Need for New Global Conventions

On Feb. 9, an LTTE suicide bomber killed herself inside a crowded transit camp maintained by the government for displaced Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka. She killed and injured scores of Tamil men, women, and children awaiting transport to safer areas. A day later, the LTTE shot and killed 19 civilians as they attempted to cross over to government held areas. The incident was not widely reported in international media, perhaps due to its low political appeal. However, it is absolutely imperative that we resolve—as a global community—that no rebel group or government be allowed to commit such crimes against humanity again.

As a Sri Lankan who has spent most of his life in a brutal conflict between the government and the LTTE—also known as the Tamil Tigers—I have seen many instances in which crime against helpless civilians could have been avoided had the global community devised better mechanisms and conventions to those affected by conflict.

Just as gravity pulls together the local chaotic movements of water droplets to orchestrate the outer geometric identity of a waterfall, conventions pull together human turmoil to orchestrate the notion of humanity. The Tamil Tigers can perpetrate the above crime and face mere condemnation from a few countries, because almost no convention to protect war-affected communities exerts enough pressure on rebel groups who abuse civilians. Nearly all mechanisms are devised to limit the scope of military action that a government can take to face a rebellion, which has been proven insufficient to protect internally displaced persons. Moreover, this pressure imbalance is often abused by parties with vested interests to interfere in the internal politics of war-affected countries like Sri Lanka, further compounding the vicious cycle for those affected.

Modern conflicts with sophisticated international involvements—combined with the bitter experiences faced by countries like Sri Lanka during the colonial past—often lead such governments to take extreme precautions to ensure no covert foreign force creeps into their internal politics again. This was evident in Sri Lanka when the government ordered all non-governmental organizations except the International Committee of Red Cross to leave rebel-held areas in September 2008. This action was taken after Sri Lankan authorities learned that several NGOs had wittingly or unwittingly given material aid to the Tamil Tigers.

For example, the government’s unmanned aerial vehicles identified heavy equipments belonging to an NGO called “Norwegian People’s Aid” being used by the LTTE to build a complex network of massive earth bunds around its major strongholds, such as Killinochchi and Mulattivu. Some bunds were longer than 30 miles and rose above 10 feet. When questioned, the NPA replied that LTTE robbed the machinery from them. The government’s position was further consolidated when the program officer of another NGO, called “ZOA,” stated that he would remain with the LTTE to fight against the government, thus disobeying the demand to move out of the rebel-held area.

The civilians of the country were victimized most out of this political drama. Therefore, there is great need to introduce innovative global conventions to exert adequate pressure on NGOs operating in war-affected countries—especially with a colonial history—to absolutely honor the sovereignty of the country. The pressure from the donors alone has proven to be insufficient in the Sri Lankan case.

Furthermore, in the absence of independent information sources to assess the situation of IDPs trapped between the warring parties, the global community should empower international organizations like the United Nations to use modern technology such as satellite imagery and reconnaissance aircrafts to verify claims made by various parties. For instance, the Sri Lankan government claimed that the Tamil Tigers had moved more than six heavy artillery guns into the governmentally declared safe zone to invite return fire to civilian neighborhoods. The LTTE, on the other hand, claimed that the government forces had shelled a hospital in Puthukkudyiruppu. This hit the headlines of many international media. The only way the government could prove it was false was to take images using a Beechcraft. Had there been powerful global conventions to allow the UN to use modern technology to verify such politically sensitive claims, room for political gains over the lives of innocent civilians could have been blocked. By leaving allowances to political bigotry, we are putting the lives of thousands of civilians at risk.

Due to the fact that communities and their aspirations continue to change, conflicts are an indispensable reality in our societies. My definition of peace is an atmosphere in which harmonious change can occur. Therefore, I am stressing the need to introduce innovative global conventions to exert balanced pressure on all stakeholders in a conflict zone. This would keep disturbances within the frame of humanity, just as gravity orchestrates droplets colliding without repeatable pattern into a waterfall.

Thrishantha Nanayakkara is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.