The humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka’s northern Wanni region is rapidly becoming a catastrophe. An estimated 150,000 civilians are trapped in an ever shrinking space, forcibly held back by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and exposed to indiscriminate attacks by the Sri Lankan military. Thousands have already been killed and many more wounded, and tens of thousands are facing death or injury due to fighting and lack of food, water and medicine. International leaders — in particular, the UN Secretary-General, the Prime Minister of India and the President of the United States — must act now.
International leaders with influence on the Sri Lankan government must insist that it abandon its policy of annihilation and hold off on the final assault to allow relief to reach the civilian populations and to make it possible for those civilians who wish to leave to do so. Those with influence on the LTTE leadership should insist that they allow civilians to leave areas under its control, cease using civilians as a shield and negotiate an effective surrender, with personal security of LTTE leaders and fighters guaranteed by the international community.
The Sri Lankan government can no longer use the Tigers’ refusal to surrender as an excuse to continue its offensive, nor can the Tigers continue to hold civilians hostage until the government has agreed to its demand for a ceasefire leading to political negotiations.
Situation on the Ground
Independent estimates from sources on the ground and satellite imagery suggest at least 150,000 people are trapped by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military, more than the level claimed by the Sri Lankan government. Most have little access to fresh water, food, or medicine. While they are mostly in or near the government-declared “no fire zone” along the coast, the government itself has shelled that zone daily. LTTE refusal to allow civilians to leave makes them complicit in keeping civilians at grave risk.
The medical system in Wanni has collapsed, and sanitation systems are non-existent, with communicable diseases spreading among the displaced. Doctors have reported cases of death by starvation, a claim the government strongly contests. A shipment of 500 metric tonnes of food on 8 March was the first major humanitarian aid since the end of January.
UN agencies have documented more than 2300 civilian deaths and at least 6500 injuries since late January. More than 500 children have been killed and over 1400 injured. More than 100 victims are arriving each day in the make-shift medical centres still functioning in Wanni, many of whom die before evacuation. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been able to evacuate some 2000 injured and sick persons over the past few weeks, but few supplies have been able to get in.
Serious violations of international humanitarian law by both sides are at the heart of the crisis. The LTTE has prevented civilians from fleeing areas under their control, although around 35,000 people have managed to escape. It has fired on civilians as they flee, killing many over the past weeks. The Tigers continue to forcibly conscript civilians, including children, into battle and they continue to operate and fire from among civilians forced to act as their shield.
For its part, the government has continued shelling of civilian areas — including its own unilaterally declared “no fire zone” — without any significant pause over the past two months. The military wants to squeeze the Tigers into an ever smaller space until they are eliminated or surrender unconditionally, regardless of the cost to civilians. The Sri Lankan military’s actions cannot continue without inflicting massive civilian casualties and committing grave violations of the laws of armed conflict.
The government’s proposed “safe routes” — which can be opened only by the Sri Lankan military first fighting their way through LTTE positions in densely populated areas — are no substitute for an immediate pause in the fighting and the reopening of access routes for food, water and medical supplies.
Humanitarian space for civilians has practically vanished. Unable to fire their weapons in a manner that respects the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, most government attacks at this point are by their very nature indiscriminate.
What Should Be Done
The following actions by the Sri Lankan government and LTTE leadership should be taken immediately and without preconditions.
The Sri Lankan military has already achieved its military objectives and essentially won the war. It must not pursue a strategy of annihilation. The Sri Lankan government must hold off on the final assault to allow adequate supplies of food, water and medical aid to reach the civilian population and to let those civilians who wish to leave do so. An evacuation of civilians by sea with international assistance offers one possible escape route, and discussions under way to make this happen should be expedited. International leaders must make clear the unacceptable nature of continued military attacks which risk the death of even more thousands of civilians.
The LTTE must allow civilians to leave areas under its control. It has been defeated and must surrender. Its current actions demonstrate its utter disregard for the Tamil people it claims to want to liberate. The international community should send its strongest possible messages to the LTTE that it must negotiate a surrender. In exchange, key international parties should commit to supervise the surrender and to guarantee the physical protection of any surrendered fighters, with the ICRC present at the initial points of reception for those leaving areas of fighting. On the other hand, if the LTTE continues to use civilians as a human shield and forcibly recruit children and adults, its leadership should face internation al justice for its serious war crimes.
International leaders, in particular the UN Secretary-General, the Prime Minister of India and the President of the United States, must press for these actions immediately.
The United Nations Secretary General should publicly describe the extent of civilian suffering, including the UN’s own figures for casualties, and thus open the way for a more forceful international response. He should also insist that the Government of Sri Lanka allow immediate access to the “no fire zones” for UN staff, in order to conduct a proper assessment of needs. The Secretary General should immediately appoint a Special Representative to work with the Sri Lanka government and all relevant parties to see that all necessary steps are taken to end the humanitarian crisis and to bring a lasting settlement to the fighting.
These core recommendations will be difficult to put into practice. The Tiger leadership, which has become as much a cult as a rational guerrilla force, will be highly averse to surrender. The government, for its part, is understandably desperate to put an end to the LTTE once and for all and will resist vehemently any limitations on the use of military force.
Still, clear international calls on the Tigers to surrender — and on the Tamil diaspora and leaders in Tamil Nadu to cease their support for the LTTE — can help mitigate some of the Sri Lankan government’s suspicion about international motives. The promise of international supervision of an LTTE surrender may begin to weaken the Tigers’ hold on their forces — and therefore also on the civilian population. And important foreign governments, particularly India and the US, should provide security guarantees to the Sri Lankan government, perhaps in the form of increased naval surveillance of the coasts to prevent Tigers from escaping by sea.
The Sri Lankan government has a right under international law to respond to terrorist attacks and protect its territorial integrity. But destroying the Tigers at the cost of thousands of civilian lives is a prescription for deeper alienation of Tamils in Sri Lanka, radicalisation of Tamils around the world, and years of continued bloodshed. The international community has a responsibility to do all it can to preserve whatever chances there are for political dialogue leading to a lasting resolution of Sri Lanka’s conflict and for eventual reconciliation between communities.
Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 1635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) +1 202 785 1601