The civil war in Sri Lanka has attracted greater international scrutiny within the past week, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay suggesting that both the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may have committed war crimes:
Warning that the loss of life may reach "catastrophic levels," [Pillay] urged the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels to halt hostilities to allow the evacuation of civilians trapped on the northeastern coast.
Pillay said the government had repeatedly shelled the designated "no-fire" zones for civilians and also cited reports the separatist guerrillas were holding civilians as human shields and had shot some as they tried to flee.
"Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law," Pillay said in a statement.
"The world today is ever sensitive about such acts that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity," added the former U.N. war crimes judge, who is a member of the Tamil ethnic group and grew up in South Africa.
Pillay called on Sri Lanka's government to grant full access to U.N. and other aid agencies to monitor human rights and humanitarian conditions amid reports of "severe malnutrition" among those trapped. [link]
Pillay stated that as many as 2,800 civilians have been killed and over 7,000 injured since January, and that as many as 180,000 civilians may be trapped in the conflict zone.
Others in the international community have raised similar concerns. According to the International Committee for the Red Cross, the humanitarian situation faced by civilians in the conflict zone is "deteriorating by the day." Former special advisor to the UN Secretary General Lakhdar Brahimi says that the humanitarian crisis places Sri Lanka "on the brink of catastrophe." In a phone call to to Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed "deep concern" about escalating civilian deaths and urged the Sri Lankan Army "not [to] fire into the civilian areas of the conflict zone." The European Union has also called for a cease fire to permit trapped civilians to escape the fighting.
Sri Lanka disputes the UN's figures — the LTTE, the government asserts, has "infiltrated certain personalities into these agencies" — and has rejected calls for a cease fire. More details are available in two stories from the BBC World Service's Evening Report, linked above (and here and here). However, according to the Christian Science Monitor:
[T]he sensitive data aired by Ms. Pillay were based on firsthand daily reporting by UN national staff and aid workers trapped in the no-fire zone. A copy of a recent UN briefing paper that was obtained by the Monitor listed similar casualty figures and described mounting casualties in the squalid, densely packed coastal strip. "Daily incoming artillery and mortar fire has caused large number of casualties with a noted increase since 26 Feb," it said.
The briefing paper said several weeks of food and medicine shortages had led to deaths from malnutrition and from preventable diseases. [link]
Meanwhile, SAJAer Angilee Shah has published a feature article in the Far Eastern Economic Review (which was reported from Colombo, Singapore, and Los Angeles with the support of a SAJA Reporting Fellowship) critically examining the consequences of the Rajapaksa government's aggressive approach to prosecuting the civil war:
Far from healing racial tensions between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority populations, Mr. Rajapaksa has whipped up Sinhalese nationalism as part of his campaign against the Tigers. Credible accusations of human-rights abuses against the authorities suggest that after the war the same discrimination against Tamils that created the civil war in 1983 will persist.
This means the conflict will continue in another form, with Tamil separatists relying more on terrorist attacks rather than pitched battles. Terror has long played a big part in the war—the Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombing, and have repeatedly struck at top government leaders even in the heavily guarded capital of Colombo. And the government will continue to respond in kind, using extrajudicial means to silence its opponents. The civil war is going underground....
Far from the headlines, the government is waging another, less well-publicized battle. The security forces are alleged to have ordered or been complicit in the disappearance, torture and murder of thousands of Sri Lankan citizens. Since the president was elected in 2005, Sri Lanka has consistently been short-listed as one of the world’s worst human-rights abusers and one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a journalist. [link]
Shah's article echoes the contentions made last month in a joint statement by ten independent UN experts, who expressed "deep concern at the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka," especially for journalists and other human rights defenders. The UN experts noted that they "continue to received disturbing reports of torture, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances throughout the country."
Shah also draws attention in her article to the role of the president's brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa:
Sri Lankans on all sides of the political spectrum attribute the military’s newfound success to Gotabaya Rajapaksa.... A retired army major, he and his family moved to the United States in the early 1990s and settled in a Southern California suburb, where he worked initially as a clerk at a 7-Eleven convenience store and later found employment in his preferred field of information technology.
By the time his brother announced his presidential campaign in 2005, Mr. Rajapaksa was a UNIX administrator at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. His colleagues, who called him George or Georgie, describe him as hard-working and diligent. He was a well-organized and careful administrator who rode the bus 30 miles to and from work every day, and prayed every morning in front of the servers that they would stay up and running. On Sundays, he worked at a homeless shelter and worshipped at a local Buddhist temple.
Mr. Rajapaksa took a leave of absence to answer his brother’s call for help on the campaign trail, and when his brother became the president, resigned from his Loyola Law School position. He first took up the second-in-command post at the ministry of defense, taking charge of the nation’s army, air force, navy and police. To many Sri Lankans, he is now "Gotabaya the Great," a near savior who has put them on the cusp of defeating a group of thugs and murderers who have terrorized their country for over two decades....
For resources on the Sri Lanka conflict, or to better understand it, please visit SAJAforum's "Covering Sri Lanka" page.