Sri Lanka: Countering the 'Killing Fields'

Sri Lanka: Countering the 'Killing Fields'

Far from the lenses of television cameras and the print of news headlines that typify war reporting today, tens of thousands of civilians -- perhaps as many as 40,000 -- were killed in the last terrible phase of fighting of Sri Lanka’s civil war between the brutal Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan government.

No reporters were allowed near the war zone, blocked by the Sri Lankan government in an attempt to hide the death and destruction from the world. But in this era of mobile phones and digital technology, hiding the truth is difficult.

Last week the UK’s Channel 4 Television exclusively aired a series of shocking insights into the events of those final bloody weeks of conflict in 2009, under the title Sri Lanka’s ‘Killing Fields’ - an hour-long documentary also made available internationally, online.

What the global audience saw were devastating scenes that seemed to show Sri Lankan government troops executing prisoners and dead female Tamil Tigers who appear to have been raped and murdered. The documentary suggested cynical use by Tamil Tigers of civilians as a buffer against the Sri Lankan military. It also showed shelling by Sri Lankan forces of crowded hospitals and civilian encampments in areas that the authorities ironically dubbed ‘no-fire zones.’

The images revealed hidden truths about crimes against humanity committed by both sides -both committed to victory at any cost and seemingly uncaring about the suffering of those whose fates they were fighting over.

Acknowledging truth

The images also highlighted the need for those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity to be held to account, to secure the stability that post-conflict Sri Lanka so badly needs. It has been proven that acknowledging the truth is a first step towards reconciliation, so why should this be denied to the people of Sri Lanka?

A panel of three eminent international legal experts appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon independently found credible allegations that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by both parties to the conflict from May to June 2009. These findings corroborate Amnesty International’s own conclusions. But in the two years since fighting ended, no justice has been delivered. That may be about to change, and the international awareness generated by the ‘Killing Fields’ documentary could prove the tipping point.

The UN panel of experts suggested that only an international accountability mechanism could investigate the serious allegations properly. Such a mechanism is crucial to avoid a horrifically negative precedent for lawless behaviour worldwide, and to act as a neutral and independent body to bring out the truth that must be at the heart of genuine reconciliation.

The Sri Lankan government’s apologists have argued that civilian deaths in Sri Lanka were a necessary price to pay for the defeat of the Tamil Tigers - a group listed by many governments as a terrorist organisation – allowing for evidence implicating the Sri Lankan government in war crimes to be overlooked.

But the report of the UN panel of experts is public, as is the ‘Killing Fields’ documentary. While China, Russia, Cuba, and Pakistan continue to support Sri Lanka’s demands for immunity, other influential governments are less inclined.

India has demanded real moves toward reconciliation in Sri Lanka and notably, has not been swayed by the Sri Lankan global charm offensive. Similarly, the US has suggested it will not rule out international accountability. Many governments from the global South have also voiced disquiet about the emerging evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Ban Ki-moon has suggested that he can only establish an international investigation if the Sri Lankan government consents, or through ‘a decision from member states’ through a forum such as the Human Rights Council or UN Security Council.

It would be a sad day for the authority of the Secretary General—and the implicit moral stature of his position if he could only authorise investigations approved by the government under scrutiny.

Justice can only be served and healing delivered if the international community launches an international, independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sri Lanka. This historic opportunity must be seized, or the price for us all will be intolerably high.

(The writer is the Asia-Pacific director of Amnesty International)

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