Human Rights Flashpoints – July 28, 2009

HONDURAS

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya attempted to return to Honduras for the second time on Friday, July 24, 2009.  After a brief moment in his home country, Zelaya retreated back into Nicaragua, setting up camp on Saturday to demand his return home and to power.

Since then, Zelaya has refrained from making another attempt to enter the country for fear of attacks against his supporters, as reported by the BBC.  Curfews remain in place in southern Honduras, while supporters of Mr. Zelaya have blocked main roads.

The Honduran armed forces endorsed the San José Accord, an agreement that was forged in Costa Rica between delegates representing President Zelaya and Roberto Micheletti, the leader of the de facto government.  According to the New York Times, the accord is supported by most governments in the hemisphere and it would allow the return of Mr. Zelaya as president with limited powers.

There are currently no further talks scheduled to take place between the de facto government and Zelaya.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was detained by Honduran military personnel and forced into exile at the end of June.  Several government ministers are also reported to have been detained.  Roberto Micheletti, Congress speaker, has been sworn in as “Interim President.”  Micheletti has imposed a curfew.

Recent reports also suggest that journalists who have published news stories on the crisis or covering the issue of protests and scores of detentions have been intimidated.  Prosecutors have also reported threats on account of their attempts to verify human rights abuses during protests.

Must Reads

Overheard

“President Zelaya’s effort to reach the border is reckless.”  Hilary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, July 24, 2009.

“The United States should be helping me, not criticizing.”  Manuel Zelaya, Ousted Honduras President, July 25, 2009. 

SOMALIA

The worsening security situation in Somalia was exemplified by Al-Shabab raids on two UN compounds in Baidoa and Wajid last week, which severely hindered the UN’s humanitarian work in Somalia.  Al-Shabab has also threatened to shut down 3 UN operations in Somalia, accusing the UNDP, UNDSS, and UNPOS offices of working against Somali Muslims.  Ongoing fighting in Mogadishu has already led to the closure of many feeding centers throughout the city, putting pressure on already crowded IDP camps and straining the capacity of aid agencies all over Somalia.

Meanwhile, newly appointed Somali Security Minister Abdullahi Mohamed Ali vowed Friday to reform the security forces, telling Reuters by telephone that his “main priority is to gradually re-establish capable security forces that can defeat the terrorists.”

Must Reads

Overheard

“Such acts target the whole gamut of UN peace and humanitarian operations in Somalia.  The UN is providing life-saving support to people in need throughout Somalia, and will continue to do all it can to help the country emerge from decades of violence.”  Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General, July 21, 2009.

“We again appeal to the warring parties in Somalia to respect basic international humanitarian and human rights principles and to guarantee the safety and security of the civilian population as well as for the humanitarian workers trying to help the victims.”  Ron Redmon, UNHCR Spokesperson, July 21, 2009.

Coming This Week

  • July 27: Obama begins economic talks with Chinese leaders
  • July 28: Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to arrive in Washington, DC for further discussions
  • July 30: Senate hearing on US strategy on Sudan
  • July 31: Renewal of UNAMID mandate
  • July 27 -  July 31: George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, and Robert Gates in Jerusalem for talks regarding West Bank settlements

Juliette Rousselot and Jacki Mowery contributed to this post.

Human Rights Flashpoints is a weekly column about countries at risk of escalating human rights violations and is brought to you by AIUSA’s Crisis Prevention and Response team.

Amnesty Researchers On-the-Ground in Chad

Amnesty International researchers are currently on-the-ground in Chad investigating the growing numbers of refugees streaming across the border from Darfur.  Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty Canada, has been documenting the mission online.  Here is an excerpt from a podcast posted yesterday detailing the still desperate situation:

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

Darfuri refugee women and girls at Bredjing camp filling water containers.

“They are there on their own.”

Those words have been haunting us all day.   We have now come further east from Abéché to Farchana.  Within perhaps a 30-40 kilometre semi-circle around Farchana there are 3 major refugee camps as well as 12 sites for displaced Chadians.  Farchana itself is not far from Chad’s border with Darfur.

Our intention today had been to travel to one of the sites for displaced Chadians in this region, Arkoum.  We want to make it to several IDP sites during our mission because we have certainly come to understand that their safety and well-being is extremely precarious.

It is a universal story.  Without any doubt refugees, including Darfuri refugees here in Chad, face considerable hardship, insecurity and violence.  The international community does, however, have a much clearer role and responsibility for their protection.  Not so with IDP’s, who remain, of course, citizens of the country, in this case Chad.  Here, as is so often the case around the world, Chadians displaced within their own country have only minimal protection.  Largely abandoned by their own government and not fully protected by the international community.  And of course, still very near to the terrible human rights violations that forced them from their homes in the first place.

It is so important that we get access to some of the sites, to see and hear first hand the challenges displaced Chadians face.   But while the refugee camps are all within fairly easy reach of the town of Farchana, our base, the sites for IDP’s are more remote and difficult to reach.  And because of growing security concerns in eastern Chad, in the wake of a rebel incursion far to the south of here in Goz Beida, the UN decided today to cancel plans for a convoy to Arkoum, which we would have been part of.  Instead we travelled to a nearby refugee camp, Bredjing, and spent the day working with Darfuri refugees.

A human rights monitor with the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Rights in Chad who is usually based in Arkoum had intended to travel back out to the site with us today, but was obviously unable to do so.  His worry was palpable.  It was he who kept saying: “ils sont là; tous seuls” – they are there on their own.

It all comes down to security.  In the midst of insecurity, the full range of human rights teeters and collapses.  That of course has been the horrible reality in both eastern Chad and Darfur for the past five years.  Insecurity means killings and rape; homes destroyed and crops burned.  But it also means education, health, food and water supplies, and livelihoods are also turned inside out.

And it is still insecurity that reigns in eastern Chad.  When I was here with an Amnesty team in late 2006 the local population, thousands of whom had recently been chased from their homes in a brutal wave of attacks, felt completely abandoned.   The sad truth is that 2 ½ years later, even though international troops and police are now deployed here, displaced Chadians remain at terrible risk.

And whenever security concerns arise here, as they have again, they are the first to be cut off, the first to be abandoned.  In so many respects, the most vulnerable yet the least protected.  As our friend kept saying, they are on their own.  We must find a way to stand with them.

- Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada

To listen to the original podcast and read more about the mission to Chad, visit the Amnesty Canada Mission Blog.

How Did Sri Lanka End Up in this Crisis?

While an estimated 50,000 civilians are still trapped in Sri Lanka’s shrinking war zone, a diplomatic push for a humanitarian ceasefire by the British and French foreign ministers did not yield any success yet. For anyone who is interested in how Sri Lanka ended up at this point, IRIN today published a very detailed and useful chronology of the conflict:

1972: Velupillai Prabhakaran forms a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT).

1976: TNT changes its name to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

1983, 23 July: LTTE attacks an army patrol in Jaffna, killing 13 soldiers and sparking anti-Tamil riots around the country, leaving several hundred dead.

1985, 8 July: Talks held between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE for the first time in Thimpu, Bhutan.

1987, 29 July: Indo-Sri Lanka pact signed between President JR Jayawardena and Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi. India deploys peace-keeping force to north and east Sri Lanka.

1990, 24 March: India withdraws troops due to clashes with the LTTE killing more than 1,200 Indian troops.

1990 June: LTTE kills hundreds of policemen in the east following breakdown of talks between the Tigers and the government of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

1991, 21 May: Gandhi killed, allegedly by an LTTE suicide bomber.

1993, 1 May: Premadasa killed by LTTE suicide cadres during a May Day rally in Colombo.

1995, January: Government of Chandrika Kumaratunge and LTTE agree to talks.

1995, April: Talks fail after the Tigers blow up two navy vessels.

1995, 2 December: Jaffna, the northern cultural and political nerve centre of the Tamils, falls under Sri Lanka army control.

1996, 31 January: Suicide bomb attack on the Central Bank building in the heart of Colombo kills more than 100 and injures 1,400.

1996, 24 July: Alleged LTTE bomb blast in a railway station in Dehiwela, south of Colombo, kills 70.

1996, 18 July: Army camp overrun by the LTTE near the northeastern town of Mullaitivu. More than 1,000 troops killed.

1998, 25 January: Suicide bomb attack on Sri Lanka’s holiest Buddhist shrine, Dhaladha Maligawa (Temple of the Tooth), in the central town of Kandy, kills 17 people.

1998, 26 September: Tigers overrun Kilinochchi army camp, killing more than 1,000 government soldiers.

1999, December: LTTE attempts to assassinate President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge; he survives.

2000, April: LTTE recaptures Elephant Pass, inflicting heavy damage on the Sri Lankan forces during the operation Unceasing Waves III.

2001, July: An LTTE suicide attack on Bandaranaike International airport kills 14.

2002, 22 February: Ceasefire agreement, brokered by Norway, signed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Prabhakaran.

2002, December: Government and LTTE agree to share power at peace talks in Norway.

2003 April: LTTE pulls out of talks after six rounds of negotiations, citing inadequate steps taken to rebuild war-hit areas.

2004, 3 March: LTTE eastern military head, Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna Amman, splits from the LTTE.

2005, 7 February: LTTE political head for the eastern Districts of Batticaloa and Ampara, E. Kousalyan, killed with three others in Batticaloa town.

2005, 12 August: Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar killed by suspected LTTE snipers in Colombo.

2005, 4 December: The LTTE commences claymore and grenade attacks targeting the Sri Lankan troops in the Jaffna peninsula.

2006, 15 June: More than 60 civilians killed in claymore mine attack allegedly by LTTE, targeting a civilian bus in Kebithigollewa, nearly 200km from Colombo.

2006, 20 July: LTTE closes the sluice gates at Mavilaru, south of the eastern coastal town of Trincomalee. Clashes erupt as army launches operations to gain control and succeeds.

2007, 5 January: Bomb attacks on public transport begin in Nittambuwa, about 20km east of Colombo, killing six people. Several bombs target public transport in the following months. The government blames the LTTE for the attacks.

2007, March: LTTE carries out its first air raid on Katunayake air base, about 20km north of Colombo. The Tigers also conduct an air attack on 29 April during the Cricket World Cup Final. The attack targets two fuel-storage facilities on the outskirts of Colombo. The Tigers carry out at least nine air attacks before 20 February 2009.

2007, 15 January: Military captures Vakarai, a coastal town in Batticaloa District in the Eastern province.

2007, 11 July: military captures Thoppigala, the last of the LTTE strongholds in the east after 13 years, thereby regaining the entire eastern province from the LTTE.

2007, 2 November: LTTE political wing leader SP Tamilselvan killed in an air raid by the Sri Lankan Air Force.

2008, 2 January: The government says it will withdraw from ceasefire agreement and does so on 14 January and intensifies attacks on the Tigers. The LTTE, however, states it will stick to the agreement.

2008, September: All international humanitarian agencies and their foreign staff operating in the LTTE-controlled Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts are ordered by the government to relocate to Vavuniya.

2009, 2 January: Government troops capture Kilinochchi, de-facto capital of the LTTE, after 10 years.

2009, 25 January: Mullaithivu town captured by government troops.

2009, 12 February: Government declares a 12km-long “no fire zone” (NFZ) along the Mullaitivu western coast and calls on civilians to move into it for their own safety.

2009, 20 February: The LTTE conducts a suicide air attack in Colombo.

2008 March: Sri Lankan troops launch operations to regain areas in the Vanni from the western flank. The number of civilians in the NFZ continues to grow.

2009, 14 April: LTTE says it is ready for negotiations, but the government refuses the offer, insisting it should lay down arms.

2009, 20 April: Thousands of civilians trapped in the NFZ cross into government-controlled areas where they are screened and placed in camps. Government gives LTTE 24 hours to surrender.

2009, 22 April: Former LTTE media coordinator Velayutham Dayanidhi, alias Daya Master, and the translator of former LTTE political wing head SP Tamilselvan, Kumar Pancharathnam, alias George, surrender to the military.

2009, 26 April: The LTTE declares a unilateral ceasefire as government forces surround an ever-shrinking NFZ. The government rejects the declaration, calling it a “joke”. The UN estimates 50,000 civilians remain trapped in the NFZ.

2009, 27 April: Facing with diplomatic pressure to declare a ceasefire, Sri Lanka says its military is no longer using heavy weaponry and aerial bombing against the remaining few hundred rebels still fighting in the NFZ.

2009, 28 April: With more than 150,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps in Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes urges that civilians who have been screened be given the chance to leave the camps and to rely on friends and family elsewhere.

UN: Sri Lanka facing two humanitarian crises

A top U.N. official visiting Sri Lanka warned today that Sri Lanka is facing “what amounts to two quite distinct crises.”  The first is the one I’ve been writing about on this blog:  the tens of thousands of civilians trapped in the small area of northeastern Sri Lanka still controlled by the opposition Tamil Tigers.  With fighting continuing between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers, those civilians are in grave danger of death or injury.  My concern for their safety only increased after a Sri Lankan army commander told reporters today, “Now, the tigers are fighting out of uniforms, and it’s hard to distinguish between tigers and civilians.  This forced us to slow down offensives for fear of causing harm to civilians.”  Won’t a slower offensive still cause civilian casualties, since it’s so hard to distinguish who’s a civilian and who isn’t?

 The second humanitarian crisis is the one faced by the civilians who’ve been able to flee the war zone.  The U.N. has reported that more than 100,000 have gotten out over the past week.  Such a large number in such a short time understandably strains resources.  But the Sri Lankan government hasn’t helped matters; as AI has reported, the government requires fleeing civilians to stay in camps which they’re restricted from leaving.  Some of the camps are severely overcrowded, with some people being forced to stay out in the open with no shelter.  Other are placed in tents designed for a family of five but which are holding an average of 18 people and with limited water supplies.  UNICEF said yesterday that many people arriving at the camps are exhausted, malnourished and often wounded or sick.  UN agencies are airlifting emergency supplies to the north of the country where the camps for the displaced civilians are located.

Civilians who’ve fled the war zone don’t just face the danger of overcrowded camps with inadequate supplies.  UNHCR said today that they’ve gotten reports of physical assaults on men and women fleeing the zone.  AI has reported that some men fleeing the conflict area have disappeared after being detained by the Sri Lankan security forces.  While the Sri Lankan government should protect fleeing civilians from any Tiger members who may be mixed in with them, the government needs to carry out a screening process that protects the rights of both the civilians as well as the suspected Tiger fighters.

Both crises need immediate solutions.  For the first, the government and the Tigers should let the trapped civilians leave the war zone now.  For the second, the government should respect the human rights of those fleeing, both during the screening process and in the camps in which they’re housed.