Friday, 15 May 2009

Military victory must not mean a human rights whitewash

The Sri Lankan military are now in the "final stage" of their war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and 1.5km shy of "dominating the whole coast," according to BBC News. This news comes after the government "rejected international calls for a truce."

The Government and Army claim that their role in the conflict is a "humanitarian operation" which has "rescued more than 3700 civilians held hostage by the LTTE" and was "able to eliminate LTTE strongholds" along the Karyalaimullivaikkal coast. Some of the "terrorists had attempted to escape" but the Army was able to "destroyed the dinghy boats" they were using. Although some civilians were killed when "terrorists opened fire at them as they sought refuge among the soldiers," this "major rescue operation" that "comes in the wake of many concerns" expressed by international human rights organisations over "civilians held as human shields by the LTTE" is "proceeding."

However, The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reports that, as a result of Sri Lanka's "rescue operation," "thousands of people remain trapped in a small area along the coast within the conflict zone" and "are forced to seek protection in hand-dug bunkers, making it even more difficult to fetch scarce drinking water and food." "Despite high-level assurances, the lack of security on the ground means that our sea operations continue to be stalled" and "no humanitarian organization can help" the trapped civilians "in the current circumstances." Amnesty International backs up this assesment by calling "for an end to the use of heavy calibre weapons and for the UN, the Red Cross (ICRC) and other humanitarian organizations to be allowed immediate access to the 50,000 civilians, or more, trapped in the ‘No Fire Zone’ on the island’s north east coast."

Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, informs us that "satellite imagery and eyewitness accounts contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict area in northern Sri Lanka." The result is that "more than 400 civilians have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded since May 9, 2009, as a result of artillery attacks on the thin coastal strip." The rest of their report details "harrowing days spent in shallow bunkers sheltering from artillery attacks" by witnesses who were also "prevented by the LTTE from escaping to government-controlled areas." HRW also provides pictorial evidence of "at least 30 artillery and aerial bombing attacks that struck permanent and makeshift hospitals in the Vanni since December 2008" as "evidence of war crimes."

Clearly, there have been considerable wrongs on both sides of this conflict, and indeed no war ever provides a "good guy" innocent of all crimes. What must be remembered, of course, is that one side has the resources and substantial military power of the state at its back whilst the other is a guerrilla outfit of a minority community.

As with Hamas in Palestine, the LTTE have emerged with the alienation and sidelining of peaceful movements for change. The "Tamil Tigers" are the product, not the cause, of this conflict. This needs to be recognised. Likewise, Amnesty's proposal that the United Nations "stress individual responsibility for crimes under international law and to ensure the creation of a commission of inquiry, as a first step towards establishing accountability for alleged breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law" must be heeded.

I fear that the precedent of history - that the war crimes of the victors go untried - will prevail, but I sincerely hope it doesn't. Otherwise peace doesn't stand a chance.