Call for a truce in Sri Lanka as humanitarian situation deteriorates

As the fighting continues unabated in Sri Lanka and the humanitarian situation deteriorates, calls for a truce between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are growing.

Amnesty International has called upon both parties to the conflict to immediately declare a temporary humanitarian truce and create humanitarian corridors. This would allow more than quarter of a million trapped civilians to escape the ongoing war and also let food, water, and medical assistance reach those civilians who cannot leave.

The organization also demanded that the Sri Lankan government ensure that displaced people who have fled the conflict zone to transit centres do not face improper restriction on their movement and are kept safe.

Less than 10,000 people from the Wanni have sought shelter in government held areas since December. They are held in de facto detention centres, or so-called welfare villages and are vulnerable to abuses by government forces.

These camps are located at Kalimoddai and Sirukandal in Mannar district and Manik Farm and Nellumkulam in Vavuniya district. New camps are also being created in the Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna districts.  

Although the government has allowed some displaced people out of these camps for education, livelihood and health purposes, they are required to leave a family member in the camp as a safeguard against them escaping. This policy violates the international legal prohibition of hostage taking.

While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have been allowed limited access to the existing centres, the government has not allowed access to other humanitarian agencies .

“The most important issue right now is to focus on immediate unimpeded humanitarian assistance for those families trapped between the conflicting parties,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International researcher on Sri Lanka. “The government wants international assistance but not international standards.”

Approximately 300,000 people are now trapped in the Wanni region, in a small pocket of land between the conflicting parties. These are families who have been living without adequate shelter and without sufficient food for months now. Civilians are totally dependent on food from the outside. The last shipment of food went into the area on 29 January but it is unclear whether it was fully distributed to all in need.

“The situation for civilians in the Wanni is unacceptable,” said Yolanda Foster. “People cannot move safely, even to collect the bodies of dead relatives, and the injured have no hospitals. A quarter of a million people are suffering without adequate food and shelter while shells rain down upon them. Most of those who have managed to escape the conflict have not received adequate hospital treatment.”

The last working hospital in the war zone has been closed. The hospital, in the town of Puthukkudiyiruppu, had to be evacuated on Tuesday after it was shelled.

The hospital had been subjected to several attacks before the evacuation. At least nine people were killed and 20 injured when it sustained three direct hits on Sunday. The hospital was hit a fourth time on Monday evening.

“If the hospital was deliberately targeted by either the government or the LTTE, it would constitute a war crime,” said Yolanda Foster. “If the hospital was struck in the course of a disproportionate or an indiscriminate attack by either party, this would also constitute a war crime . Amnesty International reiterates its call on both the Sri Lankan and LTTE forces to respect international humanitarian law.”

Both the main parties to the conflict have terrible human rights records. The LTTE have recruited children in the past. They have a history of silencing dissent in areas under their control and they have sent civilians to dig bunkers and work at the front lines.

“Life for civilians living in Tamil Tiger areas has been extremely difficult,” said Yolanda Foster “The Tamil Tigers have wanted to raise money so they’ve imposed a tax on individual families. There was a policy of one child per family to be given to the Tigers. I’ve interviewed mothers who have lost not only one child but even two children to the Tigers. It’s also been very difficult for anybody to set up an independent radio or have any opinions other than the official LTTE voice.”

The government has directly and indirectly been involved in disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and explicit intimidation of critics. They have also silenced dissent in the south of the country to crush critical voices.

Since 2006, 14 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka. And there has been a consistent campaign to silence any critical voices. It’s clear from the way in which the government has intimidated editors, like requesting that newspapers don’t cover particular stories such as the humanitarian crisis, that there has been a concerted campaign to silence the media.

There has been no proper accountability for the killings that have happened in the last two years, so there is impunity for the perpetrators. Earlier this year a well-known editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickramatunge, was assassinated in Colombo. Most journalists do not believe there will be a proper investigation into his killing.

“One of the real concerns is that this is a war without witnesses,” said Yolanda Foster. “We just don’t know what’s been happening in the last few weeks in Sri Lanka. But the few remaining aid organizations on the ground have reported that there have been several hundred casualties in the last few weeks alone.

“The minimal information about incidents of causalities show the dire need for international, independent monitors to be deployed as a matter of urgency. The Sri Lankan government and the LTTE should allow access to such monitors without delay.”