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Insight

   
 

Crimes against humanity and war crimes:
A warning that must not be ignored


The recent rains have made life a
 living hell for the northern IDPs

By Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuthu

The current tragedy in our country is not one that any international or national actor can claim ignorance about.  Were that to have been the case, the High Commissionerís statement settles the issue.  Are the civilians expected to move out en masse on their own and risk being mowed down by both sides?  Can the sick, the injured, the starving, the old and the young be expected to do this? 

In case the point was lost on all and sundry, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has talked about war crimes in relation to Sri Lanka and about the violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by both sides. In  a statement issued on March 13, 2009, High Commissioner Pillay warns:

'Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.  We need to know more about what is going on, but we know enough to be sure that the situation is absolutely desperate. The world today is ever sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.' (Emphasis added)

The High Commissioner goes on to point out that despite the problems with getting information out of the Wanni, a range of credible sources have informed her office that:

a) Repeated shelling has continued inside government designated "safe" or "no fire" zones.

b) More than 2,800 civilians may have been killed and more than 7000 injured since January 20, may of them - estimated at two thirds of the overall total - inside the no-fire zone.  This includes hundreds of children killed and more than a thousand injured.

c) Despite the government announcement of February 24 that no heavy weapons would be fired in to the no fire zones, some 500 persons were reportedly killed and more than a 1000 injured in these zones with the "great majority" being attributed to the use of heavy weapons.

d) Very limited food supplies and reports of severe malnutrition.

e) Key medical supplies - e.g. sutures, painkillers and antibiotics are not available in the "one makeshift medical facility" still functioning.

On the LTTE

On the LTTE shooting at civilians attempting to leave and using them as human shields, the High Commissioner serves notice that:

'The brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by the LTTE is utterly reprehensible and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes.'  (Emphasis added)

At last, someone with responsibility and the credibility to do so, has come out and authoritatively spelt out the dimensions of the horror of what is happening and raised the all important question of accountability.  

As this column pointed out last week, triumphalism, amnesia or combinations thereof, cannot be allowed to produce a conspiracy of silence and consent to what is also being done by the security forces. High Commissioner Pillay needs to be saluted for this and the UN too for a statement that restores confidence in the organisation not having strayed so far afield from its original normative moorings, as it has often, been feared, it has done. 

The point though is that this is a statement.  After a point statements have diminishing returns unless they are followed by action.  Here the international community has the responsibility to investigate and take action against both LTTE and government, once their responsibility in turn for war crimes and crimes against humanity, are clearly established.

Key issue

 In these circumstances, the key issue of the continuing entrapment of civilians remains.  It is precisely these circumstances that provide the space for egregious violations and crimes.  All calls for a ceasefire and even a pause in the hostilities to enable an evacuation of civilians has run into the seemingly insuperable obstacles of surrender and guarantees that hostilities will be ceased for this purpose. 

The overarching political reason is the desire for unconditional surrender on the one hand and that of a humanitarian catastrophe on the other.

The current tragedy in our country is not one that any international or national actor can claim ignorance about.  Were that to have been the case, the High Commissioner's statement settles the issue.  Are the civilians expected to move out en masse on their own and risk being mowed down by both sides?  Can the sick, the injured, the starving, the old and the young be expected to do this?

The UN - there is no other actor that can do this - must decide to open up channels of communication to both sides and engage them in the modalities of ending the end game within a framework of civilian protection.  Its energies and resources must be geared to this as a matter of the utmost urgency and priority.  Or else there is catastrophe for which all will be responsible. The varying degrees of responsibility do not vitiate or mitigate the stark and simple fact of responsibility.

Above all else, it is time for us Sri Lankans to demonstrate that we care about our fellow Sri Lankans. We cannot and must not let this catastrophe come to pass.


 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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