seeing

by tobybee

Channel 4 in England recently made and screened a doco detailing what was done by the Sri Lankan army to the Tamil people in the final weeks of the civil war between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers. As they describe it:

Jon Snow presents a forensic investigation into the final weeks of the quarter-century-long civil war between the government of Sri Lanka and the secessionist rebels, the Tamil Tigers.

With disturbing and distressing descriptions and film of executions, atrocities and the shelling of civilians the programme features devastating new video evidence of war crimes – some of the most horrific footage Channel 4 has ever broadcast.

Captured on mobile phones, both by Tamils under attack and government soldiers as war trophies, the disturbing footage shows: the extra-judicial executions of prisoners; the aftermath of targeted shelling of civilian camps; and dead female Tamil fighters who appear to have been raped or sexually assaulted, abused and murdered.

The film is made and broadcast as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon faces growing criticism for refusing to launch an investigation into ‘credible allegations’ that Sri Lankan forces committed war crimes during the closing weeks of the bloody conflict with the Tamil Tigers.

In April 2011, Ban Ki-moon published a report by a UN-appointed panel of experts, which concluded that as many as 40,000 people were killed in the final weeks of the war between the Tamil Tigers and government forces.

It called for the creation of an international mechanism to investigate alleged violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law committed by government forces and the Tamil Tigers during that time.

This film provides powerful evidence that will lend new urgency to the panel’s call for an international inquiry to be mounted, including harrowing interviews with eye-witnesses, new photographic stills, official Sri Lankan army video footage, and satellite imagery.

Also examined in the film are some of the horrific atrocities carried out by the Tamil Tigers, who used civilians as human shields.

Channel 4 News has consistently reported on the bloody denouement of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields presents a further damning account of the actions of Sri Lankan forces, in a war that the government still insists was conducted with a policy of Zero Civilian Casualties.

The film raises serious questions about the consequences if the UN fails to act, not only with respect to Sri Lanka but also to future violations of international law.

For more coverage from Channel 4, you can go here.

And here’s the doco. It’s quite horrific viewing – I recommend making sure that you’re in safe space when you watch it. Take the time to watch and think – this is not something to be watched in a rushed hour.

And as I write that, I feel so bourgeois and comfortable in my life. Because yes, I could watch it and then close my computer and lie in bed and think about it and then have a nap. And I could be shocked that such things exist in the same world as the one where I live, where I can nap on a Sunday afternoon in my cosy bed. But truly, for me, the feelings when watching the film were of shock. It was, quite literally, shocking. As well as terrible, saddening, maddening.

There were so many horrific moments that it feels strange to pull the ones that affected me the most out. I don’t think I want to. But the images and the sounds remain imprinted on my brain.

The point of the film (as in, why channel 4 made it) I gather, was to push the UN to properly investigate the war crimes and hold war crimes trials. That’s not the reason why I’ve posted the film. I think it’s important that people watch it because it’s important that we know what’s happening in our world. I’ve recently become more convinced of the importance, the utility, of empirical research: that we can make all the analytical claims we want – we can enjoy the mind gymnastics that comes with a good critique (and I certainly think that it’s important that we make analytical investigations and claims, because that’s the only way we can actually understand our worlds) – but at a certain point it’s important to also see, hear and know. Not that we can ever know without a critique and analysis, but… hopefully you can follow what I mean.

Maybe what I mean is that it’s all well and good for me to present a critique and analysis of violence, but if I haven’t witnessed the violence that I analyse, then my analysis counts for nought.

So watch the doco.

(and yes, I would also question the utility of war crimes trials – partly because I hold little faith in the UN and its possibilities for creating conditions of justice in the world (which was reinforced by the actions of the UN in this case), partly because I have little faith in systems of law and criminality for creating a better world, and partly because I’m not sure that war crimes trials ever ‘deal with’ the problem(s) that we face when considering such mass breaches of human rights. So many smarter people than I have written of this problem, but I’ll quote from three, all of whom are dealing with the question of the Nuremberg Trials (but whose analysis seems to me to be fitting more generally), here.

Giorgio Agamben: “Despite the necessity of the trials and despite their evident insufficiency (they involved only a few hundred people), they helped to spread the idea that the problem of Auschwitz had been overcome. The judgments had been passed, the proofs of guilt definitively established. With the exception of occasional moments of lucidity, it has taken almost half a century to understand that law did not exhaust the problem, but rather that the very problem was so enormous as to call into question law itself, dragging it to its own ruin.” (Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. New York: Zone Books, 1999, 19-20)

Hannah Arendt: “The Nazi crimes, it seems to me, explode the limits of the law, and that is precisely what constitutes their monstrousness. For these crimes, no punishment is severe enough. It may be essential to hang Goering, but it is totally inadequate. That is, the guilt, in contrast to all criminal guilt, oversteps and shatters any and all legal systems. That is the reason why the Nazis in Nuremberg are so smug.” (in a letter to Karl Jaspers, cited in Hans Kellner,””Never Again” Is Now,” in History and Theory: Contemporary Readings, edited by Brian Fay, Philip Pomper and Richard T. Vann, (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 228)

Froma Zeitlin: the trial of the SS officers “only emphasizes… the incommensurable gap between any legal procedure altogether, with its witnesses, evidence, and courtroom protocols, and the nature and extent of the horrific crimes committed.” (Froma Zeitlin, “New Soundings in Holocaust Literature: A Surplus of Memory,” in Catastrophe and Meaning: The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century, ed. Moishe Postone and Eric Santner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 198)

so the importance, i think, is in seeing and knowing something. or maybe seeing and feeling like we know even less.

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