Thursday, February 21, 2008

Sri Lanka's return to war: Limiting the damage

Source: International Crisis Group


Sri Lanka is in civil war again, and there are no prospects of a peace process resuming soon. On 2 January 2008, the government announced its withdrawal from a ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This formalised a return to conflict that has been underway since 2006 but also presaged worse to come. The humanitarian crisis is deepening, abuses of human rights by both sides are increasing, and those calling for peace are being silenced. There is no present chance of a new ceasefire or negotiations since the government, despite pro forma statements in favour of a political solution, is dependent on hardliners and appears intent on a military decision. International actors must concentrate for now on damage limitation: protecting civilians from the war's worst effects and supporting those working to preserve Sri Lanka's democratic institutions.

In addition to heavy fighting in the north, the first weeks of 2008 have seen the assassinations of a government minister and a Tamil opposition member of parliament, multiple bombings in Colombo, a wave of deadly attacks on civilians in the majority Sinhalese south, and widespread disappearances and killings of non-combantants in the north and east. More than 5,000 combatants and civilians are estimated to have been killed over the past two years. At least 140,000 have fled intensified fighting in the north, and more are likely to be forced out if the military continues its push into Tiger-controlled territory. If the government's military approach in the east is a precedent for its conduct of the northern campaign, civilians and their property are at grave risk.

Much of the blame for the resumption in violence lies with the LTTE; its ceasefire violations and abuses of the population under its control pushed the government towards war. The Tiger strategy was to shore up internal support by provoking a Sinhala nationalist reaction; it worked, although the insurgents may come to regret their approach. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has also overplayed his hand. Relying on support from Sinhala extremists, he has let them set an agenda that allows only for a military approach.

The military and much of the government leadership believe they can defeat or permanently weaken the Tigers by the end of 2008. The LTTE has been badly hurt over the past eighteen months: it has lost the areas it controlled in the Eastern Province; its arms routes have been disrupted; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its fighters have been killed; and senior commanders are now vulnerable to targeted elimination, either from air force bombs or special forces. But the Tigers remain a formidable fighting force. While the army has been inching forward in the north, they are fighting back from well-defended positions. Even assuming the Tigers can be defeated militarily, it remains unclear how the government would pacify and control the large Tamil-speaking areas in the north that have been under LTTE domination for a decade or more.

The government argues its military campaign will clear the way for a political solution. Vowing to 'eradicate terrorism', it says it aims to destroy the Tigers or force them to disarm and enter democratic politics and negotiations alongside other Tamil and Muslim parties. But after promising for more than a year to undertake substantial constitutional reforms once the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC) recommended them, it now proposes only to 'fully implement' the constitution's long-existing Thirteenth Amendment. The limited devolved powers for the north and east that this would represent are unlikely even in the best case to be sufficient to win over many Tamils or Muslims, though they could be a useful start if implemented sincerely. Since President Rajapaksa has chosen to depend on strongly Sinhala nationalist parties for his government's survival, however, this seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, ethnic divisions are deepening. The humanitarian costs of the war are concentrated in Tamil-speaking areas. In Colombo, security forces have conducted large, often indiscriminate arrests of Tamils under emergency regulations. But Muslims are under pressure from both the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), a paramilitary group which broke from the Tigers and operates with the government's blessing, and government-sponsored land and administrative changes. The much touted 'liberation' of the Eastern Province has failed to bring development or democracy; instead it has been characterised by military rule and rising ethnic tensions. The government will lose an opportunity to set up a democratic alternative to the LTTE in the east if it fails to rein in the TMVP ahead of a series of elections scheduled to begin in March 2008.

The human rights and governance crisis continues unabated, with paralysis of the institutions empowered to investigate and prosecute, and consequent impunity for abusers. The many ad hoc commissions of inquiry of the past two years have accomplished nothing, while disappearances and political killings continue, especially in Jaffna and other parts of the north. Both the Tigers and the TMVP continue to recruit and make use of child soldiers, despite repeated pledges to UN agencies and others not to.

The current conflict is worse than what preceded the 2002 ceasefire. The government's counter-insurgency campaign is more brutal and indiscriminate, the terror and criminal activities of its Tamil proxy forces more extensive and blatant, and the role of chauvinistic Sinhala ideologues in government more pronounced. The suspected involvement of pro-government forces in the assassinations of Tamil politicians is particularly disturbing. The Tigers have fully militarised life in areas under their control and returned to brutal attacks on Sinhalese civilians, intent on provoking even worse retaliation.

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 for the time being to prevent further deterioration, while developing strategies to strengthen the moderate, non-violent forces still committed to a peaceful and just settlement and to build the middle ground – significantly beyond the unitary state but far short of a separate Tamil state – that will be necessary if a lasting political solution is to gain traction once political conditions are better. 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.


To the Government of Sri Lanka:

1. Meet basic humanitarian needs and protect civilians from the effects of war by:

(a) conducting all military operations in strict accordance with international law;

(b) guaranteeing full and prompt access for UN agencies and humanitarian organisations, with adequate medical supplies, to LTTE-controlled areas; and

(c) defending UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations against unfounded allegations by hardline politicians and parties and guaranteeing the safety of all humanitarian workers, Sri Lankan and foreign.

2. Take all necessary steps to protect the fundamental human rights of all citizens, including:

(a) conducting anti-terrorist operations in accordance with both domestic constitutional guarantees and international human rights and humanitarian law;

(b) investigating fully all allegations of disappearances and killings carried out by state forces or militant groups aligned with the state and prosecuting when credible evidence is available;

(c) passing through parliament a witness protection law that takes into account suggestions from civil society organisations and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP);

(d) accepting the proposed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) office in Sri Lanka with adequate powers to monitor and report on human rights violations throughout the country; and

(e) guaranteeing the protection of media personnel and investigating fully recent attacks on journalists.

3. Develop the Eastern Province equitably, transparently, inclusively and effectively by:

(a) delaying local and provincial elections until the illegal activities of all armed groups, including the TMVP, are curtailed and adequate security for all political parties is guaranteed by the police and legitimate security forces;

(b) ending de facto military rule over large parts of the Eastern Province and ensuring that politicians and civil servants of all ethnicities have a major role in planning and decision making; and

(c) guaranteeing full access for UN agencies and humanitarian organisations in the newly cleared areas.

4. Pursue vigorously political reforms that address the legitimate rights and needs of all citizens and ethnic communities in a united and democratic Sri Lanka by:

(a) granting the Eastern Provincial Council, once constituted, all allowable powers under the Thirteenth Amendment, including for police, finance, land and education;

(b) publicly commiting to pursue in the near future more substantial constitutional reforms, including power-sharing at the centre; and

(c) requesting the APRC to publish its proposals for constitutional reforms by the Sinhala and Tamil New Year (mid-April 2008), even if full consensus has not been reached.

To the President:

5. Establish immediately the Constitutional Council and request it to nominate new members to all independent commissions.

To all Political Parties:

6. Monitor closely implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment, work to ensure that maximum powers are granted to the Eastern Provincial Council once it is established after free and fair elections, and press the government to keep constitutional reform high on the agenda.

To the Constituent Parties of the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC):

7. Submit final proposals for constitutional reforms, including power sharing, by mid-April 2008, if necessary with majority and minority reports.

To the United National Party:

8. State publicly willingness to support in parliament reasonable devolution and power-sharing proposals that go beyond the limits of the unitary state, once these are submitted by the APRC.

To the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE):

9. Cease all attacks on civilians, suicide bombings, forced recruitment and repression of media freedom and political dissent and respect fully international human rights and humanitarian law.

10. Abandon publicly the demand for an independent Tamil state (Eelam) and announce willingness to negotiate within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.

To the International Community, in particular Japan, Norway, the EU, the U.S., India, Australia, South Korea and Other Asian States, as well as the United Nations:

11. Recognise that the 2002 peace process having now run its course:

(a) the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donors Conference (Norway, Japan, the U.S. and the EU) no longer have, as such, a clear peacemaking role; and

(b) there needs to be deepened cooperation between India, the EU and the U.S., with the goal of eventually developing a more politically powerful contact group.

12. Strengthen efforts to convince the government to accept a fully staffed UNHCHR office, able to monitor and report on rights violations throughout the country.

13. Continue support for constitutional power-sharing reform to address legitimate minority grievances, monitor Thirteenth Amendment implementation and urge the APRC to submit its proposals by mid-April 2008.

14. Strengthen efforts to close down the LTTE's global financing and supply networks.

15. Cooperate with UK authorities in gathering evidence for possible prosecution of former TMVP leader Karuna on war crimes and human rights violations charges.

16. Speak out more regularly in defence of UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations and for the safety of all humanitarian workers, Sri Lankan and foreign.

To Donor Governments and International Financial Institutions:

17. Promote respect for the Guiding Principles for Humanitarian and Development Assistance agreed by donors and the Sri Lankan government in 2007 by forming a donor task force to investigate political and conflict dynamics in the Eastern Province and report publicly on the best way to ensure equity, inclusiveness and transparency.

To the United Nations Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict:

18. Recommend that the Security Council impose targeted sanctions on both the Tigers and the TMVP for continued recruitment and use of child soldiers.

Colombo/Brussels, 20 February 2008

Full_Report (pdf* format - 685.3 Kbytes)