If the videos in Killing Fields have indeed been doctored, the truth must come out. However, the government of Sri Lanka’s previous behaviour in keeping stories of the war quiet affects its credibility in relation to these allegations. Sri Lankan situation: the truth must come out
by Sunili Govinnage
Tonight, ABC’s Four Corners will show Killing Fields, the UK Channel 4 documentary that claims to provide evidence of war crimes committed at the end of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.
But yesterday, the Sri Lankan High Commission asked the ABC not to broadcast the documentary.
The program was shown to the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva last month and has already aired in the UK. The Sri Lankan government claims the documentary contains manipulated videos and is biased. The Sri Lankan government is also claiming it now has the ‘original’ version of a video that it says has been doctored and sent to the documentary’s producers by pro-Tamil groups.
The conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the separatist Tamil Tigers, also known as the ‘Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’ (LTTE), left the country in tatters. It also gave the world suicide bombing – the LTTE pioneered the use of suicide belts and introduced female suicide bombers. The LTTE fought for an autonomous homeland in the island’s north and reacted with violence against government policies seen to have privileged the dominant Sinhalese population to the detriment of Tamil Sri Lankans.
There is no doubt that as part of their fight, the LTTE was responsible for killing thousands of both Sinhalese and Tamil civilians, kidnapping children and forcing them to become soldiers, and assassinating several public figures, including India’s prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lanka’s president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. The fact that the LTTE, a known terrorist organisation committed atrocities cannot come as a surprise to anyone. But the most worrying part of this tragic story is evidence that appears to show that the Sri Lankan Army (SLA) was also committed crimes against humanity during the dramatic conclusion to the conflict in 2009. Killing Fields claims to have proof the SLA executed unarmed LTTE soldiers and knowingly shelled civilian safe areas.
In March of this year, a UN panel released a report (UN Report) concluding there are ‘credible allegations‘ that both the LTTE and the SLA were involved in the commission of war crimes. It’s alleged that the LTTE used thousands of Tamil civilians as human shields during the final throes of the conflict, and that the SLA indiscriminately shelled no-fire zones, resulting in civilian casualties and damage to hospitals, a UN hub and Red Cross facilities. The Sri Lankan government, which had previously prevented the UN panel from actually visiting the country to conduct interviews and gather evidence (UN Report, p 6), urged the UN not to make the report public, but it was eventually released.
In a nation notorious for its lack of press freedom the government went on a propaganda offensive, keeping journalists’ and even the United Nations’ eyes away from the end of the war. The old ‘first casualty’ adage really did ring true in Sri Lanka in 2009. The stories of what actually happened are only now trickling out, with Al Jazeera’s People & Power program one of the first to make it into war-torn areas, with strict military supervision.
One of the Sri Lankan government’s consistent arguments against discussing what happened during the end of the war is that now the conflict is over, it is time to move on. The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission was established in an attempt to let bygones be bygones. But the UN panel found that this body failed to ‘satisfy key international standards’ and has ‘not conducted genuine truth-seeking about what happened in the final stages of the armed conflict’ (UN report, p v; also 88-96). The thing with forgiving a wrong is that the wrong must first be acknowledged. Notably, South Africa’s painful Apartheid history was addressed by its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which even with its name highlighted the need to uncover the truth. That foundation was imperative for South Africans to ‘come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation’.
Talking about a civil war that arose from centuries of ethnic tension and tore a nation to shreds is no easy feat. Any such discussion will have to deal with the biases of language, the competing paradigms of thought about colonial legacies and the visceral feelings of nationalism that come from being on one ‘side’ and not the other. Because of this, trying to identify causes and tell any story about any conflict such as the one that devastated Sri Lanka will trigger passions, fears, resentments and accusations that may prevent the whole story from ever being understood. Despite these challenges, the truth must come out.
Burying traumatic secrets will only foster the ongoing resentment and anger that still festers between Sri Lankans both on the island, and abroad. The pain of a Tamil diaspora which continues to view the LTTE as innocent martyrs will only serve to fuel Sinhalese nationalism, breeding a vicious cycle of hate that will put a pox on both their houses. The tragedy here is that both parties are to blame; both must acknowledge the pain before ever being able to forgive and let go.
If the government of Sri Lanka and the SLA was indeed responsible for the atrocities alleged in Killing Fields and identified by the UN panel, those responsible must be brought to account. Fighting terrorism is one thing. But a civil government that intends to command the respect of the international community can never commit crimes against humanity in the name of winning that fight.
Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, which outlaws war crimes. It is not, however, a party to the Rome Statute that established the International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to prosecute individuals for serious crimes against humanity. An ICC investigation to investigate and prosecute war crimes in Sri Lanka can only occur if the UN Security Council makes a reference to the ICC.
As the propaganda war continues, the evidence must be carefully assessed according to international law. At this stage, it appears unlikely that the ICC will be in a position to look for the truth, and the Sri Lankan government is definitively denying any wrong doing. Given that the Geneva Statutes (and indeed all aspects of the UN) focus on protecting humanity, not sovereign pride, an investigation into allegations of atrocities is in the interests of everyone. Where the Sri Lankan government has nothing to hide, it surely has nothing to worry about. Or if it wants to take responsibility, it must let its people learn what happened and refuse to let comrades get away with murder.
While escalating tension is inevitable, it is vital that the truth is brought to light. If the videos in Killing Fields have indeed been doctored, the truth must come out. However, the government of Sri Lanka’s previous behaviour in keeping stories of the war quiet affects its credibility in relation to these allegations. We, as viewers, would of course hope that Channel 4 and the ABC are confident that the documentary will not further muddy the waters.
But above all, it is important to remember that where stories have been spun to sanitise an inconvenient PR mess and keep those on their payroll from facing justice, courageous and diligent journalism can inspire the world to demand global justice.
Sunili Govinnage is a Sri Lankan-born Australian lawyer. This is reproduced from the DRUM