Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rohini Hensman - Truth, Accountability and Reconciliation in Post-War Sri Lanka

In the aftermath of the media circus surrounding the resolution on Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council, it is worth asking: how much does this kind of reporting contribute to (a) establishing the truth about the civil war in Sri Lanka and (b) the welfare of anyone in Sri Lanka?

The Report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (2011) is a valuable document. It includes information about the background to the civil war, a comprehensive list of war crimes by both sides in the conflict, and recommendations for protecting the human rights of survivors and detainees and restoring freedom of movement, assembly and expression, apart from a wealth of references. The resolutions of the UNHRC on Sri Lanka have also emphasised the need to end ongoing attacks on human rights not only in the North and East of Sri Lanka but also in the the rest of the island. Yet most of the reporting – and this includes documentaries like Callum Macrae’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and its sequel, presented by Channel 4 – focuses almost exclusively on war crimes by the government of Sri Lanka in the last stages of the war.

The question being asked here is not whether truth and accountability are important; clearly, they are. Nor is the authenticity of the films or of the concern about war crimes being questioned. The question, rather, is whether the extremely partial approach by these media may be inimical to the aims they profess.

Establishing the whole truth
There is a reason why witnesses in a criminal trial are required to speak ‘the whole truth’: anything less could lead to a miscarriage of justice. If an investigation into war crimes in the civil war in Sri Lanka is carried out, it must at least look at the whole war, if not its antecedents. Taking an analogy, if we looked solely at events at the end of World War II – like the fire-bombing of Dresden and nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – we would hardly get a ‘true’ picture of the war. From an objective point of view, there can be no doubt that these bombings were heinous war crimes, and indeed crimes against humanity. It is a blatant case of ‘victor’s justice’ that no one has been prosecuted for the wholesale slaughter of civilians in these cities, and it is good that people’s tribunals have been set up to look into them. However, to focus exclusively on these events while ignoring the holocaust, rape of Nanjing, and other atrocities committed by the Axis powers, would certainly be misleading. No sane person would accept an account of World War II that focused exclusively on the end of it.

Yet this is precisely what the media in the West and in India tend to do in the case of the civil war in Sri Lanka. They mention that war crimes have been committed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but never bother to specify what these are, or demand accountability for them. Even the brief summary in the UN report of 2011 makes it clear that the truth is far more complex. The anti-Tamil pogroms of 1983, carried out under another government and widely considered to have started the war; the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency of 1987 to 1990 and the brutal counter-insurgency, with tens of thousands of Sinhalese victims during this period; the slaughter of rival Tamil militant groups and assassination of Tamil political leaders by the LTTE; terrorist attacks on Sinhalese and Muslim civilians by the LTTE and their ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the North; forced conscription of child soldiers by the LTTE; previous ceasefires used by the LTTE to eliminate Tamil dissenters and prepare for war: if all these factors are taken into account, the narrative of the war becomes a great deal more complicated. Perhaps the media are not willing to or capable of dealing with complexity, but in that case, their claim to be reporting the truth becomes questionable.. read more: