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'Social movements must compete for attention, conflict in Sri Lanka is no different'

Dec 17, 2010 12:49:36 PM- transcurrents.com

by Amarnath Amarasingam

Why do some conflicts attract more attention than others? Why, for example, did throngs of celebrities hold rallies and concerts to shed light on the atrocities occurring in Darfur, while dozens of other conflicts and human rights violations are ignored by the international community?

The Tibetan fight against Chinese domination is, for example, a cause célèbre around the world. Northwest of Tibet, the Uighurs, numbering around 7 million people, have been waging a similar struggle against the Chinese government for centuries.

However, as Clifford Bob writes in his award-winning book Marketing Rebellion, “No Hollywood stars or corporate moguls write fat checks for the Uighurs. No Uighur leader has visited with a U.S. president or won the Nobel Peace Prize.” In stark contrast to the Tibetans, many do not even know they exist.

The Uighurs, Bob argues, have essentially failed a marketing contest, a game which only a handful of social movements have learned to play well. While I am not equating the Uighur cause with that of the Tamils, both communities have spent years attempting to gain international legitimacy.

Scholars like Bob have argued that social movements must market their struggle if they are to gain the support and backing of non-governmental organizations, as well as the compassion of people around the world. Individuals lead busy lives, and read about many social ills throughout the course of their day, so social movements must compete for their attention just as they compete for all other resources. The conflict in Sri Lanka is no different.

In early 2009, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. President Barack Obama, and U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband all called for an end to hostilities in Sri Lanka, noting that civilian lives were being “lost on a large scale.” Members of the Tamil diaspora around the world also took to the streets to shed light on the conflict, but the international community remained largely silent. As if recognizing the need for the marketing of conflicts in today’s geopolitical landscape, Miliband stated that civilians in Sri Lanka are the victims of “what at the moment is a war without witness.”

While many human rights organizations sounded the alarm about war crimes committed by both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government during the final push of the war, new evidence is coming to light. Though there may never be a full record of the abuses carried out by the Sri Lankan government or the Tamil Tigers against civilian populations in Sri Lanka, a particularly disturbing video of what appears to be Sri Lankan soldiers indiscriminately shooting Tamils was broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 News on Nov. 30.

This video is not new. A few months after the end of the long and bloody Sri Lankan civil war in May 2009, Channel 4 News broadcast footage “apparently showing government troops summarily executing Tamils.” The Sri Lankan government swiftly declared the video to be a fake, but a United Nations investigation later concluded that it “appeared authentic.” Now, a year and a half later, another video is available. The new video shows the same incident, according to Channel 4 News, “but rather than stopping after the execution of a second bound man, it continues and the camera pans left to reveal the naked and dead bodies of at least seven women” and several other blindfolded individuals.

About three minutes into the disturbing video, the camera fixes on the body of a deceased, unidentified woman. She is blindfolded, her hands appear bound behind her back, her breasts are draped with a white cloth, and her underwear has been pulled down to her thighs. The camera stays on her for close to a minute, during which a soldier walks by and removes the cloth covering her breasts. The soldiers are heard laughing, while the camera remains on her nude body. One soldier can be heard saying, “She has fallen in a nice way. It looks new. Looks like no one has even touched her thighs.” As Channel 4 news pointed out, many of the comments heard in the background suggest that these women were sexually abused before being shot.

With the broadcasting of what has come to be called the “Channel 4 video,” the international community has renewed its call for an independent investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka. Human Rights Watch recently repeated its call “for the United Nations to undertake a full investigation into wartime abuses by both government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.”

War crimes lawyer Julian Knowles told Channel 4 News that the newly broadcast video “is clear evidence of the execution of unarmed combatants or civilians.” According to Knowles, “It doesn’t matter which they are, they’re both prohibited under the Geneva Convention and they are both ranked as what we call a grave breach of the Geneva Convention so they are crimes in international law.”

Canada, on the other hand, has remained woefully silent on the issue of war crimes in Sri Lanka. The revelation of the Channel 4 video as well as any subsequent evidence deserves international attention. Canada should join the international community in calling for an independent investigation into war crimes and reaffirm its commitment to human rights.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University, and is currently completing his dissertation titled, “Pain, Pride, and Politics: Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism in Canada ~ He can be reached at: amar2556@wlu.ca ~ This article first appeared in The Toronto Star on Dec 17, 2010