The UN estimates that more than 4,500 civilians have died in the fighting in the north eastern region of Sri Lanka. Hundreds of civilian casualties were reported on Monday alone. Both the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tigers must take immediate action to prevent further civilian casualties.
“Civilians are suffering injuries and dying because both the Tigers and the government troops are violating international humanitarian law,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka expert. “The dire situation of civilians caught in the cross-fire is exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian aid including medical supplies, food and water.”
In the last 24 hours tens of thousands of civilians who had been trapped in the conflict zone were able to escape but many more remain. On Monday, the Sri Lankan government gave the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) 24 hours to lay down their arms or face further attack in a “final offensive” raising concerns that civilian casualties could spiral.
Over the last three months, the LTTE have used civilians trapped in the conflict zone as a buffer against government forces. When civilians have tried to flee, they have been attacked by the Tigers. Despite the government’s claims of having created a “safe zone” for civilians, the Sri Lankan military is reported to have used heavy artillery which is indiscriminate under the circumstances, causing civilian deaths and injuries. Both the Tigers and Sri-Lankan Military have been violating the laws of war.
The international community needs to bring effective pressure on both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to protect the civilians.
Specifically, both sides should ensure that any civilians who want to leave the conflict zone are able to do so without being attacked by the LTTE fighters and without being punished by the government forces. After ensuring that civilians can reach safety, if the government continues its attacks against the Tamil Tiger fighters, it must use methods and weapons that are not indiscriminate.
Civilians fleeing the conflict zone are being held by the Sri Lankan government in de facto detention centres. Amnesty International has received credible reports of enforced disappearances of young Tamil men who are leaving the conflict zone. “Sri Lanka has a long and well-established history of forced disappearances dating back to the 1980s. There is virtual impunity for this widespread practice,” said Yolanda Foster. Any Tamil fighters who are captured should be treated in accordance with international standards.
The UN Security Council should discuss how best to ensure the protection of civilians, stop enforced disappearances, ensure that internally displaced people are receiving adequate shelter and get international monitors on the ground who can assess the situation first hand and ensure that the humanitarian and human rights crisis is addressed immediately. Displaced civilians should be processed as rapidly as possible, provided with medical attention and then given help with relocation.