With its bloody end recently, Sri Lanka's quarter century long deadly civil war leaves some troubling questions in its wake. What limitations exist on governments' right to use force to crush terrorist organizations? How can the responsibility to protect norm be extended to nonstate actors? Do westerners have divine dispensation to be the moral arbiters of the conduct of others as well as their own?
The world was gravely concerned over the fate of civilians caught in the crossfire. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon pressed Colombo to grant unrestricted access to aid agencies. The government resisted, saying more time was needed to flush out Tamil Tigers hiding among the displaced people in the camps.
A fortnight earlier, Ban had received a report on Gaza incidents in January from his own inquiry board that indicted Israel for "reckless disregard" for human life, accused it of a direct and intentional strike into UN premises, and recommended an impartial inquiry to investigate incidents that were beyond its own deliberately narrow terms of reference. On May 5, Ban submitted this report to the Security Council with a terse statement that he did not intend to establish any further inquiry.
Yet presumably Ban expects to be taken seriously on his call for greater transparency, access and accountability by Sri Lanka.
The double standards and selectivity of western governments who have aggressively promoted the rhetoric of the war on terror, waged an illegal war of aggression in Iraq where civilian lives are so devalued they are not even counted, and support the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan with its high toll on civilian casualties, has been breath-taking.
Sri Lanka was waging a military offensive against a guerrilla army that had fought a brutal war against the legitimate state for 26 years, killed up to 80,000 people, and brought the assassination of an Indian prime minister as well as a Sri Lankan president. The Tigers were among the most ruthless terrorist organizations and designated as such by more than 30 countries. They pioneered the use of women suicide bombers, invented the explosive suicide belt, killed many civilians including Tamils, recruited child soldiers and often raised funds from the Tamil diaspora through extortion. Post-conflict recovery and progress was not possible until they had been decisively defeated on the battlefield.
Civilians were held against their will by the Tigers, not the army. Many who tried to flee were shot by the Tigers -- an act of depravity against their own to which even Hamas and Hezbollah, other practitioners of the art of using civilians as human shields, have not stooped.
Tellingly, there were no reports of civilians trying to flee from the Sri Lankan forces to the Tigers. A movement that began as the protector of the nation's oppressed Tamil minority had mutated into their killers. Along the road it is the Tigers who fought for a solely military solution to the three-decade conflict, spurning the few opportunities that were presented for a political settlement through dialogue and negotiations, including through Indian and Norwegian mediation; they insisted on being the sole representative of the Tamil population and cause, liquidating all rival challengers; and they lost international goodwill after 9/11 as the global tolerance for terrorism as a tactic collapsed, regardless of the justice of the cause.
Yet, even if true -- and, as always, much of this was contentious and furiously contested -- this did not obscure the humanitarian tragedy of large-scale civilian deaths and shelling of civilian targets such as schools and hospitals in the shrinking area still held by the Tigers as government troops closed in. Government claims of zero civilian casualties caused by their firepower are simply not credible. Around 7,000 civilians died this year alone.
To what extent did the global community's unanimously endorsed responsibility to protect (R2P) norm apply to the Tigers, the government and the international community for evacuating -- by land, sea and air -- the civilians caught in the crossfire?
R2P places the responsibility first and foremost on the state itself. Given the Tigers' nature and record, it was not unreasonable for the government to build the capacity and demonstrate the determination to defeat the Tigers as part of its responsibility to protect. R2P proponents cannot advocate the international use of force against government troops engaged in atrocities against civilians, but not permit governments to use military force to protect their people from atrocities perpetrated by terrorists.
Pacifists can denounce all use of force. But those who accept that the use of force is sometimes necessary cannot deny that option to governments engaged in fighting a brutal insurgency that kills civilians without compunction.
Had the Tigers been amenable to letting civilians caught in the crossfire escape, outsiders could legitimately have asked for another pause or ceasefire in order to help evacuate them. Another means for avoiding a bloodbath was for the Tigers to surrender. Absent this, it was hypocritical and wrong -- morally, politically and militarily -- of westerners to fault Sri Lanka.
Ceasefires are not neutral in their impact on the warring sides. The Tigers used previous pauses to rest, recover, regroup, recruit, rearm and return to terrorism. Another 25 years of war would have killed many more civilians.
There is also the moral hazard of validating the tactic of taking civilians hostage as human shields. Calls for a ceasefire, without materially helping the Tamil civilians, infuriated the government and reduced space for those making the calls to establish their bona fides with the government for how best to move from a civil war into a post-conflict peacebuilding environment.
Canadian MP Bob Rae discovered the truth of this when, after landing at Colombo airport Tuesday night, he was detained and then expelled from Sri Lanka. Those who choose to be referees and award penalties against one team cannot switch to playing coach of that team.
Where R2P does apply to the government is in its preventive and rebuilding components. The fact remains that the Tigers were the after-product of systematic and institutionalized discrimination by the Sinhalese majority against the Tamil minority that quickly degenerated into oppression and then killings. Calls for equal treatment when ignored escalated into demands for autonomy and finally, a homeland.
A military victory, while necessary, will not guarantee a peaceful future for a united Sri Lanka. The responsibility to reconstruct and rebuild, with international assistance, shows the way forward. The best time for the state to adopt measures of accommodation and power sharing within a federal framework is in the flush of military victory, when no one can accuse it of weakness. The Sri Lankan Tamils as well as the international community will mark the government's noble magnanimity.
Conversely, should there be vulgar triumphalism, gloating and an atavistic return to oppression and killings, Sri Lanka will suffer a reprise of the brutal civil war.
Ramesh Thakur is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo.