International access needed to Sri Lankan former war zone

For those who haven’t already heard, the Sri Lankan government announced today that its forces had defeated the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), with all the LTTE leaders being killed this morning.  The LTTE (or Tamil Tigers, as they’ve been called) have been fighting for over three decades for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The Sri Lankan military has now reconquered the territory once controlled by the Tigers.

I have previously posted entries on this blog expressing concern for the estimated 50,000 civilians being held as human shields by the LTTE in the war zone.  Should I be happy that the war is over?  After all, the Sri Lankan government announced yesterday that all the civilians trapped in the war zone had been rescued by the army.  According to a Sri Lankan minister, it had been done “without shedding a drop of blood;” he also said that there “was no bloodbath as some people feared.”  I’d like to believe him and the Sri Lankan government.  But they’ve denied access to the war zone for months to aid agencies and journalists, so we only have their word for it.  As the UN said today, it’s hard to be sure about reports from the former war zone.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) today said that it hadn’t been able to reach the area so it didn’t have first-hand information about the needs of civilians and wounded people in the area.

Amnesty International today called on the Sri Lankan government to provide aid agencies, including the UN and the ICRC, with full access to the former war zone in order to help all those in need of assistance.  Beyond that, the government should take additional steps to prevent abuses of the displaced.  We’ve already reported that some young men fleeing the war zone had “disappeared” after being detained by the army.  The Sri Lankan government should immediately implement a proper registration process for the displaced civilians and allow international monitors into the area to observe all camps, detention places and registration and screening points.   That’s the best way to protect the displaced and avoid any further human rights violations.  I’m sure we all hope for a better future now for Sri Lanka’s long-suffering people.  Having the Sri Lankan government open itself now to international scrutiny would be an important step toward securing that future.

Sri Lanka and the keeping of promises

The U.N. said today (April 29) that two aerial bombardments were reported in the conflict zone in northeastern Sri Lanka on April 28.  This follows the Sri Lankan government’s statement last Monday that the security forces had been instructed to end the use of combat aircraft and aerial weapons, in their ongoing offensive against the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Is the Sri Lankan government keeping to its promise?  The Tigers are now confined to a small strip of coastal land, about 5 square miles, in northeastern Sri Lanka.  With the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians, who’ve been prevented by the Tigers from leaving the area.

For their part, the Tigers had declared a unilateral ceasefire last Sunday.  The Sri Lankan government said today that the Tigers’ ceasefire was a bluff as the Tigers had reportedly carried out seven suicide attacks against government troops in the prior 24 hours.  Are the Tigers keeping to their ceasefire promise?

The foreign ministers of both Great Britain and France visited Sri Lanka today and tried to get the Sri Lankan government to halt its offensive against the Tigers and allow humanitarian aid into the conflict area.  The ministers later reported that they had failed to get the Sri Lankan government to make this commitment.  The U.N appealed again today for a humanitarian pause in the fighting to allow the trapped civilians to leave the war zone and to allow aid into the zone.  The Sri Lankan government has not promised to cease fighting, and the Tigers have not promised to let the civilians leave if the government did call a temporary halt.

In response to the over 100,000 civilians who’ve fled the war zone over the past 10 days, the U.N. and various international donors have pledged millions of dollars in emergency assistance in recent days.

There are promises that need to be made by each side in Sri Lanka’s conflict and promises that, having been made, need to be kept.  The international community should hold both sides to account and should be sure to honor its own pledges of assistance to the displaced civilians.

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.

UN sending mission to Sri Lankan conflict zone, but will they be allowed in?

Yesterday, I wrote that U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had announced that a U.N. humanitarian team would be sent to the conflict zone in Sri Lanka to assess the situation and try to protect the trapped civilians.  This was apparently with the agreement of the Sri Lankan President.

Well, today, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Minister said at a press conference that intense fighting between the army and the opposition Tamil Tigers in the conflict zone was making it “virtually impossible” to allow any U.N. staff to visit the zone.  The U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said today that the U.N. had an “agreement in principle” with the government for a team to visit the zone, while another U.N. official reported today that a U.N. team had traveled to the north of the country but hadn’t yet received permission to enter the conflict zone.

Of course, no one wants to endanger the lives of the U.N. team by putting them in the middle of the crossfire.  So, we need a pause in the fighting to allow the team in to do their workThe Sri Lankan government and the Tigers must immediately agree to that and to cooperate with the U.N. team.

The Soldiers Speak; What about the UN inquiry?

Israeli soldiers are telling their stories about questionable military practices during the conflict in Gaza.  They are describing attacks on unarmed civilians, using phrases like “cold blooded murder” in an effort to expose human rights violations.   But:

“Neither the Israeli justice system, despite its acknowledged strengths, nor that of the Palestinian Authority has ever properly addressed violations of international law by Israeli forces or Palestinian fighters.”

The UN’s Board of Inquiry is currently investigating attacks on UN facilities, but what of the civilians on both sides of the conflict?

“What is needed is a comprehensive international investigation that looks at all alleged violations of international law – by Israel, by Hamas and by other Palestinian armed groups involved in the conflict.”

Amnesty International recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to:

“…press for effective steps to be taken by the UN Security Council to ensure that a comprehensive international investigation is established to inquire into alleged war crimes and other serious violations of international law committed by all parties to the recent conflict in Gaza and southern Israel.”

This would require an independent and impartial investigation into all alleged violations of international humanitarian law that can provide recommendations on the prosecution of those responsible by the relevant authorities.

"What went on here?" : U.S. Lawmakers Assess the Damage in Gaza

In the first congressional visit since Hamas was elected in 2006, Representative Brian Baird from Washington, Rep. Keith Ellison from Minnesota and Senator John Kerry visited Gaza yesterday.  They witnessed and reported the devastation of the population and the dire need of humanitarian assistance.  Rep.  Ellison, Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee member and the first Muslim congress member, stated that:

People, innocent children, women and non-combatants, are going without water, food and sanitation, while the things they so desperately need are sitting in trucks at the border, being denied permission to go in – Rep. Ellison.

Aid is slowed by the blockade as Palestinians rebuild.

Aid is slowed by the blockade as Palestinians rebuild.

None of the men toured the area as representatives of the Obama administration and all refused to meet with Hamas, but they opened up a dialogue between American lawmakers and Gaza residents.  Rep. Baird “wanted to witness the situation on the ground” and helped Palestinian aid workers highlight the humanitarian crisis to the BBC.  Sen. Kerry, on the other hand, emphasized the problems with Hamas leadership, while touring a bombed out American school:

…Your political leadership needs to understand that any nation that has rockets coming into it over many years, threatening its citizens, is going to respond – Sen. Kerry.

As lawmakers balance the politics of Hamas and Israeli interests, the Palestinian people are left with the shocking humanitarian devastation, 5,000 home destroyed, 1,300 lives lost, and over 5,000 injured.  More pointedly, Rep. Braid describes:

The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering. Entire neighborhoods have been destroyed, schools completely leveled, fundamental needs such as water, sewer, and electricity facilities have been hit and immobilized. Relief agencies, themselves, have been heavily damaged. The personal stories of children being killed in their homes or schools; of entire families wiped out, and relief workers prevented from evacuating the wounded are heart wrenching. What went on here? And what is continuing to go on, is shocking and troubling beyond words. – Rep. Baird.

Gaza crossings remain restricted despite dire need

Almost two weeks ago Donatella Rovera, AI researcher posted an entry ‘Task of reconstruction will be truly immense’ during her mission to southern Israel and the Gaza Strip.

This 20 year veteran stated how she and her team were “shocked” and “horrified” at the scale of destruction found and that although prepared for devastation, what they “found was even worse than we had first realized”.

United Nation’s satellite imagery taken of northern Gaza shows widespread and intense damage to buildings, infrastructure and impact craters. Although over 1500 buildings, roads and structures have been damaged, UNOSAT notes that other structures may be damaged or unstable as well, and that estimates of damage are probably an under-estimate because of the difficulty in assessing damage to dense urban areas.

To date, the US has provided nearly $60 million in humanitarian aid like water, food, medicine and plastic sheeting. The cost of damage has been assessed to be more than 2-3 billion dollars

According to the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs, crossings continue to be closed intermittently and imports greatly restricted. Exports are still not allowed.

The following audio clip offers a dire insight into the difficulties into getting humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip after the ceasefire:

A little over a week ago and two weeks after the ceasefire (and audio above), the European Union approached Israeli officials concerned that they “have not witnessed much improvement of the overall restrictions.”

Amnesty International along with other organizations including the United Nations continue to request that all the crossings into the Gaza Strip be opened to allow unhindered access for humanitarian aid and workers. Thousands remain homeless, requiring basic essentials such as food, water, mattresses, blankets and medicine. The grand task of trying to re-build can also not take place when simple reconstruction materials like concrete and plastic are not being allowed in.

Proper monitoring procedures can be put into place to guarantee aid is not going to Hamas authorities, but are properly being utilized. The bottle necks of aid at the crossings are unnecessary and continuing to hurt the victims of the attacks on Gaza from Dec. 27 – Jan. 18th. UNRWA has already shown their ability in guaranteeing the proper carrying out of its function when they stopped aid distribution after Hamas confiscated UNRWA supplies. The supplies were returned and guarantees were made by Hamas that no other confiscations would take place and UNRWA re-started their operations

No more excuses. Open the crossings now.

Al Jazeera Video on AI Mission

In a moving story on Al Jazeera English, Amnesty International researcher Donatella Rovera walks through a bombed out home in Gaza and discusses how AI has found evidence that Israel fired into civilian areas.

Amnesty International has called upon the US to investigate possible war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas.

In other news, the UN has halted aid after it learned that supplies were seized by Hamas.  Meanwhile Arab TV stations have reported that a Lebanese ship carrying aid was fired upon by Israel. The Guardian reports:

A Lebanese boat said to be carrying ­humanitarian aid but which Israel claims is carrying activists, has been intercepted by the Israeli navy on its way to the Gaza Strip.

Reporters from the Arab TV stations al-Jadeed and al-Jazeera, who were on the vessel, said the Israelis fired at the ship before boarding it and beating the crew. The journalists said they were unable to show pictures of the incident as the Israeli force smashed their broadcast equipment.

At the moment, an estimated 80% of Palestinians in Gaza depend on UN assistance for food.

UN Pledges $613 Million in Aid for Gaza

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed in an interview at the World Economic Forum for the international community to contribute aid for food, water, sanitation, shelter, infrastructure support, and health care for Gaza:

“As you know, I recently visited Gaza. The civilian population has suffered greatly during three weeks of military operations. More than a third of the 6,600 dead and injured were children and women. As a father of three, I was especially troubled by their suffering and the psychological trauma so many families went through.

Help is indeed needed urgently: food, clean water, shelter, medicine, restoration of basic services. Everywhere I went, I saw the evidence of critical humanitarian needs. The population were already vulnerable because of so many months of severely restricted supplies. That is why the Humanitarian Flash Appeal for Gaza that we are announcing today is so timely and so important. With the help of this $ 613 million appeal, the United Nations and other aid agencies can jump into action to help the 1.4 million civilians in the Gaza Strip to recover.”

The emphasis on psychological trauma is particularly interesting, especially considering the civilian devastation, destruction of schools and the 2,267 children who were injured or killed in the conflict.  Psychological trauma in post conflict situations does not solely affect children. Men in Gaza also face long term psychological trauma following the violence and lack of opportunity.

In the light of the World Economic Forum and the global economic crisis, perhaps the largest long term threat to human rights and humanitarian aid is economic:

“The systemic and perpetual economic hindrances imposed upon the Palestinian economy by the Israeli occupation are viewed by most experts to be the primary impediment to allowing the Palestinian economy to reach its full potential. The World Bank has identified three principal “paralytic effects” of Israeli policies on the Palestinian economy: access to economies of scale, access to natural resources and access to an investment horizon. It also cited physical impediments — road blocks, closures, earth mounds and the ongoing construction of the wall on West Bank land […] — as a ‘paralysis confronting the Palestinian economy’.”

The paralysis, as UN humanitarian chief John Holmes suggests, is on the border:

“Unless all of them [border crossings] are effectively opened, we’re never going to be able to get enough supplies to Gaza.”

AIUSA Letter to George Mitchell

In a letter posted today to newly dispatched Middle East Envoy, AIUSA made the following recommendations:

Amnesty International urges the US to support the establishment of a comprehensive independent international inquiry set up by the UN and preferably by the Security Council  into all allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by Israel, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups participating in the conflict. An international fact-finding team of qualified experts should carry out its investigations on the basis of the highest international standards. It must have powers to gain access to all relevant documents, other evidence and persons, and its report and findings must be public so that follow-action can be taken. The US must not fail to respond to domestic and worldwide expressions of concern that international humanitarian and human rights law must be upheld in Gaza, that accountability for violations be established and that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

In other news, President Barack Obama gave his first televised interview since entering office with the Dubai based TV station Al Arabiya. In his interview, he spoke directly to citizens of Muslim majority countries, and highlighted the importance of resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict. For a complete transcript of his interview, please see here