Accountability for civilians in conflict zones
Posted on September 5th, 2017

By Neville Ladduwahetty Courtesy The Island

Civilians, in conflict zones, have two choices. One is to leave the conflict zone and seek refuge in transit refugee camps, set up within the country, in which the conflict is taking place, or seek the safety of transit camps, in other countries, despite the uncertainties and risks of living on the charity of others. The second is to stay put whatever the risks – even death – and face the full scope of the challenges of surviving in a conflict zone.

These choices are personal and are made today by people in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and in other regions where conflicts are ongoing, or even where conflicts had previously occurred, such as Sri Lanka.While each of the two choices carries a different set of challenges,the focus of this essay is to address issues associated with those who opt to stay behind, in the conflict zone, and face whatever the odds.

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Although the challenge civilians in conflict zones have to face is how to survive, it could take a dramatic turn depending on how the conflict turns out for one of the parties to the conflict. If one of the parties to the conflict realizes that their prospects are waning and that there is an imminent threat to their survival, there is a strong possibility that civilians would betaken hostage and used as a human shield for the party’s own protection.

Civilians were used in Sri Lanka by the LTTE during the final stages of the armed conflict, and are currently being used by the Islamic State in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. The challenges to the government security forces, in Sri Lanka, and to the Iraqi forces and their partners, in the U.S.-led military coalition, are how to prosecute the conflict while taking measures to protect the civilians. Balancing measures adopted to prosecute the conflict against loss of civilian lives is so daunting an undertaking that whatever strategies are adopted, one could always find cause to fault parties to the conflict in the sober light of dawn. However, those charged with alleged violations of human rights and war crimes as well as crimes against humanity, have more to do with the political clout of the parties involved in the conflicts, than on the adopted strategies themselves.

Notwithstanding these complexities, the standard response of the International Community, represented by the U.N., is to ease or cease military operations, despite the inevitability that such a strategy would only prolong the conflict and compromise the security of the civilians indefinitely, as long as the latter refuses to leave the conflict zone. Such responses are often made without considering the follow through consequences. They indicate that the U.N. has failed to fulfill its responsibilities to prevent serious humanitarian catastrophes from occurring. What it has “accomplished” instead,is the capability to pass resolutions and conduct inquiries for violations committed by the parties to the conflict,after the dust has settled.

CONFLICT in IRAQ

Conveying the standard response of the U.N., a report in The Washington Post of August 25, 2017 states: “The United Nations urged international powers to ease military operations around the Islamic State’s de facto capital Thursday amid intensifying concerns about the safety of thousands of civilians trapped inside… The rare call to pause hostilities in Raqqa underscores the severity of the humanitarian crisis there. As Islamic State militants use snipers and threats of arrest to prevent residents from fleeing, monitoring groups have blamed the U.S.-led coalition forces for hundreds of civilian deaths”.

The standard strategy of the U.N.has been to do whatever possible to encourage civilians to escape. However, such possibilities are limited, since the Islamic State continues to do everything in its power to prevent civilians from escaping. The above report states that “More than 270,000 people have fled the city since the coalition offensive began, and many of them are stuck in ramshackle camps in the Syrian desert”.

In the meantime, the view of Col. Joe Scrocca, a coalition spokesman, was that the coalition does “everything within our power to limit harm to civilians…The unfortunate death of civilians is a fact of war that weighs heavy on our hearts. However, if the Islamic State is not defeated, the cost will be even higher”.

According to another report, also in The Washington Post, the U.S. Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis had, stated: “There had been no military in the world’s history that has paid more attention to limiting civilian casualties… That said, an enemy that literally hides behind women and children or forces innocent people to stay in an area that they intend to turn into a battlefield are clearly showing who are the people violating every standard of decency” (August 24, 2017).

The assurance that the coalition is doing “everything in its power to limit civilian harm” or death and that “no military has paid more attention to limiting civilian casualties” would be accepted as credible without question by the U.N. because the coalition is led by the U.S.. However, it would NOT be acceptable if the very same assurances are given by any other party to an armed conflict, such as the armed forces of Sri Lanka when the LTTE trapped and used over 300,000 civilians as a human shield. This reflects nothing but ingrained racism. While a mere statement from the U.S.-led coalition is acceptable in one conflict, but is subjected to U.S.-led UNHRC resolutions demanding a formal accountability exercise in the case of another, namely, Sri Lanka,reflects the differences in the treatment of Member States.If this difference is due to an acceptance that the Islamic State should be defeated,but not the LTTE,it must mean that it is international politics that determines who is prosecuted and who is not.

ARMED CONFLICT in SRI LANKA

Trapping civilians during an armed conflict when the situation becomes desperate for a party to the conflict, is not a new phenomenon. Following the fall of Kilinochchi, in January 2009, the LTTE violated all attempts to isolate civilians by hiding behind women and children and forcing innocent people to stay and shooting others who attempted to escape. The plan of the U.S.-led International Community was to save the LTTE leadership, which would have meant that the conflict would drag on indefinitely; a fact that was disclosed during a Panel Discussion at the Brookings Institute in the U.S. On the other hand, the thinking of the Sri Lankan Government was similar to that of Col. Joe Scrocca in Raqqa; in that if the LTTE was not defeated, “the cost will be even higher”.

There were appeals made to the Sri Lankan Government to “pause” hostilities during the final stages of the conflict. An attempt was also made by a joint visit to Sri Lanka by Foreign Secretaries from the U.K. and France, Milliband and Kouchner, respectively. The fact that all these appeals were made to the Government and none to the LTTE convinced the Government that all these efforts were to save the LTTE leadership. Furthermore, it convinced the Government that the U.N.-led International Community’s recommendation would prolong the conflict in Sri Lanka indefinitely; a prospect the Government was not prepared to accept, because at the end the cost would be even higher in terms of blood and treasure.

The cost for not having complied with the appeals to cease hostilities and for defeating the LTTE is what Sri Lanka is currently facing, first initiated by a visit to Sri Lanka by the former UN Secretary General, Ban-Ki-Moon, within a week of cessation of hostilities, for the sole purpose of holding Sri Lanka accountable for strategies adopted during the final phase of the armed conflict. Given the contrasting response by the U.N. to Sri Lanka versus the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, the lesson is clear: some will be held accountable, while others will not.

CONCLUSION

Choices for civilians in conflict are limited. One choice is to be displaced within the country away from the conflict zone,or as refugees in some other country. The second choice is to become victims of the conflict by not leaving the conflict zone. The challenges faced by each group are different. However, those who decide to stay in the conflict zone present challenges to the parties to the conflict; the most trying challenge being when civilians are taken hostage by one party to the conflict in its desperation for survival.

How parties to a conflict balance the safety of the civilians with military gain is a variable that depends more on the international ranking of the parties to the conflict and much less on the adopted strategies themselves. For instance, despite calls from the U.N. to “pause hostilities”, the intense bombing in Raqqa and Mosul by the U.S.-led coalition forces that includes Britain,is causing the death of “hundreds of civilians”. As far as the U.S. Secretary of Defense and Commanders in the field are concerned, the campaign to defeat the Islamic State militants has to continue, while assuring that everything in their power is being done to limit civilian deaths and casualties because “not to do so would cost even more”.

During the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, too, there were calls to “pause hostilities”. Although these calls were made in the name of saving civilians,they had another purpose, that being,to save the leadership of the LTTE; a fact that was disclosed during a panel discussion at the Brookings Institute in the U.S. and by the joint visit to Sri Lanka of Foreign Secretaries Milliband of the U.K. and Kouchner of France.It is this background that made the Sri Lankan Government realize that it had no alternative but to defeat the LTTE while doing everything in its power to minimize civilian casualties, similar to the reality that the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has now come to accept. Furthermore, just as the Sri Lankan Government came to accept this reality, the U.S.-led coalition, in Iraq, has now come to accept that “if the Islamic State is not defeated the cost will be even more”.

The difference between Iraq and Sri Lanka is that in the case of Iraq the assurances given by the representatives of the U.S.-led coalition are accepted by the UN, and the US.-led coalition forces would not be subjected to formal accountable processes. This, however, is not the case with similar assurances given by the Sri Lankan Government, judging from the measures adopted by the UNHRC which continues to hold Sri Lanka accountable for the strategies adopted during the final stages of the armed conflict.

The most that would be expected from the U.S. and Britain would be for them to hold internal inquiries, and that, too, if circumstances warranted; a matter that would be left entirely to their discretion judging from the comment by Prime Minister Theresa May that British forces would never be subjected to international inquiries. Sri Lanka’s internal inquiry in the form of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was condemned by the UN appointed Panel of Experts even before the Report was made public. In addition, the report of the Paranagama Commission of Inquiry that even had the benefit of internationally renowned expert opinions and focused primarily on accountability, was not acceptable.

It is this difference that an internal inquiry is acceptable in one instance and not in another is what is unacceptable – a difference that arises from an ingrained racism that manifests itself in various forms and shades despite the guiding principle in the U.N. Charter that all Member States are equally sovereign. These are reflected in the decisions as to who should be held accountable and who should not. The fact that the U.N. and its subsidiary, the UNHRC, permit such decisions to influence their judgement means that they are violating the impartiality and the neutrality mandated by the world body for which they should be held accountable.

5 Responses to “Accountability for civilians in conflict zones”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    The only way to find out who is accountable is to hold a war crimes investigation into the conduct of all parties. It is absurd to speculate what may happen without such an investigation.

    What Sri Lanka had was a war (armed conflict) and rules in armed conflict must apply. Killing civilians per se is not a war crime.

    The main reason to avoid an investigation is political. An investigation and the application of laws of armed conflict will reopen old wounds. It will be extremely sensitive for Tamils. They will come to realise that Sri Lankan military deliberately attacked the No Fire Zone (because terrorists were hiding there and terrorists moved weapons into there) and that is perfectly legal and valid. Similar things happen in other criminal cases for instance in murder cases where the victim’s relatives will have to relive the horror their loved one went through during the trial and cross examination.

    However, the case goes ahead and similarly the investigation must continue. LTTE, Tamil parties, LTTE Diaspora, NGOs, India, etc. must also be investigated for war crimes. They have no justification for the crimes they did. That is the difference between Sri Lankan troops and them. This must be decided by a war crimes investigation.

    The other reason why certain sections don’t want war crimes investigations is some dubious killings outside the war zone (e.g. Lasantha, etc.) will come to light. These culprits must be punished. They are cowards and not war heroes. Sri Lanka must not protect war criminals of all groups and that applies to Karuna as well.

  2. Senerath Says:

    Fully agree with Dilrook.

  3. Fran Diaz Says:

    Our grateful thanks to Mr Laduwahetty for his article where he exposes some truth re the UN in the Sri Lanka matter.

    ——–

    The UN was formed in 1946 after WW II, to prevent WWIII.
    The UN Charter sets out 4 main purposes :

    1. Maintaining worldwide peace & security.
    2. Developing relations among nations.
    3. Fostering co-operation between nations in order to solve Economic, Social, Cultural or Humanitarian international problems.
    4. Providing a Forum for bringing together to meet the UN purposes and goals.

    Question : Did the UN stick with these ideals re the Sri Lanka’s long lasting problem with Tamil Separatism ?
    As far as we can see, No, they did not. No Preventive Care to stop more terrorism was proposed for the long war with the LTTE.
    Also, same lack of preventive measures and help for the then JVP.

    Do correct me if I am wrong in these assumptions.

    *****

    Some points to note :

    Crimes galore happened BEFORE the war !
    This fact has not been looked into by the UN and other outside powers.
    The LTTE carried out a rampage for nearly 30 yrs of killing & destruction of property – where is the inquiry into that ?
    We propose that the LTTE bestialised Sri Lanka for nearly 30 yrs with no respect for human life, and took out their CASTE based rage on Sri Lanka. Who else participated, funded and encourageed the LTTE ? The Cold War politics definitely exacerbated the LTTE activities as INDIA trained this terrorist group when JRJ ran with the west – all this, prior to the official end of the Cold War in 1991.
    The Vadukoddai Resolution (Eelam through Violence) of 1976, guided the Tamil Youth into violence.

    Some Questions to ask :

    * Did the UN or the west bring an INQUIRY into those Criminal Activities of the LTTE that went on for so long ?

    * What prevented the SL Govts of those 30 yrs from bringing the LTTE crimes to closure ?

    * Who or what kept the LTTE war in Sri Lanka continuing ?

    * Who rescued some 300,000 Tamil civilians held hostage as a Human Shield by the LTTE, and who rehabilitated those people ?

    * Who pays for the high costs of war of 30 yrs, high costs in human lives & destruction of property, and loss of reputation to the entire country ?

    We agree that whatever inquiries are done into events during the war with the LTTE, must be done within the country, with PATRIOTIC professionals giving judgment.
    In this matter with the LTTE, outside forces CANNOT be depended on. Evidence shows that outsiders have, so far, only exacerbated matters and delayed true Reconciliation, Peace & Progress in Sri Lanka.

    It appears that the UN cannot be depended on to prevent catastrophes from happening ?
    And to be fair minded if catastrophes do happen ? Our grateful thanks to Mr Laduwahetty for his article where he exposes some truth re the UN in the Sri Lanka matter.

    ——–

    The UN was formed in 1946 after WW II, to prevent WWIII.
    The UN Charter sets out 4 main purposes :

    1. Maintaining worldwide peace & security.
    2. Developing relations among nations.
    3. Fostering co-operation between nations in order to solve Economic, Social, Cultural or Humanitarian international problems.
    4. Providing a Forum for bringing together to meet the UN purposes and goals.

    Question : Did the UN stick with these ideals re the Sri Lanka’s long lasting problem with Tamil Separatism ?
    As far as we can see, No, they did not. No Preventive Care to stop more terrorism was proposed for the long war with the LTTE.
    Also, same lack of preventive measures and help for the then JVP.

    Do correct me if I am wrong in these assumptions.

    *****

    Some points to note :

    Crimes galore happened BEFORE the war !
    This fact has not been looked into by the UN and other outside powers.
    The LTTE carried out a rampage for nearly 30 yrs of killing & destruction of property – where is the inquiry into that ?
    We propose that the LTTE bestialised Sri Lanka for nearly 30 yrs with no respect for human life, and took out their CASTE based rage on Sri Lanka. Who else participated, funded and encourageed the LTTE ? The Cold War politics definitely exacerbated the LTTE activities as INDIA trained this terrorist group when JRJ ran with the west – all this, prior to the official end of the Cold War in 1991.
    The Vadukoddai Resolution (Eelam through Violence) of 1976, guided the Tamil Youth into violence.

    Some Questions to ask :

    * Did the UN or the west bring a proper INQUIRY into those Criminal Activities of the LTTE that went on for so long ?

    * What prevented the SL Govts of those 30 yrs from bringing the LTTE crimes to closure ?

    * Who or what kept the LTTE war in Sri Lanka continuing ?

    * Who rescued some 300,000 Tamil civilians held hostage as a Human Shield by the LTTE, and who rehabilitated those people, at high costs in lives and funds to the entire Country ?

    * Who pays for the high costs of war of 30 yrs, high costs in human lives & destruction of property, and loss of reputation to the entire country ?

    We agree that whatever inquiries are done into events during the war with the LTTE, must be done within the country, with PATRIOTIC legal persons & professionals giving judgment.
    In this matter with the LTTE, outside forces CANNOT be depended on. Evidence shows that outsiders have, so far, only exacerbated matters and delayed true Reconciliation, Peace & Progress in Sri Lanka.

    It appears that the UN cannot be depended on to prevent catastrophes from happening ?
    And to be fair minded if catastrophes do happen ?

  4. Fran Diaz Says:

    Oops ! Repeats happened !
    Editor, please delete repeats if you can.

  5. Cerberus Says:

    Mr. Ladduwahetty, Thank you for raising the double standards of the UN towards the West and countries such as Sri Lanka which are not powerful countries. There are many instances of these double standards. Sri Lanka was made to suffer and thousands died in the armed conflict for thirty years in Sri Lanka due to these double standards. There was only such a small armed group of terrorists that the army if given the funds and the backing could have quickly finished the whole conflict. Yet there was pressure brought to bear on our leaders by big powers who wanted to divide Sri Lanka for their own Geopolitical interests due to our strategic locations.

    Last year Theresa May vowed to protect UK troops from war crimes investigations. See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/sep/23/theresa-may-british-troops-uk-protect-abuse-legal-system-soldiers-war-crimes-iraq

    The case against Tony Blair is going to be shelved after being indicted by the Chilcott report. See: Case against Tony Blair over Iraq war a legal impossibility, says QC – https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jul/05/case-against-tony-blair-over-iraq-war-a-legal-impossibility-says-qc

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