Sri Lanka’s death zone

April 23, 2009

Donald Steinberg is Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, www.crisisgroup.org– Donald Steinberg is Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, www.crisisgroup.org. The views expressed are his own. –

Civilians are dying by the hundreds and possibly thousands in the northeast of Sri Lanka. As government troops converge on the remaining forces of the rebel LTTE (Tamil Tigers) in a tiny strip of coastal land, tens of thousands of civilians remained trapped in the crossfire — getting killed and maimed in large numbers both by indiscriminate army shelling and by the rebels preventing them from fleeing, with equally lethal force.

Many thousands have managed to escape the free-fire zone in recent days, all with horrific tales to tell of those they left behind. Just how many civilians remain in the killing zone is not entirely clear. The government is saying that as many as 170,000 are now in government territory, with more than 100,000 people fleeing the zone since Monday.

Last month, however, they were claiming there were only 38,000 remaining to be liberated from LTTE control. Their current figure of 15,000 to 20,000 remaining with the LTTE should therefore be treated with great caution.

LTTE figures are also unreliable. The Red Cross says there could be 50,000 still trapped, and the UN publicly estimates 60,000. Sources on the ground put the figure significantly higher.

This is not just a numbers game. Knowing how many civilians remain trapped is critical both for preparing the international relief effort and for accountability. When the shooting stops, the government, which will surely defeat the rebels in this battle, must not be allowed to
hide missing thousands.

Unfortunately, the government is not allowing independent journalists into the conflict area to help establish these and other facts about what is happening there. Still, there are horrendous snapshots from aid workers and other reliable sources on the ground.

For example, an aid worker at one of the few remaining medical stations reported on Tuesday that the entire team was bunkered down due to the constant shooting, unable to treat any patients. He reported continuous heavy weapons fire in civilian areas with heavy casualties. He said that over 600 were seriously wounded in temporary medical posts, with about 100 of those dying soon after being admitted.

As firing has intensified, many of the injured are now not even bothering to come to medical points because it has become common knowledge no treatment is available. The ICRC reported on Wednesday that more than 1,000 seriously injured were in desperate need of treatment, but that medical facilities in what the government once called the safe zone have all but ceased to
function.

While the government and LTTE — and their vigorous online supporters — try to blame the other side for the current carnage, such accusations lead no where. The fact is, both sides are at fault, and both sides are almost certainly guilty of war crimes. The international community needs to put all possible pressure on the parties to end this madness, which is only causing extreme suffering among the civilian population.

The Sri Lankan government should halt its offensive, with its shelling of civilian areas, and accept a humanitarian pause monitored by the UN and the ICRC of at least two weeks to allow relief supplies to get in and a humanitarian corridor to be established for civilians to get out.

UN agencies and the ICRC should be allowed to assess the needs and numbers of the trapped civilians, and to bring in the relief supplies. The U.S. could help matters instantly by releasing its latest satellite images from the war zone. Relief agencies on the ground must be allowed full access to all areas and at all locations where either civilians or surrendered Tamil Tiger fighters might cross over into government-controlled areas.

Both civilians and fighters who agree to lay down their arms need stronger international guarantees of their safety. Only international supervision, unhindered by the government, can provide the necessary
level of protection. The recent surrender of two senior LTTE officials, including Daya Master, their former media coordinator, suggest that with better guarantees others would give up too.

The Tamil Tigers should immediately allow civilians to leave the area and cease forced recruitment. All means of influencing the Tamil Tigers must be explored, particularly stepped up restrictions on foreign
financing and support for the group. The Tamil diaspora has an important role in persuading the LTTE to agree to an internationally supervised pause and allow the trapped civilians to leave the target area.

In any case, continuing intransigence by the Tigers should not be an excuse for the government to delay a humanitarian pause or to act in a way that results in the death and maiming of its own citizens. Indeed, the government is obligated under the international doctrine of “responsibility to protect” to prevent these atrocities.

Finally, it should be made very clear by relevant governments and international organisations to leaders of both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government that they will be held personally accountable for breaches of international humanitarian law. There is no excuse, and certainly no amnesty, for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

The world has woken up to this tragedy very late, but there is still time to save lives and lay the groundwork for future peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The message must come from the highest levels: “The world is watching, and you will be held accountable.”

24 comments

Comments are closed.