Image courtesy Channel 4

Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields is anything but understated. It is designed to shock, even if you are the most hardened of viewers. Images of blood-soaked bodies assail you from every angle. As a cellphone camera jerks around, you see the bulging eyes of a man-turned-killing machine. He appears to be enjoying himself. You feel disoriented. When you think you cannot take it anymore, there it is: Another body eviscerated, another child screaming for her mother, another man’s eyes tied shut, another gunshot through the head, and still another naked body piled atop a truck laden with violated human flesh.

And then you are left with nothing but darkness. And silence.

That silence lingered as the lights went up on the UN Church Center, where NGO workers and UN staffers, reporters and diplomats attended a subdued screening of Channel 4’s controversial (and at times sensationalist) documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. Though the screening was punctuated by two short breaks, few viewers dared to get up for a glass of water or a refill of their morning coffee during the screening.

The panel that followed was moderated by Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International’s Representative to the United Nations (who has since written an account of the event here, and featured speakers from Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, Amnesty, and the director of the film, Callum McCrae.

McCrae said that he had very little to add to what the audience had just seen.

“As filmmakers, our job is to gather the evidence, to put together the film… it’s not our job to define what should happen next. In some sense, that’s your job,” he said.

Calling his film “prima facie evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” he stated that three entities would have to answer for these brutal violations: the Sri Lankan government, surviving Tamil Tiger leaders, and the UN and the international community. Refuting the idea that his documentary was causing problems in Sri Lanka, McCrae said, “The problems are there… without justice, there can be no resolution, no reconciliation.”

The representatives of the assembled rights groups spoke next. They summed up the violations of both parties to war, cataloguing in particular human rights abuses of the LTTE that they had documented over the years. They also pointed out the limits of domestic mechanisms under the current government, blasted the United Nations and the Secretary-General’s inaction on the report of a panel of experts he had convened, and called for an international inquiry into the conduct of the final phases of war. When they were done, the audience was given a brief opportunity to ask questions. A few hands were raised, but most appeared not to know what to say, or ask. After three questions, Diaz reminded the audience that the alleged crimes under discussion were subject to universal jurisdiction, allowing any country to pursue and prosecute them. He noted this as an avenue that might be pursued in the absence of domestic accountability processes.

And then something rather surprising happened. Two men from Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission—two men often named in allegations of war crimes–were given the opportunity to respond to the documentary.

Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations spoke first. Addressing a question that was posed earlier about why the international community had not taken these allegations seriously, he claimed that it was because they were not “well-founded.” Kohona’s response did not question the veracity of the footage; rather, it questioned the motives of the producers, and others calling for investigations, as well as the accuracy of their claims and commentary. He argued that the filmmakers and rights activists had confused “allegations” with “evidence” in their presentation, and referencing Channel 4, turned to McCrae and said “maybe you were upset that you were thrown out of the country, at some point.” Even as he admitted that UN staff left the North in September 2008, Kohona claimed that “the UN had dozens of local recruits on the ground, and they continued to stay there” as observers until the end. He continued, “In fact, we suggested that the UN also pull them out.” We might ask: If these local recruits remained, what assurances were made for their safety and lives that would allow them to act as observers? Kohona further claimed that the ICRC had a presence on the beach until the very last day.

In light of what he called “naïve mischaracterizations,” Kohona said that the documentary required more scrutiny and analysis:

It is easy to provoke people, get them emotional—and also, even if you count up all the people who are dead in that video, I don’t think you could come up with 100—that is not to suggest that others were not hurt or died—they may have! But even if you counted every single body that was in that video, I do not think that you could come up with a total of 100. (Emphasis added.)

Kohona then rejected the documentary’s assertions about the post-war North, and added a few final remarks to his dismissal of the film’s war crimes allegations: He averred that there are a number of ways in which the government has taken responsibility for investigating these concerns:

  • The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has “the mandate to go into all aspects of the conflict, including accountability issues”
  • “The Attorney-General’s Department of Sri Lanka has established a special unit to pursue further any issues relating to accountability that are raised by the LLRC.”
  • Kohona cited an Army statement that it would look into “any instances that can be substantiated where soldiers have broken the law,” noting that “there were instances which we saw on that screen, which were not very pleasant, and which may be brought under the criminal law of the country. And the military has said that very categorically—that they will deal with situations like that.”

In short, Kohona admitted that the footage reveals acts that require legal investigation and asserted that Sri Lanka has domestic mechanisms—in particular, the LLRC and the Attorney-General’s office–to investigate war atrocities. Such claims may be belied by the political realities in which these mechanisms operate: a judiciary subject to political appointments and decades of commissions of inquiry with little result. Those who stand accused occupy Sri Lanka’s highest levels in government and military, yet Kohona’s final point claims that the military will investigate itself.

In contrast, Kohona suggested that pointing out these shortcomings to say that Sri Lanka cannot investigate was “extremely paternalistic.” He continued: “I’ve not heard Amnesty International, or any other organization, suggesting that there should be an international inquiry into Abu Ghraib or what is going on in Tripoli at the moment.” (That Amnesty did call for an “independent investigation” into Abu Ghraib—even after US investigations and minor prosecutions—is conveniently forgotten.) In making this point, does the ambassador inadvertently liken the events depicted in the Channel 4 documentary to other grave violations of international law? Does American and British hypocrisy justify these acts, or would they not require, at the very least, independent and impartial scrutiny?

By way of conclusion, Kohona stated: “I must confirm that Sri Lanka will continue to abide by its responsibilities internationally, will conform to international standards, and wherever our troops, our security forces are found lacking, appropriate measures will be taken.”

The Asian Tribune has since published a written summary of Kohona’s ad-hoc speech here. However, his is not the speech that many Sri Lankans would be familiar with after reading last week’s news; that distinction belongs to Maj. Gen. Shavendra Silva.

The ambassador handed the floor over to Silva, who was appointed by the Rajapaksa government last December as Kohona’s deputy at the Mission. Diaz reminded Silva that he had only two minutes, yet he spoke for nearly ten. Silva began by pointedly noting that he had not been invited to the event, nor to speak, though he was “featured” in the film as the Commander of the 58th Division. He then proceeded to act as a living caricature of the Government’s initial response to the Channel 4 documentary. The deputy claimed that the footage was fabricated, and explained to the audience how he had determined this. He variously decried the identity of eyewitnesses, perpetrators and victims as Tigers.

Let us look more closely at one example provided as the “evidence” for this “fabrication.” Silva claimed that Channel 4 had mistranslated footage of a woman screaming as she hid with others in a trench. He said the same was true of the Sinhala-language footage, though he did not offer any examples. This is the scene he referred to, as translated in the film (09:41):

Don’t take the video

Please get in the bunker

What are you going to do with the video?

They are killing everyone

Silva suggests that we “ask someone who knows Tamil to tell what it is” and offered the following “translation” in response:

“And these people who are going down [into the trench] say not to film this! This is a production! This is a production!”

Viewers of the Channel 4 documentary will see that the narrator introduces this footage by noting that the identity of the videographer—and therefore, whether the person was a Tiger cameraperson or a civilian (09:28)–could not be confirmed. What matters is what we see: that a woman is shouting out of fear, asking the camera’s operator to get into the bunker when “they are killing everyone.” That “they” are not specified does not matter: Whatever the entity, it is targeting non-combatants, and this requires credible investigation.

McCrae noted that the producers had used four Tamil translators and five Sinhala translators to ensure their accuracy, and that these translations were independently verified. How many did Silva use? Were his translations verified? Either Silva has sought to deceive an international audience, or his mistranslation speaks to his own inability to understand one of Sri Lanka’s national languages.

The minutiae of these misrepresentations distract from allegations that are leveled at the government in this film, and the UN Panel of Experts report – in particular, the deliberate withholding of food, water and medical supplies; the shelling of hospitals and other non-military installations; and most grave of all, the intent to kill civilians herded into no-fire zones — allegations that Silva did not confront at all. A government that is convinced of the legality of its actions and the lack of evidence to prove otherwise should be able to confront such allegations, and would have nothing to fear in addressing them. Rather, evasions such as Silva’s reveal more than they conceal.

As he spoke, Silva waved a set of papers around, and told the audience that the government could provide links and analysis after the event. Owing to the length of Silva’s extempore speech, there was no time for audience questions at the end of the event, contrary to what the state media presents here. McCrae was given the opportunity to respond briefly, and with that, the event was over.

As the audience prepared to leave, two men from the mission handed out the two documents that were held up by Silva as “Sri Lanka’s response.”

See full screen version of this document here.

See the full screen version of this document here.

Let us then take a look at these documents: The first is called “Points to Ponder” and analyzes the commentary of the documentary while questioning the validity of its footage, and juxtaposing this with images of civilians killed by LTTE bombings. The second document is called “Channel 4 Faceoff—Exposing the appalling truth” and is drawn from the Defence Ministry website. Each document reiterates Kohona and Silva’s disjointed remarks, in a bundle of links, images and commentary that justifies the war and denounces the producers of the documentary—the second by making unsubstantiated claims that link their project to a pro-LTTE, anti-Sri Lanka campaign abroad.

Shortly after the event ended, the Government went on a publicity blitz. The Ministry of Defence, state media and a sycophantic press released numerous statements that denounce the documentary’s footage as fake. As with an earlier release by Channel 4 of a video documenting extrajudicial killings, it makes hyperbolic claims that link this footage to the Tigers, and has recently gone so far as to suggest, via an Army spokesperson, that Tamil asylum-seekers “invented” the footage to secure refugee status abroad.

Such remarks, along with those at Tuesday’s event, have allowed the Government to proclaim a public relations victory, as it has done here and here. Yet those in the audience who were not attached to the mission were visibly and audibly perturbed by the footage, and post-event, noted and questioned the differences they observed among the two speakers. They saw Kohona as a diplomat who understood how things worked, even if his arguments were unconvincing. Silva, on the other hand, was described by some as “an idiot.”

The words of one attendee summed it up: “The evidence is there for everyone to see.” Indeed, it is. What will be done with it remains to be seen.

The documents above and the audience reaction all beg the question: Why is the Government unable to come up with a coherent, reasoned response, let alone one that is adequate to the footage that confronts the viewer? Why were Kohona’s remarks shelved and Silva’s trumpeted by the state media?

Is it, perhaps, because Kohona’s statements about the footage and Sri Lanka’s mechanisms implicitly recognized that there may have been violations that should be investigated and accounted for? Because—unlike Silva’s utter denial–he explicitly noted that the State was responsible for dealing with violations of international law, and would then be required to uphold such obligations?

Taken together, Kohona and Silva’s two-faced response reveals a schizophrenic mission for a government that is unable to face up to the truth of the war, in order to reconcile and rebuild the country. As Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia, Elaine Pearson, pointed out during the event, the Government has focused its efforts on touting “the Sri Lanka model” of counterinsurgency. In doing so, it has drawn the notice of liberal interventionists. Human rights activists are not with us, they are against us, its spokespeople shout in response– or, as Silva claims, they are aligned with the pro-LTTE lobby abroad in a grand, imperialist plot. The war on terror extends indefinitely. And the government has thus effectively created the conspiracy that it now seeks to vanquish.

Indeed, the Government’s inadequate response to the problem of accountability for war atrocities does not bode well for the future of Sri Lanka. It lays the ground for suspicion, fueling calls for international action, which are then used by those in power to justify their repression of domestic critics—actions that only indicate growing authoritarianism and raise further questions. Evasions of accountability thus serve to undermine local efforts at post-war rebuilding and reconciliation, and in fact leave the back door open for those who would make an example of the state’s failures. These efforts toward truth and justice—and not the whitewash of an international propaganda battle–are the real challenges for a democratic Sri Lanka, as it strives for everyday and political reconciliation, and the prosperity of its citizens in the years to come.

After watching the Channel 4 film, many of us asked: What will the Government do now? If these scattered, frenzied “responses” are the answer, don’t the people of Sri Lanka—and in particular, the war-battered people in this film – deserve better?