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This Time We Can't Say "We Didn't Know": The Deadly Cost of International Inaction in Sri Lanka

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There is a saying that has become common amongst those in the United Nations Human Rights Council. When a tense stand-off arises someone will say "Lets not play the naming and shaming game -- lets try and work together." Perhaps this "game" played in the most elite policy circles is counter-productive -- but it does allow history to identify those in positions of power who were complacent, cowardly, and indecisive at a moment when hundreds of thousands of civilian lives were on the line. In the case of Sri Lanka, there is no shortage of those to blame, and the footage from the civilian carnage in recent weeks should put all of us to shame.

The Government of Sri Lanka, representing the majority Sinhalese community in Sri Lanka, is calling its most recent operation a "Hostage Rescue Mission" -- claiming to have evacuated 30,000 civilians from the minority Tamil population from an active fighting zone. They say they are nearing the end of their hard-line military campaign to eradicate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a guerilla group who has been fighting to carve out a seperate Tamil state within Sri Lanka for nearly three decades. As they recaptured formerly LTTE-held districts in the North East of the island, Government forces have trampled on international humanitarian law, any semblance of free press, and committed human rights abuses on a scale that can be categorized as crimes against humanity.

As we receive daily reports of civilian casualties, the international community continues to listen to briefings, debate, and make "strong" statements of condemnation which will not jeapordize the delicate geopolitical balance that the Sri Lankan Government is relying on. Developing world nations have rallied around Sri Lanka's cry of neo-colonialism against western nations who highlight human rights abuses. Some simply vote alongside Sri Lanka, while nations like Libya, Pakistan, and Iran, have given hundreds of millions in aid along with substantial military training and technical support. While the U.S.A has limited its support to only "non-lethal" weapons (since the Leahy amendment) and India provides mainly intelligence support (radars, patrol boats) -- both are warily monitoring the growing influence and involvement of China and Russia on the island.

It seems that economic woes in the Western world have not only affected consumer confidence, but has sparked a crisis of confidence amongst policymakers who now hesitate to challenge countries like China. Some prefer to hide behind the safety of the War on Terror, promising to take on a more active role in Sri Lanka once the "end of terrorism" has been
achieved. This week there will be a Tom Lanton Human Rights Commission hearing on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress will hear from Human Rights Watch, The Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Sri Lanka NGO Counsel. They will again detail gross human rights violations, the conditions in internment camps, and the concern for the lives of journalists and human rights workers.

When approximately 1,000 civilians die in one day of shelling, are Special Representatives appointed and condemning statements made our only option? Is every international institution and powerful nation so restricted by geo-political and financial realities that any sort of meaningful action becomes impossible-and worse, something we can no longer expect of them? In the last few days 68,000 civilians have entered intointernment camps where they join nearly 200,00 others recently from the conflict zone; 57,000 are being "processed" with no outside monitoring; 600 injured are waiting for ICRC transport to the only remaining hospital in the area which was recently hit by a rocket-propelled grenade; and 50-100,000 remain trapped inside and active warzone. Since January of 2009, the International Community and the safeguards designed from lessons learned elsewhere have failed 5,000 civilians in Sri Lanka. The loss of the next 5,000 may come quicker than the first -- and history will claim Sri Lanka as yet another case of lessons learned by a failure to act.