Last night’s heavily trailed documentary from Channel 4: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields turned out, as expected, to be as harrowing as it was important, bringing to mind John Pilger’s “Cambodia: Year Zero”. Pilger’s piece inspired an extraordinary public response in the UK during the late 1970’s characterised by financial as well as moral support. Last night’s film was no less disturbing and may yet prove to be as effective.
The conclusion, it seemed, was that all available evidence and legal consensus pointed to the conclusion that the Sri Lankan government was guilty of systematic war crimes including; direct artillery targeting of civilians in “no fire zones”, denial of humanitarian access to civilians trapped in a conflict zone and, perhaps most gravely, the rape and murder of prisoners of war, both civilian and surrendering fighters. The prime faice evidence and corroboration from expert witnesses during the program would leave one in no doubt that these were the most terrible of crimes and even the most conservative estimates of 30-40,000 civilians killed would necessitate (given the international community’s newly (re) found discovery of legal and armed humanitarian intervention), at the very least, the indictment of senior military and political figures in the Rajapaksa government by the International Criminal Court and the establishment of an international criminal tribunal along the lines of those established after Yugoslavia/Rwanda).
These (seemingly obvious issues) aside, the main thrust of the questions raised by some corners of British political and media discourse seems to have focused more on the moral issues raised by the showing of films of executions and war crimes themselves: i.e. whether the images were gratuitous, unhelpful or ghoulish. This almost breathtaking hypocrisy does, however, inadvertently raise an an important question, posited by David Campbell, Susan Sontag and others, regarding the complex politics of seeing and exposure afforded to images of atrocity. Self-censorship by the media, as Campbell has argued in the past, grounded in established economies of “decency” have often served to render atrocity “invisible”, or at the very least, mediated to the point where it can be ignored by media consumers. Channel 4’s bravery (a phrase used too often in media discourses to describe utter banalities) in showing (contextualised) footage of shocking crimes, resisting the temptation to “cutaway”, demonstrates an admirable commitment to one of the founding principles of journalism: to tell truth, both to power and to the public.
“Balance”, so often the favoured jargon of (often the most partisan) media commentators is not appropriate here, and nor, crucially, is censorship on spurious grounds of “taste” “decency” or otherwise. The deafening silence of the international community, during the final days of the Sri Lankan conflict and subsequently is as incomprehensible as it is shaming, particularly given the recent high-minded rhetoric invoking the protection of civilians from internal state repression. Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields gives a powerful, disturbing re-iteration of the abject failure of the world to effect even the most basic norms of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka whilst simultaneously exposing the evidence which damns both the perpetrators and demands the world act to seek justice. The question remains, will they look away again?