From the days of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics to the boycotts of 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by the ‘NATO aligned’ and the ‘Warsaw Pact nations’ respectively, whenever sport has got affected, it has more or less indicated of a conflict larger than that confined to the playing field. For people living in South Asia, where Cricket rules all other sports by a few light years, the earlier boycott of South Africa, the recent shunning of Zimbabwe and the current overlooking of Pakistan by the Cricket world would drive home the point.
Now come the following words by Michael Atherton, former captain of the English cricket team:
“Increasingly, the United Nations’ inaction on the evidence of war crimes [at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war] looks inexcusable, If that continues, it is likely that questions will be asked about the suitability of England’s tour to Sri Lanka, scheduled for this winter.”
The former England opener, who was a rather conservative batsman himself, further added:
“There seems little to differentiate President Rajapaska’s brutal regime from that of Robert Mugabe’s in Zimbabwe, about whom English consciences were severely pricked.”
He wrote that in his column for The Times, England’s oldest and slightly conservative national daily, subsequent to this week’s broadcast of the following, breathtakingly well-made Channel 4 documentary of mind-numbing import:
The documentary, presented by Jon Snow, was broadcast in a late evening slot due to the shocking nature of some of the footage. The documentary attracted 700,000 viewers and an 8.3% audience share in its slot, with about another 100,000 watching an hour later on Channel 4 +1.
Earlier, in the first week of June 2011, the Human Rights Council in Geneva had convened to view the special hour-long Channel 4 film featuring ‘video evidence’ of atrocities by both sides at the end of the Sri Lanka civil war.
The documentary report also raises fears about the consequences if the UN fails to act, not only with respect to Sri Lanka but also to future violations of international law.
Giving Atherton company in the British Parliament was the country’s Prime Minister David Cameron himself, who urged the government of Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes against ethnic Tamils highlighted in a TV documentary screened in Britain.
“The Sri Lankan government does need this to be investigated and the UN needs this to be investigated, and we need to make sure we get to the bottom of what happened and that lessons are learned,” Cameron told parliament in London.
At the same time, Britain’s Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said he was ‘shocked by the horrific scenes’ which he said contained ‘convincing evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.’
‘The whole international community will expect the Sri Lankans to give a serious and full response to this evidence,’ said Burt.
The Sri Lankan government, expectedly, was quick to come out with its response through a statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs on June 15, 2011:
The Government of Sri Lanka has noted the statement by the British Foreign Office Minister for South Asia, Alistair Burt on the Channel 4 documentary telecast on 14th June 2011.
This documentary, like the Darusman Report, does no more than put together a sequence of events and images, to justify a conclusion arrived at in advance. The origins of this footage are yet to be established, and no one has so far taken responsibility for its contents. It is a mere collection of visuals previously aired through LTTE websites and a miniscule section of the international media, at the behest of parties with vested interests to undermine the present efforts at reconciliation and development taking place in Sri Lanka. The views expressed in the film are without any guarantee of authenticity.
A U.N. investigator, who reviewed the video frame by frame, together with a team of technical and forensics experts, has said that the footage is genuine.
Christof Heyns, a South African law professor who is also the U.N.’s independent investigator on extrajudicial killings, says the new video shows ‘definitive war crimes’ being committed in the final days of Sri Lanka’s civil war two years ago. “There is a prima facie case and it should now go to the next level,” he told reporters in Geneva this week.
Similarly, Judge Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor for the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals, in a column hailing the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, said that it is his hope that the leaders of Sri Lanka and Syria will not be granted immunity for the crimes they are alleged to have committed against civilians.
The U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, told the council at the opening of its three-week meeting that it should “reflect on the new information” and reconsider the resolution. She was referring to the September 2009 resolution by UNHRC that had effectively endorsed the Sri Lankan military’s crushing of the Tamil Tiger rebels after decades of civil war, despite claims of war crimes by human rights groups.
Most of the western countries supported her call. In a statement released by her office, U.S. Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe that the Council “must consider the serious abuses that have been documented and brought to our attention by the panel” and that “Sri Lanka must quickly and credibly address allegations of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the conflict, no matter which side committed them”.
But what could provide unending comfort to Sri Lanka – apart from the inexplicable and evasive silence of the UNSG – is that the African and Islamic members of the 47-nation Human Rights Council have moved to quash any attempt to reopen the debate on Sri Lanka’s conduct at the end of the war.
Pakistan’s ambassador, Zamir Akram, speaking on behalf of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which has a powerful presence in the council said, “The international community must support national efforts to win the peace in Sri Lanka”. He further added that UN Report was “primarily based on second-hand information that was never verified.”
The clearest signal of the extent of brinkmanship played by the two sides came when Kshenuka Senewiratne, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, warned council members against appointing any international probe of the alleged abuses, saying that the procedure used to do so could set a (dangerous) precedent.
“It may wrongly be us today and one of you tomorrow,” she warned.
With the U.S., UK, France and majority of western nations on one side and Russia, China and the African and Islamic nations on the other, the fight over the issue of alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka threatens to get fiercer in the coming months. Or, as they say in Cricket, the last ball is yet to be bowled.