donors to commit to underwriting the substantial costs of immediate humanitarian relief. And with respect to reconstruction aid, it would condition donors to tie that assistance to credible performance of the Sri Lankan Government in bringing it human rights and justice practices in line with international norms and standards.

7. Individual Donor States –

  • The United States – The US has been out front in assisting in advocacy and solutions to the post-conflict problems as it was with issues of human rights and adherence to international humanitarian law during the fighting. In addition to the strong position taken on the humanitarian concerns of the IDPs, the State Department issued a report in late October documenting flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity committed by both the Government and the LTTE. This report is a chilling indictment of both parties in the struggle. The US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, Stephen Rapp, called upon the Sri Lankan Government to investigate, noted its assertion that it could conduct a credible internal investigation and added, “We are going to take them at their word, and follow that process.” Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont, who initially called for the report, countered that he felt a full and independent investigation is needed. As one who has witnessed the mockery of internal investigations in Sri Lanka, I must agree wholeheartedly with Senator Leahy.       
  • The European Union – The EU has recently issued a report on Sri Lanka’s compliance with three major human rights conventions: 1. International convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); 2. Convention Against Torture (CAT); 3. Convention on Rights of the Child (CRC). The purpose of this survey was to determine Sri Lanka’s eligibility for additional trade benefits under the GSP Plus Trade Incentive Scheme. The report concluded that there were significant shortcomings, and that the Government of Sri Lanka is in breach of its GSP commitments.
  • Various nongovernmental human rights groups have singled out Japan, as the major foreign donor to Sri Lanka, for weakness in insisting on compliance with even the most basic human rights obligations. These groups, along with concerned states, have also commented on the uncritical and counter-productive support provided by the spoilers in this effort – Russia, China, and Pakistan. Far stronger opprobrium needs to be heaped upon these spoilers! Their nefarious help enables Sri Lanka to thumb its nose at the human rights pressures of the concerned donor states, and declare, “We don’t need your help”.

8. What can Organizations such as Yours do?

I suspect that those of you who worked hard to encourage humanity, and renunciation of terrorist tactics, within the Tamil resistance felt you were as unsuccessful as the IIGEP was in transforming the Sri Lankan Government’s human rights performance. But what can you do now, both in the interests of humanitarian relief and of sustainable reconstruction?

I was interested to note how the Australian Federation of Tamil Associations picked up on Assistant Secretary Schwartz’s trip to Sri Lanka. They not only supported his calls for remedial action; they also called on the media to get involved and get concerned. And they proposed that Australia and New Zealand follow the U.S. lead and send special envoys to visit the camps and to demonstrate that it is not just the U.S. that is taking a humanitarian stand in this crisis. Your organization might consider similar advocacy steps, including with countries from whom more conscience is expected, such as Japan. And also to point out the difficulties posed by those from whom little humanitarian virtue is expected, such as China and Russia.

But perhaps your most useful contribution would be, in all your contacts, to urge Tamil groups and leaders in Sri Lanka and abroad, to turn the page on the past, to avoid becoming a hostage to your history of persecution, to look to the legitimate tools of statecraft to achieve and defend Tamil and other minority interests in the future, and to give friends of freedom such as the United States every reason to work alongside you in helping build a new and just Sri Lanka. That’s the side on which we should all want to be.


Speech #2


Break the Silence walker speaking



Press covering the walk

Frederick News Post: Sept 19, 2009:

Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Sept 04, 2009

Break the Silence USA- the Movement:

Observer Reporter: August 27, 2009

Zanesville Times: August 26, 2009

WTOV Channel 9: August 24, 2009

ABC Channel 9 - WCPO

WDTN News: August 4, 2009

Illinois times : JUNE 25, 2009

Channel 15 - ABC : JUNE 28 , 2009

The Daily Jeffersonian: August 21, 2009:

News Gazette : JUNE 28 , 2009

Break the Silence USA

Rushville Republican : JULY 20 , 2009

Brookville American Democrat : JULY 24 , 2009


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