The Middle Path of Reconciliation seems quite Distant in Sri Lanka to any Objective Observer

Channel 4 Documentary “NO FIRE ZONE”:Screening and Discussion at Frontline Club


Dushy Ranetunge

The third instalment of Chanel 4’s documentary, titled NO FIRE ZONE, the killing fields of Sri Lanka is being preview screened at various locations in London. It is yet to be scheduled to be broadcast by Ch4 itself.

It was screened at the Frontline club in London a few weeks ago and on Tuesday at the LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science).

At the LSE, it was presented by a panel consisting of award winning journalist Callum Macrae (NoFireZone Director),
Shivani Jegarajah (a LSE trained barrister from Renaissance Chambers) and
Janani Jananayagam (Independent politician who secured over 50,000 votes at the European Elections and founding Director of Tamils Against Genocide). It was a free event and held in Tower 1 at the LSE.

It was chaired by
Dr. Devika Hovell, from the LSE Department of Law. Her areas of expertise are listed as international courts, international humanitarian law, United Nations, public law, use of force, international law, public international law, domestic law, international tribunals.

Callum Macrae introduced his documentary by stating that the Sri Lankan government dismisses everything in it as lies and fabrications, but that everything in his documentary has been evidenced and authenticated by independent specialists and forensic pathologists and that the documentary is a catalogue evidencing war crimes.

The documentary, the third one on the subject seems a more focused presentation of facts contained in the two previous ones, with some new footage showing the incidents leading to the alleged execution of Prabakaran’s 12-year-old son.

What was interesting was the discussion that took place and the questions and answer session, which exposed the train of thought and process as perceived by those carrying forward the campaign for justice.

During the introduction Dr Devika Hovell emphasized that what is in the documentary are historical events and focused relevance on the present and not the past, as to what can be done now and in the future. This provided the framework for the productive discussion, which emerged.

The points of interest to emerge from the discussion are as follows.

(1) The evolving patterns of international law especially in respect of the concept of universal jurisdiction. Dr Hovell mentioned that a Nepalese Colonel is being tried in London for torture during the civil conflict in that country, under the concept of universal Jurisdiction. This was considered a significant development. Nepalese Colonel Kumar Lama has been charged in the UK in 2013 with two counts of torture during his countries civil war in 2005.

(2) Jananayagam spoke of state actors shutting out non-state actors and the long campaign by Diaspora activists, their many legal challenges in the US and British courts against President Rajapakse and those of his entourage. She spoke of their long struggle for justice and success in the courts in Britain earlier this year. In February, High court Justice Wilkie sitting with Judge Gleeson said it would be wrong to allow the removal of Tamil asylum seekers by charter flight “at the very time that the upper tribunal [immigration and asylum chamber] is actively seized with considering new country guidance, at a time when it is clear from the agenda that the UTIAC is considering the matter virtually afresh and where it is accepted by the SSHD [home secretary] through the preliminary closing submissions that the existing country guidance case will have to change”.

(3) Although Diaspora groups are trying to engage governments to take up their cause for justice in relation to Sri Lanka, Jananayagam stated that most western governments take the view that Sri Lanka fought a necessary war, which went wrong. She suggested that this is also the view of the British Foreign Office.

(4) She seemed encouraged by the awareness that several foreign governments are collecting evidence of war crimes in Sri Lanka. She said she is aware of at least one such government. The Belgian intervention and request for the ICC for the extradition of Chad’s ex-President Hissene Habre for trial for alleged atrocities was discussed. This was a Belgian government request in 2012 for crimes committed between 1982 and 1990.

(5) She acknowledged that the process of justice for war crimes committed in Sri Lanka might take decades, as in cases in relation to the holocaust, but that the Diaspora will work towards that goal, to fight for justice for the Tamils who felt so helpless.

(6) She said that after Rajapakse leaves office he will lose immunity and will be exposed to prosecution, but that they are less interested in Rajapakse the private citizen and more interested in Rajapakse the President as they consider atrocities as state crimes.

(7) They welcomed the policy of some countries to deny visas, employment or asylum applications to Sri Lankan military personnel.

(8) It was highlighted that Sri Lanka is trying to convince non Western countries that it is a small country falling victim to Western bullying, but that they intend to counter this by travelling to all these countries and showing them the CH4 documentary and convincing them that a vote for Sri Lanka is a vote for these crimes. In this regard a fund raising campaign had been initiated to raise several hundred thousand pounds and a recent trip the United States had already raised Stg. 40,000.

(9) Commercial interests of Western countries in Sri Lanka, its geopolitical value and specifically British commercial interests including recent order for Rolls Royce engines for Sri Lankan airlines was discussed with the conflict of interest and lack of political will in Britain to push the war crimes agenda.

(10) The 25% increase of Sri Lankan defense budget during peacetime, the compromising of the judiciary in Sri Lanka and hence its impact on the credibility of any independent investigation in Sri Lanka was mentioned. Some content in the UN expert report was also discussed.

(11) Jananayagam stated that the UN report had mentioned that Sri Lankans will not accept an international investigation, but suggested that the emphasis should not be Sri Lankans as a whole, but those Sri Lankans who were victims of war crimes.

(12) In response to a question to Callum Macrae if he was a journalist or a campaigner, he responded that when a journalist researches a story and finds that it’s a truth that has been hidden, then it’s the duty of any journalist to expose it repeatedly so that it is taken notice of and acted upon.

The latest CH4 documentary is a powerful tool in the arsenal of the Diaspora groups in their quest for justice. Although Sri Lanka dismisses it as lies and fabrications, Sri Lankan diplomats are very aware of its potential and unsuccessfully tried to scuttle it’s screening at the UNHRC in Geneva, earlier this year.

From an outside perspective, these issues continue to expose the ethnic divisions in the island nation. As large sections of the Tamil population overlooked, denied and even justified alleged LTTE atrocities as they perceived it as a necessity to secure their peace, today, large sections of the Sinhalese population overlooks, denies and even justifies alleged Sri Lankan military atrocities as they perceive it as a necessity to secure their peace. The middle path of reconciliation seem quite in the distance in Sri Lanka, to any objective observer.