25 Sep 2013

A dimly lit Sri Lankan affair, in a side street beneath the UN

Last night, in a dimly lit side street a stone’s throw from the towering UN headquarters here in New York, Britain co-hosted a drinks party with Sri Lanka –  a country led by regime accused of the worst war crimes committed this century. Australia joined the fray to render it a tripartite affair.

Large black shiny cars ferried Sri Lanka’s large UN delegation to the door of an un-extraordinary town house. The hosting of the party was personified by British Foreign Secretary, William Hague; Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister GL Peris and – six days into her job – Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

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The event was “off camera”. We found ourselves the only team attempting to record what went on. Our presence outside in the street attracted the joint concern of both British and American security – both of whom made plain their discomfort with our presence.

This was a celebration by three members of the British Commonwealth of this year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be staged in Sri Lanka in November.

War crimes

The antecedents of the meeting have not been happy. A number of countries have tried to have the meeting moved to Mauritius. The Queen, as head of the Commonwealth, has uncharacteristically excused her own attendance.

It is just four years since the ending of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war. A war that ended, as Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields has described in eye witness detail, with 120,000 Tamils being herded into an ever shrinking “no-fire zone”, in which the UN itself believes at least 40,000 – possibly more than double that – were slaughtered in the final three weeks.

Our film showed men, women and children shelled by Sri Lankan artillery, and field hospitals deliberately bombarded soon after their locations had been passed to government forces by the International Red Cross (a provision of the Geneva Convention requires that both sides in conflict should inform each other through the International Red Cross the whereabouts of their field hospitals to spare them bombardment).

The World Bank has estimated that perhaps as many as 100,000 Tamils are still unaccounted for after the war.

A new, feature length film, No Fire Zone, narrates this criminal enterprise and humanitarian  catastrophe in graphic detail – and updates our original reportage.

The UN secretary general himself, Human Rights Watch, and many others have charged that war crimes, and crimes against humanity were committed by the government in the closing stages of the war. The president, Mahinda Rajapaska, and his brother, the Secretary of Defence Gotobaya Rajapaska have both been identified as suspects.

Indeed, Mr Ban used his platform on the opening day of this UN general assembly to hold up the Sri Lankan civil war as an example of the “systemic failure” by the UN system and member states to prevent the “disastrous consequences” of human rights violations.

He called for the UN to renew our commitment to the “United Nations’ founding principles.”

‘Tinkling glasses’

But all this was a far cry from the tinkling glasses and warm ministerial speeches that graced the townhouse in this New York side street last night. Ms Bishop talked warmly of her visit to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Professor Peris talked of Sri Lanka’s economy  having “turned a corner”. Mr Hague was both humorous and expansive in his praise for the Commonwealth, but managed diplomatically to say all but nothing of Sri Lanka.

No one mentioned the estimated 40,000 dead Tamils, or the World Bank figure of 100,000 missing. No one mentioned the military’s artillery and aerial bombardment of the “no fire zone”.

I and a tiny handful of New York based journalists were put on the guest list, but we were told we could not bring our cameras in. The atmosphere was strangely awkward. Those that knew each other, spoke to each other, those who did not know each other avoided doing so.

Britain’s Development Secretary, Justine Greening, looked in. So did the UN’s Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Valerie Amos.

The deputy head of the Sri Lankan mission to the UN is a former General, Shavendra Silva, who commanded the military’s infamous 58 Division during the final assault.  He is accused of war crimes but was given this prominent diplomatic posting as a reward by the regime.

Not once during the evening did I hear talk of war crimes, or crimes against humanity – beyond my own attempts to alert my seemingly relatively unknowing New York based journalist colleagues.

My shouted question to the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister from across the street – “When are you going to address the killing of the thousands of Tamil civilians in the closing moments of the war?” – went unanswered.

Unanswered questions

This was an early taster of what is to come. An institution – the British Commonwealth – is to play a macabre role in securing the re-entry into the family of nations of a country which has unaddressed blood on its hands on an horrific scale.

Commonwealth countries will be greeted and facilitated by a president, and a government, against whom evidence exists of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which we have screened and which the UN itself has substantiated.

The reform programme underway inside the Commonwealth is centred on human rights. On the basis of the prickly charm offensive conducted last night, a terrible pact has perhaps been entered into not to mention Sri Lanka’s war crimes.

Last night in New York, a dimly lit side street witnessed an event which did not feel compatible with the high ideals that are etched within the UN headquarters which towered above it in the night sky.

Last night left many questions unanswered.

Why is Britain prepared to co-host even a drinks party with Sri Lanka’s government so long as those horrifying closing weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and the war crimes that flowed from them, remain unaddressed?

Why was the UN’s own point person on these matters prepared to grace the event?

Why is the British Commonwealth prepared to blind ahead with this vast meeting of heads of government in Sri Lanka so long as the continuing human rights crisis there remains unaddressed?

Why is President Mahinder Rajapaska to be allowed to remain, for the next two years, the chairman of a movement that claims human rights at the very core of its being?

And why is British tax payers money being used even to fund either a drinks party, or any of this?

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