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plight of the Wanni civilians

Human Rights Watch on the pathetic plight of the Wanni civilians


War wounds, pain and hardship

The tragic plight of civilians existing in thenorthern mainland known as Wanni continues to deteriorate. While charges and counter-charges fly, the day to day life of the ordinary people worsens.

The New York-based human rights watchdog – Human Rights Watch – has in a recent 45 page report titled War On The Civilians vividly documented the various abuses perpetrated against Wanni civilians by the Sri Lankan armed forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

It is a powerful expose of the actual situation which currently prevails. Though exigencies of space does not permitextensive reproduction, this column will, through relevant extracts focus on salient aspects of the report.

The report summary in fullis presented here first:

Summary

After 25 years, the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may be nearing its conclusion. But for the quarter of a million civilians trapped or displaced by the fighting, the tragedy has intensified. Since the fall of the LTTE’s administrative centre, Killinochchi, in early January 2009, civilian casualties in the northern Wanni region have skyrocketed to more than 5,100, including at least a thousand deaths, based on a conservative tally by independent monitors analysed by Human Rights Watch.

More recent information places civilian casualties at 7,000, including 2,000 fatalities. Added to this are the dire hardship faced by the displaced – insufficient food, medical care, and shelter, whether in the combat zone or government-run “welfare villages.”

The Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE appear to be engaged in a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population. In the last two months alone, both sides have committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law, the laws of war. While not all loss of civilian life is a laws-of-war violation, the failure of the government forces and the LTTE to meet their international legal obligations has undoubtedly accounted for the high death tolls.

Retreating from Sri Lankan Army (SLA) advances, the LTTE has forcibly taken along all civilians under its control. As the territory held by the LTTE has shrunk – now a short, narrow strip on the northeast coast of the island – the civilian population has been dangerously forced into a smaller and smaller space. In violation of the laws of war, the LTTE has refused to allow civilians to flee the fighting, repeatedly fired on those trying to reach government-held territory, and deployed forces near densely populated areas. The civilians who remain under LTTE control, including children, are subject to forced recruitment into LTTE forces and hazardous forced labour on the battlefield.

Atrocities

The LTTE’s grim practices are being exploited by the government to justify its own atrocities. High-level statements have indicated that the ethnic Tamil population trapped in the war zone can be presumed to be siding with the LTTE and treated as combatants, effectively sanctioning unlawful attacks. Sri Lankan forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled areas crowded with civilians. This includes numerous reported bombardments of government-declared “safe zones” and the remaining hospitals in the region.

The plight of displaced persons has been exacerbated by the government’s decision in September 2008 to order most humanitarian agencies out of the Wanni. The government’s own efforts to bring in food, medical supplies, and other relief with a minimal United Nations role have been insufficient. Continuing fighting, lack of oversight, and the manipulation of aid delivery by government forces and the LTTE have all contributed to the deepening humanitarian crisis.

Displaced persons are increasingly escaping from the battle zone to what they hope is safety within government-controlled areas. Instead, they are finding government internment centres masquerading as “welfare villages.” While the government for security reasons should be screening new arrivals, it is instead secretly taking away LTTE suspects to arbitrary detention or possible enforced disappearances.

All displaced persons crossing to the government side are sent to internment centres in Vavuniya and nearby locations. As Human Rights Watch has reported previously, these are military-controlled, barbed-wire camps in which those sent there, including entire families, are denied their liberty and freedom of movement. Humanitarian agencies have tenuous access, but do so at the risk of supporting a long-term detention programme for civilians fleeing a war.

The hospital in Vavuniya mirrors the town’s internment camps. When Human Rights Watch visited, it lacked even the most basic necessities: many of the hospital beds had no bed sheets, blankets, or pillows. And despite the obvious lack of capacity to handle all of the wounded and attend to their needs, the hospital personnel reportedly were instructed by the authorities not to ask for any assistance from international agencies, and very few agencies have been allowed access to the hospital. Relatives have had difficulty seeing patients, and some have later been visited by the security forces.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to act immediately to stop the ongoing slaughter of civilians. Both parties should facilitate the creation of a humanitarian corridor and otherwise respect the laws of war. The LTTE should allow civilians to leave the war zone and the SLA should stop shelling near densely populated areas, safe zones and hospitals. Those displaced civilians who reach the government side should be assisted but not interned. And the government should permit independent media and human rights organisations to go to the conflict area. (More detailed recommendations are set forth at the end of this report.)

Instead of using its victories in the field to promote a more open and democratic nation, the Sri Lankan government has conducted a cynical campaign to prevent all independent public coverage of its military operations and the plight of civilians caught up in the war. While decrying LTTE abuses, it has kept out the media and human rights organisations that could report on them – and on government abuses. It has kept displaced persons who could describe the artillery bombardments locked up in camps and hospitals. It has traded the well-being of tens of thousands of Sri Lankan citizens for protection from international scrutiny. With civilian casualties mounting, it has sought to bury its abuses.

A short note by HRW on civilian casualties is reproduced:

A note on civilian casualties

Civilian casualties have risen dramatically since the LTTE retreated to a roughly 100-square-kilometre (39-square-mile) area in northeastern Mullaitivu District. Because the government has prohibited independent media and human rights organisations from visiting the combat area, information on civilian casualties has been difficult to obtain. Nonetheless, a conservative estimate can be made based on actual counts by independent observers on the ground.

During a three-week period from January 20 to February 13, 2009, independent observers in the Wanni collected information on 5,150 civilian casualties  -1,123 deaths and 4,027 injuries-from the current fighting. This number was derived from a compilation of reports that recorded individual casualties, the date and place of the attack, and the nature of the attack. Newly obtained information places total civilian casualties at 7,000, with 2,000 deaths.

Information from other sources supports these findings. For instance, Human Rights Watch obtained a list of patients from Puthukkudiyiruppu (PTK) hospital containing patients’ names, age, sex, address, place of injury, type of injury, type of blast, and arrival date at the hospital. The list shows that between January 1 and January 26 alone, this single hospital received 573 patients suffering conflict injuries, 75 of whom died.

The section explaining methodology adopted sheds much light on the manner and mode of how the HRW conducts its fact-finding missions:

Methodology

This report is based on research conducted by a Human Rights Watch mission to Sri Lanka from February 3 to 13, 2009. Human Rights Watch conducted over 60 interviews with representatives of local and international non-governmental and humanitarian organisations, UN agencies, medical personnel, religious leaders, diplomatic representatives, and ordinary civilians affected by the conflict. The interviews were conducted in Colombo and Vavuniya, in English or through a Tamil-English translator.

The research was conducted mainly in Vavuniya where the majority of displaced persons from conflict areas in the Wanni currently are arriving.

The Sri Lankan government has taken numerous measures to deny access to information for independent observers, including representatives of human rights organisations, journalists, and others. Just a handful of international agencies have been allowed access to the internally displaced person (IDP) camps in Vavuniya and especially the hospital where wounded civilians have been brought. Information on the current situation in the Wanni is extremely limited, coming primarily from local staff of international agencies trapped in the conflict area along with other civilians and medical personnel.

The Sri Lankan government’s ongoing restrictions on information are denying the Sri Lankan public and the broader international community important information about the situation in the Wanni and the circumstances facing the population there, as well as the role not only of the government, but of the LTTE.

In our research, we focused on interviewing eyewitnesses to violations and seeking additional information from individuals who had access to the displaced persons in the Vavuniya camps and its hospital.

To protect the security of individuals with whom we spoke, we have removed certain identifying information and in some cases used pseudonyms, as specifically indicated at relevant points.

HRW has also submitted a list of recommendations to all parties concerned. These recommendations by themselves indicate very clearly all the problems in the current situation. Those concrete suggestions are given below:

VI. Recommendations

To the government of Sri Lanka

Cease all attacks that violate the laws of war, including artillery bombardment and aerial bombing that does not discriminate between military targets and civilians, or that causes expected harm to civilians and civilian objects that is disproportionate to the anticipated military gain. Investigate and prosecute as appropriate military personnel, regardless of rank, who commit serious violations of the laws of war, which are war crimes.

Cease attacks on hospitals, including makeshift hospitals. Hospitals used to commit hostile acts are only subject to attack after a reasonable warning has been given that goes unheeded.

Cease attacks using weapons, such as multi-barrel rocket launchers and heavy artillery, which are indiscriminate when used in or near densely populated civilian populations.

Cease justifying unlawful attacks on civilians on the spurious ground that civilians who are not in so-called “safe zones” may legitimately be attacked. Violations of the laws of war by the LTTE do not justify attacks by government security forces in violation of the law.

Humanitarian access and civil society

Facilitate the immediate creation of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians trapped by the fighting to travel to areas away from the fighting.

Immediately lift the September 2008 order barring humanitarian agencies from the Wanni conflict area in northern Sri Lanka and allow humanitarian agencies to return to assist at-risk individuals and reach all civilians in need. Restrictions on relief should be made on a case-by-case basis and only when there is a specific and justifiable security reason for the restriction. Refusals for valid security reasons should only be for as long as necessary and should not block legitimate humanitarian assistance.

Allow independent observers, including journalists, access to conflict zones so that accurate and timely information about the situation of civilians in such areas is publicly available.

Instruct security forces to respect and protect humanitarian aid personnel and their facilities, supplies, and transportation. Personnel who commit abuses against humanitarian organisations and their staff should be disciplined or criminally prosecuted as appropriate.

Ensure that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are able to perform their work without arbitrary government interference: regulation of NGO activities should comply with international standards, be transparent, and follow clearly defined procedures. Registration should ultimately facilitate the work of NGOs and should neither disrupt legitimate NGO activities nor put NGO workers at risk.

Work with donor governments to establish an international human rights monitoring mission under United Nations auspices to monitor violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

Displaced persons

Abide by the United Nations general principles on internal displacement, including by permitting the freedom of movement of displaced persons, respecting the right of displaced persons to return to their homes, and permitting humanitarian agencies access to displaced persons.

Permit humanitarian agencies to monitor the intake of displaced persons at checkpoints, such as at Omanthai.

Immediately end the arbitrary and indefinite detention of civilians displaced by recent fighting at the Kalimoddai, Sirunkandal, and Menik Farm camps in northern Sri Lanka, and at other proposed camps.

Make public the names of all persons detained by the military and police under Emergency Regulations and other laws, and provide those detained prompt access to their families and legal counsel.

To the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Stop preventing civilians from leaving areas under LTTE control. Respect and facilitate the right to freedom of movement of civilians, including the right of civilians to move to government-controlled territory for safety.

End all deliberate attacks on civilians, such as on civilians who are seeking to flee LTTE-controlled areas. Appropriately punish individuals responsible for such attacks.

Do not use civilians as “human shields,” and take all feasible steps to avoid placing military targets near civilians.

Facilitate the immediate creation of humanitarian corridors to allow civilians trapped by the fighting to travel to areas away from the fighting.

Provide United Nations and humanitarian agencies safe and unhindered access to areas under LTTE control, and guarantee the security of all humanitarian and UN workers, including Wanni residents working as humanitarian or UN staff.

To the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donors’ Conference (Japan, European Union, Norway, and the United States), India, United Kingdom, and other concerned governments.

Urgently seek a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in the Wanni and violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

Speak out publicly and in private meetings with Sri Lankan authorities and other concerned officials on the situation in the Wanni. Insist that the government adhere to its international legal obligations on human rights and humanitarian matters.

Urge the government to withdraw its September 2008 order and allow humanitarian agencies access to the Wanni so that they can provide urgent humanitarian assistance and help provide civilian protection.

Urge the government to ensure the protection of displaced persons, regardless of ethnicity, and end arbitrary detention. Press the government to follow the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which provide that, consistent with the right to liberty, internally displaced persons “shall not be interned in or confined to a camp.”

Urge the government to allow the UN and its agencies to conduct a strategic, long-term needs assessment of displaced civilians in the north and permit a follow-up programme to implement these needs.

Allow

Press the government to allow independent observers, including journalists, access to conflict zones so that accurate and timely information about the situation of civilians in such areas is publicly available.

Work with the Sri Lankan government to establish an international human rights monitoring mission under United Nations auspices to monitor violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

To the Co-Chairs of the donor conference (Japan, European Union, Norway and the United States), India, United Kingdom and other concerned governments.

Urgently seek a special session of the UN Human Rights Council on the situation in the Wanni and violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

Speak out publicly and in private meetings with Sri Lankan authorities and other concerned officials on the situation in the Wanni. Insist that the government adhere to its international legal obligations on human rights and humanitarian matters.

Urge the government to withdraw its September 2008 order and allow humanitarian agencies access to the Wanni so that they can provide urgent humanitarian assistance and help provide civilian protection.

Urge the government to ensure the protection of displaced persons, regardless of ethnicity, and end arbitrary detention. Press the government to follow the UN guiding principles on internal displacement, which provide that, consistent with the right to liberty, internally displaced persons “shall not be interned in or confined to a camp.”

Urge the government to allow the UN and its agencies to conduct a strategic, long-term needs assessment of displaced civilians in the north and permit a follow-up programme to implement these needs.

Press the government to allow independent observers, including journalists, access to conflict zones so that accurate and timely information about the situation of civilians in such areas is publicly available.

Work with the Sri Lankan government to establish an international human rights monitoring mission under United Nations auspices to monitor violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

courtesy : Sunday Leader

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March 9, 2009 - Posted by | Hot News from Lanka | , , ,

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