An Urgent Need for UN Action on Sri Lanka

There is still time to act, to prevent yet more senseless deaths. But every day and every hour count.
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(United Nations) -- More than 6,000 civilians have died in Sri Lanka in the past few months as government forces seek to end the 25-year-long war with the separatist Tamil Tigers. More than 90 civilians are reported to have died over the weekend in the shelling of a hospital inside the government's tragically misnamed "no-fire zone." And still the killing continues. The international reaction to this spiraling disaster can be summed up as: don't bother us now, we're a bit busy.

This failure to react is extraordinary, and culpable. The United Nations and influential governments have known all along that civilians have been used as human shields by the Tigers in their dwindling stronghold, while government forces have repeatedly shelled the area indiscriminately. Human Rights Watch and others have in recent months repeatedly documented the bloodshed and the reckless disregard for civilian life shown by both sides in the sliver of land where tens of thousands of civilians are still trapped.

The Security Council, with responsibility for international peace and security, has made endless commitments to protect civilians, women and children in conflict. Three years ago, a summit of world leaders agreed to share responsibility for protecting populations at grave risk of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

And yet, veto-wielding China and Russia insist that it is inappropriate for the Security Council to meet and draw attention to the scale of the unfolding catastrophe. They use their diplomatic muscle to protect sovereignty at the expense of human lives. Japan, Sri Lanka's largest donor, has also opposed Council action.

Things have become so twisted that when the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, dared last month to talk about how many had died, some at UN headquarters reproached her for indelicacy. Unlike, say, in Gaza -- where the high civilian death toll was rightly publicized -- the UN continues to treat its own casualty estimates in Sri Lanka as if they were a state secret.

Briefings to the Security Council on the situation in Sri Lanka have been unofficial affairs, held in a basement room instead of in the Council chamber, to avoid any suggestion that the Council might -- perish the thought! -- take formal notice of the constant violations of the laws of war and the massive humanitarian need. By shutting themselves out of their own official chamber, the members of the Security Council ensure that no action can be taken; these "informal dialogues" are not allowed to produce even feeble action.

China, Russia and others have done all they can to block united international action to save these civilians; Japan has been almost equally reluctant. Others have worked for "humanitarian pauses" in the fighting, yet have stopped short of insisting on a Security Council response. David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, rightly warned of a "war without witness" in northern Sri Lanka, after his brief visit to the country last week. But the UK has not pressed for the Security Council to take up the issue formally; nor have France or the United States.

Even at this late stage, the Security Council can act to save lives. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon can call for an international commission of inquiry, which could help end the cycle of killings with no fear of consequences. The UN can release all information it has on civilian casualties and humanitarian needs, including satellite photos that show the devastating impact of bombing and shelling into the no-fire zone.

The Sri Lankan needs to give humanitarian agencies access to the conflict area. The shelling of areas where civilians are trapped needs to end -- not just with empty promises, but in reality. There should be international monitoring of screening at reception points for fleeing civilians, to prevent the widespread "disappearances" that we have seen in the past (Sri Lanka has one of the highest numbers of forced disappearances in the world). The Security Council and the Human Rights Council in Geneva should both make clear that crimes on this scale, committed by both sides, will not go unpunished.

Even now, despite the obvious urgency, the phrase "let's see how it goes," can repeatedly be heard in New York. That approach could hardly be more wrong. The failures of the past few months are clear, including the naive or cynical ability of politicians to boast of Sri Lankan "reassurances" that all will now be well. There is still time to act, to prevent yet more senseless deaths. But every day and every hour count.

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