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Silent witnesses – the failure of humanitarianism in Sri Lanka

The release of the report by the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka is to be welcomed on a number of fronts.

Significantly, it offers the first UN estimate of the death toll in Sri Lanka’s war, which culminated in tens of thousands of civilian deaths in the final offensive on the rebel-held enclave in northern Sri Lanka between January and May 2009. Although lower than other estimates, the report says 40,000 civilians were killed in the civil war and that many of them ‘died anonymously in the carnage of the final few days’.   

The authors are clear in their assessments that serious violations of international humanitarian law were committed by both parties to the conflict and that these constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In contrast to the Sri Lankan Government’s assertions that the military inflicted no civilian deaths in the final stages of its victory, the report concludes that the scale of civilian casualties is unacceptable and recommends that the Government should respond to serious allegations with an effective accountability process. 

Although the humanitarian community will not be holding its breath for this to begin any time soon (the Sri Lankan Government has rejected the report), it should nevertheless urgently heed the report’s other recommendations, which go much further than simply blaming the scale of civilian casualties on the brutality of the warring parties.

Among these recommendations is one that calls for a full review of the UN’s response to the final stages of war in order to more fully understand the magnitude of the failure to protect civilians. 
It is imperative that the UN does so, since the scale of human suffering must also, in part, be attributed to a failure to uphold the twin pillars of humanitarianism – namely protection and assistance – by humanitarian actors themselves. Of course, humanitarians cannot be blamed for the killings, forcible displacement, internments and other atrocities, but there is a strong case that they were culpable in their response to such widespread human suffering. 

An assessment of the final phase of the war shows that time and again concessions were made on the basis of securing humanitarian space and access to civilians – compromises which ultimately resulted in neither access nor protection.

At each step humanitarian organisations permitted the Government to go further in forcing the compromise of principles they were meant to uphold: first, by allowing body searches at checkpoints, before incrementally giving in to yet more Government demands and harassment. By prioritising the delivery of aid over principles and speaking out about atrocities, silence was effectively granted in exchange for humanitarian access which belligerents had no intention of granting if they impeded their war aims. 

Casualty figures were available – the UN was in possession of credible calculations but failed to cite them or go public with the evidence of their own personnel. 

Accountability and transparency were further curtailed by the Sri Lankan Government’s criminalisation of any inter-agency coordination which effectively drove communication underground.
The Government blocked evidence relating to civilian casualties, and in the weeks and months preceding the war’s denouement all independent media were barred from the fighting areas.  In addition, locals trapped within the war zone would have felt under intense pressure to remain silent. 

This arguably made it all the more incumbent upon humanitarian actors to speak up about the conduct of conflict and the scale of civilian suffering, but their failure to do so did little to lift the fog of war and provide opportunities for fully informed decision-making or to engage more robust international intervention. This was a high price to pay in exchange for remaining operational in a conflict where they proved unable to apply humanitarian principles or protect civilians.

It was perhaps too readily accepted that the only approach was silent behind-the-scenes advocacy, which did little to ensure access or alleviate suffering but arguably much to embolden the protagonists in progressively and systematically denying humanitarian space. 

There could be no clearer metaphor for the failure of these concessions than the forced displacement of civilians to the thin strip of land in northern Sri Lanka which proved to be the final theatre of war in the 26-year civil conflict. 

A so-called persona non grata syndrome also reinforced silence on the part of those tasked with decision-making about humanitarian advocacy – in other words personal concerns about being expelled in a climate where fear was pervasive. 

This perhaps serves as a warning of how easily people can become socialised into coercive environments.  And all the more reason why there should be full implementation of the UN panel’s recommendation that there be a comprehensive review of actions by the UN system regarding its humanitarian and protection mandates in Sri Lanka.