14 November 2006
In the wake of the Sri Lankan military’s shelling of a camp for internally displaced civilians in Vakarai last week which killed over 40 people and wounded 100, the possibility that the LTTE was using civilians as human shields was promptly raised.
But international ceasefire monitors and other observers who inspected the scene and interviewed survivors reported that there was no evidence of LTTE activity or firing.
Despite this the accusations continues to be levelled and have been embellished in the Colombo based media with claims LTTE cadres being amongst the dead.
At first the ‘human shields’ allegation seemed simply the Sri Lankan government’s kneejerk attempt to evade the moral stigma that could have followed the targeted killing of scores of civilians.
However, a closer examination of the escalation of conflict in the past six months indicates that the accusation the LTTE is using Tamil civilians as human shields is central to Sri Lanka’s unfolding military strategy.
Since April this year the Sinhala establishment has (again) rolled out a set of policies that are clearly intended to punish and terrorise Tamil civilians in LTTE controlled areas.
Embargoes on food, fuel and medicines have been re – imposed on the Vanni and the LTTE controlled areas of the east, including Vaharai while the military has launched air and artilley-strikes on civilians in LTTE controlled areas (besides hitting LTTE positions, that is).
Sixteen bombs slaughtered 51 teenagers on a first aid course in August. Last week the government bombed the environs of Kilinochchi hospital wiping out a family of five.
Targeting and punishing Tamil civilians, in an effort to create ‘war weariness’ is clearly central to Sri Lanka’s new ‘war for peace.’
Accusing the LTTE of using civilians as human shields serves to excuse as necessary and justified every Sri Lankan military attack that results in Tamil civilian casualties.
The claim is doubly useful as it not only shifts the blame onto the LTTE for civilian deaths caused by targeted Sri Lankan attacks, it also undermines the LTTE’s legitimacy as a liberation movement struggling to establish the rights of an oppressed people.
In the past few months the Sri Lankan government has also been gradually creating the conditions in which such accusations can be levelled without proof or being challenged.
Repeating the policies of the ill-fated first ‘war for peace,’ the Sinhala establishment has been steadily emptying the north – east of any observers who might be able to challenge its interpretation of events. Foreign non - governmental organisations (NGOs) have been leaving the war zones while access for journalists is near impossible.
The presence of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has to some extent limited the effectiveness of the ‘human shields’ excuse.
However, Sri Lanka has regularly blocked or delayed monitors’ access to the scenes of atrocities. The point was driven home last week when the SLMM chief was himself targeted by Sri Lankan shelling. The message for all foreigners to (literally) take home is: none of you are safe here.
The international community, always keen to demonise the LTTE and pressure it to the negotiating table has also backed the Sri Lankan charge of human shields.
By way of comparison, in the past the issue of ‘child soldiers’ had been key to undermining the LTTE politically and militarily. Not only was the charge used to characterise the LTTE as an irredeemably illiberal bunch of thugs, it was also hoped that it could be used to hamper its growth by demanding greater scrutiny of its recruitment.
However, the LTTE’s proactive and multifaceted engagement with the complexities of child rights has somewhat blunted the international community’s efforts in this regard – while highlighting the plight of Tamil children under the Sri Lankan state’s decades long embargo and discrimination.
Now, the Sri Lankan military’s brazen abduction of Tamil children, to expand the paramilitary Karuna group, has made the issue something of a liability for both the Sinhala establishment and the international community.
Indeed the recent visit of Allan Rock, a representative of the UN Representative for Children and Armed Conflict has has notably not incited the flurry of activity that accompanied the visit in 1998 by the then UN Representative, Olaru Ottonu, when the campaign was primarily against the LTTE.
The issue of ‘human shields’ has become central to a new strategy of weakening the LTTE. By bombarding and terrorising Tamil civilians, it is hoped that popular support for the LTTE will be substantively eroded.
Some international actors are therefore working in tandem with the Sri Lankan establishment to establish the accusation of human shields as a rationale for explaining away targeted attacks against Tamil civilians.
With backing from diplomats in Colombo and their western capitals, sections of the international media have been repeating Sri Lankan accusations of the LTTE using human shields. The SLMM findings that contradict the allegations are largely ignored or sidelined.
And with this doubt in the air, the international community then ‘justifiably’ holds back from condemning Sri Lankan violations of international humanitarian law, using platitudes such as ‘deep regret’, ‘concern’ and lamenting the ‘price paid by civilians.’
A stark contrast indeed from the colourful language used to lambast the LTTE when it appears to have violated those same norms. A contrast that is immediately visible to the Tamils – as it is meant to be. The message is clear: these rights are not for supporters of terrorism.
As with the campaign around child soldiers, international organisations have also been mobilised to focus attention on the human shields accusation against the Tigers. Even before the massacre at Vakarai last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) initiated a campaign on this very theme.
In an interview with the Colombo based Daily Mirror, conducted before the Vakarai shelling, but published afterwards, an HRW official asserted Sri Lankan accusations against the LTTE as fact and pointed out that using human shields was a violation of international humanitarian law.
Like many aspects of the child soldiers campaign, the noise level of these accusations insistently echoed and re-echoed by HRW and the Colombo based media, in spite of any evidence to the contrary, establishes the allegations as incontrovertible ‘truth.’
The LTTE, rather than the armed forces, then becomes the proximate cause of Tamil suffering when shells and bombs explode amongst civilians.
More insidiously, the noise level of the human shields campaign also works to justify Sri Lankan attacks against civilians as a necessary part of prosecuting a just war against the morally bankrupt LTTE.
The human shield campaign has however been blunted by the reporting in the Tamil media and by the ongoing presence of SLMM monitors in the war zone.
However, the space for accurate reporting is being steadily closed. There has been a rapid escalation of attacks against Tamil journalists and newspapers based in the war zones.
The SLMM’s ability to function independently of Sri Lankan and international agendas is also being compromised – note the confidence with which two SLMM chiefs have been shelled by the Army without penalty.
Amid this blackout, Colombo based media as well as international organisations, like the HRW, irredeemably hostile to the LTTE, will ratchet up the noise about human shields whilst simultaneously ignoring attacks against Tamil journalists, disappearances, abductions and intentionally created conditions of starvation and disease.
The HRW has played a similar role in the recent campaign on alleged LTTE extortion amongst the Diaspora. It is no accident that Sri Lankan ministers began quoting extracts from the HRW report even before it was officially published.
That report, it must be recalled, was instrumental in securing the European Union ban on the LTTE. It was also instrumental justifying the subsequent Sri Lankan military actions against Tamil civilians, as it asserted that Tamils are not supportive of the LTTE and any civilian deaths caused by Sri Lankan military action are unintentional.
If the Sri Lankan establishment is successful in silencing the Tamil media, we can fully expect the human shields campaign to reach the noise levels the child soldiers issue reached.
The international community will support Sri Lanka’s strategy in so far as they believe it is effective in limiting the LTTE’s military capacity.
The human shields campaign is the perfect logic through which to prosecute a war that punishes the Tamil populace for supporting the LTTE. As an editorial in The Times of London warned some months ago, the Tamils “will find no peace” until they abandon the LTTE.
But while the human shields campaign is likely to be successful in rationalising Tamil civilian suffering amongst the converted – i.e. in the South and Sri Lanka’s international backers - it will have a different effect on Tamil civilians.
Desperate people will do desperate things. And as recent history attests, the Tamils have proven themselves to be a determined group accustomed to international contempt and hostility.
The internationally backed Sri Lankan strategy of prosecuting a ‘total war’ against Tamil civilians whilst accusing the LTTE of using human shields will only stiffen Tamil resolve against Sinhala aggression and international duplicity.
It will, like other efforts to undermine the Tamil struggle, contribute to its strengthening.