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Callum Macrae and the Haunting of Sri Lanka

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In Geneva, the current session of the United Nations Human Rights Council is playing host to a fierce diplomatic battle largely overshadowed in the British press by the mounting atrocities in Syria and the deepening crisis in Afghanistan.

At present, an enormous delegation from the government of Sri Lanka are attempting to persuade member states of the Council to vote against a motion spearheaded by the US, calling for greater accountability from Colombo for multiple abuses allegedly committed by the army during the last days of its civil war. Applying counter-pressure, a collection of NGOs and advocacy groups are seeking to open the way for the island nation's wartime conduct to be independently investigated.

A central figure in the melee is a man who is neither a politician nor a diplomat, but a filmmaker. Callum Macrae has directed two documentaries on the civil war that appear to show devastating evidence of crimes committed by the military, including UN-authenticated "trophy footage" of extra-judicial killings and apparent evidence of other atrocities.

His first film was released last year, eliciting widespread shock and concern from the international community, including Britain, and furious denials from Colombo. A Sri Lankan investigation branded the harrowing execution footage 'fake', a claim echoed by senior politicians; however, Sri Lanka's objections were met with a point-by-point rebuttal by a panel of experts commissioned by the United Nations.

The second film was aired on Channel Four last night, having already premiered in Geneva last Sunday. Entitled Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, Macrae's latest work could have even more impact than his 2011 offering. Already, revelations in the Independent that the documentary will contain evidence of the "summary execution" of a 12-year old boy, the son of Villai Prabhakaran, ex-leader of the "Tamil Tiger" rebels who fought the Lankan armed forces, have put Colombo on notice.

Speaking to Macrae at the weekend, who only weeks ago had been nominated, astonishingly, for a Nobel Prize for the first Killing Fields documentary, I asked him what drove him to make his latest film. He replied thoughtfully, and at length:

"The first film we made presented prima facie evidence that war crimes were committed. The Sri Lankan government's response to that was absolute denial. So in a sense, with this film we say 'okay, if you're not going to [properly investigate yourself], we will.' So what we do in this film is we produce more evidence of war crimes, we look particularly at four incidents or sequences of events that in our view constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, we name names - it is clear that the evidence points very, very clearly to the very top levels of the Sri Lankan government."

Without pausing to dwell on the seriousness of his statement, Macrae added: "What is clear, and we look at this very closely in the film, what happened at the end of the war is that at every stage the Rajapaksa government lied. They lied when they said they had a policy of zero casualties of the war, and the international community knew it; they lied when they said the no fire zone was being respected and that no heavy weapons were being used, and the international community knew they were lying; they lied when they said that they knew how many people were left in the no fire zone - they grotesquely lied [about that] so they could justify restricting humanitarian aid - and the rest of the world knew that. So, the big question is: why did the rest of the world let them get away with it?"

Macrae's pointed questioning, astonishing in both its candour and its charges, may thunder in the ears of the Council who in their previous vote on the war, completely avoided pressing Sri Lanka for rigorous self-examination, with the result that little substantial justice has been seen to be achieved since the war's conclusion nearly three years ago. Colombo have punished only one senior officer in that time for war related offences: Sarath Fonseka, the former commander of the armed forces, whose crime was to accuse the government of ordering atrocities. Many see his subsequent jail sentence as being politically motivated, especially after his claims were corroborated by other army figures.

As the vote on Sri Lanka approaches, due to be held in little over a week- near enough to the present for the latest broadcast by Macrae's team to be still felt reverberating in the news - there remains some hope that the Council may be moved to press Sri Lanka to face its haunted past with courage and sobriety.

If they fail, the prospect of authentic reconciliation between the ethnic Sinhala and Tamil communities, so bitterly divided by the war, will be dimmed spectacularly- paving the way for the present tentative peace to falter under the weight of deeply felt, unresolved resentments.

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