The EU Way To Bring Our Generals To Trial: Operation Flavius
Chief Guest’s Address at University of Jaffna, Vavuniya Campus, as Dr. Gnanaseelan Jeyaseelan’s “National Conflict and International Intervention: A Media Discourse, London: Thesam Publications, 2021, 399 pages) was launched on 7 Jan. 2021.
Chairman, Vice Chancellor, My dear Friends:
I am indeed happy to be here with you in Vavuniya. My earliest association with this campus was when I contested for the post of Vice-Chancellor in the year 2002. At that time itself, I proposed that you be made a university. I did the same in 2005 and again in 2011. Along the way, Dr Krishnakumar your then Dean, and this proud author, Dr Jeyaseelan and your union-backed my candidature. The community and the Vanni MPs too backed my candidature. I am most grateful. I hope this soon becomes a university.
I am most grateful to you, Vice-Chancellor Sir, that when I as Coordinator for Engineering was confined to a small office in an isolated corner in Jaffna, you gave me your spacious office, that of the Head of Mathematics, and went to another room. I will never forget that.
Those were dreadful days in 2005. Because I advocated Vavuniya as a separate university, the LTTE condemned me as a regionalist, although we were and are regionalists in asking for Jaffna University and devolution. That is the nature of our politics. Drs. Krishnakumar and Jeyaseelan stood with me for principles and were undeterred by threats.
It is perhaps because of that that Dr. Jeyaseelan chose as his doctoral topic “National Conflict and International Intervention.” Let me state that there is no way for development without English texts. This book sets the stage for an English language publishing industry from the North-East. We need it badly for our intellectual survival. It is refreshing that it is in good English – a truly Jaffna production from writing to printing.
These are times when the media is highly biased. Jeyaseelan hints at the English and Tamil media’s incapacity to contribute to reconciliation. He points to a newspaper alluding to traditional homelands as stopping Tamil people from breaking free to join in the search for peace. He draws our attention to another in the guise of promoting federalism watering it down to District Councils and insisting on the unitary state. He says that well before rejecting the LTTE discourse on separatism, the Sinhala nationalists and their media had already rejected the homeland claim. He faults all the major English newspapers for giving space to condemning LTTE terrorism while being silent on this democratic, pluralistic state’s miserable treatment of Tamils. The Tamil media are not spared either. He specifically mentions how Muslims are marginalized.
The book review has been done by Dr. Mahim Mendis. It suffices to quote my late friend Prof. Chelva Kanaganayakam of Toronto, Member, Royal Society of Canada. He says this book is well-researched, thorough and a valuable contribution to English studies.
Sri Lankan institutions downplay the role of the media in promoting fratricide – in fact blaming politicians and the media when this mess that is Sri Lanka can come only from the inherent nastiness of the people. That communalism gets horrible MPs and killers into high office. It gives total impunity for war crimes. A person said to be responsible for the death of the Trinco 5 is a minister. Persons accused of egregious war crimes have been given high appointments and promoted to general over this Christmas time of “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all men.” Not a peep from the media which waxes eloquent on the need for controlling hate speech as a diversion from talking about government criminality.
We are being readied for military rule – on 29 Dec. there was a chilling article from the presidential secretariat in The Daily News claiming that the public sector must learn from the army whose “readiness, reliability, relevance, resilience and respectability no doubt would make the Sri Lanka Army the greatest strength for the nation” and that the strategies of highly effective people come “from the Armed Forces.” This from an army commanded by someone finished high school at St. Thomas’ Matale with only military school thereafter? Are our soldiers better than you after your 3-4 years of training, assignments, and examinations? They are talking nonsense to set us up for military rule. These touted strategies are extremizing minorities by preventing the burial of the dead and the commemoration of dead relatives.
I wish to focus the rest of my talk on the human rights of every citizen, whether we approve of his politics or not. He might be a hardened terrorist but has a right to trial rather than summary execution. The executioners must be tried. Look at the Trinco 5, ordinary schoolboys killed out of racial hatred and their killers rewarded with high office. This is not the Sri Lanka anyone can love.
This theme – that everyone, however disagreeable, has rights – is provided by the European Union. Let me tell you the story of Operation Flavius where some attempting mass murder were killed by Britain’s SAS. The SAS was, however, faulted for wrongful death. That is justice. I thank the Dutch Government for funding my human rights training in France in 2000 where I was taught about Flavius.
There are so many similarities to us. Every Sri Lankan must study Operation Flavius. Ireland is an island off England. In the year 1066 Norman, the Conqueror faced off an English army of Anglo-Saxons who were routed. The Normans who ruled England thereafter set the stage for their invasion of Ireland in the 12th century. This lies at the root of the English-Irish problems that for long plagued their relations.
That Norman invasion began more than 700 years of British rule. Direct control naturally followed when Henry VIII broke off the English Church from Rome. Ireland remained with Rome. Henry VIII’s attempts at imposing his Reformation on the Irish Church failed. During 1534-1603, the English Crown launched its plantation policy. English and Scottish Protestants were settled in Ireland, displacing Catholic landholders. As the English triumphed, Roman Catholic-Protestant conflict reached new heights.
New boroughs with Protestant settlers, reduced the Catholics to a minority in the Irish Parliament in 1614. The English Church was imposed. 85% of the Irish were recusants, those refusing to attend Anglican services. The Act of Union made Ireland a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. (Here, Buddhism is imposed. Reversing devolution is threatened).
The movement pushing for Home Rule from the 1880s, led in 1922 to the guerrilla Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921 by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) against British occupation forces. It was on the heels of many British colonies where white settlers were in command getting independence – Canada in 1867, Australia in 1901 and the White-dominated Union of South Africa in 1910.
It really was time for Irish independence. However, Ireland was not a colony but a part of the UK. With IRA pressure and the end of World War I, the Anglo-Irish Treaty allowed the secession of Ireland from the United Kingdom as the independent Irish Free State. However, six northeastern counties remained a part of the UK as Northern Ireland. The land ratio between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was 5 to 1.
That sums up the Northern Ireland crisis. Irish Nationalists possess extensive support networks across a porous border in Ireland. The Unionists are backed by UK security forces. Political unrest was high during the 1960s and 1970s.
Operation Flavius, set in the hey-day of IRA Activism setting off bombs against civilian targets, ended when British Special Air Service (SAS) on 6 March 1988 shot dead three members of the Provisional IRA: Daniel McCann, Mairéad Farrell and Seán Savage.
Before March 1988, the UK Government, Spain and Gibraltar were aware of IRA plans to detonate a bomb at the Changing of the Guard, a spectacular military ceremony in Gibraltar Convent.
Daniel McCann, and Mairéad Farrell and Seán Savage, travelled to Spain where they were tracked by the Spanish Police. Early in March 1988, Gibraltar believed the attack was imminent, as the trio had crossed the border from Spain into Gibraltar. The security services assessed March 8 to be the likely date of the operation. A SAS team was sent to Gibraltar. But Gibraltar border patrols and customs were not informed to avoid too many people knowing and to avoid raising suspicion among the three.
On 6 March, Savage was seen parking his car close to where people assembled for the parade. McCann and Farrell were seen crossing the border into Gibraltar. After visual exterior inspection, a bomb-disposal officer reported that Savage’s car was a suspected remote-controlled bomb. As a result, the SAS took control.
Accordingly, four SAS men were ordered to arrest the trio as they get back from Gibraltar. As the SAS moved, Savage split from the other two, McCann and Farrell, who ran south, away from the border. Two soldiers pursued Savage. The other two soldiers pursued McCann and Farrell.
The soldiers who pursued them said they made threatening movements. And they, the soldiers, opened fire. McCann and Farrell were shot multiple times and killed.
As the other two soldiers caught up with Savage, he allegedly turned around while reaching for his jacket. He too was shot multiple times and killed.
All three IRA operatives were subsequently found to be unarmed. Farrell was shot three times in the back and once in the face. The 4 soldiers in their defense said they shot to kill because the three IRA operatives were dangerous and could detonate the bomb if given a margin to do so. Savage’s car was subsequently found to contain no explosives, contrary to the bomb-disposal officer’s report. Car keys found on Farrell’s body led to another car parked in Spain with explosives.
The television broadcaster ITV found witnesses testifying that the three IRA operatives were shot without warning, while they lay on the ground with their hands up and had been shot repeatedly on the ground. That sounds familiar? Do we have TV stations of that integrity?
But at the inquest in Gibraltar, a key witness retracted. The verdict was that the killings were lawful. Sri Lanka again? Unlike here, memorials for IRA killers were permitted.
The families of the victims went to the European Court of Human Rights charging premeditation in the killings. The judgment of the court in 1995 was by a close vote of 10 to 9. The court found a violation of Article 2 – the Right to Life.
According to the Court’s reasoning, knowing the trio were dangerous, the authorities failed when they had the opportunity to arrest the suspects at the border where there was no crowd and the public was not in danger. This failure suggests, the Court averred a lack of appropriate care in the control and organization of the arrest operation. The incorrect information given to the soldiers rendered the use of lethal force almost inevitable.
The Court also felt that alternative explanations to intelligence reports were not sufficiently considered by the authorities – for example, that the IRA team was on a reconnaissance mission, as indeed it was as indicated by the car with bombs in Spain.
This case is considered a landmark on the use of force. The judgment underscores the care and thought that must precede the use of force, which must be always necessary and a last resort.
How about us? The Gibraltar Court decided for the SAS just like our Supreme Court in Bindunuwewa when a 12-year old killed by a Sinhalese soldier was blasted by judges. Would our judges do favours to Sinhalese killers the way CJ Sarath Silva boasted about doing a favour to Mahinda Rajapaksa (Hambantota Funds) while two justices meekly signed “I agree”? Can we hold our armed forces to the high degree of responsibility demanded by the judgement? Do they have the education to study these? When they are accused of war crimes and given immunity, will they show the civic responsibility necessary to protect the rights of minorities? Would Minister of Public Security, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekere help bring to justice the navy men responsible for the murder of the Trinco 5?
A UK-Ireland settlement, the Belfast Agreement, was reached on 10 April 1998 on Good Friday. When will we realize our rights? We seem incapable of putting things in order and need to look to outside examples like Ireland and UNHCR. The state is incapable of being just. We need international intervention to help bring our war criminals, however high, to justice.
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