In my last meeting with the chief political spokesman for the Tamil Tigers in 2005, there was an eerie exchange of messages and warnings. He told me the cause was just and the LTTE would prevail. I told him the international community wanted real negotiations and there were no guarantees a breakdown of discussions would not lead to renewed conflict. A short time later Tamilselvan was dead, taken out by a targeted assassination. While the “ceasefire” was not formally renounced by the government until 2008, conflict was well underway.
A civil war that had lasted, on and off, for forty years was brought to a close by a bloody, brutal, military assault on the Tiger territory that had been briefly protected by the 2002 ceasefire. The hundreds of thousands of civilians who had returned to the Vanni, with the government’s support, found themselves trapped. They would be shot by the government’s troops if they left, and would be condemned for desertion by the Tigers.
So they moved north east, in the tens of thousands, to a tiny strip of land on the coast. Government planes and artillery pounded civilians and hospitals, with nothing but an international “tut tutting” that the government of Sri Lanka knew full well would produce no practical reaction from the UN and the international community.
The Tigers, for their part, continued to recruit children, refused permission to leave, and, by forcing civilians to dig trenches and help their cause, exposed everyone to greater harm. As the UN report of March 31, 2011 put it: “All this was done in a quest to pursue a war that was clearly lost; many civilians were sacrificed on the altar of the LTTE cause and its efforts to preserve its senior leadership.”
In a new report the UN has pointed to its own failures as an organisation – it succumbed too easily to pressure from the Sri Lankan government and withdrew observers from the field when it was clear the absence of witnesses allowed both sides to get away with murder.
There were serious efforts to effect a real ceasefire to allow for a surrender, but this was turned down by the Tigers. This has now been documented, both in the UN Petrie report and in Frances Harrison’s stirring book Count the Bodies.
The Sri Lankan government denied entry to Carl Bildt, Swedish Foreign Minister, and then to me, to see the refugee camps for ourselves.
The important question now is: will the UN and its members learn from the tragedy of Sri Lanka, or just move on, oblivious? The dead number in the tens of thousands. There is still no accountability in Sri Lanka, or internationally. Governments wag their fingers – three years too late – at the government of Sri Lanka. And in Syria and elsewhere, more tragedies unfold with no effective response.
The League of Nations collapsed because it proved to be irrelevant as Europe descended into a chasm of belligerence and wars of conquest in the 1930s. The humanitarian tragedies of our own time are different, yet the failure of international governance is no less grave. We have laws, and rules, but no means of enforcement. We have high ideals, but no apparent capacity for action. We either wring our hands, or wash them, blaming someone else for our own inaction.
It is not simply the UN as an institution whose reputation is at stake – it is whether we have the collective means to curtail the violence that poses such a threat to human life in so many corners of the globe.