Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Vavuniya

It is a hostage crisis, stupid!

Injured civilians are seen in a make-shift hospital in this photo released by the pro-Tamil Tiger group

Image courtesy The Telegraph

The Sri Lankan military is dealing with probably the largest hostage crisis in world history. Sri Lanka and its present leadership will be forever remembered for how it handles this unprecedented predicament.

As a long and protracted battle draws to a miserable end, it is right to be intensely concerned about the civilian population trapped between the advancing Sri Lankan military and the cornered LTTE. It is easy to believe conservative reports that put civilians killed at an average of 35 to 45 a day – more than 4,000 since the beginning of the year – with a great many more severely injured. This is by all accounts an enormous tragedy. Recall that the 9-11 attacks in the US, which has become a focal point of history, killed less than 4,000 people. Sri Lankan lives should not be considered any less important.

Understanding the Crisis
There have been many divergent arguments made over many months about how the Sri Lankan government should view this crisis and act in the midst of it.

For instance, by demanding “Get your humanitarian paws off my country” Dayan Jayatilleka argues for the government’s sovereignty of choice over all else. Several international leaders have asked for a ceasefire as the all important first step. Michael Roberts has argued for a hardnosed utilitarian response, allowing the civilians here and now to be expendable for the sake of the greater and longer term reduction of death and suffering in the country. Human Rights Watch and similar groups have argued for following Geneva conventions and rules applicable to international warfare.

Each of the above arguments has some merit, but they all have the wrong focus. The current situation, as emphasized in a letter I supported in February, should in fact be understood as an internal hostage crisis – the trapped civilians are being forcibly held by the LTTE, as a bargaining chip against the military advance.

Analysts such as Dayan Jayatilleka seem to have grasped this fact significantly, yet manage, unfortunately, to focus concern on an abstract nationalistic ego rather than on individual human lives. Demanding a ceasefire – as done by some international leaders – does not automatically imply an understanding of the crisis either; sometimes hostages are better served by surgical military action. It is important to agree on the diagnosis, before arguing about the cure. The Sri Lankan military is and has been dealing with a hostage crisis.

Recognising the complexity
Each hostage crisis has to be dealt with according to its peculiar circumstances and the mindset of the hostage takers. The way to resolve a hostage crisis is to deploy the understanding you have of the hostage takers, together with your tactical capabilities, keeping firmly in focus the goal of saving every single hostage that you possibly can. Succumbing to the demands of the hostage takers is usually a last resort – but one that should be considered for the sake of the hostages.

This particular hostage crisis is acutely complicated for several reasons.  First, it might be the largest hostage crisis in world history. Second, the hostages may be uncertain and fearful of how they will be received by the “other side”. Third, the hostages may be subject to forced recruitment, compromising their safety even in a “ceasefire”. But there is no denying the fact that these trapped people are being held forcibly against their will and are indeed hostages.

It is extremely unpleasant when a militia is able to negotiate undeserved terms for themselves on the basis of holding hostages that it has no compunction about killing. But that is precisely the reason hostages are taken, because monstrous militants are able to exploit the inherent humanity of elected governments to force concessions – exploiting the collective social concern for those people who have been taken hostage.

If Sri Lanka is to rise above being a racist nation, then the collective concern shown now for these hostages must not depend on their ethnicity. Would the current methods in dealing with this crisis be the same and have the same support if the hostages were Sinhala Villages?

Responding with humanity
The Sri Lankan government is enjoining people to wait with anticipation and baited breath its military victory over the LTTE. But in a hostage crisis, the capturing or death of the hostage takers is less important than the safe rescue of the hostages.

Governments that prioritise capturing the militants over concern for hostages only mirror the monstrous instincts of hostage takers and surrender the natural respect due to them as representative democratic regimes. This happened in global view in the manner that Russian forces dealt with the Beslan school hostage crisis in 2004, and Sri Lanka too has been sadly following that route in the last few months.

The need of the hour is not to pander to the jingoist calls for destroying the LTTE – as reflected in government statements.  It is not to worry about the “image” of Sri Lanka in the international community – as suggested by political strategists and pundits.  It is not to adopt the inadequate requirements of Geneva conventions and the laws of war – as asked for by Human Rights advocates.  And it is certainly not to throw a life-line to the LTTE – as being cynically attempted by large scale protests organised by Diaspora Tamil groups.

It is a hostage crisis, and the need of the hour is to stay focused on rescuing the hostages, with the least harm inflicted on them as possible. Already, too many lives have been lost, and it is all the more important to recover the necessary focus as soon as possible.

This particular hostage taking act of the LTTE is diabolical and repugnant. But each of us becomes smaller and meaner when we allow that to engender in us support for a response which is equally revolting. To avoid becoming what the LTTE has become, it is necessary to remain focused on the goal of saving as many of those hostages as possible. That must be the goal around which our collective imagination and ingenuity is deployed at this pivotal time in Sri Lankan and world history. To do less is to surrender our humanity.