India urged to raise human rights issues in Sri Lanka

As the Indian Foreign Secretary visits Sri Lanka this week, he has been urged to raise concerns over the safety of displaced civilians trapped in the Wanni, in discussions with the Government of Sri Lanka.

In an open letter to Shivshankar Menon, Amnesty International has asked him to pay special attention to the severe difficulties facing the people caught in the middle of the fighting. The letter points to government forces closing in on Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) bases in the north-eastern part of the island.

The letter also calls on him to discuss the general deterioration of human rights in the country, even in areas not directly affected by the conflict.

More than a quarter of a million people, mostly Tamils, face immense hardship and are running out of safe space in the face of intensified fighting between the two sides.

These displaced persons are trapped between the approaching Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE, which has imposed restrictions on their ability to leave and is using them as an involuntary pool of recruits and labourers.

With the Sri Lankan government’s recent recapture of Killinochchi, hundreds of thousands of people have been compressed into a smaller area and are increasingly vulnerable. As the fighting encroaches on the trapped population, there are fears of a further mass exodus of civilians.

Amnesty International highlighted the situation in November 2008, drawing attention to the acute food and shelter shortages facing the displaced.

At the time, the organization welcomed the food supplies that were sent by the Indian authorities. Humanitarian supplies, including those sent by the Indian government, have since dwindled.

The letter says aid workers fear that many of the displaced are “vulnerable to potential public health problems and are receiving far less calories than the daily recommended allowance.

“Also, civilians injured in the fighting cannot be transported outside the Wanni for urgent treatment due to road closures by the security forces.”

Despite assurances by the Government of Sri Lanka that the situation is under control, there is evidence to suggest that the authorities lack the capacity to provide the required humanitarian relief to displaced people.

“Humanitarian access to the Wanni continues to be restricted,” says the letter, “Only government-approved food convoys are allowed to enter the area since the authorities ordered the United Nations, and nearly all humanitarian agencies, to withdraw from the Wanni on 9 September 2008.”

On 29 and 30 December 2008, an Inter-Agency support mission accompanied the World Food Program-led convoy in order to monitor implementation of United Nations (UN) funded programmes and conduct a needs assessment.

“The mission noted increased vulnerability of the civilian population due to several factors including: ongoing fighting, new and repeated displacements into an increasingly compressed area, flood damage and reduced capacity and material to address urgent shelter and sanitation needs,” according to the letter.

Another issue that Amnesty International has asked Mr Menon to address is the increasing number of attacks on the media. The editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickramatunge was assassinated in Colombo recently. There was also an attack on the privately owned Maharaja television/MTV studios in Colombo which was ransacked by a gang who used claymore bombs to damage property.

The main recommendations Amnesty International’s letter made to Mr Menon were to:

raise the issue of civilian protection and press for urgently needed humanitarian assistance to reach civilians who are trapped between the two sides. Pressure must also be put on the LTTE to allow free passage of displaced families from the Wanni with immediate effect.

press for international monitors to assess the humanitarian needs of quarter of a million people trapped in the Wanni and to ensure proper distribution of food and other humanitarian assistance, particularly as the fighting approaches the trapped civilian population.

raise the issue of attacks on the media and press for impartial investigation into the same.

discuss the general deterioration of human rights in the country, even in areas not directly affected by the conflict.