Remembering Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields
26 October 2012
One of the worst atrocity crime stories of recent decades has barely registered in the world’s collective conscience. We remember and acknowledge the shame of Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. We agonize about the failure to halt the atrocities being committed almost daily in Syria. But, at least until now, the world has paid almost no attention to war crimes and crimes against humanity comparable in their savagery to any of these: the killing fields of Sri Lanka in 2009.
Three years ago, in the bloody endgame of the Sri Lankan government’s war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, some 300,000 civilians became trapped between the advancing army and the last LTTE fighters in what has been called “the cage” – a tiny strip of land, not much larger than New York City’s Central Park, between sea and lagoon in the northeast of the country.
With both sides showing neither restraint nor compassion, at least 10,000 civilians – possibly as many as 40,000 – died in the carnage that followed, as a result of indiscriminate army shelling, rebel gunfire, and denial of food and medical supplies.
The lack of outrage mainly reflects the Sri Lankan government’s success in embedding in the minds of policymakers and publics an alternative narrative that had extraordinary worldwide resonance in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (…)
The other key reason behind the world’s silence is that the Sri Lankan government was relentless in banning independent observers – media, NGOs, or diplomats – from witnessing or reporting on its actions. (…)
Nobody underplays the LTTE’s contribution to the 2009 savagery; but, with the Tigers’ leaders all dead, international attention should now be focused overwhelmingly on holding the government accountable for its failure to accept its responsibility to protect its own people. (…)
An internal review panel studying what went wrong in the UN system’s response to Sri Lanka, commissioned by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and headed by the distinguished diplomat Charles Petrie, is due to report to Ban next month. All indications are that it will not be a pretty story. It is crucial that its findings be made public and acted upon.
Selective memory is a defense mechanism with which we are all familiar. For governments and international organizations, as with individuals, moral failure is easier to live with if we can pretend that it never happened. But mass atrocity crimes did happen in Sri Lanka, there was moral default all around, and if we do not learn from this past, we will indeed be condemned to repeat it.
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