20 May 2009
Reports from Sri Lanka signal the end of the decades-long civil war, but the EU and the rest of the international community should be asking tough questions of the supposed victor.
With the Sri Lankan government declaring victory over the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) at the weekend and with the Tigers admitting defeat, one of the longest-running wars in the world seems to be near an end. No one should shed a tear for the collapse of the LTTE or the apparent demise of its leader, Prabakharan. They invented modern suicide bombing and have long been terrorising the very ethnic Tamils they claimed to be defending.
But the army’s success has been marred by their own behaviour, particularly over the past few months. Since January, as government forces have been tightening an ever-constricting noose around the rebels, some 250,000 civilians were trapped in the crossfire, held as “human shields” by the LTTE and subject to indiscriminate shelling by the army.
The UN was estimating the remaining number of those trapped at 50,000 to 80,000 just last week, and it is still unclear what has happened to them all. The US may have some fresh satellite images to shed light on their fate.
But even those who managed to escape the conflict zone seem barely better off. First, they had to survive the government’s initial filtration process, where no independent international observers were allowed. The lucky ones have then ended up in state-run internment camps, surrounded by barbed wire, where UN agencies and humanitarian NGOs trying to provide aid face heavy restrictions designed to prevent information from getting out.
In its statement of 18 May, the EU Council reminded Colombo of its obligations to keep those camps civilian in nature, to guarantee freedom of movement for displaced persons, and to ensure their early return to their homes. It also asked all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law, and called for an independent inquiry to look into violations.
Worthy indeed — if very late in the day — but there are additional pressing needs.
In particular, the fate four individuals in government custody deserve international attention. They are state-employed health workers who stayed in the conflict zone until the bitter end trying to treat the wounded: doctors Thangamutha Sathiyamoorthy, Thurairaja Varatharajah and V. Shanmugarajah, as well as the director of health services in Kilinochchi, Vany Kumar. In addition to their medical work, they were — in the news blackout the government imposed on the region — about the only source of information to the outside world from inside the conflict zone.
Unfortunately, this also makes them witnesses to the military’s actions in the final weeks of this war, including the army’s shelling of areas with large concentrations of non-combatants, which may constitute a war crime. As long as these four individuals are held by the government, their lives are clearly in danger. The EU and other international leaders should be demanding unlimited access to them by the ICRC delegates and their immediate release.
Of course, the largest concern in the coming days will be for the thousands of injured who are in desperate need of evacuation and medical treatment. The ICRC needs to be given full and immediate access to treat and evacuate any survivors. Previously, the government prevented complete ICRC access on security grounds, but if the fighting is now truly over as the authorities claim, they have no excuses left. The two ICRC ships carrying relief supplies and medicine waiting offshore should be allowed to land and fulfill their mission.
Though flush with victory at the moment, in the longer term, the Sri Lankan government will have huge difficulty incorporating ethnic minority Tamils and making them feel included in the state. There has been so much bitterness and such scarring attacks on the Tamil population, that reconciliation and cohabitation with the Sinhalese majority seem less likely than deep resentment and a resurgence of violence in future.
Locking up the survivors and disappearing the witnesses would only make it harder. But if from today the government starts being open about its own conduct during the war while providing humane assistance for the displaced, Sri Lanka would at least be two steps in the right direction. The international community needs to encourage them to do so.
(This article appeared in abbreviated form in the European Voice on 20 May 2009.)