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Sri Lanka Says it Knows Who Breads Its Butter, and it Ain’t Sweden.

This is just amazing.  The Sri Lankan government denied a visa to Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, apparently fearful that Bildt would add his voice to the growing  international chorus condeming the military's counter-insurgency tactics that have claimed at least 6,000 civilian lives since January.   The AFP has a startling quote from an un-named Sri Lankan foreign ministry official who exhibits a troubling animosity toward Europe.

"The Swedish minister also wanted to jump on that bandwagon and we said no," the official said.

"Some think they can land up at our airport and expect a red carpet treatment. We are not a colony and neither a bankrupt Third World country. Our main donors are in Asia, not in Europe," the official added.

In fact, the International Monetary Fund is currently in negotiations with Sri Lanka over a $1.9 billion loan. I imagine that the un-named government official is miffed that the loan has not been approved quicker.  Still, playing hostile with the Europeans may not be the best way to get that loan approved.

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A “low-intensity” conflict is still a conflict

The UN and AU's joint special representative to Darfur, Rodolphe Adada,  recently opined that Darfur is a "low-intensity conflict."  Lest this comment be construed to mean that the crisis in western Sudan is no longer much of a big deal -- which I doubt it will, largely because of the domestic issue that Darfur has become, but also because the term "low-intensity conflict" has a very specific definitional meaning, and is not a value judgment on the severity of a conflict -- but it's worthwhile to point out the obvious: Darfur has been a "low-intensity conflict" for a long time now -- four years, some might argue -- but that does not diminish the importance of solving the crisis one iota.  Rather, as the terrifying example of the Democratic Republic of Congo attests to, a "low-intensity conflict" is just the kind that can be the most consistently deadly, and the easiest for the international media to ignore.

That said, I don't share Nick Kristof's worries that the Obama Administration's policy toward Darfur thus far amounts to "appeasement."  Without relegating Darfur to the backseat of international priorities -- and he did appoint Scott Gration as his Special Envoy relatively quickly -- it's important to address the crisis based on an accurate reading of the current situation.  This does not mean swallowing Khartoum's propaganda, or being guilelessly led astray by its prevarications and obstructionism, too feckless to wield sticks.  But it does mean that if some sanctions are not contributing to a political solution that will solve the region's root problems, then, yes, they should be reassessed.  And it certainly means that if bombing Sudan would prove counter-productive (and it would), then we should look to other means of ensuring that Sudan does not conduct further bombing raids on its own population.

The fact is, Darfur in 2009 is not the same as Darfur in 2004, and recognizing this is imperative to formulating a sensible policy toward it.

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Somalia terrorism: “How dare you try to protect our people and promote their welfare?” edition

When U.S. Congresspeople's planes are not around for Somali insurgent groups to fire mortars at, they apparently turn to their own parliament. The newly elected governing body's offence was as egregious as...passing a national budget for the impoverished and war-torn country.

Equally tragically (and equally unsurprisingly), militants (unclear whether or not they were of the same group) attacked African Union peacekeeping bases in Mogadishu on Saturday. Kind of makes it clear why few African countries are willing to offer their troops for the mission, which a Somali opposition leader calls "foreign invaders." Not hard to imagine what he'd have in mind for UN peacekeepers...

With the piracy epidemic off the coast receiving the bulk of attention, the EU has recently committed $200-plus million to support security in Somalia, and the money is supposed to go to land-based initiatives, like the AU mission, rather than catch-'em-at-sea measures. The recent violence, coupled with continually ill-timed consideration of a UN peacekeeping force in Somalia, underscores the need to act very carefully in not creating undue provocations. There's no reason to submit to terrorist demands of withdrawing all peacekeepers before talks with the government can begin, but we should take into account the safety of these peacekeepers, and the best way to actually protect people. Declaring a "war against piracy" seems to ignore the country's domestic political instability and risks needlessly inflaming much of the population whose cooperation will be key to quelling banditry at sea.

(image of Ugandan peacekeepers in Somalia, from flickr user ISN Security Watch under a Creative Commons license)

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Sri Lanka Update IV

A number of news organizations are reporting on a leaked UN document that puts the death toll from fighting in Sri Lanka at close to 6,500 since January, with approximately 14,000 wounded. The victims are ethnic Tamils trapped between the LTTE insurgent group and a Sri Lankan government hell-bent on delivering one final blow to the murderous LTTE.  According to the leaked UN document, an average of 35 civilians have been killed a day since January. In April the average death toll jumped to 116 civilians killed everyday.

This, ladies and gentleman, is the first man-made humanitarian crisis of the Obama era.  It ain't pretty.


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Sri Lanka Update III

Ban Ki Moon's Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar returned from Sri Lanka to brief the Security Council  yesterday evening on the unfolding humanitarian crisis there. The briefing occurred behind closed doors, but following the meeting Mexican U.N. Ambassador Claude Heller, speaking on behalf of the entire Council, expressed "deep concern" for the plight of civilians caught in the conflict and "strongly condemned" the LTTE for preventing civilians from leaving the conflict zone.

This is pretty timid response.  True, the LTTE deserve condemnation for holding civilians as human shields.  But so too does the government of Sri Lanka for shelling densly populated areas where these civilians are trapped.  Susan Rice, at least, sounded the right notes.  

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice criticized the Sri Lanka government for not providing full assistance to all civilians who manage to escape the rebel-held zone.

She also suggested that both the Tamil Tigers and the government might be guilty of violating international law.

"The fact that both sides have been shooting at civilians as they leave the safe zone is one gross manifestation of the apparent violation of international humanitarian law," Rice said.

It is a shame that other members of the Security Council would not endorse these sentiments. Part of the problem is that China and Russia consider this an internal matter to Sri Lanka and are not willing to hold a "formal discussions" about the conflict.

Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders posts a chilling interview with surgeon Paul McMaster from Vavuniya hospital in Sri Lanka.

What is the situation at the hospital now?

We and our Sri Lankan colleagues have been dealing with casualties brought into us over these last few days from the conflict in the north of us. We've been seeing very severely wounded patients, the numbers of patients have increased rapidly over the last three or four days, so we're seeing a stream of badly wounded people being brought into us.

Our hospital has got about 450 beds, and we've now got more than 1,700 patients in the hospital-on the floor, in the corridors, and even outside. So the hospital is very close to being overwhelmed.

What conditions are the patients arriving in?

About three-quarters of the injured coming in now have suffered from blast injuries, and the rest are gunshot wounds and mine explosions. We're seeing who've survived on the field and actually reached us. We see abdominal injuries, but many of the chest or head injuries we're suspecting don't survive the blasts to get to us.

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This is what the “war on terror” accomplishes

Jim Traub makes the incisive point today that the Sri Lankan military offensive, so close to wiping out the Tamil Tigers' last bastion of territory, yet so destructive to the innocent civilians trapped in this territory, has been conducted with, if not a wink and a nod, then at least a shrug from the international community.

This is a situation of armed conflict in which both parties are acting in ways that pose a grave risk to innocent civilians. The party that is perhaps more culpable -- the rebels -- answers to no one. And the Sri Lankan government has been able to operate with virtual impunity because it is fighting "terrorists." Even Western states that usually condemn violations of international law have given the situation a wide berth. [emphasis mine]

The Tamil Tigers (or LTTE) are terrorists, to be sure. But Tamils trapped in northeastern Sri Lanka -- some used as human shields by the Tigers -- are not. And I'm not quite confident that the Sri Lankan government is entirely making that distinction. While this may fall short of an outright ethnically-based counter-insurgency measure, Sri Lanka's military is, at the least, wantonly disregarding the imperative to protect civilians.

The drive over the last few months to retake the rebel stronghold is not, I think we can safely assume, wholly motivated by the "hostage rescue" imperative asserted by the Sri Lankan government. When a tenuous -- but potentially seminal -- ceasefire began to break down over the past couple years in a series of escalating attacks and reprisals (by both sides), the more militant wing in Colombo must have won the day. For the Sri Lankan president (and Defence Minister), Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother (a top official in the Defence Ministry who also survived an LTTE assassination attempt in 2006), I get the feeling that this is personal. They saw an opportunity to crush the LTTE resistance, and they took it. Now, increasingly obsessed with killing the Tigers' longtime elusive leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Sri Lankan military does not seem to be paying adequate heed to the fact that refugees and civilians have no where left to go. And given the Tigers' even more cavalier disregard for civilian life, the fear of a "bloodbath on the beaches" is not misplaced.

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Sri Lanka Update II

An update to yesterday's post.  From the UN Refugee Agency:

Yesterday, the Government of Sri Lanka informed UNHCR and other agencies that an estimated 40,000 people had fled areas where the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are engaged in heavy fighting. They were expected to reach the districts of Vavuniya and Jaffna within 48 hours. This would bring the estimated total to have fled the conflict zone to more than 100,000, a majority of whom have fled in recent weeks.

Of the anticipated 40,000 displaced, so far we have confirmed reports that some 5,500 people have reached sites in Vavuniya, while another 2,000 new arrivals were recorded in Jaffna yesterday. As civilians are transported into the sites, UNHCR is still ascertaining the total number of new IDPs in the two districts.

And from the ICRC:

"What we are seeing is intense fighting in a very small area overcrowded with civilians who have fled there," said the ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl. "The situation is nothing short of catastrophic. Ongoing fighting has killed or wounded hundreds of civilians who have only minimal access to medical care."

The ICRC is concerned that the final offensive in the area by government forces against fighters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties...

"The LTTE must keep its fighters and other military resources well away from places where civilians are concentrated, and allow civilians who want to leave the area to do so safely," said Mr Krähenbühl. "On their part, government forces are obliged to ensure that the methods and means of warfare they employ make it possible to clearly distinguish at all times between civilians and civilian objects, on the one hand, and military objectives, on the other. In this situation, we are particularly concerned about the impact on civilians of using weapons such as artillery."

Meanwhile, Reuters captures some compelling images from the incredible mass-exodus. 

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The plank should lead to the courtroom

I can hear the chants of "Kill the pirates!" already. No, not in response to the sole surviving Somali teenager facing trial in the United States for attempting to hijack a U.S. ship the other week -- though I don't expect his mother's appeal for clemency will find a very receptive audience from the take-no-prisoners crowd. Rather, if mainstream commentators are already explicitly calling for summary executions of pirates, I don't expect the latest chapters in the piracy justice chronicles to endear many to a more nuanced legal position.

Over the weekend, NATO enjoyed two successes in its anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, foiling an attempted hijacking of a Norwegian tanker and rescuing 20 Yemenis who had apparently been impressed into piracy as hostages. Yet the bottom line that I worry some will take out of these successes is what happened next: the pirates were released. Lacking legal jurisdiction -- in the latter case, neither the pirates, the victims, nor the waters were Dutch, as the ship's commander rather unhelpfully pointed out -- and without a NATO policy on how to detain the pirates, they could not be arrested.

That there is no standing NATO policy on pirate detainment is troubling, but it is not insurmountable. This is a relatively new scenario that NATO finds itself in (Barbary piracy aside, please -- I don't think Jefferson's escapades in the 1800's count as a fair argument in favor of unilateralism here), and it is certainly no reason to regress back to a "walk the plank" solution. The UN has brokered extradition accords with Kenya, and more countries, as well as international organizations like NATO, will assuredly do the same in the near future.

As for the pirate on trial in New York -- he should probably be glad he's being tried by the American justice system, not by those who probably would rather the SEALs have just taken him out too.

(image from flickr user ClownBog under a Creative Commons license)

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Eritrea faces tough human rights criticism

Here's a Human Rights Watch Report that will certainly be of interest to many Dispatch readers. From the Guardian:

Eritrea is becoming a "giant prison" due to its government's policies of mass detention, torture and prolonged military conscription, according to a report published today .

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said state repression had made the tiny Red Sea state one of the highest producers of refugees in the world, with those fleeing risking death or collective punishment against their families.

There is no freedom of speech, worship or movement in Eritrea, while many adults are forced into national service at token wages until up to 55 years of age.

HRW is a very credible source, and from reading the article, it's hard not to come away with the conclusion that Eritrea should spend less energy on its ongoing dispute with its neighbor, Eritrea Ethiopia, and more on caring for and protecting the rights of its own population. One way that the country's government did not help itself in that regard was by essentially forcing the departure of UN peacekeepers from the border region with Ethiopia.

It should be said, as we at Dispatch have emphasized, that the Ethiopian government, particularly by not abiding by a UN decision to award a disputed border town to Eritrea, did not help calm this situation either. And neither is it a paragon of human rights.  Both would benefit from halting their military escalation and long-standing confrontational politics, as peace has been shown to have far better effects on people's individual, social, and economic well-being than a perpetual state of near-war.