Our Peacekeepers shouldn't be at the butt end - Sri Lanka

The battle-hardened Sri Lankan troops serving as UN Peace Keepers should not be at the butt end of the tussle between Sri Lanka and the United Nations. 

Following the statement issued by the media division of Sri Lanka Army

Tracing the origins of troop deployment to the United Nations, reportedly, Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon joined the United Nations in 1955 and served as a member of the 1956 United Nations Advisory Committee, which led to the setting up of the first Peace Keeping Mission known as the United Nations Emergency Force 1(UNEF 1). The UNEF 1 was deployed to help end the 1956 Suez war and Sri Lanka contributed to that effort of UN by deploying its first batch of peacekeepers as military observers in 1957. This was followed up with deploying troops in the United Nations Organization Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) in the period 1960- 1964. The Sri Lanka police also made a contribution to UN deploying police personnel in Mozambique. Recalling the number of years since troops have been deployed by the UN, is a good 32 years.

Subsequently, after a lapse of nearly four decades, Sri Lanka began contributing troop deployments to the UN and in 2004, a 750 – member contingent comprising the Sri Lanka Army, Sri Lanka Navy and the Sri Lanka Air Force and one staff officer were deployed in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) which was only terminated in 2015.

Then in 2010, a 60- member air field maintenance company from the Sri Lanka Army was deployed in the United Nations Mission in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURACT). This deployment was from 17 February to 25 May2010.

From 2010 onwards, a single Force Protection Company (FPU) with 150 troops of Sri Lanka Army was deployed in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon(UNIFIL).

From 2014 onwards, a level 11 Hospital comprising 66 Sri Lankan medical professionals from the Sri Lanka Army were deployed in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). An Airfield Unit comprising 110 members was deployed in Central Africa. Then from 2015 onward, an airfield Unit comprising 104 members of the Sri Lanka Air Force was deployed in South Sudan . from 2017 onward, a combat convoy company (CCC) comprising 20 members from the Sri Lanka Army was deployed in the United Nations Muti dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali. The present deployment as at 29 July remains at a 409 contingent with 14 military observers, 20 staff officers, remains at a total of 443.

It is in this backdrop that the UN’s recent decision to repatriate troops back to Sri Lanka came as a surprise as the reason behind the repatriation was because the present Army Commander, Shavendra Silva has been criticized of being responsible for deaths in the last stages of the deadly 30-year war. However, it must be remembered that the selection of an Army Commander is the sovereign decision of an independent democratic country. It is in this context that the present Army Commander was chosen by none other than the Head of the Nation, President Maithripala Sirisena. It must also be kept in mind, that the present Commander has come through the ranks and achieved the highest honour of reaching this position and status. It must be kept in mind that the Sri Lanka Army is the Army of the Republic of Sri Lanka and not the private Army of the Army Commander and as such deserves to be treated with honour and dignity.

By virtue of being an island nation and since having crushed the LTTE insurgency, there are no immediate regional or internal security threats that would induce troop deployment. Sri Lanka is slowly and steadily reaping the benefits of the war coming to an end and peace and reconciliation are well on the way to recovery. It is in this backdrop that the public are surprised and shocked over the sudden repatriation of Sri Lankan peacekeeping troops. However, the contention is that whatever decision is conveyed it should be through proper diplomatic channels. In this instance, social media has overstepped its mark and has been the conveyor that Sri Lankan troops are to be repatriated.

Meanwhile, as a result of the experience of overcoming the deadly LTTE, Sri Lanka was able to offer an important enabling unit in the form of a convoy protection battalion for the MINUSMA mission in Mali.

In this endeavour, two gallant peacekeepers lost their precious lives. Captain H.W.D. Jayawickrama and corporal S.s.Wijewickrema were killed in January this year were killed in a mine attack, while serving in Mali. In 2005, soldiers J. B. Jayasinghe and H.M. Wijesinghe and in 2007, A. Jayantha lost their lives while on peacekeeping duty. At this time the UN offered the prestigious dag Hammarskjold award in memory of the fallen soldiers.

At the 2015 Peacekeeping Leaders Summit, Sri Lanka also pledged to provide four rapidly deployable battalions, a counter-IED company, two Special Forces companies, a force protection convoy, a combat logistics unit, two combat transport companies, two formed police units, a combat engineering unit, it is apparent that the key champions for deployment of peacekeepers are the military.

Peacekeeping deployment expands opportunities for individual soldiers, in terms of training, earnings and most importantly, recognition. Peacekeeping thus enables individuals to earn promotion. While there was opposition to sending troops abroad during the civil war (1983-2009) since then, there is a strong political will to deploy peacekeepers. Despite international criticism of the Sri Lankan military, the argument made is that a handful of troops violating international law should not call into question the discipline and professionalism of the rest of the troops.

Hard currency reimbursements provided by the UN could help smooth civil-military and intra-military relations over the short- to medium-term, while involvement in peacekeeping missions with peacebuilding and civilian-protection mandates could also help the Sri Lankan military burnish its image following the extensive criticism it received for its conduct in the closing phases of the war against the LTTE.

Sri Lanka has long maintained a broad range of international links with global actors, remaining close to Western states while also being a long-standing member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Participation in peacekeeping and international institutions more broadly reinforces Sri Lanka’s internationalist commitment to the UN, a policy that has support among Sri Lanka’s foreign policy elite and middle classes. Meanwhile, on the basis of UK military dispatches from Colombo, in 2009 (January-May), Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, revealed the maximum number of Tamil civilians killed was about 6,000 and not 40,000, as alleged by the UN Panel of Experts, and that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government never deliberately targeted the civilian community.

In this backdrop, doubt enters the mind as to whether the UN has backtracked on its commitment to bring peace to the world. Lord Naseby told the House of Lords, on Feb. 05, 2019: "I have done a great deal of research. Nearly three years ago I made a request under the Freedom of Information Act and secured the publication of Colonel Gash’s dispatches to the United Kingdom. I have 40 pages of them here, some of which have been totally redacted, and I shall quote from one this evening. It is the dispatch of 16 February 2009 and concerns 400 IDPs being transferred from the fighting area to Trincomalee. Colonel Gash writes:

"The operation was efficient and effective, but most importantly was carried out with compassion, respect and concern. I am entirely certain that this was genuine - my presence was not planned and was based on a sudden opportunity".

There are many references in the dispatches that at no point of time did the Sri Lankan Government have any intention of killing civilians. Then the University Teachers for Human Rights, which is essentially a Tamil organization, says:

"From what has happened we cannot say that the purpose of bombing or shelling by the government forces was to kill civilians … ground troops took care not to harm civilians".

There are many more references: "Soldiers who entered the No Fire Zone on 19th April 2009 and again on the 9th and 15th May acted with considerable credit when they reached … civilians. They took risks to protect civilians and helped … the elderly who could not walk. Those who escaped have readily acknowledged this".

Meanwhile, the recent incursion against a Malian battalion of the regional G5 Sahel Force in Boulkessi, and also a Malian army base in Mondoro, were reported by the Malian Government on Tuesday. Sri Lankan troops are reportedly deployed. However, so far there have been no reports of Sri Lankans having suffered at the hands of the rebels.

Sri Lankan troops have been deployed in Lebanon as well but so far there have been no violence in Lebanon and troops are reportedly safe.

The UN, however, is in the process of repatriating Sri Lankan troops from Lebanon because of the UN’s objection to the appointment of Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva as Army Commander but it is ironical that it does not want to repatriate troops serving in Mali as Mali is a high-risk zone. What more double standards can an organization which is supposedly taking care of world peace have!

Moreover, battle-hardened Sri Lankan troops serving as UN Peace Keepers should not be at the butt end of the tussle between Sri Lanka and the United Nations. The United Nations Department of Peace Keepers Operation should re-think their decision and as a matter of urgency put their diplomatic skills into operation and involve the Sri Lankan peacekeepers in peacebuilding endeavours throughout the world.

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