No Victory in Sri Lanka

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Editorial
Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Even after declaring victory in Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, the country’s leaders seem unable to distinguish between the enemy — the brutal but apparently vanquished Tamil Tiger separatists — and innocent bystanders. Despite appeals from Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, and from others, the government has not given international aid organizations full access to government-run camps, where an estimated 280,000 civilians are said to be in desperate need of food, water and medical care.

The Tamil Tigers have a history of using civilians as human shields and the government claims it must screen out rebels hiding in the camps. But aid workers suspect other motives, including a desire to deny access to witnesses who may have seen abuses by government forces. In the last months of the fighting, President Mahinda Rajapaksa callously rejected international pleas for a cease-fire to let civilians escape the war zone, while his troops shelled the area.

We support the call by Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, for an international investigation into possible war crimes committed by both sides. The United Nations Human Rights Council is debating the issue this week in Geneva.

After killing most of the rebels, including the Tigers’ ruthless leader, the government is now offering reconciliation with the Tamil minority. We hope this is more than just lip service.

It must be prepared to forge a political settlement that gives Tamil civilians, who make up about 12 percent of the population, more autonomy in provinces where historically they have lived. It must also end all abuses, including restrictions on movement, and politically motivated killings. And it must work swiftly to resettle civilians back in their villages.

The government has asked for international help to rebuild. Foreign donors should make clear that any support is dependent on an agreement to open up the camps to international aid workers.

Some experts fear that President Rajapaksa and his government view all Tamils — long oppressed by the Sinhalese majority — as supporters of the Tigers. Most were driven to the guerrillas as a desperation move after decades of abuse. Until the government treats all of its citizens fairly, there is no chance for the peace that President Rajapaksa has promised his country.

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