The government and the army of Sri Lanka recently declared a decisive victory over the insurgency of the Tamil Tigers — but at a terrible cost. Out of the 7,000 civilians killed over the last four months, many may have been killed by the Tigers while they tried to escape; others died because the rebels deployed them as human shields. Many died waiting for days to be ‘screened’ for admission to camps for internally-displaced people; others disappeared after being removed by military authorities. Many of the 280,000 civilians in camps remain at risk of death because of inadequate efforts to assist them by the authorities.
Sri Lanka framed the fight as part of the global ‘war on terror’; and the Tigers were undoubtedly one of the world’s most ruthless insurgencies. But States engaged in armed combat don’t have the right to perpetrate atrocities against civilians; nor does the cruelty of an armed opponent absolve them of their responsibility to protect citizens from war atrocities. The 2005 UN World Summit concluded that it’s the responsibility of States to protect peoples within their borders from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and asked them to assist others in preventing such crimes. When States are found to be ‘manifestly failing’ to protect citizens, the responsibility shifts to the international community, acting through the UN. At the core of R2P, as the norm is known, is the obligation to act preventively rather than waiting until atrocities have occurred.
Since the Sri Lankan government barred access to the combat zone to journalists, human rights groups and humanitarian bodies, what actually happened on and around the battlefield is still unknown. Yet, even the fragmentary accounts tell that a ‘bloodbath’, as a UN spokesman in Colombo asserted, had occurred. In April and May, when thousands of civilians were trapped, both — leading human rights organisations and senior diplomats, including former External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee — reminded Sri Lanka of its ‘responsibility to protect’ the population.
Indeed, accounts of victims and eyewitnesses make it clear that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s account is a fiction. The government at first denied using heavy artillery and aerial bombardment against civilians gathered in the ‘no fire zone’; then, under intense international pressure, promised to no longer do so; then continued these tactics.
Government forces blocked the International Committee of the Red Cross from delivering food to trapped civilians and hampered its efforts to evacuate the wounded, launched attacks on hospitals and prevented fleeing civilians from reaching camps.
Some may accept that a State must use pitiless tactics against a pitiless foe. Yet since when have we surrendered to this brute principle of raison d’etat? The world didn’t accept the Bush administration’s claim that the exigencies of the war on terror permitted torture or indefinite detention. Or even Israel’s insistence that only Hamas is to be blamed for the death of the civilians in Gaza. To balk at assertions made by Washington or Tel Aviv, and to accept them when advanced by Colombo, is to sanction another kind of double standard.
India is among the countries most sceptical of R2P, and most inclined to call attention to the hypocrisy with which such principles have been applied. For that reason, supporters of this international norm of behaviour were heartened by Mukherjee’s blunt admonition, and by India’s diplomatic demarches to Colombo. But it didn’t seem to have deterred the Lankan leaders, who seem inclined to pursue military victory and then deal with the consequences. It was a failure, not of the principle, but of its application: More diplomatic pressure from Sri Lanka’s allies and trading partners — not a military intervention but threat of sanctions, loss of aid, diplomatic isolation and criminal prosecution — might have changed the regime’s calculus.
We may ask whether the avoidable civilian deaths constitute a crime against humanity, or a war crime; or, how to parcel out that responsibility between the government and the Tigers. It is for such reasons that the UN must conduct an inquiry into the events of the last few months, no matter how stoutly Colombo resists. The government, unable to handle a humanitarian disaster partly of its own making, must agree to give humanitarian groups access to the combat zone, to ‘screening centres’ and to the camps. It must also grant full access to the media and to human rights monitors. It must now turn from combat to diplomacy, seeking a political solution to redress the grievances of the Tamils. A failure to do so virtually guarantees a return to the conflict.
If we are to have any hopes of leaving behind the shameful legacy of Rwanda, and Srebrenica, and the killing fields of Cambodia, then we must not only embrace the principle of the responsibility to protect, but act, steadfastly, to prevent such atrocities from occurring, and insist upon truth and accountability for those responsible for crimes in the aftermath.
(James Traub is Director of Policy, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect)