Robert Evans MEP: Who can protect Tamil civilians caught in the conflict?

Saturday 14 February 2009 01:00 GMT

The news that the Sri Lankan government has rejected Gordon Brown's appointment of the former defence secretary Des Browne as special envoy comes as little surprise to anyone who has been following the situation there. The Sri Lankan government has become increasingly paranoid and defensive about all matters relating to the vicious civil war being waged in the north of the island.

For years this conflict continued with very little outside involvement and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) were able to establish a de facto independent state-within-a-state, with their capital at Kilinochchi. A year ago, the Sri Lankan government unilaterally withdrew from the Norwegian-brokered ceasefire, and under the leadership of its hawkish President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, embarked on this current campaign which seems to be reaching its climax.

Whilst the Sri Lankans claim that they are merely trying to eliminate terrorism, the real victims are, as ever, the civilians trapped by the fighting. All the evidence suggests that unless the international community acts very soon, about a quarter of a million people could be caught in a ghastly bloodbath. The Sri Lankan government has urged Tamil civilians to come over to their side for protection, but there is a strong reticence and fear of such a move.

The Tamil people have seen so much death and destruction. They are terrified of Sri Lankan troops and their "holding camps", withall the stories of assaults and rape, not to mention the different language and religion which divides the Hindu Tamils from the Buddhist Sinhalese troops.

Equally, on the other side there are stories suggesting that the LTTE has, or might, shoot anyone who tries to escape from the areas that remain under their control.

But none of this is verifiable. The Sri Lankan government restricts all journalists and independent observers from entering the conflict zone. The reports from the few remaining aid or humanitarian agencies still allowed in the area are dismissed by the Sri Lankan authorities as propaganda.

Can Amnesty International and United Nations workers all be lying? Are all the horrific pictures of bombed-out hospitals and lines of dead men, women and children false or fabricated?

So the situation in Sri Lanka is now critical. It is difficult to know what could happen next, hence the Prime Minister's insistence on sending Des Browne as a special envoy. But if not him, then who will protect the Tamil civilians from being massacred? Could President Rajapaksa refuse the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon if he too demanded that a UN peacekeeping mission be allowed in to supervise an evacuation of civilians?

With the Gaza war it was possible to be appalled at what the Israeli government was doing without being labelled as a supporter of Hamas, but anyone who doesn't wholly back the murderous tactics of the Colombo government is automatically dismissed by the Sri Lankan authorities not just as an apologist for terrorism but as a supporter of the LTTE .

And for how much longer should we allow British holidaymakers and cricket teams to go to an island waging a vicious civil war against its own people? Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe was ostracised by the international community. Unless things change very quickly, the same fate must await Sri Lanka.

The author is chairman of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with South Asia

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