British envoy’s lesson about truth
By Neville De Silva
In ancient Greece there was this fussy old philosopher who went around the market place in broad daylight with a lantern in hand looking for an honest man. Diogenes was either a cynic or just crazy. Who would ever go to the market place in search of an honest man! It is as loony as searching for a well dry-cleaned politician, clean of mind and body.
While many in Sri Lanka would now be engrossed in discussing the Bond Commission report – if they could get their hands on it – and politicians trying to splash each other with contaminated mud, we should be pardoned for leaving the report alone until the president and his officials decide to have their final say.
Had Diogenes gone in search of an honest, truthful and principled politician he would probably be still going round in circles. After all, as the British High Commissioner James Dauris preached the other day, many things get in the way of arriving at the truth, such as numbers.
If I return to the subject of the British High Commissioner and his advice to all to refrain from argument over numbers as it only gets in the way of truth-seeking, it is because he leaves one rather puzzled. Having said that “a single death is a tragedy, a large number of deaths is a statistic”, Mr. Dauris reportedly went on to tell a Sunday newspaper “If people allow themselves to lose sight of the tragedy of what happened, reconciliation and the guarantee of future peace will become more elusive. I think we need to be careful not to allow ourselves to get distracted by arguments about numbers, because figures can too easily get in the way of the truth.” So would attempts to hide the truth, but to that later.
Perhaps it is our poor comprehension of the English language that leaves one wondering what precisely Dauris is trying to say. Well he is not the only one who has created some confusion in my mind. The English language version of the presidential statement on the Bond Commission report has also created some doubts as to who has done what and who has emerged smelling like an attar of roses.
High Commissioner Dauris says a single death is a tragedy. Not so when large numbers die. That turns into a mere statistic. But not every single death is a tragedy. As a countryman of his called Willie Shakespeare once said “When beggars die there are no comets seen.
” What is confusing is Dauris’s use of the word ‘tragedy’. To him a single death is a tragedy. But then he says that people should not “lose sight of the tragedy of what happened.”
What precisely is that tragedy? Surely this could not be a reference to another single death could it? No, he seems to be referring to the near three-decade long conflict in which several thousands died. Mainly it is the huge human loss on all sides which makes it a tragedy.
On the one hand the many thousands killed, entire families killed or missing and a generation of youth lost to the country, is what makes the conflict a tragedy. On the other hand James Dauris seems to see the human loss as a mere statistic that should not be allowed to get in the way of finding the truth. Dauris argues that if the public loses sight of the tragedy, whatever that might be in his perception, reconciliation and the guarantee of future peace will become elusive.
While the public will thank the British representative for his seeming concern for peace in this country, one wonders whether this is the real reason for his concern and for the appeal not to engage in a controversy over numbers.
To recap briefly it will be recalled that this most recent questioning of the number of civilian casualties in the last few months of the war against the separatist LTTE erupted during a House of Lords debate initiated by Lord Naseby.
During the debate Naseby contended that the figure of 40,000 or more civilian deaths claimed by some, was highly inflated. His estimate of 7,000-8,000 deaths was based on several sources including despatches from the British Defence Attache’ in Colombo to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London and copied to the defence establishment to which Lt. Col Anton Gash belonged.
Lord Naseby said that for three years he tried to obtain the war time despatches sent by Lt. Col Gash under the Freedom of Information Act and what he got was heavily redacted reports that hid obviously vital information which if made available to Lord Naseby would have presented a widely different scenario than the one the UK and US in particular, some British media and international NGOs have presented to the world.
What made me return to Dauris was British media comments on the release of once classified files and documents which happens regularly at the end of the year or when requests are made under the FoI law. One of the curious things that Lord Naseby discovered was that Col Gash’s despatches after late April 2009 were unavailable at the FCO. It would indeed be a poor reflection and possibly a reason for recall if Gash had not filed any reports on the last few days of the LTTE and the immediate aftermath of its military defeat.
Surely a competent and conscientious military officer would not have been remiss not to report on the dying moments of the war. To think that the British Foreign Office could not find the files on the Anton Gash despatches of a couple of years earlier is a serious condemnation of the manner in which the FCO functions.
But the truth surely lies elsewhere. The Col Gash reports would have undermined the very position taken by the UK and its transatlantic ally on Sri Lanka’s conduct of the war and deflated the civilian casualty numbers that had been blown up to try and convince the world of atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan security forces.
What Dauris is trying to do is stop British politicians and others from digging into the past which could expose British duplicity, doubtless helped along by the separatist lobby and sections of the Tamil diaspora. The Dauris logic is rather curious. He tells us how to arrive at the truth. But how can one find the truth if all the information and facts are not first disclosed. Mr. Dauris seems to want only the part of the truth. We want more than that.
It is to hide the truth that official files go missing as inquiries by the British newspaper Guardian discovered at year’s end when more files were released to the public. Here are excerpts from an article by Siobhan Fenton in the Guardian newspaper.
“The National Archives are home to more than 11 million documents, many of them covering the most disturbing periods of Britain’s colonial past. The uncomfortable truths revealed in previously classified government files have proved invaluable to those seeking to understand this country’s history or to expose past injustices.
It is deeply concerning, therefore, to discover that about 1,000 files have gone missing after being removed by civil servants. Officially, the archives describe them as “misplaced while on loan to a government department”.
The files, each containing dozens of pages, cover subjects such as the troubles in Northern Ireland, the British colonial administration in Palestine, tests on polio vaccines and territorial disputes between the UK and Argentina. It is unclear whether duplicates exist.
The loss of so many documents of such significance has understandably caused concern among historians, politicians and human rights groups. Amnesty International has called on Theresa May to order an urgent government-wide search for the documents, while Labour MP Jon Trickett has warned that the loss “will only fuel accusations of a cover-up”.
“Also in 2014, the government was accused of a cover-up after it said it could not release information about the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programmebecause the files had suffered “water damage”.
In 2013, meanwhile, the Guardian revealed that more than 1 million documents that should have been declassified were instead being unlawfully kept at a high-security compound in Buckinghamshire. Their existence only came to light when a group of elderly Kenyans took the government to the high court, claiming they had been tortured during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion. The Foreign Office was forced to admit it had withheld thousands of colonial-era papers.
Even if the files that have now been reported missing vanished as a result of sloppiness or incompetence rather than malice, that is in a way no less damning. Britain has long failed to acknowledge the horrors that its colonialism and imperialism have wrought on the world.”
Ian Cobain writing to the Guardian said: Thousands of government papers detailing some of the most controversial episodes in 20th-century British history have vanished after civil servants removed them from the country’s National Archives and then reported them as lost.
Documents concerning the Falklands war, Northern Ireland’s troubles and the infamous letter – in which MI6 officers plotted to bring about the downfall of the first Labour government – are all said to have been misplaced.
Almost 1,000 files, each thought to contain dozens of papers, are affected. In most instances the entire file is said to have been mislaid after being removed from public view at the archives and taken back to Whitehall.
An entire file on the Zinoviev letter scandal is said to have been lost after Home Office civil servants took it away. The Home Office declined to say why it was taken or when or how it was lost. Nor would it say whether any copies had been made.
In other instances, papers from within files have been carefully selected and taken away.”
Dauris might try to divert attention from British conduct as an argument about numbers. It is much more than fact. Such advice is an attempt to bury facts by disposing of files containing highly relevant information that exposes British conduct on many fronts.