'Sri Lanka's Killing Fields' - shocking the UN into action
By José Luis Díaz, Head of Amnesty International's United Nations Office
As we prepared for the screening today of the Channel 4 film, "Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields" at Amnesty International's United Nations office in New York, our main worry was the size of the turnout.
We had already seen the cancellation of a separate screening for the media at UN headquarters because it would have clashed with the UN General Assembly vote – decided only a few days ago – giving Ban Ki-moon a second term as Secretary-General.
The fairly sizeable audience that eventually made it to the screening was surely not expecting to learn much that was new: the events at the end of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009 have been well documented, and the documentary was broadcast in the UK last week before being put on the web.
Still, no one is really prepared for the gruesome, heartrending and nearly unbearable images, captured by victims and sometimes by perpetrators, of civilians under deliberate attack and summary executions.
The film shocks you into silence. And so it was today: during the screening there was hardly a sound from the audience of diplomats, journalists and human rights workers, not even the otherwise ubiquitous pecking on smart phone keys.
The only noise came from the scribbling of the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN and his deputy, who took notes in order to respond to the film.
Dr Palitha Kohona and Major General Shavendra Silva headed a 15-member Sri Lankan delegation to the screening. Silva is featured in the film, because in 2009 he headed the Sri Lankan army’s 58th Division, accused, among other things, of executing LTTE leaders attempting to surrender.
Their defence of the government was curious. In essence, they maintained that if the international community has done almost nothing to establish accountability in Sri Lanka – unlike the case of Sudan or Libya – it is because nothing untoward has happened there. But, as the saying goes, facts are stubborn things, including those recorded by mobile phone video cameras and detailed in reports by the United Nations, Amnesty International and others.
Even Kohona was forced to admit that in part, saying, during the discussion after the screening, that the film seemed to show some violations that would be looked at. A small concession, perhaps, but one that needs to be seen in the context of decades of basically sham national commissions of inquiry and “lessons learned” panels.
Meanwhile, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon begins his second term our hope is that he stops sitting on a report drafted by experts he appointed and governments strongly back their call for an international investigation into the outrages perpetrated two years ago in Sri Lanka.