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.

The situation could certainly get much, much worse. Aid agencies and human rights groups in the know fear so, quite vocally. But it’s been getting worse, for a long time now. What makes it this particular (and particularly devastating) fighting that, in Traub’s words, “threatens to produce exactly the kind of cataclysm” that the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine was created to prevent? That cataclysm has been building, steadily, fueled by increasingly aggressive Sri Lankan tactics and countenanced by the international community. The time for prevention — which, as Traub notes, is really the key aspect for R2P — has passed.

That certainly doesn’t mean, as some disturbing headlines report it, that what’s coming is the “endgame” in the conflict. This is not going to end, even if Prabhakaran is killed and the Tigers are cleared out of any territorial base. What is required in Sri Lanka is a political solution. Ham-handed attempts to lump the Tigers in with other, legitimate Tamil voices in support of autonomy will only exacerbate the problem, and further jeopardize civilian life. Suicide bombings, moreover — a tactic introduced by the Tigers some 18 years ago — do not require a home base.

(image of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa)

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