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International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect
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Steve Crawshaw
6 May 2009

Steve Crawshaw is Human Rights Watchs United Nations Advocacy Director.

More than 6,000 civilians have died in Sri Lanka in the past few months as government forces seek to end the 25-year-long war with the separatist Tamil Tigers. More than 90 civilians are reported to have died over the weekend in the shelling of a hospital inside the government's tragically misnamed "no-fire zone." And still the killing continues. ()

This failure to react is extraordinary, and culpable. The United Nations and influential governments have known all along that civilians have been used as human shields by the Tigers in their dwindling stronghold, while government forces have repeatedly shelled the area indiscriminately. ()

The Security Council, with responsibility for international peace and security, has made endless commitments to protect civilians, women and children in conflict. Three years ago, a summit of world leaders agreed to share responsibility for protecting populations at grave risk of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

And yet, veto-wielding China and Russia insist that it is inappropriate for the Security Council to meet and draw attention to the scale of the unfolding catastrophe. They use their diplomatic muscle to protect sovereignty at the expense of human lives. Japan, Sri Lanka's largest donor, has also opposed Council action.Things have become so twisted that when the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, dared last month to talk about how many had died, some at UN headquarters reproached her for indelicacy. Unlike, say, in Gaza -- where the high civilian death toll was rightly publicized -- the UN continues to treat its own casualty estimates in Sri Lanka as if they were a state secret. ()

The Sri Lankan needs to give humanitarian agencies access to the conflict area. The shelling of areas where civilians are trapped needs to end -- not just with empty promises, but in reality. There should be international monitoring of screening at reception points for fleeing civilians, to prevent the widespread "disappearances" that we have seen in the past (Sri Lanka has one of the highest numbers of forced disappearances in the world). The Security Council and the Human Rights Council in Geneva should both make clear that crimes on this scale, committed by both sides, will not go unpunished. Even now, despite the obvious urgency, the phrase "let's see how it goes," can repeatedly be heard in New York. That approach could hardly be more wrong. The failures of the past few months are clear, including the naive or cynical ability of politicians to boast of Sri Lankan "reassurances" that all will now be well. There is still time to act, to prevent yet more senseless deaths. But every day and every hour count.



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