Wednesday, May. 13, 2009

Crisis in Sri Lanka

During last Fall's Presidential campaign, Barack Obama hinted at how his Administration might act to stop suffering in the world. "We have to consider it as part of our interests ... to intervene where possible," he said. Under the Obama doctrine, American power would be used to protect civilians from genocide and ethnic violence, even in places where no vital U.S. interests are at stake.

That doctrine is being tested in Sri Lanka. In recent weeks, the Sri Lankan army's assault against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has left thousands of ethnic Tamil civilians dead. At least 50,000 remain trapped on a two-mile sliver of land, blocked from leaving by rebel fighters and left to the mercy of government forces, which have shelled hospitals and shelters with impunity. On May 10, a government doctor in the combat zone reported that 300 to 1,000 civilians had died in a single night. Two days later, an additional 49 were killed when artillery shells hit the only field hospital in the area. The next day, 50 more died.

This calamity has unfolded largely on Obama's watch. The Administration has threatened to block delivery of a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to the Sri Lankan government until it alleviates the humanitarian crisis. On May 13, Obama said he was "deeply saddened" by the situation and called for the rebels and the government to give the U.N. access to those trapped in the combat zone.

There are no good guys in Sri Lanka. The LTTE is one of the world's cruelest terrorist groups and has often deployed child soldiers and suicide bombers. Atrocities have been carried out by both sides in the war. But the U.S. could still do more, like press for a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire, demand that the Sri Lankan government allow the delivery of relief supplies and threaten sanctions if it fails to comply. "There's a lot of cruelty in the world," Obama said last year. "We're not going to be everywhere all the time." True enough. But conscience insists that we try.