Sri Lanka: West Appalled by Bloodbath but Action is Scarce

UNITED NATIONS - After the largest reported attack on civilians in Sri Lanka over the weekend, the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Austria condemned the "bloodbath" and appealed for the United Nations Security Council to put the conflict on its agenda.

Meanwhile, four non-governmental groups (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, and the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect) wrote to Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose country is the largest donor, to intervene and the United States and Britain questioned whether the International Monetary Fund should give Sri Lanka a loan.

While U.N. officials have regularly expressed concern at events in Sri Lanka, the bloody war is not high on most nations' agenda. And until recently the United Nations has not even released its own casualty estimates. The issue has been scrubbed off the list of conflicts handled by the Security Council, the only U.N. body with mandatory powers. On Monday the Europeans on the Council - Britain, France and Austria -- spoke loud and clear but so far in vain.

"I'm appalled by the reports that have come out of Sri Lanka over the weekend of mass civilian casualties. The U.N. spokesman said that there had been, quote, unquote, a "bloodbath" in the northeast of Sri Lanka on Saturday and Sunday, yesterday," British Foreign Minister David Miliband told reporters.

"We believe very, very strongly that the civilian situation in the northeast of Sri Lanka merits the attention of the United Nations at all levels," said the minister. "Our message is a simple one, which is that the killing must stop. The civilians are trapped in the zone up to 50,000 in an area of just three square kilometers, the victims of what at the moment is a war without witness."

Miliband and his European counterparts, Bernard Kouchner of France and Michael Spindelegger of Austria, spoke after a meeting they had organized with humanitarian rights groups active in Sri Lanka and concerned UN delegations, including the United States. They were at the United Nations for a ministerial Security Council meeting on the Middle East, organized by Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Council members Russia, China, Libya and Vietnam say the warfare is internal and not a threat to international peace and security, a position these countries have taken on several humanitarian or human rights conflicts, such as Myanmar (Burma). Diplomats say Japan, Turkey, Uganda and Burkina Faso are also opposed but with less vehemence, arguing at times that an expected veto from Russia and China would undermine the Council. A majority of eight is needed to get the issue on the agenda while a resolution requires nine votes and no veto from the Council's five permanent members.

"If the Security Council stays silent on this issue any long, this will be a failure of historic proportions," said Steve Crawshaw, UN advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "A clear signal needs to be sent right now that civilian bloodshed on this scale will have consequences."

Asked about Sri Lanka, Russia's Lavrov expressed deep concern Monday "over any events when civilians are suffering" but did not elaborate. Moscow has supported the government, noting that some 30 nations have branded the Tamil Tigers as terrorists.

U.S. officials have said they wanted to delay a $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund loan that Sri Lanka is hoping to get. Miliband said it was "essential that any government is able to show that it will use any IMF money in a responsible and appropriate way and...I don't think that's yet the case."

In Sri Lanka, a government doctor said at least 378 civilians, and perhaps as many as 1,000 had died in a narrow strip of northeast beach territory where Sri Lankan troops surrounded the separatist rebel Tamil Tigers. Some 50,000 civilians are believed trapped in what was once a "no-fire zone." U.N. figures last month estimated that more than 6,400 civilians had been killed in three months of fighting this year.

The Colombo government has said it stopped using heavy artillery in that area almost three weeks ago. But there have been steady reports from the region of indiscriminate artillery raids by government forces, including attacks on makeshift hospitals. At the same time aid workers and human rights groups say the rebels use civilians as human shields and refusing to let them leave.

France's Kouchner said it was shocking that aid workers, independent monitors and journalists were barred from most camps for displaced people. "We are ready to help," he said. On Sunday, the government deported three journalists working for British television, presumably because of their reports on deprivations in government-run refugee camps.

The description of a "bloodbath" came on Monday from the U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss. "The U.N. has consistently warned against the bloodbath scenario as we've watched the steady increase in civilian deaths over the last few months. The large-scale killing of civilians over the weekend including the deaths of more than 100 children, shows that that bloodbath as become a reality," he said. Sri Lanka, a former British colony, has been wracked by violent conflict for most of the past 25 years, suffering more than 100,000 deaths in fighting between the separatist Tamil Tigers, who traditionally lived in the northern and eastern regions, and Sinhalese, who inhabit the central and southern regions. A peace process began in 2002 but talks broke down and a ceasefire agreement crumbled in 2006 when full-scale military action resumed. The fighting escalated in 2008, with the government having won nearly all the territory in the Northern Province.