Memo on immediate concerns regarding the Sri Lankan situation

7th February, Colombo.

The military offensive launched by the government of Sri Lanka to regain control of the area of the Northern Province known as the Vanni has intensified in 2009. The government claims a military victory and the LTTE has lost its de facto capital Kilinochchi and many of its key operational stations in the Vanni.

Both the government and the LTTE have proceeded to conduct their military operations with no regard for the lives and security of civilians, primarily belonging to the Tamil community, who lived in the areas that came under attack.

In September 2008 the government ordered the UN and other humanitarian agencies, local and international, to withdraw from the Vanni. Everyone complied. Up to date only the World Food Programme of the UN and the International Committee of the Red cross (ICRC) are present within the conflict affected areas. The already limited supply of food, drugs and other essential items to the Vanni has trickled down to the bare minimum in January 2009. Ensuring that civilians who are trapped in the conflict affected areas can gain access to the relief is a major challenge. Thus although the government states that some truckloads of supplies are getting through along the main road to the Vanni, the fact is that they cannot give any assurance that the supplies reach the people they are meant for.

The restrictions placed on access to the Vanni to humanitarian agencies, civil society groups and to the media means that there are no independent sources of information regarding the situation of civilians in the Vanni since September 2009.

As of February 2009, the primary concern of both local and international agencies has been the security of the almost 250,000 civilians trapped in the Vanni. Reports of shell attacks on areas declared by the security as ‘safety zones’, as well as on government hospitals in the Mullaitivu District state that over 200 persons have been killed and several more hundreds injured, many extremely seriously. According to ICRC reports, on 2 February 2009 at least nine people were killed and at least 20 others injured as a result of the first of three shell attacks that hit the Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital, the only functioning hospital in the Vanni. News reports on 6 February said the hospital has been shut down. Two other medical facilities in the Vanni region have also been hit by shelling in recent weeks. Due to lack of transport and to travel restrictions imposed by the security forces, there is no possibility to transfer the seriously wounded and others needing urgent medical attention to other hospitals.

Over 3000 people from the Vanni have reportedly reached the camps set up in the south of the Vanni, in and around the town of Vavuniya. The LTTE has reportedly prevented civilians attempting to leave the areas where fighting is taking place. Reports about the camps set up in Vavuniya are also a deterrent to people moving towards the south since the camps are under military control, and access is highly restricted.

Since March 2008, the GOSL has detained civilians fleeing areas controlled by the LTTE at so-called welfare centres at Kalimoddai and Sirukandal in the Mannar District and Manik Farm and Nelikullam in Vavuniya District. 12 new centres are now being created in Mannar, Vavuniya and Jaffna. While the ICRC and UNHCR has been allowed access to the existing centres which are classified by the security forces as High Security areas, other humanitarian agencies have not been granted access.

In spite of repeated appeals from the UN and from governments around the world, and visits by top-ranking Indian officials to Sri Lanka, the government has refused to pay attention to the issue of civilian protection and senior government officials including the Defence Secretary continue to attack media persons and others who try to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni.

The government has also refused to entertain the request from the Co-Chairs to the Peace Process in Sri Lanka to call a ceasefire. The LTTE in it turn refuses to lay down arms and repudiate the use of violence, as called for by the government.

There is a deadlock in terms of any movement forward towards bringing about an end to the military offensive in the Vanni and the subsequent humanitarian disaster.

In this situation, the most critical demands in terms of civilian protection is:

Call on the Co-Chairs to summon an immediate and urgent meeting of a group of Friends of Sri Lanka to explore with the government and with the LTTE possible modalities for a ceasefire and return to peace talks.

Call on the government to grant urgent and immediate permission for a team of high level government officials, politicians from all parties represented in Parliament, and heads of key humanitarian NGOs that cooperate with the Commissioner General of Essential Services in the provision of essential relief to internally displaced persons to undertake a mission of mercy to the conflict affected areas of the Vanni.

Call on the government to permit a team of humanitarian workers from national and international agencies to visit the sites of all camps being established for IDPs from the Vanni in and around Vavuniya in order to ensure that they are in keeping with international standards and adhere to the Sphere Principles.

– prepared by group of concerned HR activists in Sri Lanka.

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