‘Sri Lanka trying to pretend events of summarily executed prisoners are history, as the economy and tourism pick up. They are not’
Evidence that won’t be buried: On this occasion there are reasons why it was right to dispense with the responsibility broadcasters have to avoid causing distress
Guardian UK Editorial, Jun 15, 2011
The footage screened by Channel 4 last night ranks among the most horrific yet shown on British television. Naked prisoners shot in the head; the dead bodies of women who had been raped, dumped on a truck; the immediate aftermath of a shell landing on a hospital – images caught on mobile phones of the atrocities committed by government soldiers in the final months of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war.
The story of what happened two years ago when government forces corralled hundreds of thousands of Tamils in horrific conditions into an ever-shrinking space, as they closed in the defeated Tigers, is well known. A UN panel last month found credible allegations of war crimes committed both by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. But the pictures of the shootings are new and Channel 4 has done what human rights organisations should have been doing in compiling and sifting through it.
The footage, shot either by escapers, or as trophy videos by soldiers committing the atrocities, is almost unwatchable. But on this occasion there are two reasons why it was right to dispense with the responsibility broadcasters have to avoid causing distress. First, the Sri Lankan government engineered a war without witness, which was why, in echoes of Srebrenica, they forced UN observers to leave first. This film atones, in small part, for the failure of the international community to make Sri Lanka accountable for these deaths. Second, the parallel with Srebrenica is only too real. As the UN panel reveals, the shelling of hospitals in the so-called no-fire zones was so systematic – there were 65 such attacks – that it is impossible to believe it was random. One shelling took place after a Red Cross official supplied the GPS co-ordinates to the Sri Lankan authorities, a procedure meant to avoid such shellings.
The targeting of civilians is a war crime. If proved, these charges go right up the chain of command of Sri Lanka’s military and government. If Iran stands condemned for killing hundreds in the wake of the June 2009 election, if Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic now face justice in The Hague, if Bashar al-Assad faces UN sanctions for an assault that has killed 1,300 Syrians, how it is that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, escape all censure, after over 40,000 civilians were killed?
That the LTTE assassinated presidents and invented the suicide belt, that the Tigers used civilians as human shields, is no defence from the charge that Sri Lankan soldiers summarily executed prisoners in their custody. Sri Lanka is trying to pretend these events are history, as the economy and tourism pick up. They are not. This evidence has to be faced.