UN flag draws Sri Lankan fire
[TamilNet, Sunday, 13 July 1997, 23:59 GMT]
Last week, Tamil residents of Puthur (Puthuvilankulam), in the Vanni region, were surprised to see a new flag flapping above them. The pale blue and white colours of the United Nations had been raised over the parched scrub of the area. The residents were even more surprised when they heard that they were now living in a UN "safe haven." And it wasn't long before the Sri Lankan army found out as intense artillery fire soon slammed into the area.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees office had decided to declare a
small area of two square kilometers at Puthur as a safe haven, similar
to UN compounds in other parts of the world. Tamil refugees ("displaced
persons" in UN-speak) have swollen the population in the area to over
10,000. The arid environs provide precious few sources of water.
The Sri Lankan army found out about the safe haven a day or two later.
It is not clear what Sri Lankan government opinion on the matter was,
but the intent of the army was clear. Sinhalese artillery opened up
with a deafening barrage, dropping round after round into the tiny safe
The exact number of casualties is uncertain, but are believed to be
light: the local people are well practiced in running for cover. The
area, like much of the Vanni, has been frequently targeted by the
predominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan military with artillery and air strikes.
The UNHCR has since meekly pulled down its flag, removing UN
"protection" from the area. Given that the entire Vanni region is being
treated as a "free-strike" zone by the Sri Lankan military, the
declaration of a tiny safe haven would have had little effect, even if
the Sri Lankan military respected the UN flag.
While UN safe heavens are intended to protect civilians from the
crossfire of armed conflict, on this island it would be ineffective even
if it were attempted on a larger scale. The Tamil civilians are being
deliberately targeted by the Sinhalese military in an effort to induce a
sense of war-weariness.
The Sri Lankan government has often declared churches, temples, and
schools in the Tamil homelands as safe areas during its offensives.
Once crowded with Tamil civilians, these areas have often been targeted
for artillery fire or air strikes, sometimes with the deployment of
"barrel bombs", which maim and kill indiscriminately. At least 120 people were killed
(65 instantly) when the Sri Lankan military bombarded the Navaly
Church on July 9, 1995, during an offensive.
This latest humiliating climb down is not an unusual occurrence
given the history of the UN relationship with the Sri Lankan
government. The UN has compromised on many of its fundamental
principles in its activities on the island. Their senior staff kowtow
to the Colombo regime, ostensibly to be allowed to carry out their basic
functions in the affected areas, but mainly to safeguard their
Having shown its willingness to compromise, the UN has been repeatedly
bullied by the Sri Lankan government and now has absolutely no authority
left on the island. In some cases, UN staff are seemingly functioning
as part of the Sri Lankan government. Colombo-based UN officials repeat
Sri Lankan government statements almost verbatim and readily implement
TamilNet has learned that a number of Tamil refugees were nearly
deported to Sri Lanka from at least one western country on the strength
of letters written by the UNHCR. Paradoxically, the UNHCR is dependent
on funding from countries to which refugees flock and clearly does not
wish to irritate its donors by assisting applicants, albeit indirectly.
The chief of the UN World Food Program in Sri Lanka, Mr. Joseph
Scallise, has even said that Sri Lanka was "safe" for Tamils, a claim
which has drawn ridicule from observers of the conflict, except the Sri
Lankan government, of course. International human rights organisations
have protested against the widespread violations by Sri Lankan security
forces in Tamil areas. The US State Department has also expressed its
Last October, when Tamils around the world protested against the
deliberate starvation of the Vanni Tamil populace, Mr. Scallise was
quick to intervene on behalf of the Sri Lankan government. He not only
claimed that sufficient food was being sent, he went on to praise the
Sri Lankans' supposed charity. Ironically concurrent, Sri Lankan
government civil servants in the Vanni released figures showing that
less than half the minimum amount of food needed had been allowed into
The US Committee for Refugees has criticised the UNHCR for only allowing
Tamil civilians into the relative safety of its refugee camps on the
condition that they promise not to flee to India, a stance clearly
intended to placate the Sri Lankan government. Last year thousands of
Tamil refugees made the risky journey to India to flee Sri Lankan state
persecution. Following a number of mid-sea disasters in which hundreds
of refugees drowned as the Sri Lankan navy stood by, the number of
crossings has declined.
The Sri Lankan government has even defied the UN Secretary General.
When the Sri Lankan army stormed the city of Jaffna in late 1995, almost
half a million Tamil civilians fled the onslaught. The Secretary
General, Mr. Boutros Boutros-Gali, was appalled when the huge crowd was
forced to spend several days and nights in the open as monsoon rains poured
down. Mr. Boutros-Gali immediately offered to send blankets, tents, and
medical supplies to the refugees. The Sri Lankan government reacted
venomously, dismissing his offer as unnecessary and warning him not to
interfere in their "internal affairs." Mr. Boutros-Gali could only
watch helplessly as the human catastrophe unfolded.
The UN's willingness to appease the Sri Lankan government is believed to
be due to a handful of UN staff in Geneva who are sympathetic to the
government. While UNHCR field staff are aware of the true nature of the
situation, some UN Geneva-based staff are intervening to protect Sri
Lankan government interests. Their motives are not certain, but Sri
Lanka (and possibly India) may be supporting these officers' personal
ambitions within the UN in exchange for their collaboration.
Even though international human rights agencies protest against Sri
Lankan atrocities, and dozens of NGOs have raised the issue at the UN,
the organisation has made no comment. The US State Department and
Amnesty International have both recorded at least 600 disappearances in
Tamil areas occupied by the Sri Lankan army; the UN has recorded less
One western refugee agency official told TamilNet that UNHCR staff have
privately described the situation in the Tamil homelands as "desperate",
but have begged him not to quote them, not because it would irritate the
Sri Lankan government, but because it would displease certain UN senior
Despite the dedication of UN field staff, it would appear that the
political maneuvering of a few UN senior staff is contributing to the
humanitarian crisis in the Vanni.
Over 50,000 Tamil civilians have been killed in Sri Lankan government
attempts to crush the Tamil campaign for self determination. In the
1977 elections the Tamil people of the island voted overwhelmingly for
parties supporting independence from Sri Lanka.