How much "collateral damage" is permitted? Human rights work in a battlefield: a window onto the war on terror
The first generation of human rights (political rights protecting the individual from state violence) are defensive in nature. Like the later social, cultural and economic human rights, they are universally binding, applicable to each and every individual. That, at least was the proclaimed consensus until an undefined but exclusive group of states called for a “War on Terror” in the name of those very same human rights. In the name of these human rights, the states waging war have decided to deny human rights to the enemy – the “terrorists”. In the context of a global war on terror, the conflict in Sri Lanka is significant. World opinion is being tested: how many human rights violations, how much “collateral damage” to civilians are tolerated while supporting these warmongering policies of dominance? The answer is of interest to a number of otherwise very different powers that have helped arm Sri Lankan forces over recent years: the USA and China, Israel and Iran, India and Pakistan. Their backing enabled the Singhalese government to end the ceasefire brokered by Norway in 2002 and dismiss a political solution that was within close reach. Since then, the government has pursued a purely military victory against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
2008 saw the military conflict escalate dramatically. Step by step the army took territory previously held by the rebels. Countless localities were destroyed, including, of course, settlements recently hit by the tsunami and subsequently rebuilt. Once again, thousands of Tamils were forced to flee or to live in the appalling conditions of refugee camps. Moreover, while the conditions deteriorated in the warzones, the situation also worsened in the capital, Colombo, where critical journalists and human rights activists were systematically targeted. Racist attacks against Tamils happened outside the conflict zones, too. Thisdesperate situation led Medico and other aid organisations working in Sri Lanka to organise a network meeting in early 2008 for Sri Lankan peace and human rights activists, to raise awareness and lobby internationally vis-à-vis these developments on the “pearl of the Indian Ocean”. By then, convening such a gathering on the island itself had become impossible- not to mention the risk to some participants’ lives. Therefore, the meeting took place in Europe. Over a period of three days we agreed on a common approach in cases of severe human rights violations and to our work in the longer term. Since then, the international NGOs have been exchanging information almost every day, both with each other and our Sri Lankan partners. News are circulated concerning the war, movement of refugees and the displaced, camp conditions in the conflict zone as well as the arrest of human rights activists, journalists and even priests in the capital, Colombo. We also discuss what action we can still take together. This may also involve getting colleagues in danger out of the country, this we achieved twice at the last minute.
Medico has also been working with its Sri Lankan partners, providing emergency relief to both war refugees and tsunami survivors, the latter either still in emergency shelters or even again in them due to the neverending war. For Medico’s partner organisations in the country – their names cannot be given for security reasons – 2008 was another year spent working in the midst of displaced people and refugees. They organised mobile clinics – surgeries run by a doctor and a female health worker in places that are often only temporary camps. They support the people in the camps, give health information and counceling, the most important medicines and distribute food fortification, i.e. anything that can be mixed with rice or lentils to guarantee basic nutrition, because nobody can live on rice or lentils alone. Colleagues in the field also keep our international information network up-to-date with reports, facts and data about the situation. This way, the public is kept informed about incidents that simply should not be happening - systematic human rights violations.
Unfortunately, events already on the horizon in 2008 realized in 2009. At the time of writing, in April 2009, the Sri Lankan government has deployed massive airpower to destroy the last rebel positions. Over 100,000 civilians are directly affected, pushed to and fro between fronts, surviving in strictly guarded refugee camps or taken hostage by rebels seeking protection from the bombing. The right to physical integrity has been definitively suspended in north and east Sri Lanka. Here and now, only international publicity and worldwide protest can change the situation. Medico will continue with human rights work and emergency relief in Sri Lanka.
In 2008 € 27,611 was spent on human rights work and emergency relief in Sri Lanka.