On Tuesday, June 13, 2011 several GJC staff members and legal interns attended a screening of the controversial and disturbing documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” at the Church Center in front of the UN Headquarters. The event was presented to senior diplomats, UN staff and NGOs. The film documents the final weeks of the Sri Lankan Civil War which lasted from 1983 to May 2009. During the war, rebels known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought to create independent Tamil state in North and Eastern territories of Sri Lanka, but were ultimately defeated by government forces.
The documentary explains how the Sri Lankan government pressured UN representatives to leave the Tamil occupied regions before launching a major offensive, leaving few or no international observers of the horrors which were to follow.
The footage shows Sri Lankan soldiers committing extra-judicial killings of bound prisoners, photographs suggesting torture, and interviews of a woman who handed herself over to government forces and claims she and her daughter were raped and that she witnessed others being raped and killed. Other footage suggests that such treatment of women may be systematic. The film also shows displaced civilians killed by the government after being moved to a “no fire” zone and hospitals that were deliberately shelled by the government.
Many of the accounts in the film are corroborated by a UN Report released by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in March 2011. The report found that as many as 40,000 people were killed in the last weeks of the conflict. The Secretary General has expressed concern over potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides and has urged the Sri Lankan government to investigate alleged violations and to “advance accountability.”
The government, however, has rejected the report and called it “biased, baseless and unilateral.” The Sri Lankan government further claims that the footage of “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” is fake and that the film is not even-handed. The film, however, has been authenticated by UN specialists and suggests that war crimes were committed by both sides, with the LTTE engaging in suicide bombings, using civilians as human shields and enlisting child soldiers.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion which included Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to the UN Dr. Palitha Kohona and Former Major General and current Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Shavendra Silva. Kohona claimed many of the interviewees were lying and denied that the government engaged in systematic human rights abuses. He stated that Sri Lanka is “a mature democracy” and that any violations by individual soldiers should be dealt with internally, asserting that calls for accountability from the international community are “paternalistic.” He also rejected the 40,000 casualties figure suggested by the UN, claiming that if one counted all the bodies in the film “you would not come up with a total of one hundred persons.” Silva alleged that the filmmakers were funded by the LTTE and demanded that the country be allowed to deal with issues domestically.
The screening timely comes soon after the Sri Lankan Justice Ministry has received a summons from a US Federal Court for President Mahinda Rejapaksa. The summons is connected to three civil cases filed under the Hague Conventions and the US Torture Victims Protection Act by relatives of victims of alleged extra-judicial killings. The Sri Lankan government has indicated that it will not respond to the summons. The cases will be founded on the principle that the US, as well as other countries, may exercise universal jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Similarly, the GJC is currently investigating the possible use of universal jurisdiction to prosecute Burmese war criminals. Specifically, the Burmese military junta routinely employs rape, torture, slavery, murder, mass imprisonment and abduction of children to fill its military quotas, all of which war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. Moreover, the new Burmese Constitution provides military criminal impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Given that Burma is a party to the Fourth Geneva Convention and to the Genocide Convention, which require parties to enact domestic legislation to implement the treaties, the Burmese Constitution is a prima facie violation of its obligations.
In addition to the UN Security Council’s ability and, indeed, imperative to declare the Constitution “null and void,” fellow state parties may refer the issue of Burma’s noncompliance to the ICJ. As with the recent US summons of Sri Lankan President Rejapaksa, however, states need not necessarily rely on the Security Council or the ICJ to ensure accountability for war crimes. For violations of rights that are erga omnes, or owed to all, any state may use universal jurisdiction to arrest and prosecute suspected war criminals. GJC is working to encourage certain states to exercise this tool to arrest and try Burmese officials who travel to their territory.
“Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” may be viewed online at the British Channel 4’s website until July 13: