Doctors’ orders

Colombo’s order to the Red Cross to cut back its work at Tamil internment camps is an outrage. The world must boycott Sri Lanka until it starts releasing detainees

July 10, 2009

There is something despicable about forcing doctors to lie about war crimes. By their calling, doctors are committed to relieving human suffering, to helping the sick and preventing disease. It is therefore particularly disturbing to see the five doctors who remained with the besieged Tamil civilians as the Sri Lankan Army closed in being paraded before journalists to deny their earlier casualty reports. Men who risked their lives to save lives are now being forced to take part in a political charade to cover up the appalling suffering two months ago — suffering that is still being inflicted on 300,000 Tamils interned in detention camps in northern Sri Lanka.

As the army squeezed the Tamil Tigers into an ever smaller strip of beach, the doctors were the only source of news about the slaughter caused by the military’s indiscriminate shelling. The United Nations found that more than 7,000 civilians were killed between January and May. Subsequent aerial photographs of beach graves, revealed in The Times, suggested that the figure was more than 20,000. World outrage embarrassed the Colombo Government. The doctors were swiftly arrested and nothing further was heard of them until Wednesday.

Their recantation, clearly made under duress, was as ludicrous as it was humiliating. Mechanically rehearsed but clearly nervous, they drastically reduced the death toll estimates, denied that a key hospital had been shelled and insisted that they had been forced to exaggerate the totals by Tiger fighters. In response the UN yesterday asserted tersely that it stood by its figures.

Few people will be fooled by Colombo’s crude attempt at a propaganda victory. For the Government took a far more sinister and callous step yesterday when it ordered the International Committee of the Red Cross to scale back its operations in Sri Lanka, leave the camps where it has been monitoring conditions and halt its aid programmes. The need for expatriate assistance was much less now than before, the Government asserted. Sri Lankans were fully able to meet all the needs of those detained in “welfare villages”.

The claim is an outrageous lie. Senior international aid figures said yesterday that about 1,400 people a week are dying at one of the big internment camps. Tamil civilians, rounded up after the government victory on the pretext of a security need to weed out former fighters, are suffering from hunger, disease, insanitary conditions, overcrowding and the enforced separation of families. The Government has taken almost no steps to free them. Indeed, a former Sri Lankan foreign minister has accused it of a policy of deliberate “ethnic cleansing” to change the population balance.

Colombo’s order puts the Red Cross in a difficult position. Historically, it has rarely spoken out — even about Nazi concentration camps — so as not to jeopardise access to those in greatest danger. It was the only aid agency allowed inside the war zone in the final stages of the conflict. But its few statements angered the Government. Sri Lanka wants no witnesses to what is now being done in these modern concentration camps.

If the Red Cross is forced to withdraw, however, the outside world should step in. The Sri Lankan Government is awaiting a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to address its balance-of-payments crisis and postwar development. None of this money should be paid until independent aid agencies are guaranteed access to the Tamil camps and until Sri Lanka starts to release those detained. Other world bodies — the Commonwealth, the United Nations and even world cricketing organisations — should boycott Colombo until reconciliation begins. A nation cannot run concentration camps and expect the world to look away.

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