Monday 11 May 2009

Sri Lanka's 50,000 Hostages

This article appeared in the The Guardian on 11 May 2009.


The police have the building surrounded. Inside, a dangerous gunman holds five hostages. The authorities have to decide how to free the innocent safely when those lives are at the mercy of a desperate and violent criminal.

Multiply by about 10,000, and you have the situation in north-east Sri Lanka today.

For months, the Sri Lankan army has been tightening the noose around the remaining forces of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), pushing them into an ever smaller space. Some 250,000 civilians were initially in that same zone of operations.

But instead of playing the role of professional police trying to save the lives of those trapped in the building, the Sri Lankan authorities have let the LTTE draw them into a civilian slaughter that allows the rebels to act the martyr. Government troops have been shelling civilian areas and are even using air strikes in areas where the Tamil Tigers are holding their hostages, using equally lethal force when they have tried to escape.

In recent weeks, many of those civilians have managed to flee the immediate conflict zone, but the UN estimates there are still at least 50,000 left, possibly as many as 100,000. The government promised in late April it would stop using artillery and other heavy weapons in the area to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, but that pledge has been repeatedly broken since then.

The government says the LTTE are holding those people as "human shields", which is indeed the case, and it claims to want to "rescue the hostages", which it argues it has done for tens of thousands already. It is true the Tamil Tigers have imprisoned the very people they claim to be liberating, and they have acted with horrific violence against them.

But the government cannot use the "human shields" argument as an excuse for such extremely high civilian casualties under the bombardment of its heavy weaponry. Shelling into concentrations of mixed Tamil Tiger terrorists and civilians flies in the face of the state's obligations to safeguard non-combatants under international humanitarian law and may constitute a war crime.

What's more, the government's screening process for those who escape has been highly chaotic, and no international monitors are present at the initial checkpoints. In a country known for government-linked disappearances, the fate of those going through such screening is cause for deep concern.

Even from its own perspective, Sri Lanka's entire approach is counter-productive. Showing such callousness to the suffering of Tamil civilians is not going to sow peace and stability. It is going to entrench Tamil bitterness and more conflict.

The comparison with the city hostage situation is useful. A modern and well-trained police force would not shoot wildly and with maximum force into a building to free the hostages inside. They would call in experts. They would ask an experienced negotiator to work for the hostages' safe release and the criminal's peaceful surrender.

In the Sri Lankan situation this would mean direct international involvement. The Red Cross is on the ground already, but they could and should be asked to apply their expertise to help with negotiating safe passage for the trapped civilians and an orderly surrender of remaining Tamil Tigers in such a way that those fighters have assurances they will not simply get killed as soon as they put down their weapons. True, the LTTE have thus far shown no intention of surrendering, but at least Red Cross presence could make it safer for more civilians to come out of the zone without permission of their captors.

Of course, the gunman in this case is driven by extremism and is unpredictable, particularly given the prospect of inevitable defeat. It is not impossible to imagine the Tamil Tigers turning on their hostages and then killing themselves to set out some kind of Masada-like marker of martyrdom for future generations of Tamil resistance.

But that is still no excuse for shelling areas with high civilian concentrations. In fact, it is yet another reason to calm the situation down with expert international engagement. Ratcheting up the pressure on them at this point is the surest way to make desperate criminals even more murderous and suicidal. Also, the government needs to realise that already the large Tamil diaspora around the world is more and more enraged with every passing day, and continuing this massacre will only channel their anger, and financial resources, to future insurgencies.

The Sri Lankan government needs to rethink, and the international community needs to bring all pressure to bear to get them to do so. If this were happening on a scale one-ten-thousandth as tragic in any city, there would be outrage at the authorities' behaviour. For Sri Lanka, the world's outrage may help it wake up from the nightmare it is living. Colombo's friends around the world have to shake the government awake to break the tragic downward spiral of violence it has caught itself up in.

Andrew Stroehlein is Communications Director of the International Crisis Group.

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