Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sri Lanka: International community must concentrate on protecting civilians from the war’s worst effects

Media Release: International Crisis Group

Colombo/Brussels, 20 February 2008: With Sri Lanka again in civil war, the international community must concentrate on protecting civilians from the war’s worst effects and supporting those working to preserve its embattled democratic institutions.

Sri Lanka’s Return to War: Limiting the Damage*, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, explores the costs and likely course of the conflict, which has no resolution in sight. The government’s desire to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and end the war definitively is understandable. But by failing to protect human rights or share power with moderate, unarmed Tamil and Muslim political forces, its military approach has strengthened extremists on both sides in an escalating cycle of violence.

“The military and much of the government leadership believe they can defeat or permanently weaken the Tigers by the end of 2008”, says Sidney Jones, Crisis Group Senior Adviser. “But even assuming the Tigers can be defeated militarily, it remains unclear how, without large-scale repression, the government would pacify and control the large Tamil-speaking areas in the north that have been under their domination for a decade or more”.

The current conflict is worse than what preceded the 2002 ceasefire, and much of the blame for the resumption in violence lies with the LTTE. Its ceasefire violations and abuses of the population under its control helped push the government towards war. However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has also overplayed his hand. Relying on support from Sinhala extremists, his agenda is based almost entirely on a military approach. Human rights violations, attacks on civilians and political repression from both sides have accompanied the return to war.

As unpromising as present circumstances are, the government should be alert to any opportunities that arise to promote a new peace process. Meanwhile, the international community needs to use its limited leverage to prevent further deterioration, while developing strategies to strengthen the moderate, non-violent forces still committed to a peaceful and just settlement and to building the middle ground.

Ultimately, the answer will be a political arrangement significantly beyond the unitary state but far short of a separate Tamil state. This will require pressing the Tigers and their supporters to abandon terrorism and separatism, while simultaneously encouraging a new consensus in the south in support of constitutional and state reforms. But such a lasting political solution will only gain traction once conditions on the ground improve.

“With no chance of a new ceasefire or major peace initiatives soon, responsible parties in Sri Lanka and the international community must defend those caught in the middle”, says Michael Shaikh, Crisis Group Advocacy and Research Analyst. “Human rights defenders, Sinhalese good governance activists and Muslim, Tamil and Up-Country Tamil parties that are still committed to peaceful change are the political forces on which hope for the future depends”.