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Focus

   

Civilians fleeing ltte areas  encounter new problems

   
Thousands have braved Tiger gunfire to make it to safety

Relevant excerpts from an Amnesty International  briefing on the humanitarian crisis and lack of human rights protection in the Wanni are presented below:

Civilians who try to flee the fighting run a gauntlet between the Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE fighters. Many civilians risk their lives to reach government-controlled areas. The Sri Lankan government has claimed that Tamil Tigers have fired upon civilians seeking to escape the conflict zone.

Amnesty International has received several credible reports over the past few months that the Tamil Tigers have threatened violence against civilians who wish to leave, or their family members who may stay behind in Tiger-controlled areas. There are reports that the Tamil Tigers have interfered with evacuation attempts by the ICRC by applying a pass system even on the seriously wounded. The Tamil Tigers’ efforts to prevent civilians from leaving the desperate conditions of the conflict zone could constitute a war crime.

Ordeal

Civilians who exit areas of fighting, often exhausted, traumatised and sometimes badly injured, face an ordeal once they enter government-controlled areas. The Sri Lankan government, which is ultimately responsible for the rights and welfare of the displaced population, has shown itself incapable of addressing the logistical demands of the displacement crisis, a situation likely to significantly worsen with the expected exodus of tens of thousands of civilians out of LTTE-held areas. International humanitarian and human rights law guarantee the displaced fundamental rights and protections.

Obligation

Displaced individuals do not forfeit the rights of the rest of the population as a result of displacement. While the government has a primary obligation to provide security and assistance to the displaced, it should do so in ways that respect and protect their human rights. Sri Lanka is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and other human rights treaties, yet reports indicate that the government is failing to protect the rights of the displaced.

Once the displaced pass through an initial check for weapons at Killinochchi they are taken to Killinochchi Hospital and then transported to one of the heavily militarised temporary transit sites in Vavuniya or Jaffna. The Sri Lankan authorities have established a number of centres for the displaced in the past and have indicated that the long term plan will be to house the entire displaced population in these “welfare villages.” Notwithstanding the use of the term ‘villages’ these facilities are in reality heavily militarised, suffer from inadequate facilities, and operate essentially as holding pens surrounded by barbed wire.

The majority of the recent influx of over 40,000 displaced people, are currently housed in one of the 13 transit sites set up by the Government of Sri-Lanka in Vavuniya District, most of which are converted educational facilities such as schools or colleges. These facilities are seriously overcrowded and there is an immediate need to address the conditions of these sites.

One aid worker reports that in one camp, “there can be 600 people living in a large basketball court.” Approximately 8,000 IDPs have been taken to the semi-permanent camp in Menik Farm. In preparation for a further large influx, emergency shelters are also being constructed in another area of Menik Farm. Heavy rain has affected the area around Menik Farm this week and many of the temporary tents are flooding.

Protection

Previous research by Amnesty International demonstrates that the government has a poor track record on the protection of the rights of displaced people in government run centres and urgent action is needed to ensure security and protection of basic human rights. Displaced people that have arrived in government territory since the escalation of the conflict in 2008 have been held in centres located at Kalimoddai and Sirukandal (Mannar District) and Menik Farm and Nellumkulam (Vavuniya District).

In some camps in Vavuniya and Jaffna the displaced are held in de facto detention, not being allowed to leave the camps. The Sri Lankan armed forces have severely restricted the ability of the displaced held in these “welfare villages” and other camps to move freely. In some camps, such restrictions amount to deprivation of liberty and arbitrary detention.

In Mannar, the displaced who have been held in Kalimoddai and Sirukandal camps for almost a year have been allowed out of these camps for education, livelihood and health purposes, but have been required to leave a family member in the camp as a safeguard against them not returning Young single men with no family members to act as their guarantor have not been allowed to leave the camps.

Leave

In Vavuniya some of the displaced have been allowed to leave camps to live with host families, or allowed out of the camps for specific purposes. This has been largely limited to the very elderly, those requiring hospital treatment or particularly vulnerable people like mentally or physically disabled individuals. The reported government decision to allow all the displaced over the age of 60 to leave has not been comprehensively implemented. The probable extended nature of existing and planned ‘welfare villages’ and the lengthy confinement of the displaced threaten to undermine the right to a voluntary return or resettlement in safety as soon as the reasons for their displacement cease to exist.

The civilian character of these camps is also at risk and military personnel, soldiers or military police, are still a visible presence inside the sites, often reported to be questioning the displaced and, in some cases are still engaged in camp management activities, raising protection concerns arising from the continued presence of military inside the sites.

If security is needed for the camps it should be provided by the police and they should be located outside the camp perimeters with no role in managing the camp or distributing assistance.

Freedom

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (the UN Guiding Principles) reinforce the rights to liberty and security of person and to freedom of movement which are set out in Articles 9 and 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) respectively. The UN Guiding Principles provide that the displaced “shall not be interned in or confined to a camp.” While it is recognised that “exceptional circumstances” may permit the short term confinement of the displaced this must only be for as long as it is ‘absolutely necessary’— it is questionable whether such exceptional circumstances exist in Sri Lanka to warrant the widespread detentions of Tamils displaced.’ Furthermore the Sri Lankan government has made no progress in demonstrating or justifying that ‘exceptional circumstances’ exist.

In order to clarify conditions an independent needs assessment mission must be allowed to visit all the camps. Human rights and international humanitarian law prohibits arbitrary detention. Detention must not be arbitrary, and must be based on grounds and procedures established by law (Article 9 paragraph 1 of ICCPR.) Persons must be informed of the reasons of their detention, and they must be allowed to challenge the legality of their detention before the courts.

The UN guiding principles on internal displacement recognise the rights of liberty and freedom of movement guaranteed in the ICCPR, and consistently with the above standards, state that: “internally displaced persons have the right to move freely in and out of camps and other settlements.” (Principle 14, paragraph 2)

Obligation

In a 2008 report of his mission to Sri Lanka, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (SRSG) underlined the obligation not to subject the displaced to arbitrary periods of unsupervised and restricted confinement. The SRSG stated that; “while the need to address security may be a component of the plan (to receive IDPs), it should be humanitarian and civilian in nature. In particular, IDPs’ freedom of movement must be respected, and IDPs may not be confined to a camp.”

The lack of consistent international supervision (and monitoring) of the transit sites and so-called “welfare villages” run by the government continue to put the displaced at risk of human rights violations by the security forces. There is no standard individual registration process for the displaced coming out of the Wanni. Although UNHCR, the ICRC and some INGOs and NGOs have been granted limited access to these centers for distribution of assistance, there is still lack of adequate protection safeguards, and the displaced are vulnerable to further serious human rights violations such as extra judicial executions, torture, cruel and inhumane treatment (including sexual and gender based violence), and enforced disappearance.

Family life

Furthermore, safeguards to ensure the right to a family life is preserved have not been implemented, the lack of a systematic registration process in place means family members are being separated. Very little progress has been made on establishing procedures for tracing and reunification of separated families, including for unaccompanied and separated children. Lack of privacy for women in the centres is reported to be a problem — in some centres men and women were compelled to sleep together and there is a lack of private bathing places for women.

Amnesty International recognises that the Sri Lankan government has legitimate security concerns that armed elements are mixed with displaced populations. In such situations, governments are responsible for ensuring that the displaced are housed in camps that are civilian in nature and that they are protected from armed elements. The Sri Lankan government has a duty to respect and protect the human rights of the displaced from both its own Sri Lankan armed forces and members of the LTTE. The government also has a responsibility to bring all persons suspected of crimes under international and national law to justice in trials that meet international standards of fairness.

Excuse

The Government of Sri Lanka must not use the need to screen for LTTE fighters as an excuse to discriminate against large groups of ethnic Tamils and to detain civilians, including entire families, the elderly and children, for indefinite periods of time or hold them in camps with very limited freedom of movement, and in conditions which violate their human rights.

At checkpoints and in transitional and “welfare villages” the government is reported to be screening the civilian population in order to identify suspected LTTE fighters. There is currently no standard registration process for the displaced coming out of the Wanni. Although the government has previously recognised the urgent need to establish a process for displaced people documentation, the current government screening procedures do not conform to international human rights standards.

The SRSG on Internal Displacement, reporting back to the UN Human Rights Council on his mission to Sri Lanka from December 14 to 21, 2007, observed some of the human rights concerns that relate to government screening of the displaced, and used the process in the east of the country as an example:

“Often screening was conducted by military in the presence of masked men… confidence in the security forces is undermined by routine disregard of procedures for arrest and detention, including notification of family members of the reasons for and location of the individual’s detention. The fact that women simply do not know where their son or husband is, who he is with, or why he was taken, turns their fear into terror.”

Screening

Forced family separations have been reported as part of the screening process. Women who may go through screening procedures are at greater risk of gender-based discrimination including verbal harassment, sexual violence including rape and other forms of exploitation and mistreatment.

Previous research by Amnesty International indicates furthermore that those persons who are suspected by the government of being members or supporters of LTTE are at grave risk of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearance, torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. Previous research indicates that human rights violations are perpetrated by the government to punish former LTTE fighters.

The government with the assistance of the international community must :

• Ensure that the screening process is carried out in ways that guarantee the human rights and dignity of all those involved, and allow independent monitoring of the screening process; special attention should be paid to ensuring that women, children, the sick and the elderly are protected during the screening process and guaranteed humane treatment.

• Anyone who is detained on suspicion of involvement with the LTTE must be promptly charged with a recognisable criminal offence and be brought to justice in proceedings that meet international standards for fairness, without recourse of death penalty, or released. While in detention, individuals must not be held incommunicado or in secret or unofficial places of detention where they are vulnerable to extra judicial executions, torture and enforced disappearance. Detainees must be allowed access to lawyers, families and doctors, and have the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention.

Scrutiny

The humanitarian and human rights crisis in Sri Lanka must no longer be allowed to play out beyond scrutiny. The urgent protection needs of the population can only be met if there is immediate independent supervision and technical assistance in northern Sri Lanka. There is an immediate urgent need to provide independent verification of the human rights and humanitarian situation in the Wanni and in government run “welfare villages.”

The Sri Lankan government has recently approached individual donors as well as international financial institutions for financial, material, and technical assistance. Most significantly, the Sri Lankan government has approached the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a US$1.9 billion short-term loan to offset the government’s heavy expenditure on its war effort and the country’s general economic problems. The attempt to secure an IMF loan highlights the government’s precarious economic situation, as a number of donor states have cut or reduced assistance to Sri Lanka as a result of the country’s poor human rights record.

Condemned

A number of donor states have already expressed their concern at the situation in Sri Lanka. For example, the EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid has condemned the escalating humanitarian catastrophe in Sri Lanka. The United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation, a government funding agency, cut nearly $600 million in funding in 2007 as a result of the serious deterioration in the country’s security and human rights situation, while in the same year the US Senate imposed a ban on military assistance to Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s dire human rights record has also prompted the European Commission to question whether it should extend preferences for Sri Lankan exporters under its Generalized System of Preferences for developing countries (GSP+).

A number of countries raised issues of civilian protection in Sri Lanka during the Human Rights Council session in March 2009 including Japan, a significant donor to Sri Lanka who noted “the serious damages and casualties surrounding internally displaced persons and other civilians in the north of the country.”

On a visit to Washington in March 2009, Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon highlighted India’s concern with civilian protection in Sri Lanka.

Assistance

Although the primary obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights of people in Sri Lanka lies with the country’s government, Amnesty International believes that those governments that provide international assistance should ensure that the assistance is used in a manner consistent with human rights.

This includes the obligation under international human rights law for donor states acting abroad to contribute to, or support, and not to undermine, the development of an environment that ensures the protection of human rights. States should assess the likely human rights impact of their international assistance and to monitor the actual impact.

The Sri Lankan government has turned to the international community to provide the financial and technical assistance necessary to provide short term responses to the displacement crisis in the Wanni, and will surely require greater international assistance to address the massive problems of the areas recently taken over from the Tamil Tigers. The Sri Lankan government’s attitude so far has been to seek international assistance while rejecting international standards or scrutiny.

In September 2006 the Co-Chairs of the Tokyo Donor Conference (Norway, European Union, USA and Japan) urged “guarantees for the safety of NGO workers and for ensuring access for NGOs and international organisations to help citizens and communities in need of essential humanitarian assistance and valuable reconstruction and development work.” There has been little progress in these areas and the donor community should act immediately to avert further humanitarian and human rights crises in the Wanni.

Long record

The Sri Lankan government has also tried to avoid any scrutiny by the United Nations, even as the cost of the campaign in terms of damage to civilians rises daily. The Government of Sri Lanka has correctly pointed out that the LTTE has a long record of gross human rights abuses, and have tried to use the LTTE’s poor record to avoid opprobrium.

Amnesty International welcomes the strong public statements from various United Nations organs, including the Secretary General and the March 13 statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the grave human rights situation in Sri Lanka. It is now time for the United Nations to act more vigorously to resolve the humanitarian catastrophe in the Wanni and to prevent the creation of a long-term crisis of displacement for those who have survived the fighting in eastern and northern Sri Lanka.

• Donor governments should offer technical assistance to Sri Lanka to assist in the protection of displaced populations. They should ensure that the assistance they provide is used in a manner consistent with human rights and they should set clear benchmarks to monitor the impact of their assistance on displaced people;

• The Human Rights Council should act on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka without delay. It should also urge the Government of Sri Lanka to authorise the establishment of an international human rights monitoring presence without further delay to monitor and publicly report on the human rights situation of displaced people;

• The Security Council must request regular briefings on the humanitarian and human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The Council must call for an immediate humanitarian truce, emphasize the need for all parties to fully observe their obligations under international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law, stress the need to bring to justice those responsible for violations thereof and must keep the situation in Sri Lanka under constant review;

• All international and national humanitarian and human rights workers must be protected from attack and harassment and have full access to all IDP camps and government screening procedures. These workers must be guaranteed full freedom of movement and the power to seek and receive information from any source and to report its findings to the government and the UN.


 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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