The harrowing documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields was screened on Capitol Hill Friday July 15, 2011 in conjunction with the Congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.
The Documentary screening which was shown in New York last month is co hosted by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International-USA, the International Crisis Group, and The Open Society Foundations and aired from 3-5pm.
US response discussed
The screening at the Capitol Visitors’ Centre was free and open to the public and followed by a panel discussion. US Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, will give introductory remarks before the film screening. After the film, panelists will discuss ongoing efforts to further accountability in Sri Lanka, including the findings of the recent U.N. Panel of Experts report on war crimes in Sri Lanka, and the U.S. response to these developments.
Tom Lantos Commission
The co-chairs of the Lantos Commission Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) and Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) hailing from across the political divide have been in the forefront of human rights issues. On May 3 the duo released a statement they stood with all those courageous journalists who have given their lives in pursuit of uncovering and reporting the truth.
In April 2009 the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission convened a hearing on Sri Lanka. The impetus was the disintegrating human rights situation in the northeastern “no fire zone,” the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge and other attacks on journalists and the fact that both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government prevented journalists and UN agencies access to the conflict zone, thus attempting to ensure a war without witness.
But those that did so had not accounted for smart phone videos by triumphant soldiers who perhaps had not quite realized the terrible significance of the incidents they recorded. Most likely the spontaneous video footage of alleged summary executions of Tamil Prisoners by Sri Lankan soldiers was taken at the time possibly more for private consumption than for public airing.
Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary and Presidential sibling Gotabaya Rajapakse has repeatedly and publicly demonstrated his mind set in these matters. In an interview with the BBC in February 2009 he stated hospitals outside the no fire zone were legitimate targets in Sri Lanka’s civil war.
Hard to find
The Channel 4 documentary premiered at the Palais de Nations, Geneva on June 3 on the margins of the 17th
Human Rights Council sessions. It shows shocking footage of brutality during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s war. The video footage in the film has been described by the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heynes, as reflecting “definitive war crimes.”
The Sri Lankan government has denied the footage is authentic and one of its advisors and spokespersons Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha recently told Britain’s Hard Talk it was ridiculous to expect the government to seek and question those soldiers clearly identifiable in the video footage as there were over a hundred thousand soldiers in Sri Lanka and it would be hard to find them. The film has fueled renewed calls for an international response to these crimes.
The Documentary came on the heels of the UN Panel of Experts Report released in April that states there was credible evidence both the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last months of the war. Sri Lanka’s government tightly controlled by the Rajapakse family has vehemently denied these charges and maintains the war was a humanitarian operation with zero civilian casualties.
However the spokesperson to the UN Secretary General earlier told Lanka Independent the Secretary General was fully committed to UN Panel Report recommendations. He also said the Secretary General was very keen to ensure that the voice of the international community is heard and that the authorities in Sri Lanka will respond constructively to the recommendations in the report.
Ironically tomorrow’s screening takes place only a month after Sri Lanka’s Embassy in Washington DC and its Ambassador and
- PHOTO CAPTION: Sri Lankan-Americans meet with Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya (seated, far right) at the Sri Lankan Ambassador’s residence, Washington, D.C., to plan a series of June 13, 2011 meetings with members of Congress
Presidential cousin Jaliya Wickremasuriya claimed the embassy arranged over a hundred meetings with congressmen for nearly 100 Sri Lankan Americans. The embassy said they arrived from all over the US to Capitol Hill on June 13 to brief Congress on reconciliation and post-conflict progress in Sri Lanka as part of Sri Lankan-America Day on Capitol Hill.
The Sri Lankan Embassy also said Sri Lankan-American voters from 25 states had reported to one fifth of Congress that Sri Lanka’s reconciliation was on track and that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC) was bringing the country together.
The press release however did not specify whether these American citizens of Sri Lankan origin had lived in Sri Lanka during the Rajapakse administration and the harrowing last three years of the war or if they had any personal experience of alienation, victimization or abandonment, or whether they had lost their homes, loved ones and lived through the horrors of a war.
According to the press release two Republicans – Rep. Robert Aderholt from Alabama, co-chair of the Sri Lanka Congressional Caucus and Rep. Steve Chabot, (R-Ohio), chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South East Asia, together with Congressional staff members had visited with the diaspora during a luncheon reception in the U.S. House of Representatives Rayburn Office Building.
Ambassador Wickremasuriya had also boasted publicly that of all the Ambassadors from Sri Lanka to the US in 60 years he above all had met the most number of Congressmen. Whether this is true or not is of little concern in a city where it is always politics as usual and where quality matters more than quantiity.
US Senate congratulates Moon and calls for accountability in Sri Lanka
One of the challenges for Wickremasuriya is that a 100 Senators on March 1, 2011 passed by unanimous consent and without amendment, Resolution SR84 commending United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for creating the three-person panel to advise the Secretary-General on the implementation of the government of Sri Lanka’s commitment to human rights accountability.
SR84 also called on the government of Sri Lanka, the international community, and the United Nations (U.N.) to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka. It also called on the government of Sri Lanka to allow humanitarian organizations, aid agencies, journalists, and international human rights groups greater freedom of movement, including in internally-displaced persons camps and called upon the President of the US to develop a policy towards Sri Lanka that reflects U.S. interests.
Both House and Senate consider legislation
Indeed both the House and the Senate have considered legislation related to the situation in Sri Lanka. While the Senate passed SR84, the House H.R. 440, “To provide for the establishment of the Special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia,” and H.Res. 177, “Expressing support for internal rebuilding, resettlement, and reconciliation within Sri Lanka that are necessary to ensure a lasting peace,” were referred to Subcommittee in March 2011. The latter is about to be voted on to the House floor.
Does congress believe Jaliya?
Therefore Wickremasuriya may have met a record number of congressmen but they clearly do not believe his spiel. In fact the Senate and a vast majority of the House have turned on Sri Lanka even as the Ambassador has been in Sri Lanka since June attending the wedding of his nephew Manoj (son of Gotabaya Rajapakse) and acting as a tour guide of sorts for the annual signature tour with the Ambassador. It would seem Wickramasuriya is away on holiday at a critical time for the country.
The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission which is co hosting the screening on the Hill comprise at least 12 Reps. who were once strong supporters of Sri Lanka and extremely anti LTTE and deeply suspicious of that organisation. At that time dating back to 2003 the Congressmen included Aderholt ( Republican Co Chair of the House Sri Lanka Caucus), Pitts, Berkley, Myrick, Moran, Wolfe, Rohbacher, Garrett, Costello, McDermott,Young and Ros-Lehtinen ( also Chair, House Foreign Affairs Committee).
US urges accountability
Furthermore at the recently concluded Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva from May 30 to June 17, the United States was lavish in its praise of the UN Secretary General’s leadership in convening the panel of experts on Sri Lanka, stating it was deeply concerned by the findings of the Panel. The US also said it was committed to seeing credible accounting of and accountability for violations of international human rights law, and international humanitarian law whichever side committed them and urged Sri Lanka to respond constructively to the Panel’s report.
Navi Pillay and the HRC
These comments followed a hard hitting opening statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay who reiterated her full support for the recommendations set out in the Panel of Experts Report. She also urged the Human Rights Council to take into consideration new information contained therein.
Significantly India did not oppose the High Commissioner’s statement and neither did other SAARC countries like Maldives, Nepal and Bangladesh, while France, Hungary, Belgium, Canada, Ireland, South Africa and Switzerland supported the recommendations in the UN Panel report.
Not surprisingly, like minded regimes such as Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran and Cuba spoke up against the recommendations and any credible international investigation into alleged war crimes and expressed faith in a domestic internal mechanism of accountability instead.
Meeting with Ranil
Meanwhile following several high level meetings with Congressmen, their staff and State Department officials earlier this month, on July 5th, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
At the rare meeting with the UNSG (who almost never meets with Opposition Leaders of nations) Wickremasinghe briefed him on the Opposition’s views on the Panel Report.
Question by Lanka Independent to UNSG
On July 7th, two days after the Ranil/Moon meeting, Lanka Independent asked the acting Deputy Spokesperson for the Secretary-General, Farhan Haq at the daily noon briefing of the UNSG in New York, whether the Secretary General would send the report to the HRC.
Lanka Independent: Will the Secretary General send the UN panel of experts report to the Human Rights Council(HRC) officially, and if so when and if not on what basis?
Farhan Haq: “we have as you know made the report public. Regarding any onward transmission to other bodies, the Secretary General is considering next steps and if and when we have a further course of action to announce we will do so at that time but it is public and on our website”.
Moon under pressure
It is vital to note that the UN chief has now been pushed into considering next steps with regard to the report – significant progress widely thought to be the result of forceful nudging by the US.
When the Lanka Independent in an exclusive interview with UNSG Spkesperson Martin Nesirky, asked this same question a week before the 17th session of the HRC commenced in Geneva May 30th, the answer was more reticent. Nesirky replied that the Report was made public and other bodies could by virtue of that fact take cognizance of its content.
Moon seems to have moved forward from that approach to considering a more proactive role in the process of accountability following the report. Human Rights activists say the UN chief merely making the report public but not directing its course would suggest that he had crumbled under pressure from different quarters thus distancing himself from a report he himself commissioned.
Vital to send to HRC
The importance of sending the report officially to the Human Rights Council, activists say is that it is then officially endorsed by the United Nations and the multilateral body can act on its contents. Once it is officially sent to the HRC it could be placed on the agenda after the Human Rights Council Bureau unanimously agrees – an agreement experts say, that may be hard to come by given that Cuba who vehemently opposes any international accountability mechanism for Sri Lanka, is currently a bureau member.
Another excuse for inaction in the up coming sessions in September would be the fact that the home grown Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which was recently given a 6 month extension would not have concluded its findings by then. Therefore if the UN Panel Report is in fact to be taken up at all seriously at the HRC Sessions it would happen most likely in March of next year, a human rights activist said.
Sri Lanka loses the Hill
In the end what is even more ironic is that Sri Lanka is paying millions of dollars it can ill afford to Public Relations companies to boost its image abroad and keeping the number one lobbying firm Patton Boggs on retainer and the country seems to have still lost the Hill. Perhaps the message to Sri Lanka is stop fighting and engage.
Details for tomorrow’s screening
WHEN: Friday, July 15, 2011, 3-5 p.m.
WHERE: Capitol Visitors’ Center, Congressional Auditorium and Atrium (for directions and a map go to: http://www.visitthecapitol.gov/visit/ )
Refreshments will be served. This event is free and open to the public.
NOTE: This article was first published on February 14,2011
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