A case for decency amid the Sri Lankan mayhem
Sri Lanka's military is on the verge of defeating Tamil rebels, but peace will not come easily unless safety is assured for civilians caught up in the fighting. Both sides must stop shelling hospitals and shelters. People being held against their will by the separatists have to be freed. Guns must fall silent so that this can happen.
The government has the rebels cornered in a 5 sq km strip of land in the island's northeast. A fight to the death is under way. It is clear that the military will be victorious and that the 26-year civil war will soon end. There is no reason for soldiers to push the pace of battle; their win is a case of when, not if.
International humanitarian laws have been broken. War crimes would seem to have been committed. Medical facilities, permanent or makeshift, are sanctuaries to treat the sick and injured. Instead, despite being clearly marked, they have been targets.
There can be no excuses for the atrocities. Thousands of people, hundreds in the past few days alone, have been killed by mortars and gunfire. Safe zones have been set up, but these have been fired on. Morals have been set aside in the heat of battle.
Foreign pleas for a ceasefire have been ignored. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday rightly called the killing of dozens of women and children in one incident 'a bloodbath'. Sri Lanka is not on the UN Security Council agenda because China, Japan, Russia and Vietnam consider the fighting an internal matter. Such thinking is flawed: acts of war against civilians are a matter of international concern and every effort has to be made to end the abuses.
Sri Lanka has suffered because of the civil war. Its economy has been wrecked by the fighting. At least 70,000 people have lost their lives, government institutions have been damaged and infrastructure destroyed. The separatists' planned homeland, the east and northeast, is in ruins.
But the physical scars are nothing compared to the emotional ones; mending the ethnic rift will require the utmost care. The Sinhalese-majority government is making its task infinitely more difficult by not letting Tamil civilians seek safe haven.
The rebels are dividing Tamils by disregarding humanitarian rules. And the bombing of hospitals will not be quickly forgotten, whichever side is to blame. The Sri Lankan military will, no doubt, achieve its objectives. But that does not mean ignoring civilians, the sick and wounded. International laws have to be respected.