UN rights chief deplores conditions for civilians trapped in Sri Lanka fighting

29 January 2009

Reports of the rapidly deteriorating conditions for some 250,000 civilians trapped in war-torn northern Sri Lanka have sparked concern from the United Nations human rights chief, who is also alarmed by alleged human rights abuses, civilian casualties and massive displacement in the area.

“The perilous situation of civilians after many months of fighting, multiple displacements and heavy rains and flooding is extremely worrying,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a news release.

Ms. Pillay is the latest UN official, along with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other heads of UN agencies, to express her concerns directly to the Government. “We are all seriously alarmed by the situation,” she said, “as are many of the NGOs and other organizations operating in Sri Lanka.”

An estimated 250,000 civilians are trapped in areas of northern Sri Lanka where fighting continues between Government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Nearly 5,000 people have managed to cross the zones held by the group to Government-controlled areas since late November, according to the UN.

Gordon Weiss, spokesman for the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka, said UN international staff members today accompanied a convoy of hundreds of wounded civilians away from the front lines.

UN staff, he added, witnessed the injury and deaths of dozens of people over the weekend at close quarters, while the hospitals in the area are being overwhelmed by the numbers of wounded. “The fighting is only intensifying,” he said, in an interview with UN Radio.

Ms. Pillay expressed concern at the highly restricted access to the Vanni region for aid agencies and impartial outside observers, including journalists and human rights monitors, noting that it “only adds to concerns that the situation may be even worse than we realize.”

She also cited reports of forced recruitment, including of children, as well as the use of civilians as human shields by the LTTE. She condemned the fact that safe zones promised by the Government have subsequently been subjected to bombardment leading to civilian casualties.

“People trying to flee the conflict areas are reported to have either been prevented from doing so, or to have been arbitrarily detained in special centres,” she said. “It seems there may have been very grave breaches of human rights by both sides in the conflict, and it is imperative that we find out more about what exactly has been going on. It is also urgent that civilians in the north can find safe shelter, away from the fighting.”

The conflict had reached a “critical” stage, noted the High Commissioner. “While the Government has made military gains on one hand, the rule of law has been undermined on the other.

“The killing of the prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge earlier this month was the latest blow to the free expression of dissent in Sri Lanka. The searing article he wrote prophesying his own murder is an extraordinary indictment of a system corrupted by more than two decades of bloody internal conflict.”

She noted that there had not been any successful investigations or prosecutions of political killings, disappearances and other violations committed in recent years.

“It is the Government's duty to provide safety to all Sri Lanka's citizens, whatever their ethnic origin or political views,” Ms. Pillay said. “That means not only protecting civilians during military operations in the north, but also ensuring space for journalists and human rights defenders to seek out the truth and expose abuses.”

 

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