Sri Lanka: 52 Civilians Killed

February 5, 2009

Disheartening isn’t the word for it; it’s worse than that. It had been bad enough to hear of 9 civilians being killed and 20 injured last Sunday and Monday by shelling in the war zone in northern Sri Lanka. This morning, over my coffee, I learned from the UN that 52 civilians were killed by shelling in just one day yesterday. The UN said it didn’t know who was responsible for the shelling. According to the UN tonight, the hospital in the war zone that had been bombed repeatedly over last weekend is now empty; all the staff and patients have fled. According to the Red Cross, the patients have been moved to a community center in an area that lacks clean drinking water.

Yesterday’s shelling included a cluster bomb attack. Cluster bombs scatter dozens of bomblets over a wide area, some of which usually fail to explode, posing a lasting threat to civilians. Cluster bombs have been banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, since they’re indiscriminate weapons (Sri Lanka, though, hasn’t signed the Convention).  Amnesty International said today that the use of cluster bombs in yesterday’s shelling was “despicable.” The Sri Lankan government has said that it wasn’t responsible for yesterday’s shelling and that it doesn’t have cluster bombs.

The world is taking greater notice of the civilians at risk in Sri Lanka’s war zone. On Feb. 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a joint statement calling on both the Sri Lankan government and the rebel Tamil Tigers to allow civilians to leave the conflict area and to grant access for humanitarian agencies. That same day, Norway, Japan, the US and the EU issued a joint statement asking both sides to declare a temporary ceasefire to allow evacuation of the wounded and aid to the civilians remaining in the area. Today, Pope Benedict XVI publicly appealed for an end to the fighting.

The forces targeting the civilians or engaging in indiscrimate attacks should remember that they’re committing war crimes, for which they may one day be held accountable. Before that day, let’s hope that both sides heed the statements from the international community and immediately take steps to protect the civilians at risk.