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Obama's First Humanitarian Crisis

Mark Leon Goldberg is a senior correspondent for the American Prospect and writes UN Dispatch.

Over the past four months an estimated 6,500 ethnic-Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka have died at the hands of their own government. Tens of thousands more have been injured. Unlike humanitarian crises in places like Darfur, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this outbreak of violence occurred almost entirely during President Obama's first 100 days. It is the first man-made humanitarian crisis of the Obama era. So far, the Obama administration's response to the crisis in Sri Lanka is encouraging to those who believe that human rights--in name and deed--should enjoy a prominent place in American foreign policy.

In January, the Sri Lankan military launched a massive military campaign intended to deal a once and final blow to a 25 year violent insurgency waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers. In the process, the government indiscriminately shelled the small, densely populated sliver of land occupied by the LTTE and an estimated 100,000 civilian hostages, causing nearly 6,500 civilians deaths and roughly 14,000 injuries according to the UN.

The UN-mediated ceasefire lasted precisely two days before the government resumed its shelling and launched a ground offensive to "liberate" the civilians held as human shields. Tens of thousands of civilians managed to escape. But upon fleeing the conflict zone civilians have been forced into meekly disguised concentration camps that are off limits to international humanitarian organizations.

On April 22, the Security Council met to discuss the situation. Reservations by Russia and China prevented the Council from offering a formal rebuke of the Sri Lankan government. Outside the Security Council meeting, however, UN Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States was "appalled" at the government's treatment of the civilians who managed to escape and called on the government to "cease the shelling and the offensive military action." The same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, "I think that the Sri Lankan Government knows the entire world is very disappointed that in its efforts to end what it sees as 25 years of conflict, it is causing such untold suffering,"

These were two of the strongest statements made by any officials around the world. But beyond tightly coordinated messaging, the Obama administration has signaled that it will use the most significant point of leverage at its disposal to compel the Sri Lankan government to change its behavior. In recent months, the government of Sri Lanka has been scouring the globe for creditors to help stabilize its economy--particularly a $1.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, which had been under negotiation for months.

On April 29, American officials announced that they were seeking the delay the loan. With this move, the Obama administration has, literally, put its money where its mouth is. Reuters quotes one unnamed American official as saying, "The problem, from our vantage point, is that the Sri Lankans have refused to engage on the humanitarian crisis as a priority." Delaying an IMF loan "is an attempt to get their priorities back where they should be."

The Washington advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, Tom Malinowski, is heartened by what he sees. "The administration has done virtually everything we would have wanted them to do," Malinowski says. "The response has been clear, crisp, and strong."

According to Malinowski, much credit for the administration's policy and messaging on Sri Lanka goes to two of the administration's most prominent human rights advocates: Rice and Samantha Power, the senior director of multi-lateral affairs at the National Security Council and author of "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide. Rice served as the director of international organizations and peacekeeping for the National Security Council during the Rwandan genocide in 1994, an event that has shaped her approach to humanitarian disasters ever since. In a fortuitous twist, Rice, who was taken to task for her realpolitik attitude toward the Rwandan crisis in "A Problem From Hell," at one point told Power, "I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required."

Sri Lanka was an early test of the extent to which the Obama administration as a whole would stick its neck out to confront a humanitarian crisis in which few geopolitical interests were at stake. And if the response to killing in Sri Lanka signals how the administration approaches the next man-made humanitarian catastrophe, the world may yet become a safer place for vulnerable populations across the globe.

--Mark Leon Goldberg

Photo courtesy of Getty Images