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.

Red Cross: Sri Lankan war zone a "humanitarian catastrophe"

The International Committee of the Red Cross today described the Sri Lankan war zone as “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.”  For the third consecutive day, the ICRC has been unable to evacuate seriously wounded or ill patients and deliver desperately needed food, due to ongoing combat in the area.  The U.N. reported today that fighting between government forces and the opposition Tamil Tigers was continuing with heavy casualties in the war zone, which is about the size of Central Park in New York.  The U.N. has continued its high-level involvement; it was announced that Secretary-General’s chief of staff would be sent to Sri Lanka to try to help resolve the humanitarian situation.

Despite statements by President Obama and the UN Security Council yesterday on the crisis, neither the Sri Lankan government nor the Tigers have agreed to a pause in the fighting in order to allow civilians to leave the war zone safely and to allow aid into the area.  Instead, both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers appeared to welcome the parts of the statements that criticized the other side without agreeing to the commitments being asked of them.  The only good news I saw was a statement by the Sri Lankan government that over 3,300 civilians had escaped from the war zone today.

The Sri Lankan government has been engaged in a military offensive to reconquer territory held by the Tigers, which has been fighting for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The military has now confined the Tigers to a small pocket of land in northeastern Sri Lanka.  Trapped with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 or more civilians, who are being used by the Tigers as human shields and not allowed to leave the conflict area.

AI has called for an international commission of inquiry to investigate violations of international law by both sides.  The British government today supported that call.

We urgently need both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers to halt the fighting, in order to allow civilians to leave the war zone and aid to get into the area.  Both sides should understand that the world is watching and they’ll be held to account for their actions.

International tribunal needed on Sri Lanka

While the fighting in Sri Lanka’s war zone reportedly intensified today, we saw a couple of firsts in terms of public statements on the crisis:  for the first time, the U.N. Security Council formally met and called on both of the warring parties to allow civilians to leave the conflict area.  President Obama also spoke out today on the conflict, for the first time since becoming President.  Both statements were very welcome; indeed, Amnesty International just today had called on both the Obama Administration and the Security Council to act to save the civilians trapped in the war zone.

The Sri Lankan government is pursuing its military offensive against the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who have been seeking an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The Sri Lankan military has now confined the LTTE to a small pocket of land on the northeast coast, about one square mile in all.  Trapped with the LTTE are an estimated 50,000 civilians who are being used by the LTTE as human shields and prevented from leaving the area.  Since January, AI estimates that more than 7,000 civilians have been killed and13,000 injured due to the fighting.

But while both of today’s statements are welcome, we need more pressure on both the government and the LTTE.  As AI said today, the Security Council must establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of the laws of war committed by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.  Officials on both sides need to understand that they’ll be held personally accountable for the war crimes their forces have been committing.  That’s our best hope to save the civilians still trapped in the war zone.  The Security Council must act immediately.  Thousands of innocent lives are at stake.

Sri Lanka: While the UN talks, the killing goes on

While members of the U.N. Security Council met informally in New York yesterday to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka’s war zone, there were claims of more civilian deaths from shelling in the zone.  The opposition Tamil Tigers accused government forces of killing at least 45 civilians in a fresh artillery attack, while the Sri Lankan government has denied any knowledge of the incident.  Since independent observers are barred from the conflict area, it’s impossible to confirm claims made by either side.

The Sri Lankan government has in recent months successfully reconquered most of the territory once controlled by the Tigers, who are seeking an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  The Tigers are now confined to a small coastal strip, about two square miles, in northeastern Sri Lanka.  With the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians who have been prevented by the Tigers from leaving the conflict area.  Hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured since the beginning of this year due to the fighting.

After the informal session at the U.N. Security Council yesterday, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner asked a very pointed question:

“Are we waiting, all of us, to the end of the bombing, to the end of any life – not only suffering, but any life in this siege pocket?”

I hope we’re not waiting for that.  Please help keep that from happening.  Write to the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers today and ask that all attacks against civilians be stopped immediately.

UN: bloodbath now in Sri Lanka

Yesterday, a doctor working in Sri Lanka’s war zone reported that at least 378 people were killed by shelling over the weekend.  The doctor said that 1,122 others had been injured and that the firing appeared to have come from the government side.  Gordon Weiss, the U.N. spokesman in Sri Lanka, said:

“We’ve been consistently warning against a bloodbath, and the large-scale killing of civilians including more than 100 children this weekend appears to show that the bloodbath has become a reality.”

Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a civil war for about 26 years between the government and the opposition Tamil Tigers, who seek an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  Both sides have been responsible for massive human rights abuses during the conflict.  Since a 2002 ceasefire broke down in mid-2006, the government’s offensive has reconquered most of the territory once controlled by the Tigers.  The Tigers are now confined to a small coastal strip in northeastern Sri Lanka, surrounded by the Sri Lankan army.  With the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians who are being held by the Tigers as human shields and prevented from fleeing the area.

The Sri Lankan government today said that the Tigers were responsible for the shelling that killed the civilians.  The government also claimed that the doctor reporting from the war zone was in no position to give an independent account “as he is virtually another captive of the Tigers.”  Since independent observers, including journalists, are barred from the war zone, it is difficult to verify reports from the war zone.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to have an informal session about Sri Lanka today.  The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary claimed that the Tigers were using the latest charge of civilian casualties in an attempt to influence the discussions at the Security Council.

Ahead of today’s meeting on Sri Lanka at the Security Council, Amnesty International and three other international organizations (Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect) issued a joint letter to the Japanese Prime Minister, urging Japan, as a member of the Security Council, to support formal action on Sri Lanka at the Council.  The Security Council has only considered Sri Lanka in informal settings so far; it would reportedly need to elevate discussion on Sri Lanka to a formal level before the Council could take action.

We can’t wait for the discussions at the Security Council, formal or informal.  Thousands more civilians may be dead long before the discussions ever result in any action.  Please write to the Tigers and the Sri Lankan government now; we need maximum international pressure on both sides to stop the bloodbath immediately.

Sri Lanka: Red Cross needs security guarantees

Yesterday, a ferry chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) evacuated 495 sick and injured patients from the Sri Lankan war zone and delivered 25 metric tons of food for distribution to civilians trapped in the zone.   The ICRC reported that heavy fighting was taking place near the medical assembly point in the war zone, which was jeopardizing the lives of patients and hampering medical evacuations.    The ICRC has been delivering food and evacuating sick and wounded civilians from the war zone since February.

The Sri Lankan military has confined the opposition Tamil Tigers to a small strip of coastal land in northeastern Sri Lanka.  The Tigers have been fighting since 1983 for an independent state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  Trapped in the war zone with the Tigers are an estimated 50,000 civilians, who are being held by the Tigers as human shields.

The ICRC has called for security guarantees from both the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers so that it can safely deliver food and evacuate patients.  The Tigers have offered a security guarantee to the ICRC in response.  The Sri Lankan government has asked the ICRC to work things out with the Tigers; they haven’t offered any security guarantees, to my knowledge.

Both the ICRC and the Sri Lankan government acknowledge that the amount of food reaching the war zone is inadequate.  The Sri Lankan government should work with the ICRC immediately so that sufficient food can be delivered to the war zone and all the sick and injured evacuated without delay.

Shocking video from Sri Lankan camp for displaced civilians

I just watched a shocking video from Channel 4 News, a British television company, taken inside one of the camps set up by the Sri Lankan government for civilians fleeing from the war zone.  The Sri Lankan government has in recent months reconquered much of the territory formerly held by the opposition Tamil Tigers, who have been seeking an independent state for the country’s Tamil minority in the north and east of the island.  As the Tigers have lost territory, they have forced thousands of Tamil civilians to move with them.  At this point, an estimated 50,000 civilians are still being held as human shields by the Tigers in a small coastal strip in northeastern Sri Lanka, surrounded by the Sri Lankan army on three sides.

Over 150,000 Tamil civilians have managed to flee the war zone this year.  They have been placed by the Sri Lankan government in camps which they are restricted from leaving.  Access to the camps by journalists and aid agencies is limited by the government.

The Channel 4 News video includes shocking claims of shortages of food and water, dead bodies left for days and even sexual abuse.  The Sri Lankan government has dismissed the claims in the video as Tiger propaganda.  AI cannot confirm whether the claims in the video are accurate or not.  We are asking that the Sri Lankan government allow independent observers, including journalists and aid agencies, full and prompt access to all of the camps.

Watch the video here:

U.N. calls for pause in Sri Lankan fighting

Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a temporary pause in the fighting in Sri Lanka between the government forces and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in order to allow humanitarian aid into the war zone to reach the trapped civilians there.  The Secretary-General also urged the LTTE to allow civilians to leave the area and to stop forced recruitment.

Today, the Sri Lankan government announced that President Rajapaksa had invited the Secretary-General to visit Sri Lanka to see for himself the situation of civilians displaced by the fighting.  It’s unclear whether Ban would be allowed to visit the war zone, though President Rajapaksa  apparently did say that Ban’s visit would permit him to be able to make a better assessment of the conditions faced by the civilians still being held by the LTTE in the war zone.  The Sri Lankan government still won’t permit a U.N. humanitarian mission to enter the conflict area despite an earlier agreement with the Secretary-General to do so.

I hope the Secretary-General takes up the President’s offer, goes to Sri Lanka and is able to visit all parts of the country in safety, including the war zone.  I also hope President Rajapaksa responds positively to the Secretary-General’s request and orders a temporary pause in the fighting to allow aid into the war zone.  I also hope the LTTE responds to the Secretary-General, allows civilians to leave the war zone and releases all child soldiers and other forced recruits.  I try to live in hope; it’s better than the alternative.

Sri Lanka: a question of credibility

If we’re to believe the Sri Lankan military, they’ve killed no civilians during their offensive against the opposition Tamil Tigers in recent months.  They claim that the security forces have only killed Tiger fighters.  However, the military itself admitted that it’s become harder to distinguish between civilians and the Tigers, since the Tigers have, according to the military, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes.  AI has reported that the military has used heavy artillery in indiscriminate attacks causing civilian casualties.  The Sri Lankan government doesn’t help its credibility in making these kinds of claims.

The Tigers can’t exactly lay claim to great credibility either, though.  They announced a unilateral ceasefire a week ago but last Thursday, said that their gunboats had attacked the Sri Lankan navy.  What happened to their ceasefire?  The Tigers yesterday said today that they were ready to engage in a process to bring about a ceasefire; if that happened, would the Tigers observe it anymore than the one they announced themselves?

I’m grateful that the Sri Lankan military hasn’t yet launched an all-out offensive to reconquer the remaining Tiger-held territory, since I can’t see how they could do that without causing massive casualties among the estimated 50,000 civilians trapped by the Tigers in the war zone.  There are a number of steps each side should take immediately, if we’re to avoid these casualties.  The steps are laid out in an urgent action appeal issued by AI last Friday.  Please read that appeal to see what AI is calling for from both sides.  Please also consider writing to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE as the appeal requests.

One final note:  today is World Press Freedom Day and J.S. Tissainayagam remains unjustly imprisoned in a Sri Lankan prison simply for his journalistic activities.  Please visit the AIUSA website and write to the Sri Lankan government on his behalf.  He should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Does "military logic" dictate civilian deaths in Sri Lanka?

Yesterday, the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes told a press conference in New York, following his two-day visit to Sri Lanka, that “both sides are pursuing their military logics, if I can put it that way.”  He was referring to the Sri Lankan government’s refusal to agree to a humanitarian pause in hostilities and the refusal by the opposition Tamil Tigers to let the civilians trapped in the war zone in northeastern Sri Lanka leave the area.  Will continued fighting in a shrinking war zone, combined with tens of thousands of civilians being held captive by the Tigers, inevitably mean massive civilian deaths?

We may not have much more time to find out.  President Rajapaksa said today that the government planned to conquer the remaining Tiger-held area in the next five or six days.

“With relatives like these…”:  A Sri Lankan government minister said today that the civilians who’ve managed to flee the war zone already “are totally free and willing to be members of a single Sri Lankan family.”  Meanwhile, a Tiger spokesman today denied that the Tigers were holding the estimated 50,000 civilians in the war zone as human shields, saying, “We all are family.  How could anyone hold his or her family as a ‘human shield?'”

Before it’s too late, the Tigers must announce that civilians are free to leave the war zone and the Sri Lankan government must agree to a pause in the fighting, so the civilians can leave safely and aid can get into the zone.