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Mullaitivu Vs Gaza: The Tokyo Co-Chairs fail on the responsibility to protect

 “Mr. President, one of the most poignant scenes that we have seen on our television sets is when the women and children of Gaza cry out to the rest of the world and ask whether nobody is watching or listening. We, the Human Rights Council here must show that we are watching, that we are listening and that we are responsive. If the Human Rights Council does not stand up for the human rights of the people of Gaza, the innocent people of Gaza, then what do we stand for, and why do we exist?  - thus spoke   H.E. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva while addressing the Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in Gaza strip on 9 January 2009.  

However, the Sri Lankan government has banned telecast of such poignant scenes in war torn zones of Northern Sri Lanka. Many Sri Lankan journalists who dared to question the war were either murdered or maimed. On 1 February 2009, Defence Minister Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa went a step further: he warned that Ambassadors of Germany and Switzerland, international non-governmental organisations and the news channels CNN, Al-Jazeera and the BBC will be chased away (!) from Sri Lanka for behaving irresponsibly (not supporting the killings of the civilians and telecasting footage from pro-LTTE websites).[1]

 

The Mullaitivu district where the Sri Lankan Army have started cluster-boming today i.e. 4 February 2009 would look exactly what Gaza strip was about a few weeks ago. The Hamas whom Israel sought to crush is too banned in some countries like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

 

As the BBC reports the massacre of 52 civilians today including in a cluster bombing of the civil hospital in Pudukudiyyiruppu, the question arises if the UN Human Rights Council could hold a Special Session on the situation in Gaza strip on 9 January 2009, why not a Special Session on the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka? More so, Sri Lanka has banned any telecast of the war.

Failure in responsibility to protect:

Sri Lanka alleges that about 250,000 civilians living in the LTTE held areas in Mullaitivu are being prevented by the LTTE to leave for safe regions. Yet the Sri Lankan government in a statement on 2 February 2009 stated “While the Security Forces accept all responsibility to ensure the safety and protection of civilians in the Safety Zones, they are unable to give such an assurance to those who remain outside these zones. Therefore, the government, with full responsibility, urges all civilians to come to the Safety Zones; and also states that as civilians who do not heed this call will be among LTTE cadres, the Security Forces will not be able to accept responsibility for their safety."

 

This is nothing but justifying the impending indiscriminate shelling against the civilians in the name of defeating the LTTE.

 

In an attempt to further justify its impending attack, Sri Lankan Army stated on 3 February 2009 that the civilians in Mullaitivu are being armed by the LTTE.

 

The declaration of the Sri Lankan government of its inability to protect the civilians follows President Mahinda Rajapaksa announcement on 29 January 2008 of a 48-hour ceasefire to allow safe passage to the civilians to cross over to the “safe zones”.[2] As the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms Navi Pillay stated on 29 January 2009 apart from people being prevented from fleeing, they have also “been arbitrarily detained in special centres”.[3] Further, the socalled “safe zones” are neither known to those trapped nor mutually agreed by the warring parties.[4]

 

The refusal to provide guarantees for safety and security of the civilians constitutes an admission of the failure of the “Responsibility to Protect” as agreed by the Heads of State and Government in the 2005 World Summit Outcome operationalizing the responsibility to protect which was subsequently adopted by the General Assembly and endorsed by the Security Council.

 

Paragraph 138 of the Outcome Document relating “Responsibility to Protect” states, “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means. We accept that responsibility and will act in accordance with it.”

 

Ban on war reporting:

 

There is little or no independent media as Sri Lanka has been swayed by jingoism and fascism promoted by Rajapakse brothers. There is a ban on reporting on the war while some foreign journalists have been taken for guided tour for exposure to the bunkers allegedly frequented by LTTE Chief Prabhakaran but not to report on the conditions of the civilians. Those who oppose the war are murdered and maimed.

 

On 8 January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor-in-chief of Sunday Leader, by gunned down by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles at Attidiya in Colombo. Mr Wickramatunga had been a critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and the war with the LTTE. Prior to his death, he wrote an editorial accusing President Rajapaksa of pursuing the war to stay in power. “Winning the war? Then there must be elections around the corner. It is no secret that the war has become Mahinda Rajapaksa's recipe for electoral success,” he wrote.

 

In view of the persistent attacks, many newspapers have ceased their operations. Lankadissent, a pro-opposition web newspaper, closed its operations after Mr Wickramatunga’s murder. The editorial board of Lankadissent stated, “This compassionate Sinhala Buddhist land does not tolerate "dissent". Those who would not want to learn that living, would have to learn that in death. We who live, would come back when "dissent" comes back as a democratic right, accepted and enjoyed in a modern land of compassion.[5]

 

On 23 January 2009, editor of the privately-owned Rivira weekly newspaper, Upali Tennakoon and his wife were attacked with iron rods and other weapons by two men on motorcycles in Colombo. They were stabbed and are now being treated in a hospital in Colombo.[6]

 

Earlier, on 6 January 2009, a gang of 15 to 20 men stormed the Maharaja TV and Maharaja Broadcasting Corporation, a private radio and television station, at Pannipitiya, 20 kilometres south-east of the Colombo. The attackers opened fire inside the building, lobbed grenades and went on the rampage causing extensive damages to the studio complex and interrupted its broadcasts.[7]

 

Failures of the Tokyo Co-Chairs:

 

The statement of the Tokyo Co-Chairs (Norway, Japan, US and EU) issued on 3 February 2009 appears naïve. The statement failed to reflect the ground situations and remained silent on the need for ensuring respect for the laws of war.

 

First, the Tokyo Co-Chairs statement called on “the LTTE to discuss with the Government of Sri Lanka the modalities for ending hostilities, including the laying down of arms, renunciation of violence, acceptance of the Government of Sri Lanka's offer of amnesty; and participating as a political party in a process to achieve a just and lasting political solution.” If the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE could discuss among themselves, the Co-Chairs would not simply be issuing such a statement! Across the world, pre-condition on the armed groups to lay down arms has never led to start of any peace process. It is the failure of the Co-Chairs to prevail upon the Government of Sri Lanka to take advantage of a political opportunity provided by military victories to restore life to normalcy in the Northern Province and throughout Sri Lanka.

 

Second, the Tokyo Co-Chairs regrettably made no reference to the scale of killings of the civilians in the war. While Sri Lankan government claimed of a policy of following a “zero civilian casualty”, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated on 27 January 2009 that “Hundreds of people have been killed and scores of wounded are overwhelming understaffed and ill-equipped medical facilities in Sri Lanka's northern Vanni region”.[8] It is precisely because of the absolute ban on reporting on war that gross violations of international humanitarian law both by the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE are not being reported.

 

Third, the statement of the Tokyo Co-Chairs failed to urge both the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to fully respect the laws of wars including the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

 

While there is no disagreement with the statement of the Tokyo Co-Chairs that “There remains probably only a short period of time before the LTTE loses control of all areas in the North”, it failed to take note of the costs - endangering the lives of over 250,000 civilians trapped in Mullaitivu. At present the LTTE refuses to “allow the civilians’ freedom of movement” while Sri Lanka is hell-bent on attacking the civilians in the LTTE held areas as shown by bombing of the hospitals including the civil hospital in Pudukudiyyiruppu on 4 February 2009.

 

Recommendations:

Cease-fire is the only option to prevent further violations of war crimes both by the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. International community must not wait for the fall of Mullaitivu just the way NATO troops remained a mute witness to the fall of Sebrenica in the former Yugoslavia.  In a situation when the State (Sri Lanka) has publicly refused to fulfill its responsibility to protect, international community has the responsibility to “use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means” or take “collective action, in a timely and decisive manner”, through the Security Council and in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations. (Paragraph 139 of R2P).  

International community, in particular the Tokyo Co-Chair, India and United Nations, must act decisively by taking the following measures:

 

-          Mediate between government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to declare indefinite cease-fire, find out modalities for “an inclusive dialogue to agree on a political settlement” of the conflict and provide unrestricted access to the UN agencies, the ICRC, and humanitarian organizations to the internally displaced persons;

 

-          Invite India to join as a member of the Tokyo Co-Chairs while India on its part must abandon its unilateral approach on Sri Lanka and accept the co-chairmanship;

 

-          Take measures for holding a Special  Session of the UN Human Rights Council to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka, send a High Level Investigation Team to inquire into the violations of international humanitarian law both by the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE including fixing of the command responsibility and establishing field missions of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor human rights violations; and

 

-          Urge Sri Lanka to lift ban on reporting on the war and prosecute those responsible for the murder and attacks on the journalists.



[1]. “Act responsibly or be chased out,’’ Gota tells BBC & envoys, by Franklin R. Satyapalan, The Island (Online), 1 February 2009 available at http://www.island.lk/2009/02/01/news1.html

[2]. Sri Lanka gives Tamil Tigers 48 hours to allow civilians through jungle, Times Online, 30 January 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article5616210.ece

[3] . Sri Lanka: Pillay deplores deteriorating situation for civilians, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 29 January 2009 http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/Media.aspx

[4]. Civilian exodus still a trickle, The Hindu, 1 February 2009

[5]. See http://www.lankadissent.com/

[6]. Fresh media attack in Sri Lanka, BBC News, 23 January 2009

[7]. MTV/MBC attacked by armed gang, Headline24, 6 January 2009 available at http://headline24.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/mtvmbc-attacked-by-armed-gang/

[8] . Sri Lanka: Major humanitarian crisis unfolding, International Committee of the Red Cross,27 January 2009 available at http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/sri-lanka-news270109!OpenDocument

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