Will New Evidence of War Crimes Tip the Scales Against the Sri Lankan Government

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Homes lie destroyed in an abandoned conflict zone where Tamil Tigers separatists made their last stand before their defeat by the Sri Lankan army in northeastern Sri Lanka, May 23, 2009. (Photo: Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images)

On June 14, the British television network Channel 4 broadcast a stunning hour-long documentary presenting footage of horrific abuses allegedly committed by Sri Lankan troops during the last months of the country’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The images are graphic and profoundly disturbing. They include the execution of naked, bound prisoners; soldiers laughing and making macabre sexual jokes about women who appear to have been raped before they were executed; and images of bodies in field hospitals and refugee camps, which eyewitnesses said had been deliberately shelled by the Army in violation of international norms. It also describes the utter failure of the United Nations to do anything about it; the UN’s decision to leave the war zone made it possible for the Sri Lankan Army to finish off the LTTE without any independent witnesses. Journalists, too, were banned from the area.

The response of the Sri Lankan government has been swift. It first issued a statement saying that it “categorically denies the allegations that it has deliberately targeted its own civilians” and would investigate any claims of atrocities. Since then, the government has gone on the offensive, aggressively rejecting the footage provided to Channel 4, apparently from the war zone, as the product of LTTE propaganda. The defence ministry issued a rebuttal in which it says that two of the victims shown on camera were LTTE fighters and that one of the eyewitnesses is an LTTE sympathizer.  It has also tried to discredit the images that presenter Jon Snow calls “war trophies,” mobile phone videos taken by troops of their kills, in which the faces of some of the soldiers involved are clearly visible. On July 1, a Sri Lankan television network broadcast a segment in which it purports to expose one of the Channel 4 execution videos as a fake. Remarkably, the station shows the clip twice, first as it was shown on Channel 4, with the soldiers speaking Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka’s majority, and again with the voices speaking Tamil, the language of the Tamil minority, whom the LTTE claimed to represent. This is described as proof that the LTTE staged the entire scene, redubbing the original dialogue in Sinhala to discredit the Sri Lankan Army. Yesterday, the BBC News program HARDTalk interviewed an advisor to the Sri Lankan government, Rajiva Wijesinha, and asked him why the government had not tried to apprehend the soliders pictured. Wijesinha replies angrily, “Are you really sort of serious?” Without dates and other details, Wijesinha says, it’s impossible to identify them. When pressed, he replies, “We’re not here to keep your electorate happy” — a nod to the Sri Lankan government’s assertion that Britain’s only motivation is winning the votes of its own Tamil community.

That two-pronged strategy shows how Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has maintained widespread popular support despite repeated criticism of how he handled the last days of the war. His government has, on the one hand, played on fears of the resurgence of the LTTE  with reminders of their brutality, and, on the other, rejected any criticism as evidence of a vast international conspiracy to destablize his country. It used that logic to dismiss a recent report from the office of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as a puppet of “corrupt western powers.” Ultimatums, like the one recently issued by British MP Alistair Burt, fuel that rhetoric.

Still, the latest allegations are proving much harder for Sri Lanka to dismiss. Some can be corroborated by sources other than unverifiable mobile phone footage. For example, the Secretary General’s report concludes, based on several sources, that “a range of 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage.” The Channel 4 report shows how this might have been possible, alleging that the Sri Lankan Army deliberately shelled areas that it knew were full of civilians, in one case using GPS coordinates submitted by the International Committee of the Red Cross to target a hospital, rather than to avoid it. Even Wijesinha has said that Sri Lanka should investigate a claim that LTTE leaders were killed while trying to surrender.

India is now shifting the balance further. The Sri Lankan government had the support of New Delhi throughout the final months of the war, despite the alarm over civilian casualties. According to a report last week by the International Crisis Group, India provided “essential” support to Sri Lanka, including radars, ships, intelligence sharing and “a naval cordon that cut off the LTTE’s traditional supply route from southern India.”

During those months, India was also a key interlocutor between the U.S., the U.K. and Sri Lanka. Using cables released by Wikileaks, the Hindu newspaper described how Indian officials kept the pressure off Sri Lanka, sharing their concern about civilian casualties but recommending that they wait until after the war was over to push for political change. In January 2009, the Indian foreign minister said during a brief visit to Colombo that “military victories offer a political opportunity to restore life to normalcy in the Northern Province and throughout Sri Lanka, after twenty three years of conflict.” Since then, India has tried to remain neutral, saying little about the allegations of war crimes and staying out of a failed attempt at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to investigate. After the most recent Secretary General’s report, New Delhi said only that it “the issues raised in the Report need to be studied carefully.”

But New Delhi has now started to lean on Colombo. India’s national security advisor, foreign secretary and defense secretary all visited Sri Lanka on the weekend before the Channel 4 documentary aired, delivering a message that the government of Sri Lanka must move forward on giving Tamils more autonomy. On June 29, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even weighed in on the subject, criticizing Sinhala chauvinism and calling Tamil grievances legitimate. “Our emphasis has been to persuade the Sri Lankan government that we must move towards a new system of institutional reforms,” he said.

The subtext is that in the absence of political change, India could join the international effort to seek accountability. The U.S. has sent a similar message under the low-key leadership of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, who was Ambassador to Sri Lanka during the end of the war. During a visit to Sri Lanka in May, he met with a Tamil opposition party and stressed the need for Sri Lanka to come to terms with them. After the Channel 4 video aired, the state department repeated its call to the Sri Lankan government to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable: “if they do not, there will be growing pressure from the international community to examine other options.”

For the last two years, Sri Lanka has avoided accountability by insisting that it had done nothing wrong (“the end of the conflict was a model for the whole world,” the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. said in April) and, when faced with criticism, falling back on the support of its new allies, Russia and China. With its largest trading partner and its largest neighbor moving into the same corner, that position now looks untenable.

—With reporting by Amantha Perera/Colombo

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