Urgent international scrutiny needed in Sri Lanka, say UN rights experts

8 May 2009
Civilians fleeing the no fire zone in Sri Lanka

A group of independent United Nations experts today called on the Human Rights Council to urgently set up an international inquiry to address the “critical” situation in Sri Lanka amid fighting between the army and Tamil rebels.

“There is an urgent need to establish an international commission of inquiry to document the events of recent months and to monitor ongoing developments,” the experts dealing with summary executions, right to health, right to food and water and sanitation said in a joint statement issued in Geneva.

Philip Alston, Anand Grover, Olivier De Schutter and Catarina de Albuquerque said the current humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka gives cause for deep concern, not only in terms of the number of civilians who have been and continue to be killed, but because of a dramatic lack of transparency and accountability.

“There is good reason to believe that thousands of civilians have been killed in the past three months alone, and yet the Sri Lankan Government has yet to account for the casualties, or to provide access to the war zone for journalists and humanitarian monitors of any type,” said Mr. Alston, the UN expert on summary executions.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says over 196,000 people have fled the conflict zone, a shrinking pocket of land on the north-east coastline, where clashes continue between Government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), while at least 50,000 people are still trapped there.

The experts stressed that “continuing catastrophic situation of civilians” in Sri Lanka trapped in the midst of the fighting, in an area measuring less than 10 square kilometres, must be immediately addressed.

“These civilians do not have sufficient access to food, essential medical supplies or services and safe water and sanitation. Even if they do escape death or injury at the hands of the hostile parties, their continued presence in this area without access to these basic rights is an effective death sentence,” declared the experts.

They said shipments of food and medicine to the so-called ''no-fire zone'' have been “grossly insufficient” over the past month and the Government has reportedly delayed or denied timely shipment of life saving medicines as well as chlorine tablets.

The experts noted that as a result of the “blackout on independent information sources,” it is impossible to verify any of the Government''s claims as to the number of casualties to date or as to the steps that it says it is taking in order to minimize the further killing of innocent civilians, and ensure aid delivery.

“When people manage to escape, they reportedly continue to face scant supplies, entirely insufficient access to adequate medical treatment and severely overcrowded hospitals, providing no relief to the horrors they had been living,” said Mr. Grover, the UN expert on the right to health.

Mr. De Schutter, the UN expert on the right to food, added that access to food has also been hampered by arduous and lengthy registration procedures for the internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Meanwhile, Ms. de Albuquerque, the UN expert on water and sanitation, voiced concern about “water shortages reported at Omanthai and at most of the transit sites as well as inadequate sanitation facilities, which put the health and lives of the population at further risk.”

The group called on the Sri Lankan Government to provide “convincing evidence” to the international community that it is respecting its obligations under human rights and international humanitarian law.

They added that it is clear that the LTTE, for its part, has acted in “flagrant violation” of the applicable norms by preventing civilians from leaving the conflict area and having reportedly shot and killed those trying to flee.


♦ Receive daily updates directly in your inbox - Subscribe here to a topic.
♦ Download the UN News app for your iOS or Android devices.