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Unending End Game

Sir John Holmes

By Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuthu

The end game is not ending. It is being drawn out with an ever increasing toll to the lives and suffering of the civilian population estimated by the UN and the international agencies to be 200,000 and by the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) at 70,000.

According to UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Relief Coordinator, Sir John Holmes who recently visited Sri Lanka, in his statement to the UN Security Council on February 27, 'the number of casualties from the fighting, among whom we believe are many civilians, cannot be verified in the absence of independent sources, since humanitarian agencies and the media have no access to the area, but we believe dozens of people per day at least are being killed and many more wounded.' (Emphasis added)

In recent days the international community has repeated its calls for a pause in the hostilities to allow for the evacuation of civilians. This requires the agreement of both sides and is not forthcoming.  The government will deal with the LTTE on the basis of surrender and the LTTE adamantly refuses to do so even though it is abundantly clear that they have suffered a devastating conventional military defeat.

Despicable logic

The grim and despicable logic of the LTTE seems to be one of simply raising the costs of war even though the outcome in military terms is a foregone conclusion.  That the civilians are being used as human shields and that some have been shot and killed for attempting to escape is beyond dispute from all the accounts that have eked out of this otherwise "hermetically sealed" conflict in terms of information and reportage. 

The entrapment of the civilians at present is tantamount to the LTTE serving them up as human sacrifices in order to reinforce the argument internationally, of war crimes by the Sri Lankan government and of humanitarian catastrophe.

The argument will still be made that there are civilians in the Wanni who are there on their own volition and will not move out for a variety of reasons including support of the LTTE and a "Masada type" last stand, the desire to stay with their family members who are LTTE cadres and fear of the reception they will be accorded by the government if they do leave. 

Free to go

Whatever credence is given to this argument and it cannot be dismissed out of hand, the point is that even it is a minority of those trapped in the Wanni who want to move out and escape the horrific suffering they are being subjected to, they must be allowed to do so.  The charge of crimes against humanity cuts both ways and the LTTE leadership must realise that they cannot escape it.

The violations of international humanitarian law and the laws of war are by no means one sided.  Whilst it is necessary, correct and safer and non-controversial to slam the LTTE for its barbaric excesses, the GOSL has yet to convincingly rebut the charges that its artillery has hit medical facilities, civilians within and outside the no fire zone and that its strategy in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe in the Wanni is driven by military considerations to the point that it is better described as one of elimination of the LTTE and its support base, rather than one of containment which accords civilian protection the priority it deserves and demands in these and all other circumstances.

Flawed argument

The argument that the forces have to respond to LTTE firing surely does not hold when it is known that such a response will result in civilian deaths and injuries, given the space and the number of people trapped within it?  Sir John Holmes in his statement to the Security Council pointed out:

The government has assured me at every level that they have virtually stopped using heavy weapons because of their recognition of the need to spare the civilian population, who are of course their own citizens.  It remains unclear how far this is the case in reality. (Emphasis added).

And surely any strategy of maintaining the level of hostilities and the inadequacy of food and essential supplies to the point that the civilians will be compelled to "make a dash" of it en masse, is an egregious affront to the noblest traditions of the land and to universal norms and standards of civilised behaviour in this day and age.

Lasting consequences

How the end game ends will have lasting consequences for peace, unity and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.  It must already scar the memory of the civilians trapped there as an unimaginably awful collective punishment.  The government and the LTTE must hold back from slaughter and civilian sacrifice and let the people come out into safety and security.  

The latter responsibility rests with the government and here the assurances given to Sir John Holmes in respect of minimum international and national standards must be upheld. Independent monitoring of this is essential and crucial in this respect is the unrestricted access of the international humanitarian actors to the civilians.

Assurances were given to Sir John Holmes on these and other issues.  He told the Security Council:

'.I urged the government to move swiftly to eliminate progressively the military presence inside the IDP sites, and to ensure increasing freedom of movement for the IDPs.  I also raised specific concerns with the government about the transparency of the initial security processes and about cases of family separation, and stressed the need for enhanced monitoring by the ICRC and the UNHCR.

'I was assured by the government that UNHCR can be present during the screening as displaced leave the Wanni area, and that the government will soon complete the registration of existing IDPs  and distribute temporary ID cards, which will help allow increasing freedom of movement.  I understand that IDPs over 60 years of age  have already been allowed to move out of the IDP sites to stay with relatives outside the camps where possible.'


Sir John also raised the issue and was assured by the GOSL that IDPs would be allowed to return to their places of origin as soon as possible - a goal of return of 80% of the IDPs by the end of the year was identified, once de-mining was completed.

How much of this has commenced and what is the demonstrable progress that can be recorded?

Bad faith in respect of all of this will guarantee protracted conflict.  The absolutely urgent and pressing need is to end the horror of entrapment in the Wanni.








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