Sri Lanka is a long way from the peace and reconciliation desired by so many
Last week, the Frontline Club hosted its second debate to discuss the impact of two documentaries Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and a follow up aired this March called Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished. Callum Macrae’s extraordinary films, presented by Jon Snow, provided compelling new evidence of executions, the shelling of civilians and other atrocities in the final months of the 26-year civil war in Sri Lanka that reportedly left up to 40,000 civilians dead.
Macrae does not shy away from admitting that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) committed their own atrocities in the conflict but he provides shocking video footage (extensively analysed by experts in the field to prove its authenticity) that the Sri Lankan army systematically targeted civilians and committed summary executions, torture, and other war crimes, and that the commands came from the very top of government.
The Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence’s response has been to claim that the footage was falsified by Channel 4. During the Frontline debate, Professor Rajiva Wijesinha MP, adviser to President Rajapaksa on Reconciliation, provided little in the way of credible argument to support their contention, merely repeating that the Channel 4 “exercise” was “sordid” and that the footage had been edited and doctored.
Macrae stuck to his argument that his aims, as a journalist, had been to get to the truth in order to get justice – that without truth, there can be no reconciliation. He was backed by Yolanda Foster, from Amnesty, who pointed out that without faith in an ordinary criminal justice system there can be no positive progress.
Lobby groups, both local and international, including the Sri Lanka Campaign, of which I am a co-director, are calling for effective humanitarian relief for displaced persons, and a credible war crimes enquiry. But, until now, we have had little success.
The Sri Lankan government refused to allow a UN-led investigation into alleged war crimes, and instead launched its own locally-organised investigation, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
As well as reaching a global audience, many of whom would have previously viewed Sri Lanka as an attractive holiday destination, Macrae’s two films appear to have had a galvanising effect – causing a major shift in the public perception of Sri Lanka and leading to a tougher stance by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the British and Indian Governments and others.
What was clear from the heated debate and palpable tension in the Frontline Club is that Sri Lanka is still a long way off from the peace and reconciliation desired by so many. It was a long and bloody conflict but, just as in other parts of the world, acknowledging the truth of violations on both sides is a crucial first step towards reconciliation and bringing those found responsible to justice.
Macrae and his team have demonstrated the potential of media to have a transformative effect on the political health of a nation. One can only hope that these two films will, ultimately, push the international community to demand an international, independent investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity. Only by holding to account those responsible for such crimes will Sri Lanka achieve the post-conflict stability it so desperately needs.Tagged in: Callum Macrae, channel 4, Frontline Club, Jon Snow, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, President Rajapaksa o, Rajiva Wijesinha, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence, Tamil
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