Sri Lanka: Suicide Bombers and Impunity

February 11, 2009

The opposition Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka are well-known for their use of suicide bombers, especially female bombers. So I wasn’t shocked to hear on the radio yesterday the words “In Sri Lanka,” closely followed by “a female suicide bomber.” But I was outraged when I learned that she had been dressed as a civilian and blew herself up at a checkpoint for civilians fleeing into a government-declared “safety zone.” 28 were killed, both civilians and military, and dozens more wounded. It seems pretty clear that the Tigers are trying to discourage civilians from fleeing the conflict area, which would deprive them of their human shield. I hope the Tiger supporters will impress upon the Tigers that they must abide by the laws of war and immediately stop such tactics.

At the same time, yesterday’s suicide bombing shouldn’t give the Sri Lankan government any excuse to abuse the displaced civilian population. Their forces also should observe international law and take care to protect civilians. As the army and the Tigers fight, more civilians are being killed. There’s been ongoing shelling in the government-declared “safety zone.” 48 people were killed and 174 wounded last Friday. The next day, another 126 civilians, including 61 hospital patients, were killed. In another area, 80 were killed by shelling and another 198 fatally injured. There aren’t any independent observers in the “safety zone” or the rest of the war zone, so it’s not possible to determine which side is responsible. All we can do is appeal to both sides to protect the civilians trapped in the fighting.

One small piece of good news: You may recall that last week a hospital in the war zone had been closed due to repeated shelling and the patients moved to another area in the war zone lacking clean drinking water. The Red Cross reported today that it was evacuating the patients today and tomorrow by sea; the ferry will take them outside the conflict area. Unfortunately, 16 of the patients won’t be evacuated; they were killed by shelling yesterday.

Yesterday also saw another important development: 10 independent UN human rights experts issued a joint statement on Sri Lanka. They pointed out that human rights abuses in Sri Lanka don’t just occur in the area of fighting; the crisis is deeper and more endemic. The experts said they have received reports of torture, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances through the country, not just in the war zone. If the Sri Lankan government wants to demonstrate a commitment to human rights, it should immediately accept the experts’ offer of assistance and take steps to combat the continuing impunity the security forces have long enjoyed for past human rights violations.