Controversial film documents Sri Lanka′s ′killing fields′ | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 15.06.2011
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Controversial film documents Sri Lanka's 'killing fields'

A controversial new film has premiered at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, documenting the closing weeks of the 25 year conflict between Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Sri Lankan civilians

The new film highlights alleged atrocities committed by Sri Lankan troops

The film, "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields," contains shocking video footage allegedly showing government troops executing Tamil prisoners: evidence, the film makers and human rights groups say, of war crimes and crimes against humanity which the UN must investigate.

The documentary is the work of British broadcaster Channel 4, which describes it as a "forensic examination" into the final stages of the war, and warns that it contains the most horrific footage the channel has ever broadcast.

But at the film's screening in Geneva, representatives of the Sri Lankan government reacted angrily, claiming the video footage showing naked Tamils with their hands bound being shot in the head by troops was fake.

"It's not authentic' said Sri Lanka's deputy solicitor general, AMD Nawas. "A preliminary investigation confirms that."

That's a claim the UN's special investigator on extra judicial killings, Christoph Heyns, has taken very seriously. Provided with some of the most graphic footage by Channel 4, Mr Heyns brought in a number of independent experts, including two forensic video analysts, a pathologist, and a ballistics expert, to carefully check the authenticity of it.

Their unanimous conclusion was that there was no evidence whatsoever that the videos could have been faked.

"These are real people, really being shot, it really happened," the experts said.

rocket launcher

Sri Lanka has denied that its troops committed war crimes

So for Heyns, although there remain some questions over the status of the people being shot, there is no doubt that the most grave human rights violations have been committed.

Crimes against humanity

"We do not know whether they are prisoners of war, we do not know whether they are civilians," he said. "But in the end they are completely defenseless, and so what we see there is almost the definitive example of a war crime or crime against humanity."

A further concern is the emergence of new video, shown in the documentary, containing pictures of naked female corpses, a number of whom appear to have been sexually assaulted.

"That is a concern," said Heyns "If one looks at the women's underwear, and the focus by the person who is taking the video on the private parts of the women …I think we can say that this does raise a concern, and needs to be investigated."

But who exactly would investigate? Sri Lanka was discussed at the UN Human Rights Council in May 2009, which passed a resolution described by human rights groups as "deeply flawed" calling for an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses, but failing to express concern at the fate of hundreds of thousands of Tamils detained in government camps, and even commending the Sri Lankan government on its victory over the Tamil Tigers.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon did however set up a panel of experts to examine the closing stages of the war. They concluded that both sides had committed violations, citing the shelling of hospitals by government troops, and the use of civilians as "human shields" by the Tamil Tigers. The report called on Sri Lanka to hold those responsible accountable.

Lessons Learned?

However, Sri Lanka has rejected this report as well, saying the international community should give the government time to conduct its own investigations, pointing out that Sri Lanka has in fact set up a "Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Committee."

Tamil Tiger recruits

Tamil Tiger rebels are also accused of violations

Human rights groups however reject the committee, saying that there is nothing in its mandate which suggests holding anyone accountable, and pointing out that the same government which was in charge during the time the atrocities allegedly took place remains in charge now.

"Accountability is important," said Peter Splinter of Amnesty International. "Because if the military which basically attacked the civilian population continues to govern, and there is no accountability for what they did, how can people learn to trust?"

Human rights groups also insist that their calls for independent investigations are not biased against the Sri Lankan government, pointing out that both the initial UN report, and the Channel 4 documentary, present evidence that both sides in the conflict committed serious human rights violations.

For Sam Zarifi, Asia Director of Amnesty International, the possibility that there might be no consequences at all for those who committed the violations seen in "Sri Lanka - The Killing Fields" would be a terrible precedent.

"One of the terrible outcomes of this conflict, and the impunity that has followed it, is that it is about to establish a negative precedent around the world," he explained.

"That if you can just engage in atrocities, while keeping independent outside observers away, and then you simply deny that anything bad happened, you may be able to get away with it."

Human rights activists point to the speed with which the UN acted over Libya, sending a team to investigate human rights violations, and referring Colonel Gadhafi to the international criminal court. The atrocities documented in the Sri Lanka film deserve, they argue, at least the same attention.

Author: Imogen Foulkes
Editor: Rob Mudge

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