I only wanted a credible, independent investigation
- Philip Alston
By Namini Wijedasa
Jan 17, 2010
UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston raised a hornet’s nest recently by resurrecting the controversial Channel 4 ‘execution’ video and deeming it to be authentic on the basis of a report produced by three independent experts. The government immediately rejected the findings, accused him of being politically motivated and refused to heed his call for an inquiry. LAKBIMAnEWS interviewed Alston on some of the niggling questions his investigation had raised.
Ln: The government has repeatedly rejected any suggestion that the Channel 4 video is authentic. Why did you initiate an investigation on this?
PA: On the face of it there was nothing to indicate that the video was a fake. It therefore constitutes evidence of serious HR violations if the events depicted were as they were alleged to be. In such circumstances, there is always an obligation for a government and thus a special rapporteur to investigate.
Ln: Did you time the release of the independent experts’ report to coincide with the election campaign and thus cause embarrassment or difficulty to the president, as is being alleged?
PA:The timing of the report was dictated exclusively by the time it took the three experts to complete their analyses. Once they were done, I released the report. It would have been political manipulation on my part to withhold the report, or otherwise interfere with the natural timing for political reasons.
Ln: Why did you release this so early to the media? The foreign ministry says the space between the receipt of the technical note in Colombo and the scheduling of the Public Statement in New York in the morning hours of the next day hardly afforded a reasonable amount of time for a considered response from the Government of Sri Lanka.
PA: The Government was given a full day to review the report and they did this. The purpose of that time lag was not to give the government an opportunity to respond in detail, but to know in advance the content of what I was planning to say. This was not a case in which the government was expected to provide an explanation or to gather its own facts. The government had already comprehensively dismissed the video as a fake. It has repeated the same response to this new report.
Ln: When you call for an independent inquiry, who do you have in mind for conducting such a probe? What kind of process do you recommend should be adopted?
PA: The details are not for me to prescribe. That is up to the government in conjunction with the international community. The only limitations are to ensure that the inquiry is credible by virtue of its impartiality and independence and its access to the relevant persons etc.
Ln: Has Ban Ki-moon reacted to your report in any concrete sense?
PA: I am an independent expert. I have not been in contact with the S-G or with anyone from his office.
Ln: What benefit would there be to Sri Lanka in acceding to such a probe?
PA: Sri Lanka has been consistently criticized in a series of reports which allege that serious violations were committed in the crucial final months. The government has consistently denied that any such violations occurred. Under these circumstances it is in the best interests of the government to put the allegations to rest by permitting an inquiry which, ideally, will vindicate its position.
Ln: What consequences would Sri Lanka have to bear if she keeps rejecting an inquiry?
PA: That is not for me to comment.
Ln: If Sri Lanka continues to reject an inquiry, would this matter die a natural death?
Ln: The vast majority of Sri Lankans are elated at the defeat of one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. When it appears that much of the world has moved on, why are a few Europeans - including you - obsessed with war crimes investigations?
PA: Americans would say the same about the War on Terror, but the issues of rendition, of Guantanamo, of Abu Ghraib, etc, are not wiped away by the existence of a larger cause in which a war is being fought. I was very critical of the LTTE in my UN mission report. I called for actions to prevent diaspora support from developing countries etc. But none of this means that we must not look at any serious human rights violations which occur in the process of defeating armed groups or terrorists.
Ln: Are you picking on small countries like Sri Lanka because they are easier prey than powerful nations?
PA: I have done a major report on the United States and raised many controversial issues. Other reports have been on Israel (in the Lebanon war), on Brazil, Colombia, Kenya and a range of other relatively powerful nations.
Ln: Isn’t it natural that combatants from both sides die during war? Is there any “acceptable” way to kill your enemy?
PA: The Geneva Conventions and the other laws of armed conflict spell all this out in detail. What is never acceptable, and has not been for centuries, is to kill detainees in cold blood.
Ln: The government maintains that there are inconsistencies in the report you presented, things that the experts could not explain - for instance, the movement of certain victims, 17 frames at the end of the video and the fact that the date encoded in the video — July 17, 2009 — is a month after war ended. Doesn’t this still leave the possibility that the video is not authentic?
PA: The three inconsistencies that you cite are those that I myself identified. I made clear in my report that none of these undermine the authenticity of the videotape. The best way to pursue these matters is to hold a credible and independent investigation. That is all I have requested.
Ln: Is there an international conspiracy to embarrass Sri Lanka behind your insistence for an independent investigation?
PA: There are many instances in relation to a wide range of countries in which I have called for such investigations.
Ln: Why is it important to investigate what happened during the government’s final battle with the LTTE? Has not the end justified the means? Thousands more lives have been saved as a result of the LTTE’s defeat.
PA: It would be a sad reflection if the assumption is that without gratuitous brutality the war could not have been won. That is not a position I accept. It is a view which could be used to justify all sorts of atrocities and completely contradicts the human rights and humanitarian law obligations and constitutional values of Sri Lanka.