26 Aug 2009

Investigating claims of Sri Lankan 'war crimes'

On 3 June 2005 I sat in the Channel 4 newsroom watching a video of six young Bosnian Muslim men being taunted and then murdered in cold blood by members of a Serb militia called the Scorpions in a village near Srebrenica ten years earlier.

Their paramilitary tormentors sneered at their captives; they smoked cigarettes and cracked jokes; the cameraman complaining that his handycam battery was dying, urging the others to “get on with it.” 

The men and boys were forced to lie down with their hands tied before they were shot in the back. After watching the video, I put together this report:

This video contains images that some may find distressing.

Last night I watched another video in our newsroom, this time from Sri Lanka.

It was sent to us by a group of exiled journalists. It was chillingly reminiscent of the Bosnia video. 

The casual banter and laughter of the uniformed killers was what I immediately found so callous and shocking, as they kicked in the head and then shot – point-blank – their bound, blindfolded, naked victims. 

The raw footage – one continuous shot lasting one minute and eight seconds – is sickening. 

The group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka – comprised of Tamils and Sinhalese – claim the footage they’d obtained was filmed in January this year and depicts the extra-judicial execution of Tamils by Sri Lankan government soldiers.

This video contains images that some may find distressing.

Today, the Sri Lankan Army spokesman, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, dismissed the footage as a fabrication “made to discredit the armed forces.” He told AFP news agency that the Tamil Tigers also operated wearing the uniforms of government soldiers.

Channel 4 News was sent a second “categorical denial” from the Sri Lankan High Commissioner in London, who branded it “a deliberate and sinister attempt to prevent the reconciliation process that is now taking place…”

In Colombo, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs weighed in, calling our report a “concocted story” intended to “cause embarrassment and bring disrepute to the government of Sri Lanka.”

The Sri Lankan president’s media unit then released a statement saying the government “will make a strong protest to Channel 4 with regard to the contents of this video and also bring the matter to the notice of the relevant authorities…” 

It described the footage as “false and doctored.” It promised to “pursue remedies available with regard to the distortion of truth.”

Personally, I think Steven Spielberg would have had a hard job staging this grim scene.

We were unable to verify the authenticity of the footage, but we did our level best to do so and we would not have broadcast our report had we not been confident with the expert analysis we received.
Before we went to air, I watched the video with a leading Sri Lankan human rights investigator – a Sinhalese himself – who provided forensic insights into its authenticity.

This investigator has many years of experience looking into abuses and impunity in his homeland, but he’d never seen anything like this.

Many detractors have made their points of view clear in emails to Channel 4 News or on the websites of newspapers like Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror.

While it’s true that Tamil Tiger insurgents were known to masquerade in government uniforms, what makes the video credible is that telltale casual dialogue between the killers as they dispatch their helpless captives.

In rough provincial Sinhala accents, they jokingly argue over who gets to shoot whom.

They take turns, mockingly play-acting the popular folk game ‘kurupiti gahanawa wage’ – ‘Your Turn, My Turn.’

When the Bosnian Scorpion video emerged in Belgrade in 2005, the then UN War Crimes Prosecutor was in Belgrade and commented: “I have seen the video and there is no doubt about the perpetration of crimes.”

Two years later, a Serbian war crimes court sentenced four members of the group to a total of 58 years in prison for the extrajudicial executions.

Will this happen in Sri Lanka, if this video is indeed authenticated and these killings deemed prima facie evidence of war crimes?

The answer is a resounding “No.”

The Sri Lankan government has summarily rejected all calls for an independent investigation into alleged war crimes.

It is not within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to investigate alleged war crimes in a state which is not party to the Rome statute (Sri Lanka isn’t) or in the absence of a UN Security Council Resolution, which instructs the ICC to investigate. This extremely unlikely to happen. 

On 27 May, the UN Human Rights Council passed a flawed resolution, drafted by the Sri Lankan government, which actually commended the Sri Lankan government for its policies and celebrating its victory over the Tamil Tigers. 

The resolution ignored calls for an investigation into alleged war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law.

Because of the clunky mechanics of the UN Security Council and the difficulty of passing unanimous resolutions on countries’ internal problems when many of those voting have awkward internal problems of their own, no resolution censuring Sri Lanka has been passed.

With the UNHRC resolution, the government of Sri Lanka probably thinks it’s off the hook which is perhaps why video footage of the sort that emerged yesterday has so alarmed Colombo.

Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans who want to see impartial investigations into alleged human rights abuse have either had to flee into exile (like the group of journalists who obtained the video), have been arrested, beaten or killed – or remain there, ducking for cover.

Yesterday, an eminent Sri Lankan academic, Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of the Colombo-based think tank, the Center for Policy Alternatives, said he’d received an anonymous death threat. 

His crime, it appears, was to lambast the UN for its failure to hold the government of Sri Lanka accountable.

“In Sri Lanka,” he’s quoted as saying, “there were a lot of us who had a palpable sense of disappointment with regard to the UN. Perhaps our expectations were too high.”

Sri Lanka’s long and horrible civil war killed as many as 80,000 people.

The Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam pioneered the use of suicide bombers and paid scant heed to the lives of civilians. They trained and used thousands of child-soldiers to fight the Sri Lankan Army. 

If we’d obtained a video tape of these atrocities and abuses, we would have certainly sought to authenticate and then aired them too.