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Quarter, Giving No
By John Burns

The ancient name for Sri Lanka, Serendip, long ago passed into English as the word “serendipity,” meaning “the making of pleasant discoveries by accident.” Lying off the southeastern coast of India, the island earned its name from European mariners who found on this lush, gentle island a sanctuary from the forbidding vastness of the Indian Ocean.

It has been a harsh irony of the past two decades that Sri Lanka, with its white beaches and scented uplands, has become synonymous with one of the world’s most violent and merciless conflicts. In two separate civil wars, one still continuing and the other ended by the unremitting harshness of government forces in the early 1990s, at least 100,000 Sri Lankans have died. In a population of 19 million, the losses have been compared to those suffered by France and England in the century’s two world wars. Even more horrifying, many thousands of the dead were slaughtered not in battlefield combat, but as a result of a take-no-prisoners tactic adopted by all sides.

In one of the wars, the Sri Lankan forces, representing the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, are fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who want a separate State in the north and east of the island for the predominantly Hindu Tamil minority. The second conflict, within the Sinhalese community, was between the government and the ultra-leftists of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which paralyzed large parts of central and southern Sri Lanka in 1988 and 1989. Prisoners who live to tell the tale have been a rarity in both conflicts.

The war between the government and the Tamil Tigers, with origins that go back to a savage outburst of anti-Tamil rioting that broke out in 1983, reached a cataclysmic moment in the small hours of July 19, 1996, at a remote spot in the northeast of the island in the bloodiest battle of the conflict. Desperate to regain the initiative after the loss six months earlier of their stronghold in the Jaffna Peninsula at the extreme north of the island, the Tamil Tigers attacked a strategic base of the government forces at Mullaitivu, a coastal outpost southeast of the peninsula.

Attacking from sea and land, waves of Tiger fighters, many of them young boys and girls barely into their teens press-ganged into suicide squads known as the Black Tigers, overran the base. By dawn, at least six hundred Tigers were dead, along with thirteen hundred government soldiers, the highest single casualty toll in the history of the conflict. After the Tigers withdrew, a relief column of government forces found not a single government soldier still alive.

The wounds of many of the dead, some clutching white flags of surrender, indicated they had been shot dead or blown apart by grenades at close range; hundreds of others appeared to have been herded together, doused with gasoline, and burned to death. What occurred at Mullaitivu, it seemed, was less a battle, at least in its concluding stages, than a massacre.

A distinguishing feature of the Sri Lankan fighting, and a cause of acute concern to international humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has been the rare occasions when the opposing forces have taken—or acknowledged having taken—prisoners. Fighters on both sides who have dared to speak candidly to human rights investigators and reporters have admitted that the rule, sometimes explicit in battle orders, more often understood, was that no enemy combatants were to be left alive.

Where prisoners have been taken, as often as not it has been to serve the ends of propaganda, not humanitarian concern, as when government forces have captured Tiger fighters as young as eleven and twelve and taken them to remand homes in Colombo where foreign television crews have been invited to film them as proof of the Tigers’ use of children in combat. At times when they have sought respite from government military pressures, as they did with a six-month cease-fire that they later abrogated in 1994-1995, the Tigers have also held and exchanged prisoners.

But overall, the Sri Lankan fighting has been a chilling demonstration of the survival of a practice going back to the earliest recorded wars—a practice that became known as “giving no quarter” to an enemy (a phrase that literally meant denying shelter, but which came to mean denying the right of survival).

Although ancient history contains examples of generals ordering troops to spare soldiers defeated in battle, and even of attempts by early lawgivers to punish those judged too brutal with the enemy, modern efforts to ensure humane treatment of enemy fighters date back to the American Civil War, when President Lincoln, in 1863, promulgated what became known as the Lieber Code, a codification of the laws of armed conflict, which expressly forbade Union troops to give no quarter.

A conference in Brussels in 1874, attended by European powers in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, eliminated what had been a major loophole in the Lieber Code, the so-called great straits provision, which allowed a soldier or a fighting unit to eliminate survivors of battle when their “own salvation” made taking prisoners impossible.

In 1949, the execution or elimination of defenseless soldiers was defined as one of the grave breaches of the laws of international armed conflict in each of the four Geneva Conventions. In 1977, Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions gave in Article 40 what many legal scholars regard as the most authoritative definition of the principle.

The article provides, among other things, that “a person who is recognized or who, in the circumstances, should be recognized to be hors de combat, shall not be made the object of attack.” The article defines hors de combat as including those “in the power of an adverse party”; those who clearly express “an intention to surrender”; and those who have been “rendered unconscious or otherwise incapacitated by wounds or sickness” and are therefore incapable of defending themselves. In internal conflict, Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions binds parties to treat “humanely” soldiers who have laid down their arms, and those made hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause.

In Sri Lanka, despite numerous assurances over the years, neither the government forces nor the Tamil Tigers seems to have cared that the practice of eliminating defenseless enemy soldiers is a grave war crime. While a cease-fire agreed in 2002 led to a respite in the fighting and thus in violations of the law, major military operations were resumed in 2006 and followed a similar pattern to before. On the battlefield in Sri Lanka, it seems, there will continue to be no quarter given by either side, until one side or the other prevails in the war.

(See executions, extrajudicial; protected persons; soldiers, rights of.)