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Monday, June 17, 2024

How the world should react to ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’

Going forward, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields represents a powerful case for the international community to follow the recommendation of the UN report and conduct a thorough independent international inquiry into what happened during the final weeks of the 26-year civil war.
by Yiagadeesen Samy

Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields — the title echoes the Cambodian genocide — is a documentary that was aired by Britain’s Channel 4 Television earlier this month. It describes the final weeks of the brutal civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. This was also around the time when thousands of Tamil Canadians demonstrated in Ottawa and Toronto to pressure the Canadian government to ask its Sri Lankan counterpart for a ceasefire.
Some of the scenes in the documentary are so gruesome that it was shown after 11 p.m. Channel 4 has made it available for viewing worldwide for a few more days (and it has been uploaded on several websites already). Having seen it, I can tell you that it is not for the faint-hearted.
In particular, it provides authenticated evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces, which have been vehemently denied by the Sri Lankan government. More important, this documentary is another tragic reminder of the realities of war faced by innocent civilians caught in conflict zones — and the international community’s failure to protect them.
In the early part of the documentary, we see the few UN workers who were based in Kilinochchi, the LTTE’s political capital, leaving in late 2008 (despite the pleas of the Tamil civilians not to do so) after being told by the Sri Lankan government that their safety could no longer be guaranteed. Gordon Weiss, a former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka who appears in the documentary, describes this as a deliberate attempt on the part of the Sri Lankan government to prevent international witnesses from reporting on what happened next.
However, thanks to modern technology, and similar to what has happened in the ongoing Arab uprising, the documentary features graphic video footage captured on cellphones by Tamils under attack and Sri Lankan government soldiers collecting trophy videos. Among the footage shown in the film, one can see the aftermath of targeted shelling of field hospitals and civilians by the Sri Lankan army; LTTE prisoners being shot in the back of the head by soldiers; and female Tamil fighters who have been abused, raped and murdered being dumped into trucks by soldiers making lewd comments about them.
Ironically, many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had been relocated in the so-called government-designated “no-fire” zones in the final stages of the war were also killed by shelling and airstrikes. This is not to say that the LTTE were innocent, as the documentary clearly shows. The Tigers are also blamed in the film for using civilians as human shields and killing those who tried to escape.
Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields thus largely confirms the findings of the UN “Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka” released in April of this year. As in the case of the documentary, the UN findings were equally denied by the Sri Lankan government, which also refused to let the panel visit Sri Lanka and urged the UN not to publish its report. In particular, the report mentions “a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international rights law was committed both by the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The UN report says that most civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were the result of government shelling, which also targeted food distribution lines and took place near Red Cross ships that were trying to rescue the wounded and their relatives. It blamed UN political organs and bodies, as well as international officials, for not protecting civilians and not publishing casualty numbers to illustrate the extent of the war. It called for an international investigation, especially in light of the fact that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set up by the government of Sri Lanka, does not meet international standards of independence and impartiality.
It is unlikely that the LLRC will investigate whether violations took place, since its main objective is to reflect on what happened between the ceasefire agreement of 2002 and the end of the war in May 2009. Only time will tell what the commission delivers but three well-known international NGOs (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group) have already refused to testify before what they consider a flawed process.
Going forward, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields represents a powerful case for the international community to follow the recommendation of the UN report and conduct a thorough independent international inquiry into what happened during the final weeks of the 26-year civil war. Although UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has indicated that he does not have the authority to act upon the recommendations of his own panel of experts to launch an international investigation, the UN Security Council or the UN Human Rights Council could certainly do so.
Two years have passed since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka and it is time for the international community to act to ensure that the victims receive justice. The brutal tactics of the Tigers, which included the recruitment of child soldiers and use of suicide bombers, cannot be used as justification for what happened during the final stages of the war.
Reconciliation and lasting peace in a post-conflict environment cannot be achieved without truth and accountability.
Yiagadeesen Samy is associate professor of International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and research associate at the North-South Institute.


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