Responsible response to Channel 4 video required

by Jehan Perera

(June 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The video footage of the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war by the British television broadcaster Channel 4 has been taken on by other international media channels such as Al Jazeera, giving it a global dimension. It has also been shown at the margins of international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, at the British Parliament and now also at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. This is being denounced by members of the government as an ill-motivated and fabricated propaganda blitz by enemies of Sri Lanka. Whether the deeds depicted in the video were committed by soldiers or by the LTTE or by a third party, they are awful, cruel and tragic

The only way to remain unmoved is to believe that these video images are not real, but have been acted out to discredit the government. The first part of the video focuses on the plight of the civilian population that was trapped along with and by the LTTE in an ever shrinking territory. . There is vivid imagery of artillery shells falling on the civilians. There are the sounds of wailing children as their parents lie on top of them seeking to shield them with their bodies, and of people screaming in terror as the artillery fire rains on them. There are puddles of rain mixed with blood in the makeshift hospitals that were set up in abandoned schools and the bodies of victims who were being treated.

However, as this clear video footage comes from the territory that the LTTE was controlling it does not show how the LTTE forcibly kept the people in. Perhaps no one dared to take video images or photographs of what the LTTE was doing in the areas they were in charge of. There is some limited satellite imagery that shows in a blurred manner how LTTE cadre shot at the ground in front of civilians to prevent them from fleeing. This is one of the accusations leveled against the producers of the video, that they were biased, and produced a documentary that is weighted against the government. The one or two incidents in which an LTTE atrocity is shown emphasizes the fact that the rest are by the government forces.

The second and shorter part of the video shows the very end of the war, after the fighting was over. It shows bound and trussed prisoners, nearly naked, being shot at by military personnel. It shows dozens of bodies lying in rows which persons said to be experts and interviewed by Channel 4 say were shot in the head, and so unlikely to be battlefield casualties. There is also footage of bodies of women with their undergarments almost removed being dragged about and crude language in the background. Unless these images were fakes, as argued by the government, they would have had to come from the cameras of soldiers on the ground at that time.

Common knowledge

In order to permit viewers throughout the world to watch the programme Channel 4 removed its geo-blocking devices for a week. This meant that the video could be watched on internet in any part of the world instead of only in the UK as normal for Channel 4 news. I watched the video the day after it was broadcast in the UK along with several of my colleagues, who were of all ethnic groups. We wanted to see if we had different reactions so that we could come up with a more objective view, as this video is bound to be a very controversial and sensitive issue. Our common thought after watching the video together was that the government needed to have an independent investigation into the video in order to substantiate its position that it was a fake, if that is the position those in the government wish to continue with.

It is common knowledge that in any war, atrocities occur and civilians die. Over 60,000 are said to have died in Kashmir over the course of the past decades of anti government terrorism and counter terrorism. Over 500,000 are said to have died in Iraq when the US invaded that country to get rid of President Saddam Hussein. Much of Chechnya was flattened and large numbers of civilians were killed when the Russian army finally moved in to defeat the rebel forces. Many Sri Lankans are indignant and infuriated why the Sri Lankan government is being singled out for international censure and the Sri Lankan killing fields are being subjected to investigation when the killing fields elsewhere are not.

Perhaps a key reason is in the government’s consistent stance regardless of the mounting evidence, that it conducted a humanitarian operation to save the Tamil people from the LTTE, and had a policy of zero civilian casualties. The denial of large scale civilian casualties involved in fighting the LTTE which had a civilian shield of more than 300,000 civilians is not one that the international community appears prepared to accept. The video adds to the charges already leveled against the government by the Expert Panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, which argued for an independent international mechanism to probe the last phase of the war.

Untenable denials

So long as the government is adamant in holding to its position of a humanitarian operation in which there were zero civilian casualties, there will be mounting international pressure on it to investigate the past. In addition, in the absence of an inclusive and participatory investigation, the space for further allegations is to be expected from different pressure groups that will polarize the Sri Lankan society and hinder the process of reconciliation for sustainable peace for years to come. A credible mechanism involving the domestic legal apparatus in which there is multi partisan political consensus, including participation from opposition Tamil parties is now the best option for the government. This was suggested by several Sri Lankan civil society organizations as their response to the UN Expert Panel report that called for an independent international mechanism.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa has announced that it will investigate the video. Although the appointment of this commission was done unilaterally by the President, and not in consultation with other stakeholders, the LLRC has a plural composition. Its commissioners are also distinguished and respected within the country. They have already obtained the services of a university academic in Sri Lanka who is an expert in video technology to make his assessment of the authenticity of the video, which he has done in camera and not in public due to the controversial nature of the issue. The finding of the LLRC can do much to convince the international community that Sri Lanka will deal with the issue in a responsible and legitimate manner that can quell international concerns.

The government is also having the advantage of political support from powerful countries such as Russia and China, whose presidents have assured their Sri Lankan counterpart that they will not permit Sri Lankan sovereignty to be infringed and an international inquiry being imposed upon Sri Lanka. The Indian government too does not appear to be keen on imposing an international inquiry on Sri Lanka and is seeking other forms of accommodation with the government. On the other hand, there are Western countries such as the UK which have stated that they will re-visit all options unless the Sri Lankan government comes up with a satisfactory response to the questions opened by the Channel 4 video in the aftermath of the UN Expert Panel report. It is still possible for the government to develop an internal mechanism with credibility, if it ensures there is multi-partisan political backing for it, including from Tamil political parties.

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