Since starting out as a foreign correspondent during the late 1970s in Paris, Swiss-American writer and journalist Edward Girardet would often make a point of coming to Geneva to report on peace talks, wars and humanitarian crises. After all, the UN’s Palais des Nations was one of the few places where some of the world’s most renowned thugs, such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe or Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, could appear without fear of being arrested for crimes against humanity. (See William Dowell’s piece on the United Nations and war criminals).
Geneva — Twice, I remember Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic, dressed in a dapper double-breasted suite with his hair so buoyantly wavy, strolling down the marble steps of the Palais cloistered by his equally suave aides. Stepping in front of the microphones of the international press, he coolly denied any form involvement with the murder of civilians during the Bosnian war.
Of course, Karadzic is now awaiting trial in the Hague as an internationally apprehended war criminal. In those days, you knew he was a murderer and so did everyone else, including the UN officials ushering him through the corridors of the Palais, yet he was granted a veneer of international respectability. I have always found such diplomacy utterly distasteful. Somehow, by allowing those who represent the wanton killing of human beings into the UN we grant them legitimacy, as if they were equals with the right to represent their communities like anyone else.
Last week, I was back in the Palais. This time, I was there to preview a public showing of the investigative Channel 4 documentary (first aired on June 14, 2011, then again in updated form for the November, 2013 Commonwealth conference in Colombo) on yet another one of the world’s abhorrent human rights situations: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. It was shown at the Palais des Nations in Geneva by Amnesty International together with Channel 4 in an effort to draw the UN’s attention to what has happened in the South Asian island nation, including the Colombo regime’s pretence at holding various commissions of inquiry over the past twenty years into the war.
And once again, just a few seats down, were the representatives (all three wearing suits, but not quite as dapper as Karadzic’s) of a repressive government, notably that of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s, whose military is responsible for the deliberate murder of thousands toward the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal war against its minority Tamil population.
As a journalist, I have reported from Sri Lanka on different occasions. This included a television documentary on Medecins sans Frontieres (Frontline Doctors) during the early 1990s for French and British television (BBC2) with a focus on the plight of civilians caught between two equally brutish factions, the Sri Lankan government and the secessionist Tamil Tigers (LTTE – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). While the Sri Lankan military have raped and murdered civilians and prisoners-of-war, the Tigers have consistently used Tamil civilians as human buffers in their nearly 25 year long struggle against the Colombo government.
Both factions sought to control, if not repress the media and any form of independent reporting. As shown by the Channel 4 film, the Sri Lankan government did everything possible during the final days of the civil war in May 2009 to remove any outsiders capable of witnessing its deliberate targeting of civilians, plus the rape and extra-judicial executions of prisoners.
The Channel 4 documentary is an important one not only because it features devastating new evidence of war crimes – some of the most horrific it has ever broadcast – but because it underlines a new information age. Governments such as Sri Lanka, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel or Syria can longer get away with abuses against recalcitrant local populations without the world knowing. Even if journalists are banned or censored, the information is still seeping out in the form of mobile phone, video or other footage.
At the same time, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields emphasizes the role – and need – of quality journalism for placing such footage into an informed context and to ensure that it is accurate. The argument for good reporting in an age of information overload (Facebook, Twitter, You-Tube…) and online political manipulation by all players is now stronger than ever. This is particularly relevant for young people, many of whom disparage conventional journalism (which urgently needs to adapt to a broader and more diverse media platform), but who do not know how to be discerning in their reading of what is credible and what is not on the internet.
Much of what the Channel 4 film shows is based on a mobile phone footage taken by Tamils under attack but also government soldiers, who filmed their victims as war trophies. The producers pored through hundreds of hours of footage and examined numerous photographs, plus conducted their own interviews with survivors and witnesses, including former UN officials who had been evacuated from the war zones at the request of the Sri Lankan government. They journalists also examined some of the horrific atrocities carried out by the Tigers who used civilians as shields. As the producers pointed out, the Tamil population needs to be made aware of such manipulative abuses, whereby the Tigers threatened to shoot civilians if they tried to leave.
The documentary depicts the aftermath of targeted shelling of civilian camps and hospitals. It also shows dead female Tigers who appear to have been raped or sexually assaulted, abused and murdered. Such allegations have been substantiated by a report of a UN-appointed panel of experts who concluded that as many as forty thousand people were killed, most of them civilians, during the final weeks of the war. Some of this footage is on the site of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. While such footage may be uncomfortable for some to see on television, it is important to realise that this is not part of a Hollywood feature, but brutal reality which urgentyl requires public attention.
It was therefore ironic when a member of the Sri Lankan delegation at the Palais showing demanded from Channel 4 that the raw footage be handed over to them for “proper” verification. They also maintained that witnesses should also come and speak with a special government commission. Why has the Colombo regime not retrieved this self-same footage from its own soldiers, many of whom seem to have indulged in such abuses? The film includes full-length videos of naked and bound Tiger prisoners kneeing while they are shot in the back of their heads by men in army uniforms. One also does not have to wonder why any credible witness would even dare to speak before such a commission given what has happened to those who voluntarily surrendered to the Sri Lankan government. Many were imprisoned, others raped or murdered, or both.
When extracts of some of these videos were first shown on Channel 4 News, the Sri Lankan government denounced them as fake despite being authenticated by UN specialists. In new footage, a Tiger prisoner is shown tied to a coconut tree. A series of photographs show him alive, then threatened with a knife, and later dead, covered with blood. It seems unlikely that much of this footage could be so vividly falsified. Further videos show evidence of systemic murder, abuse and sexual violence – women’s bodies stripped of their clothes being dumped into trucks by soldiers.
Overall, the film provides powerful evidence lending new urgency for an international inquiry to be mounted. More specifically, it reveals how the Sri Lankan government sought to indulge in a war without witness. It pressured the UN to leave before launching its final major offensive designed to crush the Tigers, once and for all. It claimed to have conducted this last offensive with a policy of Zero Civilian Casualties.
Clearly, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime has no credibility. It also continues to brutally repress any form of critical or independent media, so any claims that it is capable of conducting an independent inquiry into the war are absurd. Hence the need for continued reporting in order to maintain pressure on the Colombo government.
Like Karadzic and Mladic, the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity, including Rajapaksa and his brother, the Minister of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, need to be brought to justice. Nor should this regime be allowed to abuse the UN system in its efforts to promote its own legitimacy and lack of responsibility in the murder of so many human beings. While Sri Lanka may have won the war, it has yet to resolve the conflict.
For a link to the graphically disturbing video (also shown in the Channel 4 film) of Tamil prisoners being executed by the Sri Lankan army: Execution Video UNHCHR website.
Edward Girardet is a journalist and writer, who has covered conflicts and humanitarian crises in Africa, Asia and elsewhere for The Christian Science Monitor, American Public Television and National Geographic. His latest book Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War (Chelsea Green) is to be published (available in July) in early September, 2011. Girardet is also co-founder of the Geneva-based Institute for Media and Global Governance (IMGG), which seeks to promote greater public awareness and accountability of key global issues through better informed media.