It is May 13 2009. The Sri Lankan government’s offensive, which began in January, is at its very final stage. The army has the Tamil Tiger leadership cornered on three square kilometers of beech front. With the insurgents are about 100,000 civilians. Despite the massive number of civilians on a plot of land the size of Central Park in New York, the government rained down mortar fire for five straight days.
“Civilians had no where to hide from this shelling, which was coming from all sides. Shells rained down from the air and bullets whizzed through the air. Many died and were buried underneath their bunkers or shelters, without their deaths being recorded. Black smoke and the stench of dead bodies filled the air. Some people begged for food for their starving children or for help for the wounded or dying. The scene was described as reminiscent of hell.”
That is from a UN Panel of Experts report that was made public yesterday. Earlier, the report describes this scene inside a make-shift hospital in the conflict zone in which people were forced to undergo amputation by butcher knife without anesthesia.
The report does not offer a definitive estimate of the number of civilians killed during the fighting, but it does state: “multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage.” To put that in perspective, about 7,000 men and boys were murdered in Srebrenica in 1995.
We have known for some time that the endgame of the 20 year civil war in Sri Lanka was particularly brutal. NGO reports and press accounts confirmed this. But this is the first time than an official UN entity put its official stamp on these claims.
Last night, Susan Rice said the report helped to “underscore our belief that accountability and reconciliation are inextricably linked.” The top UN human rights official echoed that sentiment saying, “I hope the disturbing new information contained in this report will shock the conscience of the international community into finally taking serious action. As the report itself says, addressing violations of international humanitarian or human rights law is not a matter of choice or policy; it is a duty under domestic and international law.”
It is well past time that member states step up to demand some justice and accountability from the Sri Lankan government.