By Lydia Zemke | Inter Press Service
UNITED NATIONS, May 14 (IPS) – As the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka takes a turn for the worse, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is sending one of his most senior officials to take stock of the situation in the war zone, where hundreds of civilians are being killed both by government and rebel forces.
Under-Secretary-General Vijay Nambiar, the secretary-general’s chief of staff, is scheduled to make a second visit to Sri Lanka to convince the government of the need to rescue the estimated 50,000 civilians being used as human shields by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, listed as a “terrorist organisation” by several countries, including the United States.
The outlawed rebel group has been fighting for a separate Tamil nation state in the politically-troubled northern and eastern provinces since the late 1970s, in one of the longest-running armed conflicts in Asia.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the 15 members of the Security Council met for the third time – the last two being informal briefings – to discuss the crisis, this time releasing the first “official and written [non-binding] statement” condemning the violence and killings in Sri Lanka.
The president of the Security Council, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin of Russia, denounced the violent actions of both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, demanding that “all parties respect their obligations under international humanitarian law”.
The press statement specifically urged that “the LTTE lay down its arms and allow the tens of thousands of civilians still in the conflict zone to leave,” and “call[ed] on the government of Sri Lanka to take the further necessary steps to facilitate the evacuation of the trapped civilians and the urgent delivery of humanitarian assistance to them.”
Hundreds of civilians were killed over the last weekend, including more than 100 children, according to Gordon Weiss, the United Nations spokesman in Sri Lanka, and at least another 50 killed on Wednesday alone in the shelling of a field hospital.
Some agencies claimed that heavy artillery was used in the northeast and in the No Fire Zone (also known as the “Safe Zone”), in which 50,000 civilians are reportedly still trapped. According to Amnesty International, an estimated 7,000 civilians have been killed and 13,000 injured since the beginning of the year.
Amnesty highlighted the difficulty of obtaining information on the current situation in Sri Lanka, describing it as “a war without witnesses”.
“The government has restricted journalists from accessing the conflict zone and has intimidated editors or critics of those who are reporting on the humanitarian crisis,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s researcher on Sri Lanka.
On Monday, eight members of the U.N. Security Council met for the first unofficial briefing with U.N. officials and non-governmental organisations to discuss the escalation of violence over the weekend.
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Minister David Miliband attended the meeting after having returned from their visit to Sri Lanka over the weekend with no significant achievement in calming the violence.
Following the meeting, Spindelegger stressed three main points: freeing the people currently trapped in the small area of the No Fire Zone, enhancing the situation in the IDP camps, and preparing for the future political negotiations that need to take place in order to end all military actions to lead towards viable peace.
All three ministers expressed their countries’ support towards helping the Sri Lankan government and its people to reach a peace agreement.
“We are clear that this is an issue that the U.N. Security Council should address. It involves major civilian loss of life and distress,” said Miliband.
“It does have ramifications for the region and it involves the word of a member of the United Nations not to use heavy weaponry in the pursuit of its goals to suppress a terrorist organisation. Those are fundamental issues that we, as European members of the Security Council, do believe belongs here,” stated Miliband.
Despite the foreign ministers’ emphasis on the importance of putting the issue on the Security Council agenda, some nations such as China and Russia have opposed strong action due to their own economic and military interests with the Sri Lankan government, preventing the U.N. from taking any significant action forward, other than humanitarian support.
At least two other countries – Libya and Vietnam – have also taken the position that the military conflict in Sri Lanka is a domestic issue that does not warrant Security Council intervention.
Amnesty International addressed a letter to both the Security Council and the Barack Obama administration in the U.S. urging them to take immediate action “to speak out against the indiscriminate killing of civilians in the current conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).”
“The [Security] Council must convene without any further delay to discuss the latest disturbing developments and immediately require that attacks on civilians by the Sri Lankan army or the LTTE be stopped; that the LTTE allow all civilians to leave the conflict area; and that the Sri Lankan government provide immediate access to international monitors and humanitarian agencies.”
Addressing the issue for the first time at a press conference Wednesday, President Obama warned that, “without urgent action, this humanitarian crisis could turn into a catastrophe.”
Obama urged the Tamil Tigers to “lay down their arms and let civilians go”, but added that “the government should stop the indiscriminate shelling that has taken hundreds of innocent lives, including several hospitals, and the government should live up to its commitment to not use heavy weapons in the conflict zone.”
He also called on the government to permit access to U.N. humanitarian teams trying to reach the besieged civilians, and allow U.N. and Red Cross workers access to the nearly 190,000 displaced people within the country in need of supplies.