Document - Sri Lanka: No end to War on civilians in Sri Lanka: A briefing on the humanitarian crisis and lack of human rights protection
Amnesty International March 2009
Stop the War on Civilians in Sri Lanka: a briefing on the humanitarian crisis and lack of human rights protection
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 need for security and protection of displaced people
i The Vanni is an area encompassing the two districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaittivu and parts of Jaffna, Mannar and Vavuniya districts in the north. It is difficult to gain accurate statistical information as much of the population is constantly on the move and due to the lack of independently verified information. Civilians have been trapped since the intensification of hostilities from July 2008 as the offensive pushed people eastwards as they fled aerial bombardment.
ii ‘SRI LANKA: Clinton raises security fears for IDPs in north’, IRIN news, 26 March 2009, http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=83490.
iv ‘Serious violations of international law committed in Sri Lanka conflict: UN human rights chief’, Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 13 March 2009, Geneva.
v ‘Statement by UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman on the situation in Sri Lanka’,
Unicef Press Release 17 March 2009, http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/media_48749.html.
vi ‘CARE aid worker killed in conflict’, Care International, 18 March 2009, http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/SODA-7Q9L2A?OpenDocument&rc=3&cc=lka.
vii Sri Lanka – ICRC Bulletin No: 02/2009, 17 March 2009.
viii ‘Amnesty International, Sri Lanka: Silencing Dissent’, (Index: ASA 37/001/2008), 7 February 2008.
ix On 11 March 2009 the Indian government sent a 52 member team to help with medical aid and the treatment of the displaced coming from the war zones in Wanni, 24 March, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/World/India-may-expand-hospital-facility-in-Lanka-war-zone/articleshow/4309797.cms.
x Both parties to the conflict are bound by Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions and applicable principles of customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflicts. International humanitarian law includes rules protecting civilians and other non combatants, as well as rules regulating the means and methods of warfare.
xiSee ‘Civilians Trapped by Armed Conflict’, Amnesty International Web Feature, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/civilians-trapped-sri-lanka-conflict-20090128.
xii The forcible displacement of civilians is prohibited under customary international law. See, Rule 129 (b), ICRC Rules. It is also a war crime under Article 8(2)(e)(viii), ICC Statute. See: also Principles 6(1) and 6(2)(b) of the UN Guiding Principle on Internal Displacement (hereafter UN Guiding Principles). The prohibition of hostage taking is set out in Common Article 3 (1)(b) to the Geneva Conventions and Rule 96, ICRC Rules. On human shields see Rule 97, ICRC Rules.
xiii The United Nations Country Team in Sri Lanka statement on 16 February 2009 reports that a growing number of people trying to leave the Wanni, have been shot at, and sometimes killed by the LTTE, http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/JBRN-7PBHEJ.
xiv Article 8(2)(e)(i)ICC Statute and Rule 1, ICRC Rules.
xvUnder customary international law parties to a conflict must avoid, to the extent feasible, locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas. See: Rule 23, ICRC Rules.
xvi Under customary international law parties to a conflict must, to the extent feasible, remove civilian persons and objects under its control from the vicinity of military objectives. See: Rule 24, ICRC Rules.
xvii Rule 95, ICRC Rules prohibits uncompensated or forced labour. See also: Article 8(2)(e)(vii) ICC Statute, Rule 137, ICRC Rules, Principle 13(1) UN Guiding Principles.
xviii See ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, Volume I: Rules; Rules 1 and 7 (hereinafter “ICRC Rules”) and Articles 8(2)(e)(i) of the Rome Statute.
xix See ICRC Customary International Humanitarian Law, Volume 1: Rules (hereafter ICRC Rules),
Rules 11, 12 and 13.
xx Article 8(2)(e)(iv) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Rules 7 and 25 of ICRC Rules.
xxi An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) representative said of the attack: “At least nine people were killed and at least 20 others injured as a result of the first three shellings. The hospital sustained direct hits three times in less than eight hours: twice between 3 and 4 p.m. local time, then again at 10.20 p.m. local time. On Monday evening at 6.40 p.m., the hospital was hit a fourth time. On Sunday the hospital's kitchen was hit first, then its church and later a ward with women and children. On Monday it was another ward. It is likely that there were casualties outside the hospital, too, but we do not have the exact figures yet. Despite the shelling, people injured in the ongoing fighting continue to arrive at the hospital. When it was hit the third time, more than 800 people, including 500 in-patients, were sheltering in the hospital. See, Sri Lanka: Vanni hospital shelled”, http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/sri-lanka-news-0102.k.
xxii Letter from the RDHS Mullaitivu & RDHS Kilinochchi,Dr. Varatharajah and Dr. Sathiyamoorthy, 16 March 2009.
xxiii Amnesty International, ‘Civilians trapped by Sri Lanka conflict’, 28 January 2009, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/civilians-trapped-sri-lanka-conflict-20090128.
xxiv Rule 55, ICRC Rules. Article 7 (2)(b)of the ICC statute sets out that for the purpose of demonstrating crimes against humanity (which are widespread and systematic in nature), “extermination” includes the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia, the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population”.
xxv Sri Lanka: 250,000 Civilians Trapped in Intense Fighting MSF Denied Access to Assist Victims in War Zone , 28 January 2008, http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news/article.cfm?id=3372&cat=field-news.
xxvi Amnesty International, Call for a Truce in Sri Lanka as the Humanitarian Situation Deteriorates, 6 February 2008, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/news/call-for-truce-sri-lanka-humanitarian-situation-deteriorates-20090206
xxvii Principle 1, UN Guiding Principles. International human rights law continues to apply in Sri Lanka alongside international humanitarian law.
xxviii Sri Lanka is also a party to Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, CERD, CAT, CMW and CEDAW The government has a legal obligation to ensure that all people in its territory or under its jurisdiction, including the displaced, benefit from the protection of these treaties.
xxix As of 16 February 2009, official figures indicate 37,420 people have crossed from LTTE held territory into government-controlled areas in 2009, with nearly 35,000 people crossing over in the first 16 days of February 2009.
xxx Amnesty International Report, ‘Sri Lanka: Waiting to go home - the plight of the internally displaced’, (Index: ASA 37/004/2006), 28 June 2006.
xxxi Common Article 3(1)(b).
xxxii ‘Barbed wire villages raise fears of refugee concentration camps’, Jeremy Page interviewing Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights, The Times, 13 February 2009, http://www.nowpublic.com/world/sri-lankas-refugee-concentration-camps.
xxxiii See John Holmes statement to the UNSC.
xxxiv Rule 132, ICRC Rules; Displacement should last no longer that required by the circumstances, Principle 6(3), UN Guiding Principles.
xxxv The UN Guiding Principles provide an internationally recognised framework for the protection of IDPs and they provide guidance for states as to how they can ensure the protection of binding international human rights and humanitarian law within the context of internal displacement.
xxxvi Principle 12(2), UN Guiding Principles. See, also Annotations to the Guiding Principles, (2008), pp. 58-61.
xxxvii See: Report of the secretary-general on human rights on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Mission to Sri Lanka, UN Doc. A/HRC/8/6/Add.4, 21 May 2008.
xxxviii Centre for Policy Alternatives, ‘Report of the situation of IDPs leaving the Vanni’, forthcoming, February 2009.
xxxix 2006-2008 have been characterized by impunity for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Soaring human rights abuses included hundreds of enforced disappearances, unlawful killings of humanitarian workers, arbitrary arrests and torture. See Amnesty International Annual Report on Sri Lanka 2007, http://thereport.amnesty.org/eng/Regions/Asia-Pacific/Sri-Lanka.
xl Rule 131, ICRC Rules. Principle 18(2), UN Guiding Principles. The UN ICESCR to which Sri Lanka is a party also protects human rights such as the right to food, to health, and to an adequate standard of life.
xli Perera. R, Dr & Fernando M. 2009, Draft report of the first phase of consultations in the development of a national action plan of action for the promotion and protection of human rights, Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Sri Lanka.
xlii A/HRC/8/6/Add.4, 21 May 2008, Point 41.
xliii Urgent Action for Krishanthy Kumarasamy (f), aged 18, student,"Disappearances", 20 September 1996, UA 222/96.
xliv There are reports that some of the displaced, particularly young men, are screened on more than one occasion often at different locations.
xlvi Brussels, 29 January 2009, Press statement, Louis Michel condemns the escalating humanitarian catastrophe in Sri Lanka and calls for life to be respected, http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=IP/09/189&format=HTML&aged=0&language=EN&guiLanguage=en.
xlvii Congressional notification of the suspension of MCC funds to Sri Lanka.http://www.mcc.gov/documents/cn-121307-eligiblecountries.pdf
xlviii The EU provides Sri Lanka with a range of support. On trade, Sri Lanka benefits from GSP+, giving the country duty free access to the EU which is the world’s largest single market. The GSP+ (General System of Preferences for LDCs, is a special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance and covers 14 countries and has been in place in Sri Lanka since 2005. The EU-Commission (COM) initiated an investigation with respect to the effective implementation of certain human rights conventions in Sri Lanka to decide whether to temporarily withdraw the preferential arrangement. The Government of Sri Lanka applied to join the new scheme in October 2008. COM is now investigating Sri Lanka’s adherence to key treaties (Convention Against Torture (CAT), ICPPR).
xlix Oral Presentation during Article 4 at the Human Rights Council, Geneva, 16 March 2009, Shinichi Kitajima (Japan).
l Statement by the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference on Reconstruction & Development of Sri Lanka, 12 September 2006, http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/srilanka/catalogue/Files/Media%20Centre/Press%20Centre/PR75_Co-Chairs%20of%20the%20Tokyo%20Donor%20Conference.pdf
li United Nations Statement Attributable to the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General on Sri Lanka http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/srilanka_hpsl/Files/Media%20Centre/Press%20Releases%20And%20Statements/LKP0122_Pressrelease06032009.pdf
lii Serious violations of international law committed in Sri Lanka conflict: UN human rights chief’, Statement by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 13 March 2009.
AI index: ASA 37/004/2009 Amnesty International March 2009