Sri Lanka and the keeping of promises

The U.N. said today (April 29) that two aerial bombardments were reported in the conflict zone in northeastern Sri Lanka on April 28.  This follows the Sri Lankan government’s statement last Monday that the security forces had been instructed to end the use of combat aircraft and aerial weapons, in their ongoing offensive against the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Is the Sri Lankan government keeping to its promise?  The Tigers are now confined to a small strip of coastal land, about 5 square miles, in northeastern Sri Lanka.  With the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians, who’ve been prevented by the Tigers from leaving the area.

For their part, the Tigers had declared a unilateral ceasefire last Sunday.  The Sri Lankan government said today that the Tigers’ ceasefire was a bluff as the Tigers had reportedly carried out seven suicide attacks against government troops in the prior 24 hours.  Are the Tigers keeping to their ceasefire promise?

The foreign ministers of both Great Britain and France visited Sri Lanka today and tried to get the Sri Lankan government to halt its offensive against the Tigers and allow humanitarian aid into the conflict area.  The ministers later reported that they had failed to get the Sri Lankan government to make this commitment.  The U.N appealed again today for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow the trapped civilians to leave the war zone and to allow aid into the zone.  The Sri Lankan government has not promised to cease fighting, and the Tigers have not promised to let the civilians leave if the government did call a temporary halt.

In response to the over 100,000 civilians who’ve fled the war zone over the past 10 days, the U.N. and various international donors have pledged millions of dollars in emergency assistance in recent days.

There are promises that need to be made by each side in Sri Lanka’s conflict and promises that, having been made, need to be kept.  The international community should hold both sides to account and should be sure to honor its own pledges of assistance to the displaced civilians.

Sri Lanka: When a ceasefire isn't enough

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.

A Humanitarian Truce or Farce?

After thirteen days of shelling Gaza in attacks that have killed over 683 Palestinians, the Israeli government has agreed to a daily three hour truce to allow for humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza.

But is this sufficient? Consider the following:

1. Historical blockade of Gaza

Avi Shlaim, a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford and a former Israeli soldier, writes in his Guardian article, How Israel brought Gaza to the brink of a humanitarian crisis:  “Four decades of Israeli control did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip.  With a large population of 1948 refugees crammed into a tiny strip of land, with no infrastructure or natural resources, Gaza’s prospects were never bright. Gaza, however, is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development.”

Since the Hamas electoral victory in 2007, Israel has gradually blockaded humanitarian assistance from entering Gaza, creating unlivable conditions.  I blogged about the effect of this in an earlier posting called “Gaza by the Numbers.”

2. Recent Violence Wrecking Havoc on Civilians in Gaza

In the bloodiest day of fighting since the violence broke out on December 27, 2008, the Israeli government fired at a UN sponsored school, killing 40, including an entire family of seven with young children.  In an article in Time magazine, UN investigators found that no Hamas fighters were present at the school at the time of the attack.

The Israeli government has yet to apologize.

Often Israeli leaders say civilians are properly warned and that leaflets dropped by Israeli aircraft over Gaza have warned residents to leave the area.  However Gazans are physically prevented from doing so, causing panic and confusion among the population.  One Gaza resident, a supporter of the Fatah party led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told Amnesty International: “My children see the leaflets and go crazy with fear, they want to leave home; but we have nowhere to go.  My family and my wife’s family live close to the border, in even more dangerous areas; and we can’t just stay outside, it is equally dangerous, children have been killed walking or playing in the street.  There is no electricity, we can’t even find food, and we are not safe even in our homes.  We have nothing to do with Hamas, I’ve been detained and harassed by Hamas, but the Israeli bombardments are indiscriminate. No one is safe.”

Speaking of the recent violence, John Ging, a UN official, said: “I want to tell the world’s leaders something: You are not to sleep, eat or drink until you stop the killing of innocent people in the Gaza Strip.  There’s nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone is terrorized and traumatized.” He added that 1 million Palestinians were without electricity and 700,000 were without water.

3. Three hour time frame for truce not enough

A statement released by Amnesty International on Friday said that “in the absence of a ceasefire, an immediate humanitarian truce is urgently needed to protect the civilian population. The fighting must stop long enough so that humanitarian assistance can reach those in need and so that those who want to leave can be evacuated.”

Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN relief agency Unwra, said given the scale of the crisis, more time is needed: “When you are trying to feed 750,000 people a day in Gaza as we are, you need a permanent ceasefire. You can’t do that in a three-hour window.”