Day of reckoning in Sri Lanka
Satellite images of a shell landing in an area
occupied by tens of thousands of trapped civilians
By Robert Templer
Sri Lankan government issued a deadline of noon Tuesday
for the Tamil Tigers to surrender. With the embattled
rebels unlikely to put down their guns before then, only
forceful and immediate international action to halt the
fighting can prevent the possible deaths of tens of
thousands of civilians trapped between the warring
parties, it was believed.
than 100,000 men, women and children are trapped in a
space roughly the size of Central Park, caught up in a
war between the Sri Lankan government and the remaining
forces of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil
Eelam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers.
Cornered in a shrinking patch of coast in the northeast
of Sri Lanka, with little access to food, water or
medicine the past three months, the civilians have
remained out of the sight to most of the world. U.N. and
humanitarian workers were forced by the government to
leave LTTE areas last September. Journalists have also
been banned from witnessing the unfolding horror.
No fire zone
area the Sri Lankan government calls the “no fire zone”
— a sea of people, tents, and makeshift shelters on a
sliver of jungle and beach, is being shelled by the
military. The Tamil Tigers are using the refugees there
as human shields, preventing them from leaving.
Available reports suggest 5,000 civilians, including at
least 500 children, have died since mid-January, and
more than 10,000 have been injured.
even though tens of thousands of civilians escaped the
so-called “no fire zone,” as the Sri Lankan military
advanced, many more remain in grave danger. If the Sri
Lankan government’s noon deadline passes, the long
feared final assault could begin, with innocent
civilians suffering disastrous consequences.
a 25-year fight against a brutal LTTE insurgency, the
government’s desire to “finish the job” is
understandable. But as the onslaught continues to
imperil civilians, an already humiliated Tamil diaspora
is growing more volatile, angry, and mobilised, a
potentially explosive combination.
Young Tamils radicalised
are disturbing signs that a new generation of young
Tamils in the United States, Canada, Britain, Europe,
and India are being radicalised. That process has the
potential to produce new forms of terrorism and
violence. While the Tigers’ targets have so far been
contained to Sri Lanka , they might soon find new
Tiger leadership is removed or killed in a government
assault, it’s easy to imagine one of the newly energised
generation stepping in to fill the void. The dream of an
independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka resonates
powerfully across the diaspora and will certainly live
on even after the defeat of the LTTE as a conventional
deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians
— while their family members watch from afar — is a
recipe for another, possibly more explosive, generation
of the international community knows what is happening
and what is at stake. Non-governmental organisations,
including the International Crisis Group (ICG), have
been sounding the alarm bells since last fall. Since
then, more and more hard proof of unacceptable civilian
suffering and war crimes have emerged, including the
satellite images of the crowded tent camps seen here,
videos of dead children, and interviews with exhausted
ICRC doctors. Nonetheless, the U.N. and influential
governments have been slow to act and have allowed a bad
situation to grow much worse.
Similar paralysis and foot dragging by multinational
institutions and powerful countries produced Rwanda and
Srebrenica. Barack Obama’s administration has said it is
committed to the principals of international law and
humanitarian protection. Sri Lanka is the perfect
opportunity for the new
president to show that this is not empty rhetoric.
both government forces and Tamil Tigers abdicating their
responsibility to protect civilians from mass
atrocities, urgent, determined, and united international
action is necessary to ensure the safety of the
innocent, by the United Nations Security Council, other
multilateral organisations, and individual countries
that have relations with Sri Lanka, including India and
A good start
French, British, and U.S. governments released important
statements last week calling for a new pause in the
fighting. They urged all sides to facilitate
humanitarian access and free movement for at-risk
civilians. This was a good start, but not nearly enough.
Strong and timely messages must continue, and the
consequences of a bloody end to this crisis must be made
crystal clear. Both Tamil Tiger and government leaders
should be told that they are liable to be held
personally accountable for breaches of international
humanitarian law, and that they need to find a solution
that avoids further bloodshed.
a more lasting solution can be found and the Tigers
persuaded to put down their guns, international actors
must demand that the Sri Lankan government halt its
offensive. What’s needed is a humanitarian pause of at
least two weeks to give a chance for relief supplies to
get in and civilians to get out.
agencies and the ICRC must be allowed full access to 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.
means of influencing the Tamil Tigers must be explored.
The Tamil diaspora has an important role in persuading
the LTTE to allow the trapped civilians to leave the
target area and ultimately, agree to lay down their
arms. Simple and one-sided denunciations of government
shelling and civilian deaths are not enough — the
Tigers, too, share the blame and must be held
Trapped Tamil civilians
this decisive moment, it is the Sri Lankan government
that holds the lives of the trapped Tamil civilians in
its hands. It is to the Sri Lankan government that
international leaders must send their most immediate
messages of restraint.
the war ends will be critical to Sri Lanka’s future.
Will it be in a bloody massacre whose memory will be
used to incite decades more of war and terrorism? Or
will we see renewed efforts to find a negotiated end to
the fighting, and with it, the possibility of building a
new, more peaceful Sri Lanka for all its people?
(Robert Templer is Asia programme director at the
International Crisis Group)