Sri Lanka: questions from the killing fields

After the showing of the documentary No Fire Zone in the Palais des Nations in Geneva yesterday, the Sri Lankan ambassador denounced it and criticised the UN human rights council for permitting the event to take place in a United Nations building. His speech was received in complete silence by a gathering which included a number of diplomats who are in Geneva to take part in the current session of the council, which is due to discuss Sri Lanka‘s human rights record. That silence, Sri Lanka’s critics would say, was an eloquent one.

It certainly confirms at the very least that Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s contention that no significant war crimes were committed by the government side toward the end of the civil war in 2009 is widely doubted. The film, the third from Channel 4 to focus on alleged atrocities and illegal killings during the final weeks of the conflict, will be shown here later this year. TV documentaries do not constitute absolute proof, but they do raise questions that need answering, as do reports by such organisations as Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group, and from within the UN system itself.

So far, the answers have been less than convincing. Thousands died in attacks which apparently failed to discriminate between combatants and civilians. Others, unless the documentary footage is dismissed as entirely fraudulent, were executed, including children. Yet the International Crisis Group charges that "no credible investigations into allegations of war crimes, disappearances or other serious human rights violations" have been conducted.

It is not only the conduct of the war that is at issue. The conduct of the peace that has followed the end of the conflict is just as problematic. Instead of devolving power, the Sri Lankan government has relentlessly centralised. It has dropped restrictions on presidential terms and recently rid itself of a chief justice who had upheld provincial rights. Instead of demilitarising the north, the army is still dominant there. And instead of accepting criticism and dissent, it has suppressed both. The conclusion must be that it is a nonsense to hand the country starry international roles, such as the hosting of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting later this year.

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