By Dinidu de Alwis
Dr. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s permanent
representative to the United Nations, talks to The Nation,
during a brief visit to Colombo, about propaganda campaigns,
growing international pressure, and the response by the Sri
Lankan government which repeatedly refuses the call for an
international inquiry – at a time when international
pressure is mounting on the Sri Lankan government to launch
an inquiry into alleged war crimes during the final phases
of the war.
Q: Looking at the pressure which has been
coming over the past few weeks, especially after the airing
of the Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, how
is Sri Lanka’s strategy in responding to the mounting
I think we need to be very conscious of the fact that the
Channel 4 video is not an isolated event. It’s part of a
chain of events that the rump Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE) and LTTE sympathisers have developed in order
to create difficulties to the government of Sri Lanka and
for its leadership.
For one thing, Sri Lanka defeated the LTTE on the
battlefield, and this is something that happened despite
advice from certain western leaders to call a ceasefire, and
not bring the conflict to an absolute end. Remember,
Krushner was here, Miliband was here, and both of them were
demanding a ceasefire. You would also recall that the
Secretary of State of the United States at the time called
for a ceasefire.
Had we agreed to a ceasefire – in my own view – the war
would still have been continuing. Today, fortunately, this
country is at peace because we’ve decided that 27 years of
brutal mayhem was enough. What the LTTE lost on the
battlefield, they are now trying to recover elsewhere in the
international arena. And for this, they have launched a
number of strategies and the Channel 4 video is one of them;
in fact a very impactful strategy.
We find that they’ve shown this video in the UK, there was a
screening in Geneva, then we had a screening in New York,
and now in Australia. I have no doubt in my mind that they
will go round countries which are sympathetic towards the
LTTE and start using the video to generate public opinion
which is not favourable to Sri Lanka.
After the screening of the video in Australia, there have
been people in large numbers demanding an international
inquiry into war crimes in Sri Lanka. The governments of
those countries, however sympathetic they may be to Sri
Lanka, may not be able to withstand public pressure of this
nature. These are democracies and they respond to public
The pressure might even be mounted by LTTE-ers themselves.
There are hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils now
living in western countries. Not all of them are pro-LTTE,
but there is a core group which is very pro-LTTE, and for
them the war has not come to an end. They will continue the
struggle in a different way.
For us, now, we need to be very conscious of this and deal
with the pressure in every possible way. We need to ensure
that we manage the media, not necessarily in Sri Lanka –
where the media is conscious of the fact that the war is
over in this country – we have to manage the media overseas.
For that we need resources.
We need to manage the NGO community, because the NGO
community generally consists of liberal minded individuals,
and for them a video of this nature is very provocative and
very painful. They will particularly drift towards those who
are demanding a war crimes investigation.
Some governments are now controlled by liberal minded
politicians, others by the greenies, and of course there are
also conservative governments. But by and large the liberal
end of western politics tends to be sympathetic towards
those who clutch at the heartstrings – and this video does
exactly that: it clutches at your heartstrings.
Unless we deal with all those different aspects carefully
and with a strategy in mind, we may find that the battle
that we won on the ground may have to be fought again in the
not too distant future.
Q: One of the key issues on the Channel 4 video is the
government’s claim that the footage is fabricated. The
United Nations and Channel 4 have got independent experts to
verify the technical authenticity of the video. Would the
government and the UN come to a position where a mutually
agreed upon expert can either confirm or deny the
authenticity of the videos?
I think it’s very important to remember that the solution to
this problem is not going to be that easy. There is doubt as
to the technical authenticity of the videos – as to whether
they have been spliced together or whether the timing of
sequences is technically correct: that’s one aspect of it.
Then there is the content aspect as well as whether these
events actually happened. It would be very difficult for any
expert to determine whether the content is accurate or not –
it’s just there for you to see, and you will have to come to
your conclusions depending on all the circumstances.
Then we have to remember that this video is now being pushed
– or marketed – by Channel 4 or by rump LTTE, or by the NGO
community. It’s not going to be easy to come to a resolution
as to whether we’re going to believe in what’s in it or not.
As an example, in the scene where you see naked men being
gunned down, there is nothing in my view in the video to
indicate that this was actually in Sri Lanka – that these
events actually happened in Sri Lanka. It could have
happened anywhere in the world. There is nothing in the
video to indicate that the shooters were Sri Lankan security
personnel. They may be dressed up in Army uniforms, but how
many times have the LTTE got into Sri Lankan Army uniforms
and attacked? They attacked the airport, they attacked the
Air Force base in Hingurakgoda, et cetera. These things have
The third thing is that the dead – or the presumed dead –
what is there to suggest that they were Tamils who were
attacked? I have seen the same video circulating in YouTube
where the voices are in Tamil. I think it’s going to take a
superhuman effort to determine whether anything like this is
And most importantly, can you produce this before a court of
law and get a conviction on the basis of what you see? Whom
are you going to prosecute? There is not a face, not a name,
that you can take before a court of law. There is a whole
range of issues that have to be addressed. What you have to
remember is that those who produced this video and screened
it are not interested in the content – they are only
interested in provoking an emotional response – which they
have succeeded in doing.
Q: Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, on Al-Jazeera right after the
video was aired, said “I’m not saying everything in it is
fake – obviously not,” and he went on to clarify “some of
the those could have been very well done by the Tigers
themselves,” where he used the phrase “some of things” and
didn’t commit himself to the authenticity or the lack of it
on all the content. Would you want to comment on that?
I myself won’t go to comment on whether anything is
authentic or not, but I have my reservations – and serious
reservations – about certain aspects of this video, and I’m
willing to come out in public and express those
reservations: remembering again, that the purpose of this is
not to obtain convictions, but to embarrass the government
and to embarrass our leadership, because certain elements
are determined that the victory we won on the battlefield
will not be savoured by us for a long time.
Q: There is talk of a resolution being floated at the
next sitting of Human Rights Council. Has the government had
any solid information about it, and if such a resolution
comes up how would Sri Lanka respond to it?
Of course we will fight such a resolution. There is no doubt
in my mind about it at all. At this stage we’re not sure
whether interested parties are really in a position to table
and succeed, because at the last Human Rights Council
meeting that happened the African group expressed solidarity
with Sri Lanka, and so did the Arab group of countries. And
there are others, so it’s a matter of ensuring that sponsors
of such a resolution do not have 24 votes on their side. In
my own view, if we explain our position clearly enough –
which we have been doing quite well up to now – the chances
are that a resolution may not be tabled.
But, the pressure will be kept on in the hope that at some
point or other that the international community – by which I
refer to only a small group of countries – will be able to
adopt a resolution or do something of that nature against
Q: When you look at the recent developments through the
ICC – the warrant on Muammar Gaddafi et cetera – how do you
see the role of the ICC in some issues which the countries
refer to as “domestic issues”?
There are a few things to remember. One is that Sri Lanka is
not a party to the Rome Statute, and that the ICC acquires
its jurisdiction over individuals through two categoric
means. One is that the country to which the individual
belongs must be a party. Secondly, the security council of
the United Nations must refer a matter to the ICC. These are
the means in which jurisdiction is acquired. There is also
another principle embedded in the statute, which is that a
country must be incapable or unwilling to discharge its
obligations under the statue of the ICC before the ICC can
The statute was very carefully negotiated, especially by the
United States which participated in the negotiations – it is
not a party to the ICC, but it participated in the
negotiations. Extreme care was taken to ensure that the
jurisdiction of the code was very specifically designated.
If you look at the statute, you find that some of the fears
and enthusiasms being expressed by the ones who are pushing
the videos, cannot be justified.
Q: There was a recent petition to the ICC about your role
in the alleged “White Flag” issue, where a few members of
the top LTTE leadership were allegedly killed after a
negotiation. Are you concerned, as an Australian national,
There is a mixing of issues here. The fact that you’re an
Australian national per se doesn’t make you liable for
anything. I earlier spoke about the basis on which the
jurisdiction of the ICC is established. The ICC doesn’t go
after people simply because somebody lodges a complaint. You
can go to a police station and lodge a complaint against
anybody in this country, that doesn’t mean that the police
are going to follow up on your complaint unless there is
substance in your complaint.
A complaint against a high-profile person might attract
newspaper headlines, which is good for their cause. This is
exactly what has been done. In Australia for example, they
took the matter up, and complained to the Human Rights
Commission there. The case was summarily dismissed because
there was no substance in it. It’s very important to
remember that the ICC cannot be activated simply because two
organisations affiliated with the LTTE lodges a complaint.
You must have substance.
I’ve said categorically over and over again, even
immediately after the conflict, that I had no authority to
issue orders to troops on the ground, and that I had no
authority as the Foreign Secretary to negotiate a surrender
of any LTTE leaders. It’s also very important to remember
that in an interview published in the Asian Tribune with a
former TNA Member of Parliament who was with the LTTE till
the very end, that there were no surrenders. There was no
intention of surrendering, because Velupillai Prabhakaran
had prohibited any surrender.