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Sri Lanka: Stop the War on Civilians in Sri Lanka: A briefing on the humanitarian crisis and lack of human rights protection – Amnesty International

[MISC, Saturday, 28 March 2009 09:09 No Comment]

A human rights crisis is unfolding in Sri Lanka where tens of thousands of people are trapped in the middle of heavy fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lanka Armed Forces in the north eastern Wanni region.iThe Tamil Tigers, swept by Sri Lankan forces from much of their de factostate in eastern and northern Sri Lanka, are now confined to a 35 square kilometer sliver of coastal land. With them–in many cases, involuntarily–are thousands of civilians, nearly all ethnic Tamils, caught between the sea and two fighting forces with records of serious human rights abuses. Most independent observers estimate there are between 150,000 to 200,000 civilians still confined in this area; the Sri Lankan government has claimed that there are "only" 50,000 to 60,000 civilians there.iiWhat is indisputable is that these people face grave risk of harm from military action, lack of food and health supplies, and the outbreak of disease. They must be immediately evacuated from the conflict zone and provided with shelter and support.


Most of the civilians now caught up in the conflict have already been forced to flee their homes in multiple waves of displacement during the 25-year-war in Sri Lanka, as well as after the Indian Ocean tsunami. They now face a potential humanitarian catastrophe as the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government continues to disregard their well-being. The Tamil Tigers have used these civilians as a buffer against government forces, as well as a steady source of income, forced recruitment (including of children), and involuntary labor. For its part, the Sri Lankan government, buoyed by its initial rapid military advances, has pursued a conclusive military end-game without fulfilling its obligations for the fate of the civilians trapped in the conflict zone. Even as the fighting rages on, the Sri Lankan government has sought significant international financial, material, and technical aid from various countries as well as international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, without agreeing to international standards or international monitoring. In these circumstances, the United Nations and Sri Lanka’s international donors should do all they can to protect the tens of thousands of Sri Lankans facing disaster away from the eyes of the world.


As a matter of utmost urgency:

– the Tamil Tigers must immediatelyallow all civilians to leave the conflict area, and any parties in a position to exercise influence over the Tigers should urge them to do that;

– the Sri Lankan government must ensure that civilians trapped in the conflict area receive sufficient humanitarian assistance, while those civilians who seek to leave have safe passage out of the conflict zone;

– the Sri Lankan government must ensure that displaced people receive adequate shelter and assistance, and are allowed to resettle quickly and voluntarily, in conformity with international standards;

– the UN and Sri Lanka’s international donors should ensure that their assistance is used in compliance with international human rights law and standards, and does not support abusive government policies.

Glimpses into the Wanni

The exact situation in the Wanni is unknown due to the restrictions, imposed by the government of Sri Lanka, on access to the conflict zone for UN agencies, humanitarian, human rights and other non-governmental organizations, and national and international journalists. But the available information consistently and credibly suggests that both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan authorities regularly violate the laws of war, and in particular, the core principles of distinguishing between combatants and civilians and avoiding intentional harm to civilians and civilian objects.


The government of Sri Lanka has declared a so-called safe zone in the conflict area for civilians, but the LTTE has not agreed to the designation of these areas as safe. Meanwhile, reports from the few remaining UN staff, aid workers and civilians able to contact the outside world speak of regular, heavy bombardment of the safe zone, including hours-long artillery barrages. Both sides have been guilty of the indiscriminate use of violence.iiiThe International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only aid agency with a permanent albeit limited access to the warzone says that hundreds have been killed and injured in the past few weeks alone. A 13 March statement from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights cited credible reports that more than 2,800 civilians had been killed and more than 7,000 injured since January 20th.ivUnicef reports that hundreds of children have now died in the conflict.vOn 18 March, Care International reported that one of its humanitarian workers was killed inside the safe zone.viThe makeshift hospital inside the ‘safe zone’ at Puthumathalan is not functioning as there are no drugs or bandages in the hospital. Thousands of people in the combat zone have no access to medical care. ICRC-chartered ferries have started evacuating the sick and woundedto Trincomaleeby sea, including 1,400 who needed surgery, but the ICRC itself notes, "it is essential that evacuations take place regularly and without interference".viiThe ICRC has not received adequate security assurances from both sides to continue its work unimpeded.

The Sri Lankan government has vociferously rejected these claims as inaccurate or exaggerated, but it still refuses to allow any independent journalists or monitors to provide impartial and accurate assessments of the situation. This lack of access is compounded by a climate of fear in Sri Lanka where the rights to freedoms of expression and association have been violated over many years. Those who report on human rights abuses or express critical views of the government or the LTTE in Sri Lanka are at great risk of intimidation, threats, harassment and in some cases violence and unlawful killings.viiiAfter the assassination of prominent journalist Lasantha Wickramatunge more than 10 journalists left the country in fear of their own safety.


Not only are the displaced caught in the line of fire but when they cross to government held territory they face yet more violations of their rights and dignity. Sri Lankan authorities have now set up 13 sites in Vavuniya District–euphemistically called "welfare villages"–hosting over 40,000 displaced people. These camps in many instances operate as de factodetention centers without independent oversight. Sri Lankan authorities prevent the displaced from leaving the camps, to return home or resettle in another part of the country, in contravention of international standards. Despite assistance from INGOs and governments such as India, the camps lack sufficient supplies of healthcare, food and water.ix Civilians held at these camps suspected of Tamil Tiger sympathies are particularly vulnerable to enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, both tactics that the government and its allied militias have been known to employ in significant numbers over the past few years.


Possible violations of international humanitarian law by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Armed Forcesx

Amnesty International has received credible and consistent reports that the LTTE has forcibly displaced civilians and pushed them into areas under their control in the Wanni where they are effectively kept as hostages and used as a buffer against the Sri Lankan armed forcesxiin flagrant violation of international humanitarian law.xiiThe LTTE reportedly prevents civilians from leaving their territory with a pass system that restricts freedom of movement.The LTTE is also reported to have deliberately attacked civilians, including by shooting at civilians that have tried to flee areas under their control.xiiiSuch attacks would constitute war crimes.xiv

The LTTE has carried out attacks from areas densely populated with displaced Tamil families under their control, exposing the trapped population to injury and death as a result of government ripostes.xvThe LTTE appears to have made no effort to protect civilians from attacks in violation of customary international humanitarian law.xviOn the contrary, with their refusal to allow civilians to leave from the shrinking territory under their control, the LTTE have put civilians at risks from attacks. The LTTE has forcibly recruited civilians, including children, to build bunkers and serve as troops – acts which constitute war crimes.xvii

Reports from eyewitnesses, aid workers and civilians in the conflict zone strongly suggest that both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Armed Forces have failed to take necessary precautions as required under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian objects from attack. Furthermore, reports indicate that both sides may have deliberately attacked medical facilities and hospitals. International humanitarian law prohibits the deliberate targeting of civilians or civilian objectsxviii, as well as indiscriminate attacks, i.e. attacks by whose nature strike military objectives and civilians or civilians objects without distinction.xixHospitals, medical facilities and personnel enjoy special protection and cannot be attacked unless they are used to commit a hostile act and even then only after appropriate warnings have remained unheeded.xx

The main hospital in the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu in the Wanni was shelled on 4 February 2009. Hundreds of patients and medical staff were evacuated from the building. The hospital, which was subjected to several attacks in previous days, was bombarded by shelling for 16 hours. None of the warring parties took responsibility for the shelling.xxiThis was the last hospital to remain open in Puthukkudiyiruppu.

The government of Sri Lanka has intensified the suffering of the people by cutting off international humanitarian assistance to those trapped in the Wanni, despite lacking the capacity to meet the needs itself. In September 2008, the government expelled international humanitarian agencies from the region citing security concerns. The government of Sri-Lanka has argued that it is not safe for aid workers to operate in the Wanni, an assessment not shared by the humanitarian agencies themselves. According to doctors inside the Wanni, the Ministry of Health instructed all doctors and health workers to leave LTTE-controlled areas on 10 February 2009. In early February 2009 hundreds of injured civilians in the region were left with no proper medical facilities, doctors were performing operations without anaesthetics and patients had to wait up to a week for urgent treatment. A letter from the Office of the Regional Director of Health Services in Mullaitivu notes that since January 2009, more than 500 civilian deaths have been registered at hospitals. Dr. Varatharajah and Dr. Sathiyamoorthy note that access to basic medicines has been restricted by the government’s lengthy security clearance procedures.xxii

The continued refusal by the government to allow international humanitarian operations into the Wanni, and the restrictions placed upon doctors and health workers have precipitated an acute humanitarian crisis. Government convoys and shipment by sea of food and medical supplies have alleviated some of the gaps but is inadequate for the needs. Tens of thousands of people are living without adequate food, shelter and medical care.xxiiiThe deliberate denial of basic services and assistance such as health care and food is prohibited by international humanitarian law.xxiv

Under international humanitarian law, the parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief. Temporary restrictions to the freedom of movement of relief personnel can only be allowed in case of imperative military necessity. Given that the government has thus far failed to provide for the basic humanitarian needs of the population in violation of international law, it must allow aid agencies that have experience of operating in conflict zones to make their own assessment as to whether it is too dangerous for them to operate in the Wanni.


Organisations such as Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) reported that the critically injured were not getting the assistance they needed because ambulances did not receive adequate security assurances to move across frontlines to evacuate the wounded. MSF has offered to send medical staff and supplies to the Wanni, however, despite several requests from Ministry of Health staff still in Wanni, MSF has been denied access.xxv

Amnesty International recently called upon both parties to the conflict to immediately declare a temporary humanitarian truce and create humanitarian corridors in order to allow those people who are trapped to escape the conflict zone and let urgently needed humanitarian assistance reach those who cannot leave.xxvi However, these calls have been rejected by both sides. The government must declare a temporary humanitarian truce and urge the LTTE to abide by this in order to allow civilians to evacuate. If the LTTE declines to observe such a humanitarian truce this would expose their willingness to continue to put civilians at grave risk.


Amnesty International repeats its call to:

– both sides to immediately declare a temporary humanitarian truce and create humanitarian corridors in order to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone and let urgently needed humanitarian assistance to reach all those civilians in need;

– the LTTE and the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka to allow full and unimpeded access for international and national humanitarian agencies and to guarantee safe passage for humanitarian convoys;

– the LTTE and the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka to provide access to an independent multi-agency needs assessment team, including protection experts, to identify needs and gaps in assistance for the civilian population in the Wanni;

– the LTTE and the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka to respect the prohibitions of hostage taking, targeting of civilians and launching indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks that are prohibited under international humanitarian law.


The need for security and protection of displaced people

Civilians who try to flee the fighting run a gauntlet between the Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE fighters. Many civilians risk their lives to reach government controlled areas. The Sri Lankan government has claimed that Tamil Tigers have fired upon civilians seeking to escape the conflict zone. Amnesty International has received several credible reports over the past few months that the Tamil Tigers have threatened violence against civilians who wish to leave, or their family members who may stay behind in Tiger-controlled areas. There are reports that the Tamil Tigers have interfered with evacuation attempts by the ICRC by applying a pass system even on the seriously wounded. The Tamil Tigers’ efforts to prevent civilians from leaving the desperate conditions of the conflict zone could constitute a war crime.


Civilians who exit areas of fighting, often exhausted, traumatised and sometimes badly injured, face an ordeal once they enter government-controlled areas. The Sri Lankan government, which is ultimately responsible for the rights and welfare of the displaced population, has shown itself incapable of addressing the logistical demands of the displacement crisis, a situation likely to get significantly worse with the expected exodus of tens of thousands of civilians out of LTTE-held areas. International humanitarian and human rights law guarantee the displaced fundamental rights and protections. Displaced individuals do not forfeit the rights of the rest of the population as a result of displacement.xxviiWhile the government has a primary obligation to provide security and assistance to the displaced, it should do so in ways that respect and protect their human rights. Sri Lanka is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and other human rights treaties, yet reports indicate that the government is failing to protect the rights of the displaced.xxviii

De facto Detention camps or "welfare villages"


Once the displaced pass through an initial check for weapons at Killinochchi they are taken to Killinochchi hospital and then transported to one of the heavily militarised temporary transit sites in Vavuniya or Jaffna. The Sri Lankan authorities have established a number of centres for the displaced in the past and have indicated that the long term plan will be to house the entire displaced population in these "welfare villages."xxixNotwithstanding the use of the term "villages", these facilities are in reality heavily militarised, suffer from inadequate facilities, and operate essentially as holding pens surrounded by barbed wire.

The majority of the recent influx of over 40,000 displaced people, are currently housed in one of the 13 transit sites set up by government of Sri-Lanka in Vavuniya District, most of which are converted educational facilities such as schools or colleges. These facilities are seriously overcrowded and there is an immediate need to address the conditions of these sites. One aid worker reports that in one camp, "there can be 600 people living in a large basketball court".Approximately 8,000 IDPs have been taken to the semi-permanent camp in Menik Farm. In preparation for a further large influx, emergency shelters are also being constructed in another area of Menik Farm. Heavy rain has affected the area around Menik Farm this week and many of the temporary tents are flooding.


Previous research by Amnesty International demonstrates that the government has a poor track record on the protection of the rights of displaced people in government run centers and urgent action is needed to ensure security and protection of basic human rights.xxxDisplaced people that have arrived in government territory since the escalation of the conflict in 2008 have been held in centers located at Kalimoddai and Sirukandal (Mannar district) and Menik Farm and Nellumkulam (Vavuniya district). In some camps in Vavuniya and Jaffna the displaced are held in de facto detention, not being allowed to leave the camps. The Sri Lankan Armed Forces have severely restricted the ability of the displaced held in these "welfare villages" and other camps to move freely. In some camps, such restrictions amount to deprivation of liberty and arbitrary detention.


In Mannar, the displaced who have been held in Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps for almost a year have been allowed out of these camps for education, livelihood and health purposes, but have been required to leave a family member in the camp as a safeguard against them not returningxxxiYoung single men with no family members to act as their guarantor have not been allowed to leave the camps.xxxii

In Vavuniya some of the displaced have been allowed to leave camps to live with host families, or allowed out of the camps for specific purposes. This has been largely limited to the very elderly, those requiring hospital treatment or particularly vulnerable people like mentally or physically disabled individuals. The reported government decisionxxxiiito allow all the displaced over the age of 60 to leave has not been comprehensively implemented. The probable extended nature of existing and planned "welfare villages" and the lengthy confinement of the displaced threaten to undermine the right to voluntary return or resettlement in safety as soon as the reasons for their displacement cease to exist.xxxiv

The civilian character of these camps is also at risk and military personnel, soldiers or military police, are still a visible presence inside the sites, often reported to be questioning the displaced and, in some cases are still engaged in camp management activities, raising protection concerns arising from continued presence of military inside the sites. If security is needed for the camps it should be provided by the police and they should be located outside the camp perimeters with no role in managing the camp or distributing assistance.


The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (the UN Guiding Principles) reinforce the rights to liberty and security of person and to freedom of movement which are set out in Articles 9 and 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights respectively.xxxvThe UN Guiding Principles provide that the displaced "shall not be interned in or confined to a camp." While it is recognized that "exceptional circumstances" may permit the short term confinement of the displaced this must only be for as long as it is ‘absolutely necessary’- it is questionable whether such exceptional circumstances exist in Sri Lanka to warrant the widespread detentions of Tamils displaced.’xxxviFurthermore the Sri Lankan government has made no progress in demonstrating or justifying that "exceptional circumstances" exist.


In order to clarify conditions an independent needs assessment mission must be allowed to visit all the camps. Human rights and international humanitarian law prohibits arbitrary detention. Detention must not be arbitrary, and must be based on grounds and procedures established by law (see article 9 paragraph 1 of ICCPR.) Persons must be informed of the reasons of their detention, and they must be allowed to challenge the legality of their detention before the courts.The UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement recognize the rights of liberty and freedom of movement guaranteed in the ICCPR, and consistently with the above standards, state that: "internally displaced persons have the right to move freely in and out of camps and other settlements" (see Principle 14, paragraph 2.).


In a 2008 report of his mission to Sri Lanka, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (SRSG) underlined the obligation not to subject the displaced to arbitrary periods of unsupervised and restricted confinement. The SRSG stated that; "while the need to address security may be a component of the plan [to receive IDPs], it should be humanitarian and civilian in nature. In particular, IDPs’ freedom of movement must be respected, and IDPs may not be confined to a camp".xxxvii

The lack of consistent international supervision (and monitoring) of the transit sites and so-called "welfare villages" run by the government continue to put the displaced at risk of human rights violations by the security forces. There is no standard individual registration process for the displaced coming out of the Wanni.xxxviiiAlthough UNHCR, the ICRC and some INGOs and NGOs have been granted limited access to these centers for distribution of assistance, there is still lack of adequate protection safeguards, and the displaced are vulnerable to further serious human rights violations such as extra judicial executions, torture, cruel and inhumane treatment (including sexual and gender based violence), and enforced disappearance.xxxixFurthermore, safeguards to ensure the right to a family life is preserved has not been implemented, the lack of systematic registration process in place means family members are being separated.xlVery little progress has been made on establishing procedures for tracing and reunification of separated families, including for unaccompanied and separated children. Lack of privacy for women in the centers is reported to be a problem — in some centers men and women were compelled to sleep together and there is a lack of private bathing places for women.


Amnesty International calls upon the Sri Lankan government to:

- respect and protect the human rights of displaced people, including the rights to freedom of movement, liberty and security of person, right to health, education and to adequate standards of living. All human rights must be guaranteed without discrimination;


- with assistance of the international community, immediately formulate plans and policies that aim to provide long term durable solutions for displaced people. Any decisions affecting displaced people must comply with international human rights standards, including the UN Guiding Principles on Displacement, including the right to return home or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country. Displaced people must be given information on their rights and possible relocation options and they must be able to make informed choices about the future;


- ensure that "welfare villages" for displaced people are of a civilian character, and the camp administration must ensure that security and human rights are guaranteed and protected. All IDP settlements, of whatever kind, must be situated at a reasonable distance from areas of conflict, away from military targets and land mines or unexploded ordnance. Camps must be accessible to existing services and infrastructure, including education, medical and social welfare facilities;


- ensure that the right to education and to family reunification are protected for all children, including separated or unaccompanied children. The human rights of all children as recognized in the Convention of the Rights of the Child, to which Sri Lanka is a party, must be respected and protected and the best interest of the child must inform any decisions affecting children;

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