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Sri Lanka: Commonwealth Should Act on Crisis

Use International Clout to Press Both Sides to End Humanitarian Disaster


The Commonwealth and its members should use their combined
diplomatic influence to press the Sri Lankan government and the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to cease attacks that violate
the laws of war and end the humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka's northern
Vanni region, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Human
Rights Watch said today in a letter
to the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG). A two-day holiday
pause in military operations was not long enough to address the
desperate situation of trapped civilians.

Fighting reportedly has resumed in the tiny government-declared
"no-fire zone" still in the control of LTTE forces, where the
approximately 100,000 civilians remaining are at grave risk. LTTE
forces have prevented civilians from leaving the area, while government
forces have repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled the no-fire zone.
More than 3,000 civilians have reportedly been killed and many more
wounded during the fighting since January.

"With the United Nations warning that there could be a potential
'bloodbath,' the CMAG needs to assert itself to protect the civilians
trapped in the fighting in a member country," said Maja Daruwalla,
executive director of CHRI. "It should not stay silent during this
mounting tragedy."

Both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE deny they are violating
the laws of war. However, there is credible information that the LTTE
is preventing civilians from leaving the conflict area and shooting at
those that try to escape. Displaced persons who have managed to flee
the fighting have been placed in detention camps by the Sri Lankan
government, where they are denied freedom of movement. The government
has said that it will improve access to the camps by relatives and
allow some to leave after screening for LTTE combatants, but to date
only a few hundred elderly have been allowed to leave. There are
allegations that an unknown number of people with alleged LTTE ties
have been taken into government custody, leading to fears of enforced

The Sri Lankan government has refused to allow independent observers
and journalists into conflict zones so that there is a lack of accurate
and timely information about the situation of the trapped civilians. It
has also barred most humanitarian agencies from the conflict area in
northern Sri Lanka, citing security concerns, leading to severe
shortfalls in humanitarian assistance. There have been repeated
allegations of threats and intimidation against Sri Lankan journalists
and human rights workers.

"The Commonwealth harms itself when it stays silent during a crisis
in a member state," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights
Watch. "Abuses by the Tamil Tigers should not deter it from pressing
the Sri Lankan government to uphold the Commonwealth's fundamental

In the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, 1991, Commonwealth Heads of
Government pledged to protect and promote fundamental human rights and
to support "the United Nations and other international institutions in
the world's search for peace."

Calling upon CMAG to protect the fundamental principles of the Commonwealth, CHRI and Human Rights Watch urged it to:

  • Seek assurances that civilians are given the highest protections,
    and that international humanitarian law is being complied with in full.
  • Call upon the Sri Lankan government to cease 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
    disproportionate to the anticipated military gain. Violations of the
    laws of war by the LTTE do not justify attacks by government security
    forces in violation of the law.
  • Call upon the LTTE to stop using civilians as "human shields," take
    all feasible steps to avoid placing military targets near civilians,
    stop preventing civilians from leaving areas under its control, respect
    and facilitate the right to freedom of movement of civilians, including
    their right to move to government-controlled territory for safety, and
    end all deliberate attacks on civilians, such as those seeking to flee
    LTTE-controlled areas.
  • State its concern for the trapped civilians, call upon both parties
    to facilitate the immediate creation of humanitarian corridors to allow
    trapped civilians to escape and offer neutral assistance to ensure safe
    evacuation of civilians, as well as to provide aid for humanitarian
    camps for relocated civilians.
  • Consistent with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement,
    ensure that camps for displaced personsrespect the basic rights of
    residents.The camps should be under civilian authority, residents
    shouldhave thefreedom of movement due all Sri Lankan citizens, and
    impartial humanitarian agencies should have access to the centers
    without unnecessary restrictions.
  • Call upon the Sri Lankan 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.
  • Call upon the government to lift immediately the September 2008
    order barring humanitarian agencies from the 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.
  • Call upon the government to ensure that nongovernmental
    organizations (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.
  • Strongly urge all CMAG members to act on the crisis in Sri Lanka
    collectively as a positive way to engage the crisis and such situations
    in the future, while also giving full adherence to the Harare
    Declaration among the Commonwealth's membership.

To read the letter from Human Rights Watch and the
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative to the Commonwealth Ministerial
Action Group, please visit:

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.