UN Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced yesterday that he will be visiting Sri Lanka this coming Friday and Saturday, May 22-23, to visit the conflict zone and the camps for the internally displaced civilians.  The Sri Lankan government had said last Monday that its forces had defeated the opposition Tamil Tigers, killing their leaders and reconquering all the area once controlled by the Tigers.  Toward the end, the Tigers had with them an estimated 50,000 civilians who they were using as human shields and preventing from leaving the conflict area.  Around 200,000 other civilians were able to flee the war zone and have been held by the government in overcrowded internment camps which they can’t leave.  The Sri Lankan government had barred journalists and most aid agencies from the war zone for months.  The UN and other aid agencies are reportedly still trying to get access to the area.

I hope Secretary-General Ban is able to get the Sri Lankan government to open up the war zone and the internment camps to the UN, other aid agencies and journalists.  The long-suffering civilians should immediately get the care they need and be allowed freedom of movement, the same as other citizens of the country.  We need to find out what happened in the last stages of the war and hold anyone who committed war crimes accountable.

U.N. calls for pause in Sri Lankan fighting

Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a temporary pause in the fighting in Sri Lanka between the government forces and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in order to allow humanitarian aid into the war zone to reach the trapped civilians there.  The Secretary-General also urged the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the area and to stop forced recruitment.

Today, the Sri Lankan government announced that President Rajapaksa had invited the Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka to see for himself the situation of civilians displaced by the fighting.  It’s unclear whether Ban would be allowed to visit the war zone, though President Rajapaksa  apparently did say that Ban’s visit would permit him to be able to make a better assessment of the conditions faced by the civilians still being held by the LTTE in the war zone.  The Sri Lankan government still won’t permit a U.N. humanitarian mission to enter the conflict area despite an earlier agreement with the Secretary-General to do so.

I hope the Secretary-General takes up the President’s offer, goes to Sri Lanka and is able to visit all parts of the country in safety, including the war zone.  I also hope President Rajapaksa responds positively to the Secretary-General’s request and orders a temporary pause in the fighting to allow aid into the war zone.  I also hope the LTTE responds to the Secretary-General, allows civilians to leave the war zone and releases all child soldiers and other forced recruits.  I try to live in hope; it’s better than the alternative.

UN sending mission to Sri Lankan conflict zone, but will they be allowed in?

Yesterday, I wrote that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had announced that a U.N. humanitarian team would be sent to the conflict zone in Sri Lanka to assess the situation and try to protect the trapped civilians.  This was apparently with the agreement of the Sri Lankan President.

Well, today, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Minister said at a press conference that intense fighting between the army and the opposition Tamil Tigers in the conflict zone was making it “virtually impossible” to allow any U.N. staff to visit the zone.  The U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said today that the U.N. had an “agreement in principle” with the government for a team to visit the zone, while another U.N. official reported today that a U.N. team had traveled to the north of the country but hadn’t yet received permission to enter the conflict zone.

Of course, no one wants to endanger the lives of the U.N. team by putting them in the middle of the crossfire.  So, we need a pause in the fighting to allow the team in to do their workThe Sri Lankan government and the Tigers must immediately agree to that and to cooperate with the U.N. team.

World’s Top Investigators Call for Gaza Inquiry

(Originally posted on Daily Kos)

The top dogs of international justice and reconciliation today called on UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and UN member states to set up a UN commission of inquiry into the Gaza conflict, adding a powerful voice to extend the current insufficient investigation beyond attacks against UN facilities.

The impressive group of signatories surely knows what they are talking about: they are the world’s top investigators and judges, having worked on transitional justice issues in countries like Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leona and South Africa – among others. Signatories include Richard Goldstone, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu.

In their letter they identify a key issue of why a proper investigation is so important, and how it will ultimately help to prevent future violence:

Without setting the record straight in a credible and impartial manner, it will be difficult for those communities that have borne the heavy cost of violence to move beyond the terrible aftermath of conflict and help build a better peace.

A prompt, independent and impartial investigation would provide a public record of gross violations of international humanitarian law committed and provide recommendations on how those responsible for crimes should be held to account. We have seen at first hand the importance of investigating the truth and delivering justice for the victims of conflict and believe it is a precondition to move forward and achieve peace in the Middle East.

Additionally, I want to add one point: in setting the record straight, it will be possible to assign individual responsibility for the crimes committed, as opposed to group responsibility, a further key requirement to prevent further conflict.

If anyone can explain to me why attacks against UN installations, like the UN compound in Gaza City, by Israeli forces are worth investigating, while attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure in both Gaza and Southern Israel are ignored – please go ahead. And if you agree with me on the importance of this issue, support the call for full accountability.

PS: Thanks to Crisis Action for initiating this letter!

UN Pledges $613 Million in Aid for Gaza

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed in an interview at the World Economic Forum for the international community to contribute aid for food, water, sanitation, shelter, infrastructure support, and health care for Gaza:

“As you know, I recently visited Gaza. The civilian population has suffered greatly during three weeks of military operations. More than a third of the 6,600 dead and injured were children and women. As a father of three, I was especially troubled by their suffering and the psychological trauma so many families went through.

Help is indeed needed urgently: food, clean water, shelter, medicine, restoration of basic services. Everywhere I went, I saw the evidence of critical humanitarian needs. The population were already vulnerable because of so many months of severely restricted supplies. That is why the Humanitarian Flash Appeal for Gaza that we are announcing today is so timely and so important. With the help of this $ 613 million appeal, the United Nations and other aid agencies can jump into action to help the 1.4 million civilians in the Gaza Strip to recover.”

The emphasis on psychological trauma is particularly interesting, especially considering the civilian devastation, destruction of schools and the 2,267 children who were injured or killed in the conflict.  Psychological trauma in post conflict situations does not solely affect children. Men in Gaza also face long term psychological trauma following the violence and lack of opportunity.

In the light of the World Economic Forum and the global economic crisis, perhaps the largest long term threat to human rights and humanitarian aid is economic:

“The systemic and perpetual economic hindrances imposed upon the Palestinian economy by the Israeli occupation are viewed by most experts to be the primary impediment to allowing the Palestinian economy to reach its full potential. The World Bank has identified three principal “paralytic effects” of Israeli policies on the Palestinian economy: access to economies of scale, access to natural resources and access to an investment horizon. It also cited physical impediments — road blocks, closures, earth mounds and the ongoing construction of the wall on West Bank land […] — as a ‘paralysis confronting the Palestinian economy’.”

The paralysis, as UN humanitarian chief John Holmes suggests, is on the border:

“Unless all of them [border crossings] are effectively opened, we’re never going to be able to get enough supplies to Gaza.”