Sri Lanka: When a ceasefire isn't enough

April 26, 2009

The opposition Tamil Tigers announced a unilateral ceasefire today, which the Sri Lankan government immediately dismissed.  Successive government offensives in recent months have reduced the Tiger-held area to a 5 square-mile strip of land along Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast.  (If you’re new to this story, the Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the island’s Tamil minority.)  Trapped with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians, who’ve been used by the Tigers as human shields and a source for forced recruitment.  The Sri Lankan government has pointed out that the Tiger didn’t allow civilians to leave the war zone during an earlier two-day ceasefire declared by the government; the U.N. confirmed that fewer civilians left the war zone during the ceasefire period than during periods of fighting.

The Tigers’ ceasefire declaration said nothing about allowing civilians to leave the war zone.  Amnesty International has reported that the Tigers have attacked civilians trying to flee the area.  AI also said that the Sri Lankan government has used heavy artillery in attacking the Tigers, which has resulted in civilian deaths and injuries.

You also need to understand that some young Tamil men who have managed to flee the war zone have  “disappeared” after being detained by the army (and by “disappeared”, I don’t mean they just vanished; rather, the government had first detained them but is now denying knowledge of their whereabouts).  AI had warned last month that civilians fleeing the war zone were at risk of enforced disappearance and other human rights violations, if they were suspected to be members or supporters of the Tigers.  I was sickened to read last Friday that enforced disappearances were now occurring.  Fleeing civilians should be protected from any Tigers who may be mixed with them, but given the long history of enforced disappearances by the  Sri Lankan security forces, any screening process by the army of the fleeing civilians should be supervised by international monitors.  

Here’s what I think should happen:  The Tigers should announce that any civilians who wish to leave the war zone would be free to do so.  If they don’t make this announcement immediately, the Tamil diaspora should publicly call on them to do so.  The Sri Lankan government should announce that it is agreeing to a pause in hostilities to allow civilians to leave and aid to enter the zone.  The Tigers and the Sri Lankan government should allow the U.N. team currently in Sri Lanka to enter the war zone to monitor civilians leavning the zone and the distribution of aid to those still in the zone.  The Sri Lankan government should announce that international monitors will supervise the screening of all civilians leaving the zone.  The government should also say that the U.N. and other international agencies will have access to the camps housing the civilians who’ve left the zone, so that they won’t be at risk of human rights violations from the security forces.

If anyone has any better ideas for protecting the trapped civilians, I’d welcome your comments.  We must do whatever we can to save them.  Visiting the AIUSA website and writing the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers is one thing you can do.  I’d welcome other ideas as well.