Screen grab from Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields

(New York) – The Sri Lankan government continues its diplomatic offensive, denying and dismissing the growing evidence of war crimes during the final bloody battles between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ended in May 2009.

Last week, at a panel presentation of the Channel 4 film, the ‘Killing Fields of Sri Lanka’, Sri Lanka’s United Nations Ambassador Palitha Kohona said, “To suggest that the Sri Lankan military was so foolhardy as to deliberately target the civilians, I think is a blatant lie… We had no intention of creating martyrs, we had no intention of creating more volunteers for the LTTE.”

If the killings of civilians were not deliberate, the Sri Lankan army attacks were clearly indiscriminate, which is no less a war crime. The recent findings of the panel of experts set up to advise UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon concluded that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final stages of the conflict, many as the result of indiscriminate shelling by government forces. The report also concluded that both government forces and the Tigers conducted military operations “with flagrant disregard for the protection, rights, welfare and lives of civilians and failed to respect the norms of international law.”

The Channel 4 film adds even more weight to the UN report, providing devastating and graphic footage of possible war crimes by Sri Lankan soldiers. It shows summary executions of prisoners by soldiers in uniform, half-naked corpses of women that raise questions about sexual abuse and includes revealing interviews with ethnic Tamils who described indiscriminate shelling that killed many civilians.

It is true that the LTTE committed horrific abuses against the civilian population by using them as human shields, forcibly conscripting children, and deploying artillery close to civilians. Human Rights Watch documented abuses by the LTTE for years.

It is also true that in the final stages of the war it was difficult to verify facts and corroborate evidence, especially when the government deliberately shut out foreign media, the United Nations, and humanitarian and human rights groups from the battle zone.

But it is wrong for the Sri Lankan government to dismiss this compelling footage as “fake.” The most vehement dismissals have been directed against a clip of several executions of naked, bound and blindfolded men by men in military uniforms. But the executions footage has been authenticated by four independent experts who have no connection to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s own examination of the video, by contrast, carries no credibility. All the experts commissioned by the government were either Sri Lankan military experts or Sri Lankan nationals living abroad. All of the government’s objections had been addressed by the UN-commissioned experts in their recent reports.

Since the screening of the film for diplomats in Geneva and New York, Sri Lankan government officials have said that they will investigate any credible allegations of wrongdoing. But it is hard to imagine more concrete evidence of war crimes than this execution video. In addition to the video, several photographs of the same bodies, all publicly available, add information that should allow the government to find those responsible for these crimes if it wants to.

First, we know the identity of one of the victims. Human Rights Watch interviewed several people who identified one of the female victims as Isaipiriya, a LTTE media worker.

Second, there are strong indications that the incident took place on the evening of May 18– the final night of the war. The army said on the Defense Ministry’s website that Isaipiriya was killed on May 18; this information is consistent with meta-data on many of the photographs.

Third, regarding the identity of the perpetrators, the army itself said that its 53rd division killed Isaipiriya. Yet, the government has not taken even the most rudimentary steps for a criminal investigation, such as questioning those in the 53rd division who reported Isaipiriya’s killing.

After initially dismissing the footage as “fake” and “made with LTTE money,” the government is now, perhaps with the growing body of evidence, asserting that it is waiting for its domestic truth mechanism, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, to conclude its investigations. The government now asserts that the Commission will look into some of these incidents if it deems them credible.

This is nothing but a delaying tactic. As noted by the UN panel of experts, the LLRC is not an accountability mechanism, is “deeply flawed” and its mandate is “not tailored to investigating allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law.”

Only a prompt, thorough and objective criminal investigation will fulfill the government’s obligations under international law. The government’s failure to open such an investigation, almost two years after the footage surfaced, is a clear indication that the government has no intention to meet its international obligations.

The government’s shallow show-and-tell exercise with the LLRC reflects a long history in Sri Lanka of setting up government commissions in response to serious allegations of abuses such as enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings that ultimately fail to adequately investigate or to hold those responsible to account.

Since 1977, Sri Lanka has set up at least 15 commissions in response to international criticism of its human rights record. The work of many of these commissions has been tainted with political interference and mainly served to exonerate the government security forces. But even in cases in which the commissions conducted thorough investigations, established numerous cases of abuses, and identified the perpetrators, the authorities failed to act on the commissions’ recommendations or to establish a meaningful accountability process.

Justice for Sri Lanka’s war victims is crucial. If Ambassador Kohona really wanted to avoid making martyrs of the LTTE, then he would support an independent international investigation into the allegations of war crimes. Based on the government’s track record, anything it produces is likely to be just another whitewash. What is really needed is to establish a full international investigation of the executions in the video and other numerous credible allegations of war crimes.

Elaine Pearson is the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.