Sri Lanka: Depicting things that should never have to be shown

Livewire posts do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Amnesty International

By Olof Blomqvist

“No Fire Zone” is the third and final film in a series collectively known as Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields which has highlighted alleged war crimes by both sides in Sri Lanka’s armed conflict which came to its bloody end in May 2009.

The images presented in the films of apparent extrajudicial executions and other crimes under international law, and the war experiences of civilians – as well as the independent expert analysis of those images and other witness testimony – add to a growing body of evidence about what happened in the final days of this conflict. Amnesty International believes this should feed into a broader independent, impartial and international investigation of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by both Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( LTTE).

On Friday 1 March, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch co-sponsored a screening of the movie in Geneva to coincide with the current UN Human Rights Council (HRC) session.

Ravinatha Aryasinha, the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the UN in Geneva – who had actually tried to block the screening earlier in the week – showed up after the movie had finished to condemn it.

The HRC session is taking place at a crucial time for Sri Lanka. The authorities there have stepped up their attempts to silence government critics through threats and harassments over the past four years, as it seeks to tighten its grip on power. Amnesty International has been calling on the HRC to pass a strong resolution on Sri Lanka, that both calls for a UN mechanism to monitor ongoing human rights violations in the country and an independent international investigation into past crimes.

After the screening, Amnesty International talked to Callum Macrae, the director of “No Fire Zone” and the Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields series.

Amnesty International: How is this movie different to the two previous ones in the Killing Fields series?

Callum Macrae: This is a different kind of film. It is feature length unlike the other two, so we’re able to provide much more detail on the background and context. It gives the viewer much more of a real understanding of what actually happened in the No Fire Zones (NFZ) during the final bloody months of the war.

[The NFZs were so-called “safe zones” established by the Sri Lankan army during the conflict where civilians were meant to be able to escape the fighting, but the army has been accused of deliberately shelling those areas]

We are not just trying to prove individual specific crimes as in the last two movies, but really show the huge scale of the violence and the horrible reality behind that phrase you hear so often, “deliberate targeting of civilians”. In early 2009 there was a sustained period of several months when people in the north of Sri Lanka went through unimaginable suffering – we are trying to show the sheer awfulness of what happened. We are depicting things that should never be shown in a movie, but it is helping to get the real truth out there.

This movie does partly seem like a longer summary of the first two installments, but you do also present some new evidence?

Yes, absolutely. In particular the interview with Peter Mackay, a former UN staffer who has spoken out for the first time publicly. He became trapped in the first NFZ as the shelling started, and his interview really is conclusive proof that the government was deliberately targeting the NFZ.

There are also the pictures of [LTTE leader] Velupillai Prabhakaran’s son Balachandran. The movie shows photos of him alive in detention by the Sri Lankan army, as well as pictures of him shot dead on a beach – both set of pictures were taken with the same camera only a few hours apart. These have been verified by experts, and show that the government flat out lied when they claimed Balachandran had been killed in crossfire. They also show that there was a deliberate policy of executing prisoners that was at the very least tolerated by the government.

You see so much death and horror in these movies – but images of people alive, like the one of a 12-year old boy eating a snack, are almost the most chilling.

How have you gathered evidence for this movie?

The footage comes from a variety of sources. Much of it was taken by Tamils trapped in the war zone – but much has also been taken by Sri Lankan army personnel and circulated as war trophies. This is the case of the images of Balachandran, for example – they were taken by soldiers, and eventually passed along to us by a group called Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. It is an extremely brave organization that has been at the forefront of getting evidence out there – and ironically the very organization the Sri Lankan Ambassador just called a “shadowy group”.

What do you hope to achieve with this movie?

This is not an exercise in academic accountability or truth for truth’s sake. There is a generation of Tamils who watched the world betray them, and that generation is now looking to the world for justice. If that does not happen, the consequences could become catastrophic – the grievances could lead to people taking up arms, more decades of violent conflict and more bloodshed.

If we can have a role in getting the truth out, and in ensuring that there is a genuinely independent, effective and international investigation into the war crimes allegations against the government and the LTTE – that is success to us.

Do you have hopes of such an investigation ever happening?

Yes, I do. The Sri Lankan government’s denials have become increasingly desperate and implausible. It is also becoming perfectly clear that the government is unwilling and unable to investigate itself.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC), the government’s own body investigating the civil war, produced a report that, although flawed in many ways, did include some useful suggestions. One of these was for a credible and independent investigation into the armed conflict – including specific mentions to investigate cases we brought up in our first film. But so far, the government has completely failed at following up on this, despite repeated promises to do so. The LLRC has become an empty vessel.

What is the situation like in Sri Lanka today?

This is something we’re also addressing at the end of the movie. The government is becoming increasingly dictatorial – the Rajapaksas are consolidating power by taking over state institutions and putting them under their own control. There are mounting attacks against those opposing them. One very clear example is the judiciary, which the government has systematically attacked and dismantled. Apart from physically beating up lawyers, in the early months of this year the chief justice was impeached simply for trying to block a law that would grant the Rajapaksas even more power.

Anyone interested in screening the movie are welcome to get in touch with the team behind No Fire Zone through their website: http://nofirezone.org/

You can also follow Callum (@callum_mcrae) and the team (@nofirezonemovie) on Twitter.

More information

“Amnesty International welcomes UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ repeated call for an independent and credible international investigation into alleged violations of international law in Sri Lanka”, Public Statement, 13 February 2013

“Sri Lanka: Impunity persists for crimes under international law as Sri Lanka escalates attacks on critics: Amnesty International’s written statement to the 22nd session of the UN Human Rights Council”, Public Statement, 12 February 2013

“Sri Lanka’s empty promises and denial of rights crisis exposed at UN”, Press Release, 1 November 2012

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