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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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Sri Lanka Update

Late last week I wrote about how few people were paying attention to the death and destruction taking place in Sri Lanka. The situation was basically this: the Tamil Tiger militia was preventing tens of thousands of civilians from leaving the last sliver of territory it controlled.  Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government was using heavy artillery to shell that territory,  resulting in the death of a significant number of civilian non-combatants.

In the past few hours, it seems that the situation has become even more fierce as Sri Lankan government forces have begun an incursion into the Tamil Tiger's final stronghold.   The Sri Lankan government is calling this the world's largest ever "hostage rescue" operation and is this circulating footage of thousands of civilians fleeing the war zone.  Apparently, three Tamil suicide bombers blew themselves up in this fleeing crowd, killing dozens.

The International Crisis Group issued a statement on the situation in Sri Lanka this morning that is worth re-posting in full.

A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sri Lanka involving the possible deaths of tens of thousands of civilians trapped between government and insurgent LTTE (Tamil Tiger) forces in a tiny strip of land not much bigger than Central Park in Manhattan.

As many as 150,000 or more1 civilians are so trapped. Their living area is being shelled by the Sri Lankan military, and the Tamil Tigers are using them as human shield hostages. Dozens are dying every day, and there are grave shortages of food, water, and medical treatment. Available reports suggest 5,000 civilians, including at least 500 children, have died since mid-January, and 10,000 have been injured.

With both the government forces and Tamil Tigers abdicating their responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocity crimes, urgent, determined, and united international action is necessary to ensure their safety - by the United Nations Security Council, other multilateral organisations, and individual countries with relations with Sri Lanka.

The International Crisis Group urges that the following specific steps be taken:

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Ban’s Address to the Durban Review Conference

Shortly before Ahmadinejad sucked the oxygen out of the room, Secretary General Ban Ki moon had some elegant words on the need to reach a global consensus in the common fight against racism.

Here's the money quote:

Like Theodore Roosevelt, among others, my allegiance and sympathies have always been with the men and women in the arena, struggling with courage and determination to win the day.

It may be easier to criticize those efforts from afar, but it does not advance the universal cause.

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Ban Ki Moon Responds to Ahmadinejad’s Rant

As expected, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took to the stage in Geneva and issued a blustering rant against Israel and Zionism.  Many delegations staged a walkout. 

It is rare for a Secretary General to single out a particular head of state for condemnation.  But Ahmadinejad clearly crossed the line and Ban Ki Moon is obviously quite angry with what transpired.  

Fresh from the UN presses:

Statement by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the remarks by the President of Iran at the Durban Review Conference

I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian President to accuse, divide and even incite. This is the opposite of what this Conference seeks to achieve. This makes it significantly more difficult to build constructive solutions to the very real problem of racism.

It is deeply regrettable that my plea to look to the future of unity was not heeded by the Iranian President. At my earlier meeting with him, I stressed the importance of the Conference to galvanize the will of the international community toward the common cause of fight against racism.

I further stressed the need to look to the future, not to the past of divisiveness. In this regard, I reminded the President that the UN General Assembly had adopted the resolutions to revoke the equation of Zionism with racism and to reaffirm the historical facts of the Holocaust respectively.

We must all turn away from such a message in both form and substance. We must join hands and work together to achieve a constructive, substantive agenda to combat racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

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UN Expert Criticizes Obama Administration on Torture, Calls for Independent Investigation

More fallout from the torture memos:

An Austrian newspaper quotes the U.N.'s top torture investigator as saying President Barack Obama's decision not to prosecute CIA operatives who used questionable interrogation practices violates international law.

Manfred Nowak is quoted in Der Standard as saying the United States has committed itself under the U.N. Convention against Torture to make torture a crime and to prosecute those suspected of engaging in it.

The release of the torture memos has resulted in an explosion of online commentary. The memos have been met with appropriate outrage, expressed with passion and eloquence, and the issue that Nowak addresses, namely whether or not to prosecute those who engaged in these terrible acts, is generating a plethora of arguments for and against.

There are those who contend that hard-nosed realism warrants the radical excesses of the Bush years and that to deal with the threat of global terrorism, "extra-legal" measures are required.

That argument fails for one fundamental reason: throughout history, moral power inexorably trumps brute force. On the core question of what makes America stronger and safer, upholding the highest ethical standards, adhering to the rule of law, respecting human rights, will always be the more effective and more just course of action.

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Death and Destruction in Sri Lanka While Few Pay Attention

Ban Ki Moon's Chief of Staff Vijay Nambiar is in Sri Lanka today in an effort to free tens of thousands of civilians trapped between Sri Lankan military forces and the LTTE (AKA Tamil Tiger) militia.  Their situation is becoming more grave by the day. For the past three months the Sri Lankan government has engaged in a military campaign against the Tamil separatists, believing that this offensive can deliver the once and final blow to the Tamil Tigers 25 year violent insurgency.  However, in prosecuting this campaign the Sri Lankan military has not exactly adhered to the highest standards of international humanitarian law.  According to a document leaked to the AP, the United Nations puts the civilian death toll at around 4,500 with 12,000 civilians wounded.  Five children a day are dying from starvation and diarrhea.

At the moment, the LTTE is backed into a small territory on the north east of the island. So too are thousands of ethnic-Tamil civilians,  many of whom the UN believes the Tamil Tigers are using as human shields.  This has not deterred the Sri Lankan military from using artillery to shell civilian populated areas, including so called "safe-zones."

The Sri Lankan government has prevented the press from entering the war zone since the start of the offensive. So,  via The Lede, the video below is a rare glimpse of what life is like for civilians caught in the cross-fire.  Warning: the images are very disturbing.


So what is to be done?  For starters, I'd like to see the Security Council call for a ceasefire.  The brutal Tamil Tiger milita may very well be on the ropes, but that does not justify counterinsurgency methods that do not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.  It's time for the Security Council step up.   Thousands of lives hang in the balance.

UPDATE: Apparently upset that top UN humanitarian official John Holmes concluded that the LTTE were using civilians as human shields, Tamilnet suggests that the the UN and the international communtity are supporting the Sri Lankan onslaught.  In fact, the United Nations and the United States have called for a ceasefire.

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Insects in a Box

The White House just released a series of documents relating to the Bush administration's legal justification for the use of interrogation techniques that can reasonably be considered torture.  One of the documents released this afternoon includes an August 2002 memo from Jay Bybee of the United States Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel.  In it, Bybee offers his opinion that a number of interrogation  techniques proposed for a captured al Qaeda operative do not violate American and international prohibitions against torture.  Among the techniques proposed are a number of harsh interrogation methods that we have heard of over the past few years, such as water boarding and stress positions.  But there was one technique previously unknown to me: putting the subject in a confined box with an insect he is told has a stinger. 

As you can see from the excerpt above, Bybee concludes that this technique is OK so long as the subject is told in advance that the insect will not kill him or cause severe pain. Ugh.

I think this statement from the current occupant of the White House says it all:

In one of my very first acts as President, I prohibited the use of these interrogation techniques by the United States because they undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer. Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure. A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals, and that is why these methods of interrogation are already a thing of the past.

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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.


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Germany to Drop Out of Durban Review Conference

The hits just keep on coming for the anti-racism Durban Review Conference scheduled to kick off next week.  Germany will join Australia, Canada, the United States, and Italy in boycotting the conference.  I think it is safe to say that our expectations about what this conference will achieve should be substantially lowered.  As in other UN forums, a disunified Europe plus non-participation by the commonwealth and the United States generally means that more regressive regional blocs will hold sway.   Such is the consequence of non-participation.  Things could get ugly next week.