As the government of Sri Lanka moves closer and closer to its goal of "crushing" the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the human cost of the conflict spirals out of control -- the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 120,000 people fled the conflict zone in the last ten days of April.
The situation is even grimmer for the 50,000 Sri Lankans said to be held by the LTTE in an area smaller than New York's Central Park. Since mid-January, 6500 civilians, including 1000 children, have died in the conflict. The Sri Lankan government has rejected requests from the United Nations to slow the assault by government troops so that food and aid can be sent to these trapped civilians, as well as calls for a humanitarian ceasefire by Britain and France, calling the latter "hypocritical" and "sanctimonious." Currently chaired by Russia, which has openly supported Sri Lanka's push into LTTE territory, the U.N. Security Council has taken no steps to stop the government's military offensive.
In an editorial last week, the New York Times noted that it would be a relief to see an end to the 25-year conflict in Sri Lanka. True enough, but what comes next? The Times proposes, in one breath, prosecution of both sides for war crimes and a serious political settlement. Can they go hand-in-hand, or must peace precede justice? Once the Sri Lankan government has defeated the LTTE, what incentive will it have to allow prosecutions to go forward against its own officials? Moreover, what impact will the Sri Lankan government's focus on "crushing" the LTTE (and, apparently, any civilians who get in the way of that goal) have on the possiblity of a political solution from the perspective of the Tamil population? The extremism and lack of respect for human life on both sides of the table make it difficult to imagine how common ground could be established. A lasting political solution will need to address the root causes of the conflict in a way that respects the presumably very different preferences of the Tamil and Sinhalese civilians who have suffered over two decades of violence.