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.

Refugees 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 haven.

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 individual careers.

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 government wishes.

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 concerns.

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 area.

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 than 20.

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 staff.

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.


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