Humanitarian concern, casualty of war
|OCHA map of humanitarian access, as of 28 January 2009|
In the fast shrinking LTTE-controlled area in the Vanni, over 250,000 men, women and children are being encircled by increasingly proximal crossfire between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. The humanitarian crisis in Sri Lankas conflict-afflicted north has reached stupendous proportions, putting aid agencies at odds with both fighting parties. The Sri Lankan government claims the numbers are lower and says that it maintains a strict policy not to fire at civilians. Conversely, in the LTTEs view, civilians prefer to remain in zones under their ‘protection.’ The scarcity of reportage emanating from the Vanni has further exacerbated the lack of avenues to deliver relief. In this web exclusive, Himal Southasian puts together accounts from the ground, albeit few and far between, to get a more comprehensive insight into the current humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka.
Pressure mounts for humanitarian truce
By Jehan Perera
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s pronouncement of a 48 hour period of safe passage to the trapped civilians of the north elapsed without any major movement of people. Only a few hundred seem to have made, or been able to make, use of this opportunity. The rest either did not feel able to, or were prevented from leaving by the LTTE. Several humanitarian organizations, including UN agencies, working in the conflict zones issued a statement in the grave humanitarian crisis. They have said that “The LTTE continues to prevent civilians from leaving areas under its control, denying the right to seek safety in other parts of the country…We call upon the LTTE to allow full freedom of movement to all civilians, and to allow safe passage for those wishing to leave the conflict area.”
It is reported that the LTTE has placed its artillery at the perimeters of the area that the government has designated as a safety zone. The civilians will therefore fear to move from wherever they are in a situation where artillery duels continue. This has prompted the humanitarian organizations to call on “the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to accord priority to ensuring the safety and security of all civilians. The humanitarian community calls on the government and the LTTE to respect the 32 square km ‘safe zone’, within the Vanni, announced by the Government.” Tragically, even hospitals within the safety zone have been shelled with each side blaming the other.
The trapped population is said to be anywhere between 125,000 to 250,000 with the government giving the lesser figure, and humanitarian sources giving the higher one. Whether it is the higher figure or the lower one, it is still a very large number. They are akin to a people held hostage. The presence of these civilians in the last territory controlled by the LTTE will necessarily slow down the progress of the Sri Lankan military which will be constrained in its ability to use its superior firepower. On the other hand, by not permitting the civilians to leave, the LTTE is clearly in violation of international law. In effect, they are holding people hostage, by putting forward their own conditions for the granting of safe passage to civilians.
When two foes are involved in a fight unto death, neither is likely to set much aside for moral or humanitarian concerns. This is especially the case with the LTTE, which has a long track record of putting their struggle above everything else. At the present time the existence of the LTTE as an organization is being threatened on the ground. It has lost nearly all the territory it once controlled, its armouries are falling to government hands, and members of its top leadership have been seriously injured in the most recent rounds of fighting. In these straitened circumstances, it is to be expected that the LTTE will use every means at their disposal to prolong their survival. This includes using civilians as a human shield.
The dilemma for the government is how to safeguard civilians while also minimizing casualties among its own troops who are engaging in intense battle with the LTTE. As an organization that is essentially guerrilla in nature, the LTTE requires the presence of civilians from whom to draw sustenance as well as hide amongst. This is the second reason why the civilians are considered to be trapped. The LTTE is not permitting the civilians in their areas of control to move out and seek refuge in places under government control which are no longer battle zones.
In these circumstances, securing the safety of the trapped civilians is a priority and requires a negotiated movement of people under the auspices of internationally recognized organizations, such as the ICRC. Consequently, several local and international organizations including some foreign governments have called for the temporary declaration of a humanitarian truce so as to facilitate the movement of trapped civilians. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been the latest to make this call. In a statement on the situation in Sri Lanka, US Senator Patrick Leahy has said, “The Sri Lanka government will one day want the respect and support of the United States. The same can be said of the LTTE, if and when it renounces violence and becomes a legitimate political party. How they respond to today’s humanitarian appeals will weigh heavily on how the United States responds when that day comes.”
On the other hand, if there is no positive response, the price paid by Tamil civilians in the present and immediate future will be very high. This will not bode well for future peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The worst fears of the Tamil people that they are not considered citizens with equal rights to life, property and freedom will be borne out in how the last battle is to be fought.
Government of Sri Lanka: 13 Air strikes launched on LTTE resistant points
Los Angeles Times: U.N. cites Sri Lanka cluster bomb use
BBC: Deadly strike on Sri Lanka hospital
Government of Sri Lanka: Medical team rushed to Vavuniya
Deutsche Presse Agentur: Sri Lanka to extend "safe area" for civilians in war zone
Muting the media
CNN: Analysis: Sri Lankas media faces growing pressure
International Herald Tribune: Humanitarian crisis seen unfolding in Sri Lanka
CNN: Red Cross: Crisis unfolding in Sri Lanka
Christian Today: Christians demand humanitarian access in conflict
UNICEF: Increasing number of children injured in fighting in Sri Lanka
Catholic News Service: Pope calls for protection of civilians amid fighting in Sri Lanka
The Hindu: Panel to help Sri Lanka Tamils’ welfare formed
CNN: Aid groups: Sri Lanka situation ‘nightmarish’
Human Rights Watch: Urgent Action Needed to Prevent Civilian Deaths
ICRC: Helping families keep in touch across the front line
DFID: UK doubles humanitarian aid for Sri Lanka
CAFOD: Sri Lankan bishop on hunger strike
Related web exlusive:
"Unbowed an Unafraid", in memory of Lasantha Wickrematunga