23 Oct 2009

Sri Lankan 'execution' video: the view from DC

Sri Lanka has dismissed a US State Department report into alleged war crimes as unsubstantiated. The report does not accept Colombo’s assertion that a video broadcast by Channel 4 News apparently showing the execution of nine Tamil captives was a fake.

The United States government has not accepted Sri Lankan claims that a video broadcast by Chanel 4 News apparently showing Sri Lankan soldiers executing Tamils is a “fake”.

The film – sent to us by an independent group of Sri Lankan journalists – was broadcast in August this year. Since then, the Sri Lankan government has commissioned experts to analyse the film and concluded it wasn’t genuine.

But a report released by the US State Department says there has yet to be any “independent” analysis of the pictures, which were said to have been recorded by a soldier on his mobile phone. Sri Lanka has resisted calls by the UN for an independent investigation into this and other alleged war crimes.

The comments on the video came in the 63-page US State Department report on possible war crimes committed by both sides in the final showdown with the Tamil Tigers. Sri Lanka has dismissed as “unsubstantiated” claims recorded within the report.

The Foreign Ministry in Colombo says the litany of horrors is “devoid of of corroborative evidence”.

It insists that the practice of the Government of Sri Lanka is aways to investigate credible and well-substantiated allegations and that it has an unbroken record of the rule of law remaining paramount. International human rights groups dispute that.

Credible and well-substanitated evidence was indeed hard to come-by for State Department investigators. The report notes (on page 9) the denial of access to eyewitnesses and to the war zone itself, where ordinarily forensic evidence-gathering might have yielded answers. “There are allegations,” it says, “that Sri Lankan government restrictions were part of a systematic attempt to hide violations of International Humanitarian Law and human rights abuse.”

On 25 August this year, a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists obtained a video which they sent to Channel 4 News. It purported to show the extrajudicial execution of nine naked, blindfolded Tamil men by Sri Lankan government forces. Channel 4 News’s report on this video unleashed a barrage of criticism from the Sri Lankan government, which denounced the footage as a fake.

There were protests against Channel 4 News in London and Colombo, a big online petition and a formal complaint has been lodged against the programme. Channel 4 News was accused of engaging in a deliberate propaganda campaign against Sri Lankan citizens.

Elsewhere though, the execution video, apparently filmed by a Sri Lankan soldier on a mobile phone, created alarm. Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture Extrajudicial Executions said Sri Lanka’s investigations into the footage did not meet the criteria of “impartial” and that he could not accept Colombo’s assertion that the video was a fake.

Now the State Department report has come to the same conclusion. Implicit in its reporting of the emergence of this footage (on page 45) is an acknowledgement that the Sri Lankan government has not proved it to have been forged.

The report states –

“In late August an organization received a video clip from January which allegedly showed the summary execution of nine bound and naked Tamils by SLA soldiers. The video was supposedly filmed by a soldier present at the scene. Since the video’s release, the GSL has analyzed the clip and issued a statement identifying specific aspects of the video which it claims proved it to be forged. However, there has been no independent analysis of the footage.”

Three paragraphs above this, the video footage is mentioned in the context of “common article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.” That article, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, states that “members of armed forces who have laid down their arms shall in all circumstances be treated humanely”. Acts that are prohibited under this law of war are violence, murder and cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners.

Last night, US State Department spokesman Ian Kelly urged Sri Lanka to take staps to “thoroughly investigate” what he described as “credible claims of atrocities”.

The US government now joins the UN expert in this field in respectfully disagreeing with the government in Colombo in its continued assertion that with the execution video, there is nothing credible to investigate.

The US Congress, which commissioned the war crimes report, must now decide on what action to take upon its findings.