Recent demonstrations in London, Paris and elsewhere have brought the situation in Sri Lanka to wide public attention. But the island's civil war has been running for 28 years. The Tamil minority in the north has long argued that it is marginalised politically and economically.
In the early 1980s the LTTE (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers) started fighting for an independent Tamil state. By 1986 it had full control of the northern Jaffna peninsula. What began with violent protest soon led to civil war - to the majority the assertion of military power by a sovereign government against a murderous terrorist organisation, to the minority the abuse of violent power by the State. Repeated attempts to find a political solution ran aground.
The Government of Sri Lanka now believes that it is in the final stages of that campaign. Its military advance is undoubted. The LTTE leadership appears trapped in an ever-diminishing strip of land, now only a few square kilometres. But despite its size, at least 50,000 civilians remain there with the LTTE, the others having fled to “screening centres” and IDP (internally displaced people) camps. So civilian suffering and loss of life continues, and the chances of any kind of political settlement recede.
We visited Sri Lanka yesterday for a simple reason: time is running out for those trapped or displaced by the fighting. Our mission was simple too: to make, in person, the case for the humanitarian relief that the UN, the EU and the G8 have called for.
We saw the situation for ourselves in Vavunja, close to the fighting, where we visited displaced Tamils and saw the newly arrived French field hospital. We heard stories of individual human tragedy: civilians forced by the LTTE not to leave its stronghold, deaths and injuries from bombs and artillery, and families separated, desperately seeking news of their loved ones - fears from the recent past, fears for their present situation and fear of what might happen in the future.
The UN and EU have spoken loud and clear about the immediate needs. First, both sides must act to protect civilians inside the so-called no-fire zone (which has become the opposite). We have called for some time for the Government of Sri Lanka to set a ceasefire in place and for the LTTE to allow all civilians under its control to leave the conflict area safely and as quickly as possible, preferably under UN auspices.
The Government of Sri Lanka's announcement of a cessation of heavy military combat is a welcome step towards the protection of civilians. Similar announcements have been made in the past. This one must be implemented and kept to. The UN had an agreement with the Government to send a mission into the conflict zone to help to assess and address civilian needs. That agreement has not been implemented. It must be.
The second concern is over arrangements and conditions for the displaced persons fleeing the zone. Here the refusal to allow the UN, the aid agencies, and the media full and proper access is quite wrong. The Government wants to “screen” civilians escaping the fighting to ensure that LTTE fighters cannot get into the wider community to continue the struggle using terrorist means. But it is vital that this process is transparent - the Government must allow the UN and other international agencies proper access to all stages of the screening process.
Third, conditions for civilians who have fled the fighting are an important concern. Any country would struggle with 200,000 IDPs. When these include many who are injured and traumatised, as well as the old and children, this is doubly the case. In the past, the Sri Lankan Government has been unwilling to let international aid agencies get involved directly. But without a properly managed, resourced and co-ordinated humanitarian aid effort, their suffering will only intensify. That is why we fully supported the visit this week to Sri Lanka of Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs. Within the IDP camps, there must be better medical facilities and improved access to food and shelter. Britain and France have made commitments of money and medicine and shelter. So have others. But there needs to be proper access.
Finally, while our focus today is short term, we cannot ignore the long-term context. The Government of Sri Lanka is an elected one and is rightly held to the high standards expected of members of the UN - so all its obligations under international humanitarian law must be respected. To the LTTE we repeat the EU's longstanding position that violence will not serve the Tamil people and affirm that only the renunciation of violence will bring progress.
In the future, the communities of Sri Lanka will have to find ways to live together. That will not be achieved through military victory alone. The deep-seated sense of political alienation that has fuelled Tamil resentment towards successive governments in Sri Lanka must be addressed through a political process of integrity and decency. We are under no illusions about how entrenched positions are on either side. The Government of Sri Lanka believes it is days away from the victory that it has sought for three decades, but at the cost of too many civilian lives. The LTTE is a terrorist organisation that is now using innocent civilians as human shields. The gravity of the situation means that the international community has a duty to respond and to do all that we can to halt the suffering.
People ask what does it have to do with us? As members of the UN Security Council we do not shy away from the responsibility of sovereign governments and the international community to protect civilians. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has joined us in describing the failure to protect civilians in Sri Lanka as truly shocking. Yesterday we took our plea direct to the Sri Lankan Government. In its moment of triumph it must show the humanity and self-interest to find a way to win the peace.
Bernard Kouchner is France's Minister of Foreign Affairs; David Miliband is Foreign Secretary
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