Channel 4 Documentary: Sri Lanka’s “Killing Fields” and What was the UN Doing?

Guest Column by Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah

(June 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The film, billed as “one of the most shocking films ever screened by Channel 4” did, true to its word make “a powerful case for bringing those guilty of war crimes in Sri Lanka to justice.” It had an explicit message to the UN and the international community:

Unquestionably the next step to Channel 4’s (C4’s) documentary on ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ is to start the wheels of justice moving. Establishing an independent international inquiry should be the logical and most pressing first step that needs no second thought – decidedly it should be the natural response of every civilized human being, let alone any member of the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council. The UN cannot flounder and fall short of the mandate for which it was created.

The time has come to go after those perpetrators still living the good life after presiding over what is now perfectly clear to be acts of war crimes and crimes against humanity - tantamount to genocide.

Any move by the international community to merely allow Sri Lanka to investigate its own or make an UN sponsored independent inquiry, conditional upon the government’s consent, as Ban Ki-moon said, should be ruled out. And as Sam Zarifi of The Independent said in Sri Lanka: Confronting the Killing Fields: “It would be a sad day for the authority of the Secretary General if he could only authorise investigations approved by the government under scrutiny.” Countries that think that these are viable option must heed these words and take note that the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the president has no mandate to probe war crimes.

The “distressing” images of true events in the programme, described as the “most harrowing” some viewers had ever seen, together with the UN Advisory Panel of Expert’s (the Panel) findings should galvanise world powers, to go beyond prejudices and alliances, act decisively, entirely on the evidence and evidence alone. In truth the documentary provided visual evidence and testimonies in support of the Panel’s findings, thereby reinforcing the conclusions of the Panel that “there were credible allegations of serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by both parties that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The documentary was factual as much as it was disturbing; there was no dramatization; there was nothing “fake” about it as the Sri Lankan government may have the world believe. The images were real; the people were real; the dead bodies were real; the injuries were real; the targeted bombardment of No Fire Zones was real; the mass summary executions were real; the torture and abuse were real; the carnage and destruction was real; the state terrorism inflicted on innocent civilians was real; the fear was real; the depravation was real; the hunger was real, the lack of food and medicine was real; the pain, suffering and trauma were real; the cries for help were real; most of all the abandonment of a people by the very organization fated to protect them was real.

Try as it may, there is little the Sri Lankan government can do to redeem it self from this indefensible crime. Its response to the documentary is laughable and insulting to most people’s intelligence. Its statement said it “is concerned about the distress the images, without any guarantee of their authenticity, might have caused to the viewers,” adding that it was “an exercise...carried out by a small section of international media at the behest of certain parties with vested interests, …and caters only to the interests of separatist forces living outside Sri Lanka... the final objective of which is to push Sri Lanka back to war, by way of lacerating the wounds that the country is attempting to heal.” Accusing Channel 4 of “inciting hatred among the different communities in Sri Lanka, including future generations, and thereby, adversely affect the ongoing national reconciliation processes.”

This was no invention by C4. The reaction of the rest of the British and world media to the documentary is in direct contrast to the Sri Lankan government’s claim in its statement that it was “an exercise carried out by a small section of the international media.”

The gruesome and horrific images of Sri Lankan forces knowingly bombing and shelling three ‘No Fire Zones’ which the government itself designated as safe zones where civilians were encouraged to congregate, attacking hospitals which were clearly marked including make shift hospitals, the coordinates of which were given to them by the Red Cross, would have left no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the crimes were intentional. There were images of terrified civilians including children and infants taking refuge in shallow bunkers to avoid fire; of doctors and medical staff trying desperately to save lives without let, performing amputations without anesthetic; of men, women, the elderly and children slaughtered indiscriminately; of others barely alive with serious injuries and body parts missing; of the obvious trauma of children seeing their loved ones dying in front of them; of the agony of those who could not leave their bunkers to grieve for the dead; of mothers and fat hers losing their children; of the depravation of food water and medicine, blood and surgical supplies; of men and women being executed; some naked with their hands bound behind their backs; others tied to trees and shot at point blank range; of more mass executions; of dead bodies of naked women being loaded in to trucks; of young people being taken away never to come back; of a man tortured in the most gruesome manner and then found dead; of LTTE members executed after they were taken prisoner or had surrendered; of Sri Lankan soldiers behaving like psychopaths.

The authoritative statements in the documentary more than substantiate the authenticity and accuracy of the events that took place and culpability of the perpetrators.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heynes verified the new video’s authenticity to the United Nations Human Rights Council while the old one was authenticated earlier by his predecessor. Heynes has also called for an international investigation, after recognizing earlier the video showed evidence of “serious international crimes”.

Further a lawyer with international human rights expertise, Prof William Schabas points out attacking hospitals is a serious violation. “A hospital is totally off limits” he says, and goes on to draw a clear distinction between legal and illegal acts in war: “Combatants in a conflict have a duty not to target civilians and are only allowed to target military objectives. And when they go outside what is purely justified by military necessity, then they are already in the range of illegality.”

Referring to the mass summary executions the Professor said “In what ever form, it’s prohibited by law, it is murder,” adding that in this case there is “strong circumstantial evidence that torture and killings took place.” His final comment that “unpunished crimes leave wounds that return and prevent society from healing and moving forward,” seemed ominous.

Steve Crawshaw, Advocacy Director Amnesty International (AI) spoke of the need to protect civilians at all costs. “One of the absolutely core principles of the laws of war is the need to protect civilians, he said. The constant targeted bombardment of civilian facilities, hospitals and “No Fire Zones” is well documented throughout the film. Video footage of “increased shelling and incursions by Sri Lankan troops bringing death and terror to crowded civilian camps,” is in itself ample proof. The fact that air strikes had been a regular occurrence is corroborated by one of the 8 or 9 UN workers in Killinochchi, former UN staffer Benjamine Dix. He talks about “the number of air raids” that was conducted “pretty much every day, quite often at night time,” even during the time the UN was still there until it was asked to leave by the Sri Lankan government in September 2008.

The documentary meticulously and chronologically has pieced together the events, with the help of video footage and eye witness accounts to show how Tamil civilians had to move from one No Fire Zone to another. It’s by piecing together the civilian movement from supposedly one safe zone to another that one had a semblance of the ever increasing death toll in the final few weeks which the Panel has concluded to be 40,000; which some sources believed to be much higher.

The programme did not fail to point out that the law applied to both sides in the conflict. “The laws of war do of course apply equally to both sides,” said Jon Snow the documentary showing footage of a “government center for displaced persons” where he alleged a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed civilians and soldiers: “On the 9th of February a female Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed a large number of Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil civilians in this government center for displaced people; and in the No Fire Zones too they defied the laws of war,” Jon Snow stated, referring to alleged crimes committed by the Tigers that included using civilians as human shields: “We know from available evidence that the Tamil Tigers were killing people in order to stop them from leaving,” Gordon Weiss told the programme. Aerial shots given to C4 taken by the Sri Lankan government showing Tigers allegedly firing on the ground to prevent civilians attempting to leave were hardly
visible to the eye.

The documentary raised the issue of “command responsibility” and the fact that the “military command structure in Sri Lanka” went “all the way to the highest offices in government.” This meant “responsibility could ultimately lie with President Rajapaksa and his Defence Minister and brother Gotabaya,” it concluded - the president being the Commander in Chief of the Sri Lankan armed forces.

The documentary reveals the Sri Lankan government’s master plan to get rid of international witnesses. The official UN spokesman at that time Gordon Weiss believes “the Sri Lankan Government’s motive was not the safety of UN Personnel,” when it asked the staff to leave Tiger controlled areas: “The government regarded the UN as impediments to their conquest of the Tamil Tigers. By removing those organizations there were no longer international witnesses to what was coming; their intention was to remove independent witnesses,” stating he personally thought “it was a mistake.”

The documentary begins and ends with the pathetic and heartbreaking images of desperate Tamil civilians begging the UN workers not to leave. The Sri Lankan government had asked the UN to “leave Killinochchi and the Tiger held areas” in September 2008 as they claimed they could no longer guarantee their safety. The UN’s decision to leave according to Gordon Weiss, “was a mistake” and as The Independent’s Tom Sutcliffe wrote “a move interpreted (in the documentary) as a pre-meditated plan (by the government) to remove inconvenient witnesses.”

UN staffer Benjamine Dix was choking with emotion when he shared his feelings with C4 about the UN leaving. “For me that was personally the worst moment of my life. It seemed like their greatest hour of need; there was an army sitting at their door step waiting to take the town and we drove out; that was a very difficult time for us, a real sense of abandonment of these people,” he said, pointing particularly to one girl in the crowd amidst waving hands.

On 15th Sept 2008 when news that the international staff were leaving spread, a crowd had gathered, “please don’t leave, they cried, pleading not to go, I ran my camera along the waving hands and there was one girl at the end she wasn’t shouting or chanting but there was real sadness in her face – I was quite emotional - her face captured the real emotion at that point. The Brahmin laid it on the line – we don’t care about our food, shelter and water, we’ll take care of ourselves we need international eyes on the ground to see what’s happening here. If you leave we will all die – the knife is at our throat.”

“Those pleas fell on deaf ears at the UN” Jon Snow said.

The documentary referred to the Panel’s conclusions on the UN leaving: “The UN report now acknowledged the removal of their staff left virtually no international witnesses in the area – which meant a path was opened for the Sri Lankan government forces to launch a final offensive in to the Tiger held areas for the next four months where hundreds of thousands of civilians would be bombed herded and corralled; into an ever decreasing area of land and in these killing fields where tens of thousands of them were destined to die targeted by deliberate government fire,” Jon Snow said leaving viewers feeling outraged that the slaughter could have been prevented.

The part played by the UN in the abandonment of these hapless Tamil people was plain to the eye and seemed inexcusable. As I wrote earlier in my article Acid Test for UN and the International Community, it’s abundantly clear the UN had failed in its duty to protect civilians. I mentioned the Panel’s criticism of the UN’s political organs and bodies “for failing to take action that might have protected civilians,” chiding the UN for lack of transparency for not releasing casualty figures and quoting the report’s conclusions: “In the Panels view the public use of casualty figures would have strengthened the call for the protection of civilians while those events in the Vanni were unfolding.”

And so the documentary asks “will anyone be brought to justice for these crimes?” putting the onus on the UN and the international community. C4 believes that would “depend a great deal on the international community and the UN itself. “The tens of thousands who were killed beg the question of the UN – what was it doing at that time and was it enough?” Gordon Weiss thinks “it wasn’t enough.”

“Quite recently the Security Council voted unanimously for Libya to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague,” Steve Crawshaw of AI said, adding, “contrast that and the complete and utter silence and inaction on scores of thousands dead in Sri Lanka (the difference) is absolutely striking. I think it is inexplicable and morally quite indefensible.”

In all this the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon’s actions need examination. “He has rejected his own committee’s recommendations that he set up” Jon Snow said. “If he has no authority then the UN Security Council itself must implement the call,” he stated.

The UN has a duty to clear its name of complicity and restore its credibility.

The entire Channel 4 team of ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ must be congratulated. Jon Snow, the presenter must have been mindful of the task at hand. Summing up his experience as the team ventured to “piece together an account of what happened in the closing weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war,” he spoke of his involvement in events affecting history. “Once or twice in a reporting lifetime, a journalist is allowed by events to participate in a project that can affect history,” he said calling ‘their’ efforts “a painful, and complex team achievement.”

The apparent faith the team had in their mission to expose the horrific crimes that took place is reflected in those words. They know the sheer gravity of the responsibility they owed to the public to reveal what they knew, the need for seeking the truth and for justice to be served. C4 has made a powerful case for bringing those guilty of war crimes in Sri Lanka to justice. They end with one nagging question: “The survivors are looking to the international community for justice, will they be failed again?”

The ball is now in the international community’s court!” Hope justice prevails.
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