In an interview to TNM, 'No Fire Zone' producer and journalist Callum Macrae says change in government has meant little for Tamils

Lankan War CrimesYou dont ask the accused what kind of trial he would like Callum MacraeImage: By Chatham House and trokilinochchi,both via Wikimedia Commons
news Friday, September 18, 2015 - 09:27

Days after the United Nations Human Rights Council released its report on the human rights violations and war crimes during the 2009 Sri Lankan civil war, there has been increasing pressure from the international community to set up an independent international court to look into the crimes and bring its perpetrators to justice. One of the most vocal activists for an independent judicial enquiry into war crimes is film-maker and journalist Callum Macrae, who has exposed the severity and brutality of the war crimes through his documentaries Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and No Fire Zone. In an interview with The News Minute he says the new government is saying one thing to the world and another to the Tamils of the north and east of Sri Lanka, and that any accountability process, whether hybrid or fully international, needs international guarantees of independence. You can watch his recently-produced video presentation Sri Lanka: The Search For Justice here.

Do you think the UNHRC report has vindicated the position you have taken over the Sri Lankan War?

I think that the report is very welcome.  I think it has confirmed and added to what we already know – and also, independently assessed all the evidence and reached the same conclusions.  We always knew that what we were saying was true – otherwise we would never have said it.  The problem for the government of Sri Lanka was that at every stage when they denied our stories, yet more evidence emerged which proved they were wrong.  That evidence continues to emerge.

Are you satisfied with the UN report? Do you think it has left out anything? Do you think they should have named people in the report?

There are, of course, issues which have been left out, since the scale of the crimes was enormous.  There are many people who are already clearly identified as being accused of specific crimes, and accused of specific command responsibility.  We know who they are and they know who they are. But the important issue is not so much naming them now, the important issue is ensuring that the UNHRC now acts boldly and takes then next step – which is to set up an independent accountability process under effective international impartial control.

Do you think a change in government in Sri Lanka has changed the situation for the Tamils, and gives more hope for reconciliation, establishing the truth behind what happened in 2009, and bringing war criminals to justice?

The new government is in some ways very different from the last, but in other ways – particularly in relation to the situation of the Tamils – things have not changed in any real sense. 

The Maithri/Ranil government has undoubtedly reduced, to some extent, the executive powers of the presidency.  It has increased freedom of the press and it has taken steps to end the rampant corruption of the previous regime.  But for the Tamils there has not been real change. There has been no real progress on establishing the fate of the disappeared.  There have only been the most token returns of seized Tamil lands. The military occupation of the North and East continues.  President Sirisena has appointed and promoted several senior officers accused of responsibility or complicity in war crimes against the Tamils, to command the armed forces which occupy the Tamil areas.

The problem is the government consistently says one thing to the rest of the world and another to the Tamils of the North. So while Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera last Monday  makes conciliatory speeches to the HRC talking of justice processes to identify and prosecute the guilty and political solutions for the Tamils and – his President is being quoted in the governments official website making a speech in which he spoke emotively of “the Motherland” and pledged he “would not allow anybody to divide the country which was united by the valiant war heroes shedding their blood.”  Thus by implication ruling out such possible political solutions as a federal arrangement and implying that every member of the armed forces was a hero (rather than acknowledging that some of them are accused of war crimes).

And while Mangala told the UNHRC that the government was committed to consulting with the victims on the nature of an accountability process, in practice there has been only one high-profile consultation so far. Last week President Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wick and Mangala himself took part in high level discussions with the commanders of all three wings of the armed forces “to reach an agreement as to the best mechanism or the mechanisms to be adopted to handle the outstanding issues of accountability.”

You don’t ask the accused what kind of trial he would like – and then expect the victim to agree to attend that court.

Will an ad-hoc hybrid court with international jurists and investigators be capable of bringing justice to the victims of the war? Is that enough?

It seems to me there are some fundamental principles which any court needs to observe, whether hybrid or fully international.  It needs to have a majority of international judges and prosecutors.  It needs to operate under international law.  It needs to be fully independent, including in its finances.  It needs to be in a position to guarantee the safety and security of witnesses.  If it does those things it has the possibility of gaining the trust of the victims.  If it doesn’t, it will not have their trust or confidence in its value.

Why are your videos or films timed ahead of crucial international reports or resolutions on Sri Lankan war? Is your intention to use your documentaries as a tool in international politics?

I am a journalist, film-maker and occasionally a commentator.  My job is to make sure I hit the news agenda. It’s no coincidence that I write or make films about things in the news, it’s my job. 

Are you concerned about your films also being misused by Western nations to apply undue pressure on Sri Lanka for economic or other geopolitical agendas?

I hope my films are made absolutely irrespective of economic, or geo-political agendas.  That is why, for example, sometimes the evidence in my film might appear to coincide to some extent with what the USG is saying (as happened 18 months ago at the UNHCR) and sometimes it might appear to take the opposite view to the USG as happened this year when I presented evidence saying that a domestic inquiry (which the US appeared to be calling for) was a non-starter and unacceptable. 

Do you think the time for investigations is over and it is now time for war crime trials to be commenced?

The time has certainly come for the UN to grasp the nettle and initiate processes which can lead to the establishment of a genuine, credible, accountability process under international law with a majority of international prosecutors and judges.

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